Posts Tagged ‘horror’

I recently introduced Laura to the film Tremors, after making the shocking discovery that she’d never seen it. In doing so, I realised how great an example it is of a key storytelling trick – try fail cycles.

Footloose vs Dune

In case you’ve somehow missed this cinematic classic, Tremors is a 1990 film about a small town under attack by giant burrowing worms. Starring Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as handyman heroes Valentine and Earl, it’s a film that I love not because it’s masterful or innovative, but because it’s so much fun. It uses a horror structure, but lacks the dark atmosphere of horror. It has a humorous tone, but isn’t a comedy. The characters are clichés, but together they’re an interesting mix. The climax features one of the most hilariously in-your-face ropey special effects shots I’ve ever seen.

It’s as if Frank Herbert’s worms from Dune escaped to hunt down that guy from Footloose, and exactly as serious as such a film would be. I love it.

Try, Try Again

Try fail cycles are an important part of plotting stories. They consist of a character repeatedly trying to achieve a goal, and repeatedly facing setbacks, until they finally get there. Those failures are what make the final success feel rewarding – after all those struggles, the character and their plan have grown, and there’s real tension around whether this attempt will succeed. Given that we know that heroes usually win in the end, it’s an important way of creating doubt about the outcome.

In Tremors, those cycles are really clear, and they show how the pattern can vary.

In the first act, Valentine and Earl make repeated attempts to leave town, for a variety of reasons. Every time they are stopped in their tracks. Their eventual failure is what keeps them in town for the film, and for one final escape attempt in the last act.

In the second half of the film, once the monsters are on display in all their rubber and gunk glory, we see two try fail cycles from the townspeople. One is them trying to get to a place of safety, as one option after another at first works and then fails. There’s the same pattern with their attempts to kill the worms. They try, they succeed, but then something means they can’t follow the same approach. It’s not just a cycle of try then fail. It’s a cycle of try then succeed and then fail, which creates strong emotional peaks and troughs. We celebrate the successes and bemoan the failures along with Valentine, Earl and the rest.

Finally there’s the romantic arc, as Valentine tries to work out how to communicate with geologist Rhonda. It’s much less prominent, and less obviously a repeating cycle, but it’s there. Valentine faces his own awkwardness several times, all under the amused eye of Earl. It’s a reluctant try fail, in which Valentine fails toward realising what he wants romantically and how to make it happen.

Learn from the Worms

Sometimes it takes an unsophisticated story to expose the clever tools writers use, and Tremors is one of those occasions. If you haven’t seen it then go watch it – I’ll still be here when you get back. And maybe share your thoughts on the film or try fail cycles in the comments below.

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Jeff VanderMeer is an author whose work is weird, in the best sense of the word. He uses elements of fantasy and horror to create a strange atmosphere of creeping unease. And in Authority, the second volume of his Southern Reach trilogy, he transfers that atmosphere from the wilderness setting of Annihilation into the mundane world of office politics.

The results are even more weird.

Uncanny Meets Mundane

Authority follows on from the expedition depicted in Annihilation, in which a group of experts are sent to explore the warped territory of Area X. A new character, who refers to himself as Control, is taking over the Southern Reach, the facility tasked with investigating and explaining Area X. In doing so he investigates what happened on the previous mission, . But his task is hindered as much by office politics and the schemes of his superiors as by the weirdness that has seeped into the minds of anyone dealing with Area X. As these elements become entangled, Control struggles with a situation slipping out of his control.

This makes for a read that is unsettling without being horrifying in the traditional sense. As with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, the tension lies as much in the struggle for sanity as the struggle against arcane forces. But with the stakes of success or failure much less clear, the sense of bewilderment is at times extraordinary.

Definitely Art

This book is like nothing else I’ve ever read. The tone, style and content build a fog of confusion around the reader as well as Control. I experienced his struggle to get a grip on anything around him. Transferring that from the strange territory of Area X to the familiar surroundings of an office made it feel even more like something wrong was invading the real world, like ordinary things were being turned subtly on their heads.

It makes for a fascinating read, though one that lacks the satisfaction of pay-offs. This seems like a deliberate strategy on VanderMeer’s part. The plot turn most authors would have used as a midway point or early call to adventure arrives near the end. Some things are explained or resolved, both in the world building and in the plot, but more are left open, contributing to the sense of unease.

