Gatekeeper is still free, despite the price on Amazon!

Gatekeeper_smallI’ve just noticed that Amazon has changed the price of my short story, Gatekeeper (A Dominions Prologue) up from free to 99p/c. I’m trying to sort this out, but in the meantime, you can still get Gatekeeper for free through BookFunnel (click here).

This is only an issue with Amazon‌—‌it’s still free at Kobo, Barnes & Noble, iBooks and other places.

Apologies for any inconvenience. I’ll let you know when Amazon have price-matched it back to free.

Shadowfall is free (for a limited period)

Shadowfall_smallI’m currently running a free promotion on Shadowfall (Shadows Book One), so if you want a scary sci-fi book for Halloween, give it a try.

This promotion runs through the weekend, after which the book will revert to its usual price (although Kindle Unlimited subscribers will still be able to read it for free).

Click here or on the cover image to download Shadowfall. And if you want more, join my list to get the exclusive prequel novella Shadowlair.

What makes a scary story work?

graveyard-384604_1280Summer is over. Nights are stretching out, and days are growing colder. Leaves are falling from the trees.

It’s the time of year for Halloween stories.

But what makes a story scary? What is it in these tales that makes us shudder or gasp? How do scary stories work?

Trying to answer those questions in a thousand words or so is impossible, but I have a few general thoughts on this. I’m going to focus on a couple of films, but this all applies to books as well‌—‌I’ve kept these thoughts close while writing my own sci-fi/horror series. The films I’m going to mention most are Alien and An American Werewolf In London, and there will be spoilers below.

Normality

Scary stories are usually fairly extreme‌—‌undead creatures, different realities, powers that run counter to how physics tells us the world works. For this to have an impact, there needs to be something we can relate to. Horror is always worse when it is played out against an everyday backdrop. The creepy haunted house can work, but only if there is some kind or normality about it. Take Stephen King’s The Shining‌—‌the setting might be a large, seemingly empty old building cut off from the rest of the world, but it’s also a hotel, where people go to relax and enjoy themselves.

But the more mundane the setting, the greater the impact of the horror elements. The Exorcist is set in a normal house, with a single-parent family. In Poltergeist and Ring, TVs play an important part. Then there are the stories where dolls come to life and cause havoc, like Chucky in Child’s Play.

Why does this work well? Because we’re used to the normal stuff. We’ve probably all had good times in a hotel. Many of us live in regular houses. We watch TV. Our children have dolls and other toys. And in a scary story, these normal settings and objects take on new, frightening aspects.

AmericanWerewolfIn American Werewolf, we start on the Yorkshire Moors (slightly creepy because it’s night-time, but still relatively ‘normal’), and then go to London. It is relatively easy to imagine a monster stalking a dark, misty moorland, but surely not in a modern city.

Even a space-ship can seen normal. In Alien, there are no shiny control panels, and things look used. The crew are workers, and we can relate to them‌—‌yes, they might be in outer space, but they’re just doing a job. They’re just like us.

That familiarity helps us relate to what is happening in the story, but it also forces us to see our own surroundings in a new light. When a werewolf is staking people in a city, we start to wonder what that noise coming from outside might be. When toys come to life with murderous intent, those glassy eyes in the bedrooms of our children send a shudder down our spine.

Imagination is scarier than reality

Scary stories work best when things are left to the imagination. When all we are presented with is shadows, and maybe some kind of noise, our minds fill in the blanks — and our minds know just what terrifies us.

In Alien we don’t see the complete monster until the very end of the film. We see parts of it, in shadows. We see what it leaves behind. We see some of the characters’ reactions to it. But we don’t come face to face with it for a long time.

That’s one of the reasons the sequels don’t work as horror films‌—‌we see too much of the aliens. By the time we get to Alien Resurrection, and have two xenomorphs swimming effortlessly towards the camera, we know what to expect, and there is nothing like the same sense of dread.

Jaws works the same way (and that film borrows heavily from the horror genre). We never see any part of the shark until the second half of the film, and even then only see the whole thing near the end.

