Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Well of Horror Ideas

If you're working in any kind of creative field, the one question you are absolutely going to be asked at some point is "Where do you get your ideas from?".

The answer is going to change based on the person and the genre they write. It can come from inspiration, imagination, perspiration, or even inebriation. It could even come from any combination of those things and even more.

This is a Horror blog though, so that's what I'm going to focus on, otherwise I'm probably going to start rambling on and on.

Stories of Horror are typically based on things like fear and death. As such, there are any number of things in the world (or supposedly in the world), that would grant inspiration for such stories.

The nightly news, for example, is well known for being a well upon which one can draw stories of horror. It is commonly said of the news these days that "if it bleeds, it leads." Which is, rather unfortunately, true for the most part. The head-on collision that kills a family of four, while the drunk driver that caused it escapes with just a few bruises. The man who walks into a local supermarket, and randomly opens fire, killing three and wounding a dozen others. The quiet house in a regular neighborhood, suddenly raided by the police as a meth lab. The horrific virus which is rapidly spreading beyond borders. The night news regularly covers dozens of real-life stories that could easily become something even more horrific.

That might hit a bit too close to home though for some people. In that case there's things a bit further outside the realm of everyday life. Rogue animals, that have taken an active interest in turning the tables on human hunters. Sharks, bears, wolves, giant squids. Of course, in this category, there's all the cryptids I've mentioned on this blog previously. Thunderbirds, sea monsters, lake monsters, bigfoot, and others.

To stretch things even further, you have the mythological creatures. Vampires, werewolves, zombies. Although I would recommend steering clear of those unless you have a take you know is fairly original. Ghosts fall into this category as well, but they aren't as overdone at the moment as the others are.

You can even mix and match different ideas to make wildly different stories. Like the man that walked into the supermarket and opened fire was possessed, or maybe he was infected with a virus after being bitten by a Chupacabra! So many ideas listed just in this small post alone. That's not even counting ideas which may be original, with their own monsters and threats.

And none of that is even close to the two-word idea that so many books start with.

So where do my ideas come from? All of these places. My first book was a "What if..." story. My second was actually an "I can do this story better." idea. "Hannah" is based on the mash-up of two ideas to make something relatively new, Cujo + The Exorcist, respectively. And of course, my book "Cenote" was based on the Lusca.

In the pipelines I have a stories I'm working on based on the Chupacabra, Megalania, and the Ropen. I've also got outlines done for a two-book series, one with a psychotic maniac, and the other with a haunted house.

So the ideas are out there.

Go find one and make it yours.

~ Shaun

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Review: The Evil Within

I'm not going to warn you about possible spoilers in this review. That would imply the game actually tells you things as you play through it. But that's kind of the point. This game is one big mind-screw.

This game was made by Shinji Mikami, the mastermind behind the entire Resident Evil franchise and an attempt to get back to the roots of good survival horror. Despite that, it comes across as fairly generic.

You are Detective Sebastian Castellanos. A walking cliche` for the scruffy, hard-drinking police detective that's lost everything but his work, and complete with the 100% stand-up, by-the-book partner. Responding to an all-points bulletin, you arrive at a mental hospital, where right away, things go crazy. You're greeted by a guy who blips in and out of sight like a scrambled TV channel, and then you're being chased by a big maniac with a chainsaw before driving out of the city which is crumbling around you like there's a 9.9 earthquake going on. 

From there the game truly begins, bombarding you with drastically different levels, and zombies wrapped in barb-wire and adorned with piercings from Hell. Eventually, you meet up with massive monsters, some you run from, some you kill, until eventually you do battle with the twisted mind in control of this world you're trapped in. 

Mannequins abound, for no reason that's ever explained.

Cinematically, the game is great. Almost every level is a different creepy, but cliche` in horror, environment. From the small village, to the ruined church, to catacombs and secret floors in an asylum. Transitions between them are incredible as well, as a fall into a black abyss becomes a roll across the floor until you smack into the wall. Or climbing into an elevator, which then opens a thousand feet in the air before splashing down into a lake made from a broken water-main.

The controls are standard for over-the-shoulder viewpoints, though the menu is pretty nice to set up your most used weapons. 

