I went into this knowing nothing except that it was a 500 page horror novel and had John Langan’s recommendation… as I suspected, that was all I needed to know. Kiesling goes into the horror from the opening scene and doesn’t really let up for the whole book. Which is a difficult thing to do well without exhausting the reader. The story was immersive and filled with dread, but the characters were likeable and there were moments of light to balance out the dark – and man was there a lot of dark! It reminded me of old school Stephen King, and I was there for the ride. Will definitely read everything by this man.
Usually my second draft consists of cutting, but for my fourth novel I have the opposite problem: I need to add meat to the bone. The meat is, juicy, though: there are a lot of interesting lines I didn’t pursue enough, characters and stories that make the book richer. As a consequence, I’ve paused work on book #5, even though I was enjoying it, and spending most of my writing time re-writing and adding to book 4. Damn, maybe this is why my projects keep taking more than a year to finish. Oh well.
I had only read ‘The Enigma of Amigara Fault’ and, based on that, was already sold on Junji Ito. So I bought both Uzumaki and Gyo hardcopy without hesitation, and I’m so glad I did.
My God, this man has to be one of the most original minds in all of story telling, let alone horror. He is also a good example of the concept that limitations aid creativity. In Uzumaki, he takes a simple shape – the spiral – and then proceeds to extract so much insane horror juice from it that you get the feeling he could terrify you with anything at all, if he wanted.
My favourite thing about Ito is that he doesn’t mess around with shock twists or surprise endings – something I’ve always thought of as the literary equivalent of jump scares. Instead, he takes a concept and simply pushes it, further and further, until it begins to strain the limits of your sanity, and then he continues to push it until it reaches it’s final, inevitable, conclusion. Even though you know, in one sense or another, that the story is going there, that it must go there, you are pulled along, unable to look away.
Don’t get me wrong, I was a big fan of Squid Game. But Alice in Borderland is what Squid Game could have been. The story is deeper, the games are more complex, and the underlying mystery of it all is more intriguing. The characters are deeper and so is the backstory. I’m in this bitch all the way, and not a single episode has disappointed me yet. I liked Squid Game a lot, but I Love Alice in Borderland.
I know I’m late to the party, Sandman has been around forever, after all. But I’m glad I finally got around to it. I’m reminded of Hellblazer, but despite many similarities in style this series has Neil Gaiman’s uniquely magical touch. There are few people on earth who can tell a story like that man, and I’m all in. What a great series.
Two nights ago I finally finished the first draft of my fourth novel. I already hate it, but by now I know that’s just how it goes. I have, however, had a very rich idea brewing in the back of my mind for several months. There’s nothing better than having a really juicy premise. Sometimes you get an idea that you know is going to be fun to write, and this one has it all in spades. Already I’m having visions of a trilogy, three stand alone, but connected, stories. Last night I drank two bottles of wine and wrote the first 2000 words, and it’s off to a good start.
I haven’t forgotten that I have two other finished novels that have yet to be published, so I’ll be working on changing that soon.
Here’s to fresh new horrors in the new year…
On a good day: 1300 words (but never more. More than that invites burnout and laziness the following day).
On a normal day: 800 – 1100 words.
On a bad day: 500 – 600 words.
On a very bad day, when I have no time or energy to spare: 200 words.
But never, never zero.
The cogs turn onward, and my fourth novel is almost finished. Assuming the second one get published in 2023, which looks likely, I’ll be on track for one project a year until 2025, when the current work would ideally come out. And that, at the end of the day, is the goal: To keep the machine grinding and well fuelled, to improve on each book in turn while continuing to take as much creative risk as I dare. Best of all, I am brimming with new and disturbing ideas. Nothing like having a good store of fresh horror to work on.
Two days from now my wife and I make the 7 hour road trip to Canberra to attend Conflux spec fiction convention. It’s a surprisingly mellow trip, and the long winding highways always remind me of the opening to Kubrick’s The Shining when they’re driving to the overlook. Nice.
Anyway, I’m on a different panel each day of the convention:
Re-imagining Horror in a Pandemic (11:30 Saturday 1st October)
My biggest Fuck up (10:30 Sunday)
Body Horror (2:30 Monday)
A particularly gruesome account I came across in Bill Bryson’s fascinating book ‘The Body’ (Read at your own risk):
“Burney was told that her only hope was to undergo a mastectomy. She recounted the ordeal – ‘A terror that surpasses all description’ – in a letter to her sister Esther. Even now it makes painful reading. On a September afternoon, Burney’s surgeon, Antoine Dubois, came to her house with six assistants – four other doctors and two students. A bed had been moved to the middle of the room and space around it cleared for the team to work.
‘M. Dubois placed me upon the mattress, and spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face,’ Burney reported to her sister. ‘It was transparent, however, and I saw through it that the bedstead was instantly surrounded by seven men and my nurse. I refused to be held; but when, bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished steel – I closed my eyes… When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins – arteries – flesh – nerves – I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – and I almost marvel that it rings not in my ears still, so excrutiating was the agony… I felt the instrument – describing a curve – cutting against the grain, if I may so say, while the flesh resisted in a manner so forcible as to oppose and tire the hand of the operator, who was forced to change from the right to the left – then, indeed, I thought I must have expired. I attempted no more to open my eyes.’
She thought the surgery was over, but Dubois found that the breast was still attached by the tumour, so cutting recommenced. ‘Oh heaven! I then felt the knife rackling against the breast bone – scraping it!’ For some minutes, the surgeon cut away at muscle and diseased tissue until he was confident that he had got as much as he could. Burney endured this final part in silence – ‘in utterly speechless torture’. The whole procedure took seventeen and a half minutes…
Things like this make me infinitely grateful to live in a time after the invention of painkillers.