In both cases (Jaws and Alien), some of this was down to practicalities in the film-making process — there were not the resources to effectively show the whole monster. But the film-makers used this limitation to their advantage. Rather than try to show us everything, they left it up to us to create our own monster.

TheGrudgeThis is a classic case of ‘less is more’, and I’d like to give another example. In the original version of The Grudge, there is a scene with the main character having a shower, and a hand appears, rubbing her hair. There is no indication where this hand comes from — it’s suddenly there, touching her. She’s in the shower (an enclosed space) and she’s naked (and vulnerable), and suddenly there’s something else in there with her.

This scene doesn’t work as well in the American remake. Here, we get to see the hand growing from the back of the main character’s neck before it touches her head. This is grotesque, but it’s not nearly as scary as the original‌—‌precisely because what we don’t know can be worse than what we see.

Those who tell good scary stories understand that less is more, and that when our imagination is left to fill in the blanks, it taps into our own fears to conjure up something personally terrifying.

Anticipation is vital

Something jumping out and going ‘boo’ might make us jump, but that fright is gone as quickly as it appears. For longer-lasting terror, there has to be a build-up. There have to be small clues that tell us ‘something’s not right’. The dread must creep up on us, like dark mist, until we suddenly realise that we are being smothered.

The Monkey’s Paw is a great example of this. (Again, there’s going to be spoilers. If you haven’t read this story, it’s in the public domain, so you should be able to get hold of a copy for free. Check out Project Gutenberg.) The monkey’s paw grants wishes, and at first that seems like a good thing. But the old saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ holds true here. The couple who find the paw wish for money, and it duly arrives‌—‌as compensation for the death of their son in a workplace accident.

This is the set-up. We learn that wishes come at a price.

The mother wants her son back. The father had to identify the body, so he knows just what the accident did to their son. He tries to stop his wife, but she grabs the paw and makes her wish.

There’s a knock at the door. The mother races down the stairs, and struggles to free the latch. Meanwhile, the father is scrambling around, dreading what will happen when his wife sees the abomination at the door. She’s thrown the monkey’s paw down somewhere, and he has to find it. He needs to stop what’s about to happen.

We never get a description of the son, but that doesn’t matter. We can imagine it (again, the power of imagination), but what gets our hearts pumping is the race between the mother and the father, and the fear of what will happen when she opens the door.

It is the anticipation that drives the horror.

AmericanWerewolfSceneI’ll give another example, from one of the most memorable sequences in American Werewolf. We see a commuter stepping off a tube train. The train disappears into the tunnel, leaving him alone on a platform. He hears a noise, but he thinks nothing of it, and he carries on his way. The noise repeats, and he calls out, telling whoever it is that he doesn’t find this funny in the slightest. But there is definitely something around. He starts to get nervous. He walks faster, and then he starts to run.

We do see the werewolf, briefly, but by that time the commuter has collapsed on an escalator. The werewolf appears at the bottom, and starts to climb. We cut back to see the commuter, as he watches this thing approach, and the terror grows on his face.

I can’t remember if we see the attack. But I can remember the build-up, because that is the scary part.

The false ending

This occurs in thrillers a lot, but works very well in horror too. It’s usually the moment where everyone in the cinema jumps out of their seats at the same time.

There’s an example part-way through American Werewolf, in a dream sequence. The main character watches his family being slaughtered by monster-soldier things, and when one of them pulls a knife across his throat he wakes up with a jerk. He’s in his hospital bed, with a nurse watching over him. It was only a dream. The nurse, seeing he’s awake, goes to open the curtains.

And as she reached the window, one of the monsters leaps out and stabs her in the chest.

It’s a shock because we never for a moment suspect that he’s still dreaming.

Alien_posterAlien saves the false ending for the final moments of the film. Ripley sets the Nostromo to self-destruct, then races to reach the escape pod (after finding the ship’s cat, of course). There are sirens blaring, and lights flashing, and the alien is somewhere on the ship. It’s a great sequence, and when she finally seals herself into the escape pod and ejects, and the Nostromo explodes, we feel her relief.