This book is incredibly successful at evoking an atmosphere, and if you like to sink into the strange or see a writer try something novel then it’s well worth a read. On the other hand, if you don’t like to be confused, if you want plenty of plot, if you want a story to be clear and accessible, you should avoid this one like the plague.

Personally, I enjoyed it immensely, and I look forward to reading the final volume. After these first two, I have no idea whether VanderMeer will provide explanation and resolution. As long as he continues to execute the books with such skill, I won’t mind either way.

* * *

If after all that you’re looking for more fantasy reading, my own collection of short stories By Sword, Stave or Stylus is free on Amazon until the end of tomorrow. From the melancholy gutterscum living in a rooftop world to a gladiator painting with manticore blood, it has plenty of variety, if not the sheer unsettling nature of Authority.

Boy, I'm glad that's not ominous.

Boy, I’m glad that’s not ominous.

There are a lot of different ways you can use randomisation to inspire writing. Phillip K Dick famously used the I Ching to guide him in writing The Man in the High Castle. I’ve dabbled with story dice and flicking through books to pick a word or picture. And this week podcast Writing Excuses used the I Ching both to generate questions and to create a writing prompt.

The Exercise

Randomly generated using the I Ching, this week’s writing prompt is:

Competing fiercely to become Spring’s queen, the garden flowers blossomed to their full beauty. Who will win the golden crown of glory? Among them all, only the peony stands out.

For me, creativity requires structure as well as chaos. To give this prompt a bit more structure, I decided not to use it to generate something from scratch, but to build on a story idea I’m already working on for this week’s flash Friday piece.

My starting place for the story was inspired by my friend Marios, who was talking about people having to present their academic theses on human skin – more specifically their own skin. It’s an intriguingly grizzly idea, and one that puts limits on what the characters write too. But beyond that high concept, I’ve got nothing for the story. Lets see what this prompt gives me.

Flowers and Competition

The obvious thing is the flowers. My character’s academic field is going to be botany. That opens up potential to look at strange, fantastical plants and their uses.

Conflict is also clearly present in that I Ching passage. The flowers are competing for the one place of high status. I’m going to transfer that dynamic onto the academics of my story. We have two botanists competing for a top prize, job or bursary. Only one can win through the glory of their work. Who will it be?

So, with two minutes’ thought, this random prompt has given me my conflict and some information about both my characters – I doubt I’ll have space for more than two in this flash story. That’s pretty good going.

The Joy of Chaos

I think that these random idea generators work so well at times because they give us rough edges to generate ideas off. The ideas we dream up can sometimes be neat but without the complex or contradictory details that bring stories to life. Randomness adds that.

Do any of you have favourite random idea generators? What are they, and how helpful are they?

And of course you can come back on Friday to see how this story pans out.

Picture by Payton Chung via Flickr creative commons.

Some great stories leap out at you from the first page, grabbing you by the heart and screaming for your attention. Others grow on you slowly, creeping into your brain word by word until you realise that the thing you were once vaguely enjoying has become so rich, so compelling that you can’t let it go.

Locke & Key, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s comic book series of magic, mystery and dark deeds, is one of the latter.

That Growing On You Feeling

I wasn’t completely taken by Locke & Key when I read the first volume. It was perfectly decent, in the way of many other comics that have combined strange fantasy with a modern setting since Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. But it didn’t seem like much more than that.

Still, I’d heard great things about this book, and I found the second volume in my local library. I read some more, and somewhere in my own hidden depths something clicked. This was a dark, fascinating puzzle of a story, with compelling characters and beautiful art. This was a thing I really wanted to read.

Wonder and Horror

Locke & Key is the story of the Locke children – teenagers Tyler and Kinsey Locke, and their younger brother Bode. After their father’s brutal murder, they move with their mother to an old New England house. There they find something strange – a series of keys with magical powers, that can open the mind and free the spirit, but that can also bring great darkness.

Because while the Lockes are good people, they aren’t the only ones seeking out the keys. A darker force is at work, one that brings horror and betrayal in its wake. As the Locke children try to come to terms with their loss, while also exploring the wonder of the keys, terrible events start to unfold around them.

OK, I know that all sounds vague, but I’m doing it on purpose. Part of the joy of these books is watching events play out in surprising and compelling ways. I really don’t want to give anything away.

Everything at a Price

One of the central themes of Locke & Key is the consequence of actions, the price paid not just by the people who make choices but by those around them. The children’s mother has coped with her husband’s death by drinking away her sorrows, but this is destroying her remaining relationships. The exploration of magic brings wonder, but also unleashes darkness. And as the background of the story creeps into the light, it becomes clear that everything that is happening happens for a reason, a consequence of other decisions in the key house’s past.