I was already a Christopher Buehlman fan after ‘Those Across the River’ but after this book I am determined to hunt down everything he has ever written or will write. This is an absolute classic horror that I would recommend to anyone, not just fans of the genre. The gritty medieval setting, the harsh reality of the Black Plague, the characters, the themes, the supernatural religious war underlying everything… Buehlman nails it on every level. God damn he’s good. Also, this book contains one of the most disturbing depictions of hell (near the end) I’ve ever come across in literature. What a ride.
Where things stand:
Book #1 (Holly and the Nobodies): Published, award winning, all is well.
Short Story Collection (Peeping Eyes and Lipless Mouths): Published as ebook, positive reviews from the scarce few who have read it.
Book #2 (Neighbourhood Kids OR Carve Your Soul To Pieces I’m not sure which title yet): finished, approved by first readers, on submission. Rejections should start coming in over the next few months.
Book #3 (No title yet): In the final month of editing. I have managed, somehow, to make a coherent story from the mess I was faced with three months ago. I have no idea if it’s any good or not. Note to self: 15 months is too long to spend on a book.
Book #4 (No title): About 8,000 words in and enjoying the hell out of it. It has a narrower scope but is much darker than any of my other novels. Interesting premise, the characters fascinate me and are easy to write. I have high hopes – but then I always do, at this stage.
Overall, it was a great success. So I left with fresh inspiration – inspiration that reproduced and mulitplied inside me much like the coronavirus I had acquired along with my trophy.
Next? Maybe Conflux later this year. Maybe Stoker Con next year. But ultimately these events, fun as they are, are rendered completely hollow in the absence of the work. And so, I return to my dimly lit desk and my glowing laptop screen, and I write.
Christopher Buehlman’s ‘Those Across the River’ is probably the best werewolf novel I’ve ever read. I’m an instant fan of this guy. Besides the writing itself, what came through most was his incredible ability to create an intense atmosphere. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was, but I found myself frequently reminded of two movies in particular: ‘Shutter Island’ (Dennis Lehane) and ‘Bone Tomahawk’. Like Vampires and Zombies, the Werewolf genre has been done so many times it’s difficult to be original at all, let alone inspire a real sense of dread. Buehlman pulled it off on both counts in spades.
Much to my surprise, Aurealis Awards recently announced the finalists for ‘Best Horror Novel’ and I found my own name on the list! At this point I’ve become so used to rejection that when I submitted Holly and the Nobodies I had zero expectation of being nominated. I send things out, they get rejected, I move on. Needless to say, I’m incredibly happy that wasn’t the case this time. After having spent such a long time in my youth writing worthless trash, it’s nice to get the external validation that I finally did something decent.
As far as I can tell, there are three phases to getting a short story idea. The first part is staring at a wall, going for a walk, or rocking in the corner of a dark room, and thinking about images or concepts that disturb you, trying to expand them out until you arrive at a basic narrative.
In the second phase you flesh it out until you have characters, a basic sequence of events, enough to start writing. Actually starting now is a mistake. What you have is probably only a surface idea, often cliche or unoriginal. New depth is needed, more interesting characters, a better ending.
The third phase is when you think you have the necessary depth and originality, and you start actually writing, and after several thousand words you have the inevitable revelation: Oh shit, this is all completely wrong and terrible! I have to approach this in a completely different way and must start from scratch! Or alternatively: Oh shit, this whole story sucks but I just randomly got an idea for a better one, I’ll write that instead!
One day I’ll figure out how to get to the last part without any of the annoying phases.
It has been a long time since I read a horror novel as good as John Langan’s ‘The Fisherman’. It’s undoubtedly one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read and will hold a place in my top ten favourite books ever, period. I hate to say it, but I wasn’t expecting to like it much. The only other Langan novel I read was ‘House of Windows’ and while I didn’t mind it, it just wasn’t my thing. Too ‘literary’, too high minded for my taste. And it did nothing to creep me out the way Stephen King’s ‘IT’ did, or fill me with dread like Adam Nevill’s ‘The Reddening’.
But The Fisherman did all of that and more. From the outset, the undercurrent of horror permeates everything, and Langan does a good job of setting the story. The promise is clear: Terrible darkness approaches. After that, I was pulled immediately into a story-dense tale that read almost like a fantasy. I’m stunned by how much storytelling Langan was able to fit into such a small (250 or so pages) book. The events are steeped in horror, yet somehow this relieves none of the tension and only serves to grow the reader’s fear of what more is to come. By the time the characters actually arrive at Dutchman’s Creek (the location of the proverbial ‘evil thing’) you can hardly breathe with anticipation.
Then, having achieved this feat of brilliant storytelling, Langan manages to finally deliver on the initial promise of the book without detracting from the horror. He does what any horror writer dreams of doing: He shows just enough and not a single thing more. You’re left, at the end of the book, with more questions than answers, with a sense of a dark and terrifying world just out of reach of comprehension, and a kind of awe and wonder that accompanies the best of the horror genre.
Suspiria (2018) is one of the few cases when the sequel is better than the original. The underlying dread, the unique concept of witchcraft through dancing, the slow burn – in my opinion this was one of the best horror movies of the decade. The movie creeps steadily along, showing you only just enough and never too much, raising as many questions as it answers to preserve the kind of mystery on which great horror thrives. It’s been a while since I was creeped out like this.
Ah, at last – the bittersweet feeling of finishing a book. Triumph and satisfaction floods the soul, followed a day or two later by a curious sense of existential drift. I liken it to the feel of floating in the water after surfing a particularly large wave all the way into shore. ‘Hell of a ride,’ you think for a minute or two, content to tread water and watch the end of the set.
But it isn’t long before you have to decide to head in or paddle out, and with writing there is no shore. There are only the waves and the ride, and if you wait too long the abyss will swallow you.
Luckily, I have a pretty great idea for my 2022 novel – though I’ll probably let that stew before starting sometime in early May.