And then something moves in the shadows. She has not destroyed the alien. It is in the escape pod with her.

False endings are often the most memorable parts of stories. We already have the build-up of adrenaline in the tension-filled scene before, and then we have that fake release, followed by the sudden shock that makes our hearts leap.

It’s the perfect scare.

So there you have a few reasons scary stories work. Of course there are more (like the fate worse than death, and the corruption of innocence), and I’m interested on your thoughts on this. What gets your heart racing in a story? What makes you jump out of your skin in a book or a film?

 

Why re-read?

book-1975830_640Some people never read a book more than once, arguing that there is no enjoyment if they already know the ending. Others have their favourite books that they return to time and time again. Some people read Lord Of The Rings every year. I’ve met someone who appeared to be reading Fifty Shades constantly (must be some S&M thing).

I have a long list of new books to read, but I still find myself re-reading older ones. So why?

I think there are three possible reasons.

Familiarity and comfort

HitchHikers_DouglasAdamsI’ve read Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy so often that now I only have to look at the page and the words flow from my memory. And every so often, I will binge re-read the Discworld books. I know what’s coming, but I still enjoy the storytelling and the humour. They make me smile, no matter how many times I read them.

We enjoy comfort, and that includes mental comfort. So re-reading a book we know we enjoy can be a settling experience, especially when other aspects of our lives might be going through changes. Familiar books are something steady we can cling to.

Sometimes, it is not so much the book but the memories connected with it. I’ll always associate Tolstoy’s War And Peace and Louis de Bernieres’ Birds Without Wings with caravan holidays, and Asimov’s original Foundation books remind me of my grandparents’ house. And Thomas Hardy, strangely, puts me in a summery mood, simply because I can recall reading some of his books on an old Sony Reader in our garden one summer, when it was warm enough to wear shorts.

Reading familiar books can be like listening to a favourite song or re-watching a favourite film. It’s a break from reality, but one that makes us feel relaxed and comfortable.

Re-assessing

Over time, everyone changes. We grow, we take on new ideas and we reject old ones. We see the world through different eyes, coloured by the experiences of our on-going lives.

ET_WilliamKotzwinkleIt can be interesting revisiting books we enjoyed when we were growing up. Sometimes the books seem too childish, and we wonder if we were ever really taken in by them. Sometimes we are disappointed by the book (as I was when I re-read the original Star Wars novelisation a bit ago). And sometimes we see new things. When I revisited ET recently, there were things I was sure I’d missed before, simply because I’d been too young to understand what William Kotzwinkle was hinting at.

I read a great deal of horror as a teenager, and it’s been interesting re-reading some of my favourites from that time. Some stand up well, like The Shining‌—‌although obviously a story of a family cut off from the rest of the world is going to have a different impact on a father than it does on a teenager. Others were a disappointment, like James Herbert’s The Rats. I can see why I enjoyed this before, but for the adult me it was nothing special (apologies to any Herbert fans, although I did enjoy Ash when I read that a couple of years ago).

I don’t watch many films now, but in the past these have given me the nudge to re-read certain books, and the visuals have enabled me to see the words in a different light. One strong example of this is Fight Club, a rare phenomenon where both book and film are excellent. On re-reading, I could hear Ed Norton’s voice, and it made for a great reading experience.

So re-reading with fresh eyes can alter the perception of a book, for better or for worse.

Digging deeper

At first, this might appear to be the same as revisiting, but there are subtle differences. I’ll revisit a book when I’m not sure what I think of it, or when something triggers a fresh look. But certain books have depths that I know I have not yet mined, and I will re-read them because I want to uncover more of their secrets.

ZenMotorcycleMaintenance_RobertMPirsigZen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is the most obvious example. This book is a journey into ideas, set against a father-and-son motorcycle ride across America. At times the thoughts and questions it poses are almost too dense, and every time I read it I pick up on something new. Between my first and second readings, I spent a bit of time reading Plato, and this influenced how I understood Prisig’s inquiries into the meaning of quality. Later, the relationship between the father and the son had a greater impact on me, simply because I was able to relate to that situation. And having recently found out that Prisig’s son was murdered some years after the book came out, the next time I read it I am sure that will colour what I take from it.