You're not really going to be playing this for the story though, I'm rather sad to say. Throughout the game, you get bits and pieces of story about the main psychopath's reasons for doing what he does, as well as the backstory of Sebastian, and hints of more ominous things. 

Nothing is ever actually explained to any level of satisfaction. The machine that makes the game possible is only mentioned as an experiment in shared consciousness. The reason for it's creation and the organization behind it are completely veiled in secrecy. The mystery of what happened to Sebastian's family, the mannequins that are everywhere, the agony crossbow, none of it makes any sense. Even the ending to the game leaves you with a "What the hell?!? That's IT?" feeling. 

This remains a fun game to play though, with the variety and challenge keeping you coming back until the end of the game. At this point, where you can get it used in most places, it is well worth the price of admission. 

One last thing, and one of the neatest little things to set this game apart, you're granted an End of Game screen that includes a tally of your deaths. I actually did a lot better than I thought I did. 


~ Shaun

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

We've all been there

So, to be honest, I was pretty clueless what to do for this week's post. Then I found this. 

There's no ghosts, demons, bigfoot, psychopaths, or aliens. And yet, this is absolutely Horror. This is the kind of horror that hits home like a sledgehammer to the chest. It's a short, simple story, that you honestly wouldn't even think of it being horror for most of it. Just an ordinary person, going about their day. Full props to the user Skarjo for coming up with this.

I don't honestly want to say too much before you read it, but I don't feel like it would actually be appropriate to say anything afterward. It hits home, and it sinks in, and you'll probably think about it for a while. You'll probably forget about it in a few hours as you get on with your day, but in maybe a week or so, you'll see something and this story will pop back into your head again. And you'll probably shiver a little bit.

And that's what makes it almost a perfect little horror story. Because EVERYBODY can relate to it. It's so simple, and it could happen to any one of us.

We've all been there.


Autopilot by Skarjo

Have you ever forgotten your phone?

When did you realise you’d forgotten it? I’m guessing you didn’t just smack your forehead and exclaim ‘damn’ apropos of nothing. The realisation probably didn’t dawn on you spontaneously. More likely, you reached for your phone, pawing open your pocket or handbag, and were momentarily confused by it not being there. Then you did a mental restep of the morning’s events.


In my case, my phone’s alarm woke me up as normal but I realised the battery was lower than I expected. It was a new phone and it had this annoying habit of leaving applications running that drain the battery overnight. So, I put it on to charge while I showered instead of into my bag like normal. It was a momentary slip from the routine but that was all it took. Once in the shower, my brain got back into ‘the routine’ it follows every morning and that was it.


This wasn’t just me being clumsy, as I later researched, this is a recognised brain function. Your brain doesn’t just work on one level, it works on many. Like, when you’re walking somewhere, you think about your destination and avoiding hazards, but you don’t need to think about keeping your legs moving properly. If you did, the entire world would turn into one massive hilarious QWOP cosplay. I wasn’t thinking about regulating my breathing, I was thinking whether I should grab a coffee on the drive to work (I did). I wasn’t thinking about moving my breakfast through my intestines, I was wondering whether I’d finish on time to pick up my daughter Emily from nursery after work or get stuck with another late fee. This is the thing; there’s a level of your brain that just deals with routine, so that the rest of the brain can think about other things.

Think about it. Think about your last commute. What do you actually remember? Little, if anything, probably. Most common journeys blur into one, and recalling any one in particular is scientifically proven to be difficult. Do something often enough and it becomes routine. Keep doing it and it stops being processed by the thinking bit of the brain and gets relegated to a part of the brain dedicated to dealing with routine. Your brain keeps doing it, without you thinking about it. Soon, you think about your route to work as much as you do keeping your legs moving when you walk. As in, not at all.

Most people call it autopilot. But there’s danger there. If you have a break in your routine, your ability to remember and account for the break is only as good as your ability to stop your brain going into routine mode. My ability to remember my phone being on the counter is only as reliable as my ability to stop my brain entering ‘morning routine mode’ which would dictate that my phone is actually in my bag. But I didn’t stop my brain entering routine mode. I got in the shower as normal. Routine started. Exception forgotten.

Autopilot engaged.