Until then? Short stories! And editing, of course. Lots and lots of painful editing.
It’s incredibly hard to make an original vampire story these days. Do you have any idea how many vampire stories have already been told? It’s a lot. The only way to make a vampire story original (or any story, when I think about it) is through the characters, and in that respect Midnight Mass succeeded.
That said, there were a LOT of long, boring monologues I could have done without. So in a way they kinda went too hard on the depth of character thing. I get why they did it, but most of those monologues were kinda corny and took away from the juice of the story, in my opinion.
Besides that, it was a great show, balancing the interesting philosophical questions about religion with fun gruesome scenes and some genuinely sympathetic characters. A modern day Salem’s lot, in many ways.
I’m a big believer in having a ridiculously low bar for productivity. The ego will tell you: write two thousand words a day like King or you’re a failure! But if you do that it’s unlikely you’ll ever produce anything on days when you lack the time or energy to do so. Lower the bar every time you fail, until you’re consistent. Even if that ends up being no more than a thousand words a week, that still equates to about a book every eighteen months. Screw ‘aim at the stars’. Aim at a target you can hit, then hit it a hundred times. Aim at the stars, you’ll end up lost in the void of space, having produced nothing but unrealised dreams.
A famous oil painting (The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel): “Skeletons slit people’s throats, hack their way through crowds, stab and burn people alive. Skeletons force people to eat the flesh of those that have already been killed. One skeleton wears the face of a victim, flayed from its skull, its eye sockets hauntingly empty.”
I’ve always enjoyed reading John Ajvide Lindqvist, and this book is an excellent example. His writing is a crystal clear window that allows you to follow the story effortlessly. One can easily read a thousand pages and be borne along on the events, all of which are clearly building to something, something decidedly terrible but which you can’t quite anticipate until it happens. The book is not filled with horror or sickening scenes of violence (all though there are a few of those, make no mistake), but rather an underlying sense of impending disaster.
When I started my third (official) novel in April I was determined to finish by the end of the year if it killed me. Thankfully, not only am I still alive but it looks like I will actually finish the first draft before New Years! By now I’m writing some of the most exciting scenes near the end of the book. The characters struggle to find light in the depths of despair, the evil seems overpowering, everyone is tied up in various inner/outer conflicts. It’s all a lot of fun, to be honest. But I can see the way through, and the next month or so is just a matter of executing the final scenes in the most satisfying way possible.
As usual, I have no idea if I’ve spent the last six months creating anything of worth or if I’m going to come back to this thing in February and wonder what the hell I thought I was doing. Eh, that’s for future Ben to worry about…
On a side note, both of my short story collections (Worlds Without Light and Peeping Eyes and Lipless Mouths) will be FREE on amazon (ebook only) from 12/11/21 until 18/11/21 so if you’re in the mood for some creeps now’s the time to get ’em.
Happy Halloween Everyone!
Peeping Eyes and Lipless Mouths
I’m deep in the weeds now, probably deeper than I’ve ever been. This book is larger in scope and more complex than anything I’ve ever written and I’m hanging on by the tips of my fingers at around 80,000 words (with perhaps another 30,000 to go).
There are so many problems that arise just from this slight upscaling. For example, having multiple ‘main’ characters is extremely difficult because the reader’s sympathy gets spread thin. It’s much easier to have a single protagonist who the reader can fully get behind and root for, whereas if you divide the story between too many you run the risk of ‘diluting’ them. But… it can be done. I just need to work out how. And of course there are the endless problems that arise with a large number of overall characters, making them all distinct and interesting, trying to tie all the plotlines together, etc. etc.
Of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way. As the famous Van Gogh quote goes: ‘I am always doing what I can’t do yet in order to learn how to do it.’ Well, I’m learning, that’s for damn sure. Writing is hard.
This month I’m releasing a total of four stories, the last three of which are all taken from my upcoming collection which I’ll release on (of course) Halloween. Long time followers might have noticed that I culled about thirteen stories from this site, which were old and not really my best work, but luckily I have better stories to replace them. I’d rather have ten or so good stories on here that I can stand behind, rather than thirty that make me cringe.
Hope you enjoy the coming nightmares, ya creeps. If you like what you read, you will love ‘Peeping Eyes and Lipless Mouths’.
I haven’t liked all of Stephen Graham Jones’s stories – not any fault of his, of course. Sometimes there’s nothing in particular wrong with a book, it just doesn’t do it for me and I lose interest. He has a distinctive style, and I sometimes find it distracts me from the story too much. That said, now and then he comes up with something like ‘Mongrels’ which is just a straight up fun time – to me, SGJ at his best (Night of the Mannequins is another). It’s an original take on werewolves – something very hard to do nowadays, and I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face the whole time. I don’t know if I’d really call it a ‘horror’, despite the werewolf thing, but whatever the genre, I enjoyed the hell out of it.
The way my reading works is this: I periodically will buy exactly 20 books, and distribute them across all the genres as follows: 8 Horror, 4 Non fiction/On Writing, and then 1 Sci-fi, 1 Fantasy, 1 Thriller, 1 Crime/Noir/Mystery, 1 Historical fiction/Adventure, 1 Classic, 1 Literary, 1 Biography.
It seems like a lot, but actually I don’t think I’m reading widely enough, so from now on I’m going to add extra categories. For my next buying spree, I’m going to add two short story collections – one horror and one not – and I’m also going to get a graphic novel of some kind (I’m thinking ‘Crossed’ by the brilliant Garth Ennis).
Plus, there are two genre categories I almost never read that I want to try: comedy and romance. Or romantic comedy? I can’t help but feel like I’m missing out, somehow. For one thing, comedy and romance are both are deceptively difficult to write well, so it’ll be interesting to see how the pros do it.