Locke & Key is a beautiful thing. The characters and deep, nuanced and complex. The art is both dynamic and characterful. The plot is full of mystery and suspense. Sure, it’s no Sandman, but neither is it another Sandman wannabe. It’s a dark, brooding tale in its own right. Something unsettling and yet uplifting.

I’m on the fifth volume out of six now. Whether things end well or badly for Lockes, I expect to be gripped right through to the end.

It’s not often that I get to the end of a book and don’t know what to think or feel. Jeff VanderMeer‘s Annihilation, the first part of his Southern Reach Trilogy, achieves that, in a good way.

Annihilation is a tricky book to describe. It’s probably fantasy, maybe horror, with what looks like a contemporary setting. Narratively, it’s the story of an expedition into the mysterious Area X, a part of the world where the normal rules of reality don’t apply. Sent to explore the area, the expedition has its own strange rules meant to combat the madness of Area X. Except those rules are themselves disorienting and dehumanising.

The story is told through the unreliable narrative of the expedition’s nameless biologist, and portrays her response to the bewildering nature of Area X and the disintegration of the people around her. Or possibly her descent into madness. Or possibly both. It’s hard to tell. And along the way, she gets to grips with her own identity and sense of purpose.

I’m told that H P Lovecraft’s horror writing created stories in which even smart people could convincingly be over-whelmed and destroyed, because the forces arrayed against them were just too much for anyone to cope with. That’s how Annihilation feels. The biologist is smart, but from the outset Area X is so strange that there’s a real tension around whether she can survive the expedition, and how it will affect her.

If you watched any of the TV show Lost, you’ll probably remember hitting a point where you realised that the island just didn’t make sense, and probably never would. Annihilation is like that, except that it feels like the lack of coherence is a deliberate ploy by the author, not the result of a TV production throwing madness at the screen and praying that it would make sense.

To quote a speech from one of my favourite films (and please excuse the f-bombs), feeling fucked up doesn’t mean that you’re fucked up. Feeling fucked up is a sane response to a fucked up situation. That’s what this book portrays, and it evokes it incredibly well.

Annihilation isn’t hard work in the sense of being dense or massively long. But its strange natures requires a willingness to let go of your assumptions about how a story will pan out and how a fantastical world will be presented. It’s fascinating. It’s dark. It’s something I want more of, and I don’t even know why. If you like weird things, then give it a go.

rosesToby Goodwin’s eyes watered at the thick scent of sweetpeas in bloom. From the safety of her doorstep Bridget Levsky glared disapprovingly up at him, wire-frame glasses glinting beneath her grey curls.

“Young man, Professor Levsky and I spent forty years perfecting our White Supremes. I’m not going to leave them to die because some oaf can’t steer straight.”

“Mrs Levsky, I work for the council.” Toby flashed his ID for the third time, then pointed at the tanker crashed across the road, police officers busily taping it off. The driver’s body lay beside it, blood and a few green tendrils creeping out from beneath the white sheet. “That man’s chest exploded minutes after the crash. Whatever was in the tanker, it’s not safe for you to stay here.”

“It’s Dr Levsky to you.” She pointed at the tracks the lorry had left on her lawn. “What’s the council going to do about this mess, that’s what I’d like to know. Now get off my garden or I’ll set the dog on you.”

A bedraggled mongrel yipped half-heartedly from the floor.

“That goes for you too, Thomas Bell!” Dr Levsky shouted as a small boy shot through the flowerbeds on a BMX. As he stopped to stick out his tongue the wind changed. His face went white, eyes widening as he gagged on the greenery shooting from his throat. Police rushed to his aid, but Toby could only stare in horror.

#

There was something reassuring about the thick rubber seals of the biohazard suit. It kept out the pollen as well as whatever had been in the tanker, helping Toby to breath more easily.

Dr Levsky’s skin looked different looked paler through the condensation inside the mask.

“Have you died your hair?” he asked.

“It’s no good buttering me up.” She declared patted her brown locks. “I wasn’t going yesterday, and I’m not going today.”

“Everyone else has.” It hadn’t been hard to convince them – half the neighbourhood had seen little Tommy reduced to red lumps and squirming roots. Even Toby, who had never met the boy, felt sick at the thought.

“I’m not everyone else,” the old lady declared.