My brain was back in the routine. I showered, I shaved, the radio forecast amazing weather, I gave Emily her breakfast and loaded her into the car (she was so adorable that morning, she complained about the ‘bad sun’ in the morning blinding her, saying it stopped her having a little sleep on the way to nursery) and left. That was the routine. It didn’t matter that my phone was on the counter, charging silently. My brain was in the routine and in the routine my phone was in my bag. This is why I forgot my phone. Not clumsiness. Not negligence. Nothing more my brain entering routine mode and over-writing the exception.

Autopilot engaged.

I left for work. It’s a swelteringly hot day already. The bad sun had been burning since before my traitorously absent phone woke me. The steering wheel was burning hot to the touch when I sat down. I think I heard Emily shift over behind my driver’s seat to get out of the glare. But I got to work. Submitted the report. Attended the morning meeting. It’s not until I took a quick coffee break and reached for my phone that the illusion shattered. I did a mental restep. I remembered the dying battery. I remembered putting it on to charge. I remembered leaving it there.

My phone was on the counter.

Autopilot disengaged.

Again, therein lies the danger. Until you have that moment, the moment you reach for your phone and shatter the illusion, that part of the brain is still in routine mode. It has no reason to question the facts of the routine; that’s why it’s a routine. Attrition of repetition. It’s not as if anyone could say ‘why didn’t you remember your phone? Didn’t it occur to you? How could you forget? You must be negligent’; this is to miss the point. My brain was telling me the routine was completed as normal, despite the fact that it wasn’t. It wasn’t that I forgot my phone. According to my brain, according to the routine, my phone was in my bag. Why would I think to question it? Why would I check? Why would I suddenly remember, out of nowhere, that my phone was on the counter? My brain was wired into the routine and the routine was that my phone was in my bag.

The day continued to bake. The morning haze gave way to the relentless fever heat of the afternoon. Tarmac bubbled. The direct beams of heat threatened to crack the pavement. People swapped coffees for iced smoothies. Jackets discarded, sleeves rolled up, ties loosened, brows mopped. The parks slowly filled with sunbathers and BBQ’s. Window frames threatened to warp. The thermometer continued to swell. Thank fuck the offices were air conditioned.

But, as ever, the furnace of the day gave way to a cooler evening. Another day, another dollar. Still cursing myself for forgetting my phone, I drove home. The days heat had baked the inside of the car, releasing a horrible smell from somewhere. When I arrived on the driveway, the stones crunching comfortingly under my tyres, my wife greeted me at the door.

“Where’s Emily?”


As if the phone wasn’t bad enough. After everything I’d left Emily at the fucking nursery after all. I immediately sped back to the nursery. I got to the door and started practising my excuses, wondering vainly if I could charm my way out of a late fee. I saw a piece of paper stuck to the door.

“Due to vandalism overnight, please use side door. Today only.”

Overnight? What? The door was fine this morni-.

I froze. My knees shook.

Vandals. A change in the routine.

My phone was on the counter.

I hadn’t been here this morning.

My phone was on the counter.

I’d driven past because I was drinking my coffee. I’d not dropped off Emily.

My phone was on the counter.

She’d moved her seat. I hadn’t seen her in the mirror.

My phone was on the counter.

She’d fallen asleep out of the bad sun. She didn’t speak when I drove past her nursery.

My phone was on the counter.

She’d changed the routine.

My phone was on the counter.

She’d changed the routine and I’d forgotten to drop her off.

My phone was on the counter.

9 hours. That car. That baking sun. No air. No water. No power. No help. That heat. A steering wheel too hot to touch.

That smell.

I walked to the car door. Numb. Shock.

I opened the door.

My phone was on the counter and my daughter was dead.

Autopilot disengaged.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Building a Book: Cover Issues

Well, after its initial rejection, I'm planning to proceed with self-publishing Hannah. I expect to finish up on the most recent revision this week, and then it's scheduled to go off to a professional editor at the end of May. I'm hoping to have everything in place for a July release if all goes well.

Self-publishing means you have a lot more on your plate than just writing the story though. You have to set-up and provide for editing, as well as marketing and, of course, cover art.

Well, that won't do.

Cover art can be as much of a beast to get through as the manuscript can. Title, Author, Font, Art, all of them have to come together to make something which is not only pleasing to the eye, but which gives away your genre and a basic idea of what the story is about.