And what might the influence do to my own work? Horror benefits from brief moments of levity, relieving the reader of otherwise exhausting periods of dread and doom. And what if there are ideas in romance novels that allow me to write character relationships better, or to take a typically romantic story and twist or subvert it into something darker? It’s an interesting thought, anyway.
The first draft of my third novel is sitting on just over 60,000 words, but story wise I’m somewhere in the middle of the second act. On one hand it’s my favourite place to be, because the characters are established enough to be interesting, all of the plots and subplots are intersecting, and chaos is at it’s peak – yet at the same time most of the most emotionally charged and intense scenes still lie ahead.
It’s also my least favourite place to be because it is the most difficult and most fraught with problems and potential roadblocks, and there is still enough of the book left that I have ample opportunity to completely ruin it.
Writing is fun.
The aforementioned ‘trypophobia’ story is at last available in Dark Moon Digest #44! ‘Peeping Eyes and Lipless Mouths’ will be the headline story of my upcoming collection, which I aim to publish on Halloween this year. (I’ll publish two or three of the stories on the ‘Nightmares’ section of this website from that date to give people a taste).
I have huge respect for the people at Perpetual Motion Machine, and DMD is one of the top horror anthologies out there, so I’m happy to be in it for the second time.
When Carlos Ruiz Zafon died he left an incredibly depressing void in my bookshelf. How was I going to fill the unique taste I’d cultivated through him – for romantic/melancholy, gothic, Spanish fiction? I thought it would be a taste never satisfied, until to my amazement I discovered that Silvia Moreno Garcia had done one better. Not only did she blend all of the above in the beautiful atmospheric fiction that was Mexican Gothic – she did it within the horror genre.
It was everything I wanted from such a novel. A noir, gothic setting; Interesting but troubled characters; Secrets and mysteries; An intelligent protagonist, up against equally intelligent and formidable adversaries… And the delicious sense of underlying dread, increasing with each unanswered question.
Well Holly and the Nobodies has been out for close to two months and so far has received nothing but good reviews, so that’s cool. Luckily, I already have plenty of work to follow it up hopefully in the near future. My second book Neighbourhood Kids (Not totally convinced on that title but have yet to think of anything better) is finished, and I also have a short story collection on the way. Funnily enough, the title story of that collection just recently got sold to Dark Moon Digest (Issue 44 upcoming), and so I’ll have to wait for the rights to revert back to me before I can publish it myself in the form of a collection, but hopefully that can still happen this year. The story, and the collection, will be titled: ‘Peeping Eyes and Lipless Mouths.’
Fun origin story around that, actually. One of my favourite things to do is to ask people I know what phobias they have, and then write a story around one of them. Over dinner, I discovered my sister has trypophobia, something I hadn’t even heard of before but which is surprisingly common. So I wrote that story for her, and was pleasantly surprised when it sold. It made me see the creation of stories in a different light, because it didn’t feel like I had created the story out of a vacuum so much as I’d mined the raw material of my sister’s nightmares and then refined them into something valuable. As if nightmares are a kind of psychological ore that can be moulded and processed into something real and physical.
‘Dead Inside’ by Chandler Morrison review:
First of all, I should say that if you are capable of being offended or triggered at all, don’t even go near this book. It honestly could not be more messed up. I mean, I enjoy messed up horror, but this one really took it to the next level. Did you know that there are even grosser, more deplorable things than mere necrophilia? I didn’t, until Chandler Morrison showed me that in fact I just lacked imagination.
To clarify what I mean by ‘messed up’. Let me ask you a simple question. Could you read through a description of someone having sex with a dead person, if it was well written? How about someone having sex with a half-eaten dead baby? If the answer is yes, then this might be the book for you.
That said, as I read the reviews online, a lot of them are missing the point. I see words like ‘disturbing’ ‘sick’ ‘disgusting’ etc. And yes, the book is all those things. But those people are all completely missing what’s really going on. The book is not a ‘gore fest’ as a movie like ‘Hostel’ or ‘Saw’ is. Those types of things take themselves seriously and are trying to disturb you with violence. No, this is more like an insanely dark comedy. It isn’t disturbing in an emotional way, like for example ‘Let’s go play at the Adams’.’ Rather, it’s disturbing in a visceral way. It might make you turn away with disgust, but it will not haunt you or give you nightmares – it just isn’t that kind of thing.
Dead inside is hilariously over the top. The characters are simultaneously so sick and yet so human that you can’t help but be fascinated by their romantic dilemma. They are completely awful, not at all likeable, and yet the book is better for it. Half the time I was recoiling from the pages in horror and disbelief, and the other half I was laughing my ass off. If that’s your jam, Dead Inside delivers in spades.
And at last, the great cogs of publishing turn in my favour: my first novel, Holly and the Nobodies, is finally out under HellBound Books Publishing.
I say it’s my first novel, but of course in reality it is my sixteenth novel. It’s just that this was the first good one (and hopefully not the last). As the saying goes: the amateur practices until they get it right, the professional practices until they can’t get it wrong.
I had a lot of fun writing it. The goal was to make the creepiest possible story I could, and I think I succeeded. It was greatly inspired by two of my favourite stories in the ‘creepy’ horror genre: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. There’s something deliciously disturbing about the Uncanny Valley concept, and I did my best to infuse the book with that kind of horror.
But I’m rambling: Here are the links to the store. If you like my short stories, you will love the book. Enjoy!
At last, things are happening… My first book, Holly and the Nobodies, is set to be released by Hellbound Books in the near future. My second book is finished and awaiting some final edits before I submit it, and I have a finished collection of original stories which I’ll probably end up self publishing because of the relatively small market for (unknown) single author collections. Some of the stories on this site are kinda old and, in my opinion, not that good, so I’ll probably delete a few and replace them with some of my favourites from the new collection to give people an idea of what they can expect.
Within the next year or so, I should have two published novels, two collections, and have finished the first draft of book #3.