Yet there are still things to uncover in the ideas in the book. It doesn’t lecture, but guides, and what I bring to the reading is as important as the words itself.

In contrast, I’ll re-read American Psycho because I want to understand how that book works on a technical level. I think it’s a classic. There are so many different ways of interpreting it (comment on consumerism? Study of sociopathy? Discussion on desires?). There’s no clear story, and at times it seems to drift along as random thoughts (two pages on the pros and cons of Huey Lewis and the News, anyone?). But it works, and it’s clear that Bret Easton Ellis knew exactly what he was doing. So I’ll re-read it, paying attention to how he uses words and phrases, and how he structures it.

I suppose this is more of an intellectual enjoyment than an emotional one, but I’m re-reading with the same purpose‌—‌to delve deeper into the book in order to discover more of its secrets.

* * *

So, three reasons why I will re-read a book. There are probably more (like re-reading a book simply because I’ve forgotten that I read it a few years ago), but these will do for the moment. I’m sure there are people who will argue that I am wasting my time‌—‌for all I get out of re-reading, wouldn’t that time be better spent reading one of the thousands of books I have yet to read? They might have a point, but I’m never going to read everything I want to anyway. And I don’t see reading as a tick-list activity. It’s about enjoyment and entertainment, and if I can get that from re-reading, there’s no reason to stop.

The Problem With Accents

I listened to a free audiobook of Dracula a while back. The narrators were all volunteers, and each took a separate chapter. Of course, the quality varied‌—‌some went for a drawn-out reading to heighten the dread, others went with a more conversational tone. There were some interesting mispronunciations, too, which might be down to a 19th century book by an English novelist being read by American narrators‌—‌language changes over time and place, after all.

Then there were the accents. Most of the narrators read in a single voice, but some used accents for occasional characters. This was most usually Van Helsing, and I believe his lines are written with a hint of his Eastern-European pronunciation.

The main characters in the book are ‘educated’, and all speak with proper diction (with the exception of Van Helsing), but they occasional encounter ‘locals’, who would naturally speak in dialect (mainly in the sections set around Whitby, so we’re talking Yorkshire accents here). For one of these, Stoker writes the dialogue as the character would speak.

nosferatu-1-615x349The narrator for this chapter did his best, and I don’t mean to mock him. I know I could do no better with, say, a Texas accent. I don’t even know if the narrator had ever heard a Yorkshire accent before attempting to read Stoker’s text. But the accent he narrated in didn’t work. You know Dick Van Dyke’s ‘cockney’ accent in Mary Poppins? Imagine that combined with the occasional Scottish twang, and you’ll have a rough idea what this Yorkshire character sounded like.

Again, I want to stress that this was a free audiobook, narrated by volunteers. They all did a far better job than I could do.

But it got me thinking about accents in books.

The standard advice for writing is to be careful with accents. If you have to ‘write accents’, don’t overdo it. The aim is to convey a flavour of the voice, but the text always has to be understandable. Add too much authenticity, and things go wrong.

This might sound counter-intuitive, but spoken and written language are two different things. Just listen to how people normally talk, and then imagine this written down. How many times do people ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’? How many sentences are left unfinished? How much is repeated? Even when people are telling a story of what happened to them, their words will not translate perfectly to text.

“So, like, I says to him, um, ‘you want this or not?’, right, and he’s all like ‘I don’t know’, and so, um, I say ‘but it’s your favourite’, and he’s still, like, unsure, um, so, like, I don’t know, is he winding me up or I don’t know, why doesn’t he want it, I don’t know.”

You get the idea.

So the advice with accents is to be sparing.

“Aye, they came up from the South, like they allus do.”
“You talkin’ to me, son?”

The odd word, the occasional missed letter. It helps give a flavour of the accent while still being readable.