Now that I'm getting closer to release, I'm going to let you all in on the jist of what Hannah is about. The basic idea, and the one I've been working from since the beginning of writing this book, is Cujo + The Exorcist. The story of a family who has to deal with creepy things in their house,  a dog gone nuts, and a demonic entity. Kinda messy. 

You would think that would make for a pretty simple cover. Something with the specific breed of dog on it, perhaps. Even that can be expressed in a dozen different ways though.

A good example is Cujo, by Stephen King. The books has been printed with a dozen different covers, all made with different looks and in different styles. Almost all of them tell you there is going to be a vicious dog in the book, and you can tell almost from the start which dog that's going to be.

So, just because the premise would seem to be pretty straightforward, doesn't mean the cover art is going to be.

The cover art is also something you'll have to come up with yourself if you're self-publishing. You can't just hire a cover artist, pass them your manuscript, and tell them to throw something together based on that. You have to have an idea or two when you contact them, something they can work with. If it doesn't work out visually, most of them will usually give you a couple tries. But make sure your cover looks professional. Even if you end up blowing the money on the first cover designer, make sure your cover looks professional.

God knows you don't want to end up with something like this.

~ Shaun

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Good Book, Bad Book

So, I've gotten back to my reading this year. So far, I've come across two books that are at different ends of the spectrum of what makes a book good and what makes a book bad. Disclaimer, these are just my opinions. And fair warning, there are probably going to be spoilers ahead. So without further ado, let's get to it.

Now, there are some hard and fast rules for writing what is widely considered to be "Good" fiction. Characters you care about, a satisfying ending, a logical progression of events. The thing with writing though, is that you're free to break those rules, especially if you can do it well. 

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn is currently sitting at a comfy 4.1 out of 5 stars on Amazon with over 5000 reviews. 

I hate it. 

I gave it 4 stars. 

The characters were all obnoxious and I didn't care if any of them died. The writing felt needlessly thick (I would almost swear there was an adjective in every sentence). Every chapter switched between past and present, many with different points of view. It's also mainly a mystery-thriller, with a satanic worship sub-plot that never goes anywhere that I'm suspicious might have been thrown in as filler or just to stretch into another genre for bonus sales. 

So why rate it so high?

Because it's an incredible book. 

It breaks the rules of writing with such intensity and surety of itself, that even though you notice them being broken, you have to respect it. This book literally will poke holes into your soul and leave you struggling to re-fill them for a while afterward. That is the hallmark of some of the best writing that's ever been done. I would compare it to the original works of H.P. Lovecraft. The writing itself may be horribly flawed, but the real mark of a good story and good storytelling is the way it makes you feel afterward. 

As a writer, and as a human being. I don't like the book. And that's exactly why I rated it so high. Even though it breaks the rules I've been told to respect as a writer, it made me feel things I didn't want to feel, and kept me thinking about it for days afterward. Just that dichotomy alone tells me how good this book really is.

In the Dark by Richard Laymon, is currently sitting at 3.84 out of 5 starts on Goodreads with over 2,500 ratings. 

I also hate this book.

I gave it one star. 

The characters are paper-thin, the writing is juvenile (seriously, the word panties should not be used that much outside of erotica), the plot is contrived, and the characters make no sense from one action to the next. 

So what's the difference? Is it subject? Skill? Plot? Effort? Or is it just one person's opinion?

Some people will say the difference is in the style to authors were going for. I haven't heard much about the style of Gillian Flynn, although I understand Dark Places is a good example of her style. Richard Laymon, though, writes in the style of the classic pulp fiction novels. His books are meant to be fun and absurd, is basically my understanding. And apparently a lot of people really like that style. 

Unfortunately, in my opinion, his style is one based on books being written and pumped out as fast as possible to make money as fast as possible. And it shows. Check out my review of the book for more details. 

But my point is, as writers, we need to know what our limits are. If you can write a story strong enough to have floppy characters or characters nobody is going to like, go with it. If you think you can get away with it, write a weak story where the characters are just puppets jumping through plot hoops over and over, as long as that's exactly what you're going for.

Basically put, every book has an audience, and as long as you know the audience you're aiming for, there really are no hard and fast rules in writing.

But please use beta readers and an editor to make sure you're actually hitting your mark before you go publishing.

~ Shaun