After all this time, I’m creating work which doesn’t make me want to gouge my eyes out rather than attempt to save it. The stories stand on their own feet and some can walk. Some of them breathe, and every now and again I think I make one that can even bite.
What I’m trying to say is, if you’ve been following me for any length of time and enjoying my work (I know there’s gotta be at least three or four of you out there), you’ll finally have some actual stories to read…
I don’t know why I like this music video so much but I do…
Let’s go Play at the Adams’…
I had seen this title thrown around on the internet here and there, often when someone asked for book recommendations like: ‘Give me something that’s really going to mess me up!’ or ‘I want a book that really disturbs me, like, for real.’ I read the premise and thought it sounded too similar to Jack Ketchum’s book ‘The girl next door.’ Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good book, but there are a lot of good books out there, so LGPATA sat on my reading list for a while, until I decided I was in the mood for something like it. I’d been reading some fantasy and non-fiction and hadn’t had anything dark for a while. Ah yes, I thought, a nice bloody horror is just what I need.
And Mr. Mendal Johnson gave me horror, alright. He gave me a big steaming plate of it, and I ate until I wanted to vomit.
If you intend to read this book, don’t read any further. It’s the kind of thing you will enjoy less (if ‘enjoy’ is even the right word) the more you know about it before beginning. You’ll get the most powerful experience just by diving in and going along for the ride with Barbara, as I did. Just be aware that it’s an intense and in many ways depressing ride, but worth it for all that, in my humble opinion.
I’ve seen many differing criticisms about this book. Some people seem unimpressed, others merely repulsed, others dismiss it as ‘torture porn.’ I shrug my shoulders at the first criticism (books are subjective), sympathise with the second, and disagree with the third. This book barely has real torture in it until the very end, and in any case the torture itself is not the focus of the book at all, or the point of it. Make no mistake, this is no Saw, Hostel, or any of the similar gore-fest stories that plagued the horror genre in Hollywood during the early 2000s.
I don’t write reviews anymore unless I come across a book that really gets to me. So what was it about this particular story, which seemed so straightforward at the outset? A bunch of kids tie up their babysitter, and have a whole week to do whatever they want with her before their parents get back. At first, they hardly dare touch her, but in time they become braver and begin to explore their darker impulses. Pretty standard horror plot, really. There are a lot of ways Johnson could have written this to be exactly the boring torture porn that some people accused it of being.
Personally, gore as substitute for real horror has never interested me. It’s the equivalent of jump scares. Sure you’ll get a reaction from me, but who cares? There’s no substance to it, no real story. Bunch of people get murdered horribly, big deal.
Johnson pulled it off, however, because he wasn’t really concerned with torture, and doesn’t spend very much time talking about it at all. Instead, we spend the majority of the book in the babysitter’s (Barbara’s) head. Her fears, her thoughts. How she copes with what is happening, her hopes for escape, and her plans to enact it.
Barbara is not a victim because of her own weakness, and that’s important. She tries to free herself – it’s just that the kids are too careful, too afraid of her, to allow her many opportunities. This is a problem, because I quite liked Barbara. And there is where Johnson’s skill carries the story. As a horror writer, the more deeply you make your reader care about your characters, the more deeply they will fear for them.
But Johnson went one better than that. It wasn’t only Barbara I feared for – it was the children who’d captured her. It was this, I think, that gave the book its true power. As much as I wanted Barbara’s freedom for her own sake, I wanted it for the children’s sake as well. To go down that road amounted to a total corruption of their souls, and it is as much this evil as it is the acts themselves that so horrify the reader.
Evil acts which are perpetrated, I should add, in a terribly realistic incremental manner. The kids – freedom five, as they call themselves – don’t go right from capturing their babysitter to torturing her. That, too, would have been a mistake on Johnson’s part – it would make the children nothing more than two dimensional monsters, and deprive us of the time to get to know Barbara.
Besides, such an approach would be unrealistic. At least to my mind, the path to evil is taken one small step at a time, and this is exactly how it goes down. One small act empowers the children to venture another. Barbara resists, and this prompts them to feel attacked and even afraid of her. They retaliate, and again their actions make them capable of still worse things. The more you do, the more you can do, the saying goes, and indeed these children find they can do a lot.
But they aren’t evil – at least not in the traditional sense. They’re children (three of the five, anyway), and Johnson uses their youth to show the terrible darkness of human nature. Children are, after all, yet uncivilised. They haven’t learned not to hurt others yet. They haven’t learned to resist their baser impulses, or to account for consequences in the future, which seems all too distant. They are in other words vulnerable to the weaknesses of humankind.
Bobby, for example, loses his stomach for the whole affair fairly quickly, but is so afraid of the other kids that he can’t bring himself to do the right thing, even though he has the opportunity to free Barbara multiple times. Perhaps we could see the same fear in the eyes of a concentration camp guard?
John, meanwhile, is driven by a general dissatisfaction with life and a determination to do something real, as he thinks of it. The future promised him seems unsatisfactory and bland, and I wonder how many people in dead end jobs might sympathise with that appraisal of existence. How many of them would commit atrocities, if only given the right circumstances and the knowledge that they could get away with it?
Through each of the children, Johnson shows us a different piece of the darkness of human nature, and the chaotic indifference of nature itself. Barbara’s childish naivete is stripped from her in a way with which we all can sympathise. The children are not innocent little angels, she learns, and in fact they are capable of wanting to hurt her. They are capable of anything. There is no help coming, there is no fairness in nature, there is no relief from suffering, there is no happy ending, there is no justice.
If you haven’t read the book, by now you can guess basically what happens. In a way you could breathe a sigh of relief – you won’t be able to experience the book the way I did. But at the same time, I kinda think you missed out.