“Neither is Albert Brooks anymore.” Toby pointed to the empty house two doors down.

“Serves him right,” Mrs Levsky said. “Letting his nasty dog dig up people’s gardens. You don’t do that, do you Ruffles?”

Joints clicking, she bent to scratch the mongrel’s head, and Toby saw past her into the hallway. At the far end a door stood ajar, revealing rows of seedlings in tall test-tubes, spiralling glass pipes feeding dark liquid to their roots.  The seedlings were moving, stems turning towards Toby as if caught by a gentle breeze.

An uneasy feeling tickled at his mind.

“What did you think of Mr Hardbottom from next door?” he asked.

“Interfering old so-and-so.” Dr Levsky frowned. “Kept threatening to cut back my Restormels.”

“Janet Stevens?”

“Nosey cow.”

“The postman?”

Dr Levsky listed the failings of one casualty after another. As he listened, Toby’s uneasy feeling grew.

#

Toby felt a little ridiculous as he scrambled down the fence and into the shadow strewn back garden. Not as ridiculous as he’d felt in the police station, trying to explain to the desk sergeant why they should investigate the little old lady with the lovely flowers, and not the contents of the tanker crash. The police had treated his theory with contempt, but he still believed there was something wrong. Someone had to investigate.

His nose tingled feverishly as he brushed past the sweetpeas, pale petals glowing in the moonlight. He wished he still had the biohazard suit, but the fire brigade wouldn’t let him keep it overnight.

Carefully opening the back door, he tip-toed into a hallway that smelt of old boots and compost. At the far end Bridget Levsky stood alone in her kitchen, muttering to rows of seedlings. Her hair was ginger now, fingers and nose more pointed.

“You’ll keep the nasty men away, won’t you precious?” She caressed a plant and its fronds stroked her wrinkled hand.  Tendrils like those that had burst from poor Tommy Bell turned towards Toby.

Heart pounding he backed away through a thick curtain.  His nose twitched again, and he turned to see row upon row of lush, green leaves swaying in the glare of industrial lights.  In their midst stood two more Bridget Levskys, a bottle blonde and a fading brunette. Between them half-a-dozen more near-identical old ladies lay in a pool of thick yellow liquid, each a little sturdier, a fraction less wrinkled than the last.

The blonde pursed her lips and whistled. At the sound, a cluster of fragile purple flowers turned towards Toby, spraying pollen into his face. His allergies went into overdrive as something squirmed in his nostrils. He gave an almighty sneeze and fine green fragments rocketed from his nose, sailing across the room and hitting the women. Those fragments erupted in to a web of roots and crawlers, sprawling across their bodies and into the bubbling vat. Green veins throbbed as the plants guzzled the thick goo, burying the two Bridget Levskys in a mound of trailers as they expanded at an ever-increasing rate beneath the glow of the industrial bulbs.

Toby stumbled through the door and out into the road, the mongrel dog yapping at his heels. Greenery burst from every orifice of the house, smashing windows and doors, stretching out in search of sunlight. With one last, desperate thrust towards the pale moon, the vines over-reached and collapsed amidst a cloud of softly scented petals, all perfectly lovely and perfectly dead.

A wrinkled hand pushed out of the greenery, and then flopped and hung still.

It seemed Toby wouldn’t need to evacuate Dr Levsky after all.

 

* * *

Having discussed plants as villains a few posts back, it seemed like a good time for this story. It was also an experiment in editing, digging out a piece I abandoned years ago to see if I could turn it into something worth reading. Was it worth the effort? You judge.

As always, you can read more of my fiction for free on my Flash Friday page, or by signing up to my mailing list and receiving a free copy of my ebook Riding the Mainspring.

This weekend I went to see Little Shop of Horrors at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre. The plant villain, Audrey Two, was the highlight of the show on so many levels, from the design of the plant models to the intense expressions of the puppeteer singers as they animated this rubbery villain. It reminded me of just how disconcerting I’ve always found carnivorous plants. Plant eats animal is such an inversion of the natural order we expect from the world, I suspect that most people feel a shiver at the idea. It makes carnivorous plants, from tiny venus flytraps to Audrey Two, that bit more disconcerting, and so great as a menace in a story.

Weirdly though, John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids is the only other story I can think of with a plant-based villain (apart from a very hazy recollection of an old Doctor Who episode). I think it’s something I want to try writing, but I don’t want to just re-tread the same old ground, so help me internet – what other plant villains are out there?