20th Annual Dead of Winter short fiction contest

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We are thrilled to announce the opening of the 20th Annual Dead of Winter contest (December 2020) and to mark the occasion, we’re doing something special with this year’s theme.

SPECIAL:

Your entry will not only use the theme but will also use it in a central way, not as a peripheral or “dropped in” detail. Give your story a unique title, not using the theme as a title.

Choose from one of these previous DOW themes for your short horror fiction entry:

  • ALASKA
  • ALTERNATIVE SANTA
  • THE AWARD
  • BLOOD RIVER BRIDGE
  • DEATH AND WINTER
  • FAMILY TREE
  • THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS
  • THE HAND OF FATE
  • THE HAUNTED LIGHTHOUSE
  • HEART AND SOUL
  • HIDDEN GRAVE
  • THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE ROAD
  • IT’S NOT NICE TO FOOL MOTHER NATURE
  • THE NEIGHBORHOOD CHILDREN
  • NEVERTHELESS SHE PERSISTED
  • THE PODCAST
  • SKULL AND BONES
  • THE SOUVENIRS/TROPHIES OF A RETURNED SOLDIER
  • TOYS IN THE ATTIC
  • URBAN LEGEND
  • VENTRILOQUIST
  • WHAT’S POSSIBLE ON THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE YEAR

EVERY YEAR:

Stories MUST be based on the theme provided.
Stories MUST be set in winter.
Stories MUST fall in the horror genre.

HOW TO ENTER:

The contest opens October 1, 2020 and the deadline for submission is 11:59 PM ET December 21, 2020.

Email entries to dow2020[at]toasted-cheese.com with the subject line:
Dead of Winter Contest Entry.

Include at the beginning of your entry: Title – word count (theme)

The word count range for DOW 2020 is 1000–5000 words. You may round your word count however you like. Stories that do not fall within word count parameters will be disqualified.

Follow general contest guidelines and general Dead of Winter guidelines.
See DOW guidelines for prize information.

19th Annual Dead of Winter short fiction contest

Stories submitted to the 19th Annual Dead of Winter contest (December 2019) will use the theme: FAMILY TREE. Your entry must follow guidelines linked below.

Have you shaken the branches on your family tree and found a character you’d like to fictionalize? Have you taken a DNA test from a popular website and thought about how it could go wrong? With the growing focus on our roots and branches, we hope you’re inspired by this theme.

SPECIAL:

Your entry will not only use the theme but will also use it in a central way, not as a peripheral or “dropped in” detail. Examples of ways to use the theme might be a discovered family Bible has missing information, a man claiming to be an uncle appears out of nowhere, or a visit to the local cemetery reveals the headstone of a twin.

Please give your story a unique title, not “The Family Tree.”

EVERY YEAR:

  • Stories MUST be based on the theme provided.
  • Stories MUST be set in winter.
  • Stories MUST fall in the horror genre
  • The word count range for DOW2019 is 2500–5000 words.

HOW TO ENTER:

The contest opens October 1, 2019 and the deadline for submission is 11:59 PM ET December 21, 2019.

Email entries to dow2019[at]toasted-cheese.com with the subject line:
Dead of Winter Contest Entry

Follow general contest guidelines and general Dead of Winter guidelines

18th Annual Dead of Winter short fiction contest

Stories submitted to the 18th Annual Dead of Winter contest (December 2018) will use one or both of the following themes: THE PODCAST or THE AWARD. Your entry must follow guidelines linked below.

This year’s themes are inspired by the contest judges. In 2018, both have been nominated for and/or won an award. Plus, we like podcasts and want to read about them. We couldn’t decide so, as we did ten years ago, we decided to offer multiple themes to choose from.

SPECIAL:

Your entry will not only follow one or both themes but will also use them in a central way, not as a peripheral or “dropped in” detail. For example, the award may be a physical object or a title (like a knighthood or an honorary degree). It could be a heavy object used as a weapon or a medal in an old trunk. Keep in mind that “podcast award” will likely be an often-used theme and that you want your story to stand out. Of course, you’re welcome to go that route.

Please give your story a unique title, not “The Podcast” or “The Award.”

EVERY YEAR:

  • Stories MUST be based on the theme provided.
  • Stories MUST be set in winter.
  • Stories MUST fall in the horror genre
  • The word count range for DOW2018 is 3000–5000 words.

HOW TO ENTER:

The contest opens October 1, 2018 and the deadline for submission is 11:59 PM ET December 21, 2018.

Email entries to dow2018[at]toasted-cheese.com with the subject line:
Dead of Winter Contest Entry

Follow general contest guidelines and general Dead of Winter guidelines

The 17th Annual “Dead of Winter” Writing Contest

Stories submitted to the 17th Annual Dead of Winter contest (December 2017) must use the theme NEVERTHELESS SHE PERSISTED (your entry must follow guidelines below).

This year’s theme is inspired by women and their resilience.