Let’s Go Play at the Adams’s took me on a ride I won’t soon forget. I didn’t anticipate the ending, and expected Barbara to get free at the last minute, surviving so that we could all see how her worldview had changed. A dark ending to be sure, but I was willing to go along for the ride. I had hope for Barbara and the children right up until the very end, which is why I think knowing how it goes ultimately ruins the book’s potential. I never thought Johnsen would end so bleakly and so utterly without hope, but I’m glad he did. It’s a rare book that can sucker punch me like that, and I’m always grateful when I find one.
Anyone who enjoys horror fiction and isn’t aware of Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year needs to rectify that immediately. The first story of Volume 11: ‘I remember nothing’ by Anne Billson is one of the greatest horror stories I’ve ever read.
It would be nice if one could reach a level of proficiency such that one knew at the start of a story that it would turn out well. Unfortunately, when I start something new these days, I have no idea whether or not I’m creating a masterpiece or a steaming pile of shit. I just have to hope it’s the former, and if it’s the latter use what skills I have to make it look less steamy and shit-like. Recently I had a great time writing a story that I thought would be at least pretty good. But as I re-read it I discovered that about 50% of it was completely unnecessary garbage and most of what remains had to be rewritten. I’d love to throw it away completely, as I have done in the past, but the premise is too interesting to move on – I’ll just end up trying to write it again later anyway. When I worked at a coffee shop, my boss joked that managing a cafe had more to do with plumbing and repairs than coffee, and it occurs to me that writing is the same. The real work isn’t the writing, it’s the repairs.
Halfway through watching this fascinating documentary about the making of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and its impact on the horror genre. I saw the first movie when I was about thirteen or fourteen and the terror I felt then burned itself permanently into my soul. Countless nights I lay awake at night, sure that if I fell asleep Freddy would find me in my dreams. I hated it and loved it at the same time. Like eating hot chilli peppers, the pain made it interesting. The documentary is full of interesting behind the scenes details, and insights about the genesis of the story and characters, themes, etc. Kinda makes me want to watch the movies for the hundredth time.
I have a thing for beautiful, moody singers that focus on dark subject matter. Lana Del Rey, The Raveonettes, Billie Eilish, Girl in Red, Amy Winehouse, King Princess… so it’s no wonder I’d like Chelsea Wolfe. Hell, her music seems made for horror: steeped in darkness, sometimes creepy, and above all, haunting. If that’s your taste, highly recommend. It’s been my writing music for the last few months and I can’t get enough…
As things currently stand, Holly and the Nobodies is in the limbo that exists between creation and publication and Hellbound has yet to send me a contract or anything besides a desire to publish the book in 2021 sometime. But the machine grinds eternal, and so other things are afoot… At last my short story collection is fully edited and on submission, I have finished my second novel and will start editing it in January. Right now I’m working on another collection, which will probably take me until the end of February 2021 (I like to write about 15 stories and then cut five to get a collection of 10 or so). And I have a great idea for my next novel, set to begin at the start of March (that’s my favourite time to write novels, because it means doing the bulk of it in winter. Winter and horror go together very well for some reason). I’m excited for that, too. My last book leaned more toward the noir/voodoo magic than real horror, and while it was fun I really want to write something terrifying. It may sound strange, but many horror stories do not have fear as the central emotion. Carrie, for example, is not a particularly scary book, but it’s horror because of the violence and dark themes; others focus more on comedy, like the Evil Dead Movies, others are just fun rides with a little darkness on the side (The Lost Boys, Fright Night), and still others are dramas about human nature (Shutter Island).
That’s all well and good, but I have an appetite for fear, and a powerful desire to scare the living shit out of people, if I can… Just a few more months of stewing some ideas and I can begin. I can’t wait.
I think I’ve previously talked about how different horror authors specialize in different kinds of fear. Some like to create a sense of breathless awe at the key points of a novel – Ramsey Campbell and Arthur Machen come to mind. Others enjoy more of a crawling, creeping feeling as inspired by such monsters as Pennywise the Clown or The Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth.
When it comes to pure, relentless dread, however, for my money no one does it better than Adam Nevill. Reading one of his books is like having your soul sucked out of your body by a Dementor – and I mean that in the most complimentary way. It sure isn’t for anyone. Even I find myself reading his work in short bursts, interspersing each with a chapter here and there of a different, lighter book.
But if that is your thing, by God, Adam Nevill does deliver. Today I finished his most recent novel: The Reddening, and I can’t recommend it highly enough – again, IF you want to feel a sense of infinite darkness and know that nothing will ever be well again.
It’s a brutal book that showcases the man’s skill better than anything else by him I’ve read so far, with the possible exception of ‘Some Will Not Sleep’. The Red Abides…
If you don’t listen to This Is Horror Podcast, this recent episode with Chuck Palahniuk will surely hook you. The stories that guy tells…
I’ve recently started listening to music while I edit. Not just any music, though – the level soundtracks from the old school DOOM games. Ordinarily I can’t abide any type of music when editing. Editing fiction is an input process – you’re analysing and fixing what you wrote, so having another input in the form of music is usually interfering. It’s not the same with composition because writing a draft is an output activity, so there are no wires crossed. The lack of lyrics, the repetitiveness and the fact that I already know every note backwards makes it a kind of trance inducing thing that helps me concentrate on the work.
Plus, now and then I get a blast of nostalgia from my childhood, when I would get home from school, throw down my textbooks and start cutting demons in half with my trusty chainsaw. Those were the days…
For whatever reason, I wasn’t really ‘drawn in’ by John Langan’s much hailed book ‘House of Windows’. Not his fault, just wasn’t my thing. But after just a few stories from his collection ‘The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and other Monstrous Geographies’ he’s won me over. The man can write!
The more I learn about writing, the more I see it’s really the art of concealment more than revelation. Especially with horror. It’s the things you don’t see that haunt you the most.