Too much can be hard to read, and I think this is down to how we are taught to read, and the way our brain decodes the written word. Initially, we learn letters, and use these letters to make up words and parts of words. We learn that ‘ough’ is sounded ‘oooh’ in words like ‘through, and ‘ohh’ in words like ‘though’. Gradually, out brain starts to decipher these combinations automatically, and we no longer have to sound out individual letters and sort them into groups. Instead, we glance at a word and instantly understand it. This is when we really start reading.

But with words written in accent, we have to go back a step. The words look wrong, and our brains have to resort to mentally sounding a letter at a time. The odd dropped letter (walkin’, ‘ope), especially when signalled with an apostrophe, isn’t too bad. Bu’ a rendrin ah th’slurrd word a slip aht in t’heat o’normal torkin is allus a buggr t’unnerstan’. Even with apostrophes.

That’s why too much ‘accent’ in writing is a problem.

But there are authors who use this to great effect.Trainspotting_IrvineWelsh

One obvious example is Irvine Welsh, especially in Trainspotting. The story is set in Scotland, and is told through a series of incidents from different characters’ points of view. At first, it is hard to read. Welsh doesn’t only render the dialogue in accents, but also the prose. At first glance, a page can look like it is written in a different language entirely.

But with a little perseverance, it becomes easier to understand. And the language fits the story. We’re in the heads of these characters, and Welsh uses the accented language to see the world through their perspective. It makes the book far more immersive than it would have been if he’d ‘written properly.’

FeersumEndjinn_IainMBanksAnother book comes to mind here, and although it’s not written ‘in accent’, it is still relevant. That book is Iain M Banks’ Feersum Enjin. Take a little time over that title, and you’ll get an idea where I’m going with this.

(I haven’t read this book for a good few years, so apologies for being a little hazy here.)

The story is split between a number of viewpoint characters. One of these is written almost phonetically (and this is shown in the title‌—‌Fearsome Engine, while being ‘correct’, just doesn’t work as well.) Banks also uses ‘text-speak’, using numbers and symbols to replace letters (so ‘into’ becomes ‘in2’, and ‘at’ becomes ‘@’).

Here’s the first line from this character’s sections, to give you a taste of it:

Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergate thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y doant u 1/2 a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in this I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbirth.

(Incidentally, that was a pain to copy out. I’m used to typing, so deliberately mis-spelling things slowly me down.)

Why does Banks use this style of writing? Again, it is down to character. This character is young, with a naive outlook on life. The language reflects this, unhindered by convention and free to view things in an intuitive and original manner. Language is used to provide insight into the character.

And, as with the Scottish dialogue Welsh uses, it does become easier to read as you go along.

There are those who say that all writing should be like this. Every so often there are rumblings about written language being too tied up with rules that, on the face of it, make no sense, and that words should be spelt out as they are sounded.

I’m not going to get into a major discussion on this, but I will point out one of the major problems with this approach to spelling, and it comes back to accents. A word like ‘out’ might be spelt ‘auwt’, or maybe ‘owt’. But ‘owt’, in some parts of the country, is a word that means ‘anything’ (as in ‘you doing owt today?’). So if we came across a word spelt ‘owt’, what is the meaning of it? We’d need to decipher the surrounding words, using context to gain meaning. But if we see the word ‘out’, we know what it is because we have been taught that this combination of letters reflects a certain concept.

And this is the problem with phonetic spelling. Spoken language varies from country to country and from region to region, even when the language is ostensibly the same. The English language is spoken in many flavours across the world. If written English reflected that, its universality would be greatly reduced.

This is the thing to remember with writing accents‌—‌we write to be understood. If the accent gives an insight into the character or the setting, or brings a scene to life, then it has its place, if used carefully, like a dash of seasoning. But overuse creates a barrier, like heavy seasoning can mask other flavours. And then, the reader is pulled out of the story, just as I was listening to that strange accent in Dracula.

AllusionistLogoNote: I listen to a lot of podcasts. One of them, The Allusionist, is all about words and language, and it just so happens that the latest episode is all about accents. You can give it a listen here.