I recently got an acceptance for my first novel Holly and the Nobodies to be published by Hellbound Books sometime next year. It’ll be good to finally have something out there, and I’m especially proud of that book, but ultimately this is only the first rung on a long ladder. Instead of satisfaction and contentment, the acceptance filled me with a burning sense of urgency to create more, to improve my skills so that I can keep moving forward. I prefer that, to be honest – it’s more exciting than mere contentment. It’s more interesting, too. While I wait for the glacially slow process of publishing to work, I am having a collection of short horror stories (unpublished and unseen by anyone so far, on this site or elsewhere) edited. And as of yesterday I finally finished the first draft of what will be my second novel, a kind of supernatural noir.
The crows are flying, in other words. The next few years are going to be productive: already the eggs are hatching, claws opening jagged holes for hungry faces to seek the light. Soon I will open doors into your minds and send my nightmares to live there, and I could not be more eager to begin. I have so many horrors for you, so many…
I’m about to start reading the much hyped ‘House of Leaves’. I’ll update in a week or so. In other reading news, I’m near the end of ‘The Three Body Problem’. It’s a great science fiction, though I can’t think of anything I’ve read that would be comparable.
Novel update: finally hit fifty thousand and the end is in sight. I doubt I’ll have to throw out any more large chunks, thank christ. Not that it’ll be smooth sailing, but at least now I can see where I’m going. There is going to be a shit ton of work to do on it after, but that’s fine by me. The Black Hole of Doubt is the worst. Happens in every book, seems like. Usually between 30k and 40k words.
This man keeps me going. Big fan…
Here’s an actual free nightmare for you all. I had a crazy one last night. I was a fly on the wall in some kind of horrific torture chamber in which a woman was being forced (somehow) to eat another woman alive. Throughout the dream I was filled with horror but unable to look away or do anything to help the situation. I could do nothing but listen to the terrible screams of those involved, and the crying of the one who was being forced to do the biting. Usually I kind of like having nightmares, gives me a fresh appreciation for my life, you know? But that one sure was nasty.
Recently had my story ‘Screams for Stargirl’ Published in Red Room Press’s Best Hardcore Horror Anthology vol. 5! Happy to be involved in such a quality publication with so many skilled writers. And to actually have something to plug on this website. Get on it, people!
The new book is split into two parts: Thirty five thousand words of the current draft saved in one file, and about sixty thousand more saved in another file. The sixty is, unfortunately, made up of just a bunch of scenes in previous drafts that I cut but couldn’t bear to delete. On the upside, the gears seem at last to be clicking into place and my (almost) daily thirteen hundred words is steaming along nicely. I expect to finish the draft before the end of winter, (August).
But what the hell did I do wrong? Why so many failed drafts, so many discarded words? Here’s what I think I did wrong:
- Started the damn thing too early. I’ve noticed that all my best stories had a moment before starting where the idea lit some fire inside me and made me think ‘Yes, that’s it.’ But I’m so keen to write new ideas I sometimes forget to mull them over. It’s like being so eager to drink a scotch that you only let it age a couple of years before opening it. Rookie error…
- I had too many protagonists in the beginning. The more you add, the more the readers focus becomes diluted. Which is okay if you’re doing an epic fantasy like game of thrones and have millions of words to devote to all the different plotlines, but not if you’re trying to do a three hundred page horror novel.
- I didn’t have a clear enough idea of the nature of the monster. It’s a lesson I’ve learned before: the reader shouldn’t see everything behind the veil – but if the author doesn’t either there’s apt to be confusion.
Saw that Josh Malerman of Bird Box Fame put out a novel chapter by chapter online (Carpenter’s Farm). I tried to do that once and it didn’t work, because as I soon realised, only after I finish am I able to edit the thing into some semblance of coherence. Characters do things in the early stages, when I’m trying to figure out who they are, that turn out not to be consistent. I start subplots and end up deleting them when I get to the end and see they were superfluous.
Mr Malerman, however, seems to have done pretty well, which is impressive. I can’t figure out how he’s doing it unless he had the whole thing completed beforehand and is just posting up one chapter at a time, but apparently he did it all ‘live’. I believe him, but damn…
Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller chronicles left a fantasy void in me which I’ve been successfully filling with the Nevernight series by Jay Kristoff. Would recommend to anyone who enjoys Rothfuss’s (or any fantasy, really) writing.
Update on the current state of my writing for anyone who cares: My short story ‘Screams for Stargirl’ will be coming out in the next few months in Red Room Press’s ‘Best Hardcore Horror of 2019’ Anthology. Still shipping out my first novel ‘Holly and the Nobodies’. Working on my second novel, which has so far caused me to throw out over fifty thousand words and contemplate setting my house on fire and starting a new life in Hawaii. I joke, I joke, but still. You know how it is sometimes. I love writing but also, fuck writing.
Just came across this excellent list by Strange Horizons Magazine of stories they see way too often. It provides a surprising insight into the minds of humans. All kinds of wish fulfilment, political agendas, and then things like: ‘Story consists of recipes for, or descriptions of, killing and eating sentient beings.’ Like, they got that so many times they had to put that in there? Jesus.
Almost halfway through this deliciously creepy book. I think creepiness is my favourite kind of horror, actually. I like it even more than the dread of a book like The Ritual or the awe inspired by Ramsey Campbell or Arthur Machen. Nothing like a good creeper, that’s what I say.
For anyone interested, four excellent horror writers just did an AMA on reddit. Alma Katsu, Christina Henry, Rachel Harrison, Alexis Henderson.
Music for writing:
The Raveonnettes, Lana Del Rey, Kid Cudi, Girl in Red, Billie Eilish, The Lumineers, Tom Waits, Stranger Things Soundtrack, It Follows Soundtrack, IT Soundtrack. I either want to feel haunted or melancholy when writing. I don’t know why, just one of those things. Taste, musical or otherwise, is a mystery to me.
For anyone who hasn’t already seen it: Marianne is in my opinion the best horror show out there. Sometimes I run into something so good that it makes me hate myself. This show is one of those. God Damn it’s good.
Even though I still have to go to work during the Pandemic lockdown (selling alcohol is, of course, an essential service in Australia), I’ve been spending most of my time writing in the dungeon. The new book is coming on well (40,000 words). But while I’m not writing I am playing the new Doom Eternal, which, if you haven’t played it, is honest to God the best game I’ve ever played.
I’ve loved Doom since my Mom stopped me playing it at the age of nine due to the Columbine shootings. I remember waking my Dad up at five in the morning to help me install Doom 2 on the computer because I couldn’t wait until sunrise.
Something about the atmosphere – the music, the over the top blood and guts, the adrenaline rush of slaughter, the ominous sense of being stalked and hunted by ungodly demons… I could never get enough, and would always go back to revisit those old games all through high school and beyond.
Doom Three was a good game, but in my mind it was a separate entity. It was a horror game, and a good one, but it wasn’t DOOM. It wasn’t the game in love with. Doom Eternal, I gotta say, satisfied my nine year old self – the one who sulked for hours after being forbidden from my daily demon killing sessions – in more ways than I’d hoped. The gameplay is smooth, and the designers kept a lot of the old monsters and guns, which I was happy to revisit like old friends. The music was great, the heavy atmosphere was there, as was the insane action and gore of battle.
My hope for the next edition of Doom is that they’ll keep basically everything about the gameplay and just add content. Have levels with a more open design, and just add tons more of them. Kind of like what Final Doom did for Doom 2. No big changes to the game mechanics, just more content. I’d also like them to bring back the music from the original dooms. Not necessarily the exact same tracks, just something in the same vein. That ominous creepy shit really got me going.
Anyway, that’s just two cents from a long time fan.
I love your stories they are so creepy. keep writing!!
you and I are part of a great tradition: Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King subscribe to this school
that’s probably the highest compliment I’ve recieved so far… thanks you good sir
no worries, Ben: I am putting up a blog tomorrow about the Id, a dangerous topic to broach on a blog or Facebook. If you have time come along for the ride
and btw thanks for subscribing to my blog. I will endeavour to make it worth your while
Thanks for stopping by my blog! Love what you’ve got going on here. Good luck and happy writing!
Thanks for stopping by my blog. I like your writing…and I’m not much into horror. I’m still wondering what Dale,from your last story, really is…
thanks! I admit I also wonder that myself…
Thanks for sharing your terrors! When I’m feeling strong enough and the sun is shining very brightly, and night is at least 15 hours away, I’ll have fun exploring them…
Thanks too for liking my post. I’ve just added something about phobias, by coincidence.
Have a lively day!
That I shall! thanks for reading!
The only thing TO do with nightmares is to put fingers to keyboard and unleash them on an unsuspecting public. I kinda think that’s why we have nightmares to begin with. :^)
And thank you for liking my most recent excerpt. Greatly appreciated.
I have just begin reading your stories. I have a lot of catching up to do!
you sure do! hope you enjoy every one of them, and thanks for following!
So thanks for the Insomnia, Where’s the tab for free sleeping pills?
Having read through each of your nightmares in the course of two days, I want to thank you. Truly deeply unsettling stories, powerful enough that I awoke in the night and felt cold fear at the sight of a pile of clothes! Bravo good sir, bravo!
Damn, two days! you’re a dedicated reader my friend. It means a lot to hear that. If I can pass the horror on to one person, I’m happy. It takes time to write these babies, but while I work on my novel I hope to come up with new short stories maybe once a week/fortnight in the meantime, so stay tuned!
Hey man, I just want to say that I spent my entire afternoon reading all your short stories. They are amazing. Thanks for providing a great way to waste the time away, and I have no doubt that I’ll be kept up by twisting shadows and paranoid thoughts tonight
Cheers mate. Well I don’t plan on stopping any time soon so hopefully I can keep this site well stocked with nightmare inducing fodder. Stay tuned and thanks for reading, means a lot.
man, your stuff is great!! Reading it has helped to keep my own creative juices flowing. I’m an independent filmmaker and am constantly looking for the next exciting project to create. Perhaps one day in the future we might discuss horror and spit ball ideas/collaborate on something.
In any case, keep the nightmares alive buddy!
If you’re interested on checking out/giving input on a suspense/phycological short film I made, i’d really value and appreciate your input as you truly are a gifted writer.
It’s called “All That You Loved” and is roughly 5min
cheers man! Sure I’ll give it a look. Remember me when you’re famous and I’ll remember you, haha
So I watched it – not bad man! I’ll do my best but keep in mind I’m a writer, not a director…
Stuff I liked: the mood, the tone. Nice and dark and a little creepy. I liked the actors as well, seen blockbusters with worse actors before. I liked the pacing, slow enough to keep me interested but fast enough I wasn’t bored, and you got the story told.
Stuff that didn’t quite work: Even though I liked the basic story, the ending didn’t quite pack the punch I was hoping for. Unfortunately I have no idea how you would fix that. Maybe if the kid had played a bigger part instead of just kind of sleeping nearby and speaking off screen, it would have been a bigger shock that he was dead, I dunno. Just to nitpick, the music was okay but for some reason it jarred me a little once or twice. But overall it was kinda cool. I’ve seen a lot of arty short films and my usual reaction is that they’re being pretentious, but you just told a neat story in a creepy way. Hope I helped a little bit anyways.
Hey man,thanks for watching it and for the input!!! Much appreciated!
As for the kid, I know what you’re saying but I decided to actually show less of the kid so that it’s more clear that the story is actually about the man and his guilt for having killed his wife/son prior. The son is just a slow building guilt representation. But I hear what you’re saying, and thanks again for watching!
Keep up the sweet stories man!
Hi Ben – waiting on chapter 12 please 🙂