SPECIAL:

Horror has long given us female protagonists and antagonists, both in literature and film. Your entry will not only follow the theme NEVERTHELESS SHE PERSISTED but also give us strong female characters facing and/or creating horrors in original ways.

We want them to be challenged by forces within and/or without; they might not make it to the end of your story. The threat your main character faces might be female or she may be female herself (or both). Your story may feature one woman or one girl or several females but at least one major character in your story should be a female who is persistent.

EVERY YEAR:

  • Stories MUST be based on the theme provided.
  • Stories MUST be set in winter.
  • Stories MUST fall in the horror genre
  • The word count range for DOW2017 is 3000–5000 words.

HOW TO ENTER:

The contest opens October 1, 2017 and the deadline for submission is 11:59 PM ET December 21, 2017.

Email entries to dow2017[at]toasted-cheese.com with the subject line:
Dead of Winter Contest Entry

Follow general contest guidelines and general Dead of Winter guidelines

 

Horror and Sorrow and Beauty: Interview with Mercedes M. Yardley

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Mercedes M. Yardley writes “whimsical horror.” Her happy endings might have every character die or go mad. Her characters might have holes in their hands, through which stars fall to Earth (incidentally, stars can prevent you from peeling Granny Smiths by knocking knives out of your hole-free hands). She would tag her new novel with #lovehurts and considers herself a “pantser” when it comes to her characters. She won Reddit’s /r/Fantasy 2013 Best Short Fiction “Stabby” for Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love.

While reading her work, you don’t want to put it down. Then you realize you have to put it down in order to go find more (and sometimes to eat, drink, see the sun, etc.). Her delicate yet powerful prose sends unique characters on fascinating journeys and she has cultivated a faithful fanbase. Her first novel, Nameless, was published this month by Ragnarok Publications.

Interview with Mercedes M. Yardley

Toasted Cheese: Let’s start with important stuff. Tell us about the connection to your close personal friend Gloria Gaynor.

Yardley1

Mercedes M. Yardley

Mercedes M. Yardley: Gloria and I are like this. BFFs. She calls every morning to get my fashion advice. I totally tell her to go with the white hat. Nobody can rock it like she does.

Ha, no, actually, I’m one of many authors in an anthology that she put out. Somebody sent me an email saying there was a call for submissions and she thought it might be up my alley. The theme is how Ms. Gaynor’s song “I Will Survive” has inspired us in one way or another. I sat down and wrote an essay about being knocked flat once or twice (or a million times) in life, and how I was trying to get my roar back.

Being in the book is a fangurl’s dream for me. Ms. Gaynor personalized my copy of the book and the CD she made to go with it. I’m a real geek when it comes to things like this.

TC: I discovered your work through Shock Totem. How did you get involved with the journal? Could you share a little about your journey from contributor to contributing editor to editor emeritus (so to speak)?

MMY: I wrote a black, funny little story called “Murder for Beginners”. It was one of my very first sales, actually, to a new and intriguing dark fantasy magazine called Shock Totem.

The staff was nuts. Ken Wood, the editor, sent this awesome rejection letter that was irreverent and hilarious. I later found out that he had originally rejected “Murder for Beginners” but the other staff liked it enough to fight for it. Thankfully mob… er, majority rule is how Shock Totem works.

I started hanging out on the forums. It was the first forum I ever frequented, and it was just a lot of fun. The staff and I hit it off beautifully. After a while, they asked if I would be interested in coming aboard.

It was a big decision, quite honestly. I loved the staff and the stories and the magazine, but I was afraid that it would take too much time from my own writing. I was also afraid that the dark subject matter would get to me. But ultimately I decided to jump, and it was one of the very best decisions I ever made. I loved it. Loved all of it. Seeing things from the other side of the desk was amazing. Staff became family for me. Shock Totem became a huge part of my life.

But things change. I have three kiddos now, and two of them are medically fragile. Three kids are so much more difficult than two. I started publishing a little bit more, and I realized that I was being stretched too thin. I was sick all of the time. I was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. I was dropping balls left and right. I really felt like a failure.

I realized that I had to make some changes to keep myself healthy in every way. I started cutting things out. Eventually I realized that I needed to let Shock Totem go, and it was really tough. I miss it every day. But it’s time to focus on writing novels full time. Everything has a season.

TC: I recently had to make a declaration that if it wasn’t about family, my own writing, or Toasted Cheese, I had to let it go. You’ve just done something similar. Do you feel freer and more productive yet or is an “overstretched” element hanging on?

MMY: I admire you for making that commitment. I know it isn’t easy.

I hope to feel freer. Right now, I’m still exhausted and over-committed. I don’t prize my time like I should. I need to be more selfish with it. Right now I dole it out left and right and then I’m surprised when I look at the clock and it’s midnight. I’ve done things for everybody else, but what about my manuscript? ARG!

TC: You belong to a writing group. Is your group face to face or online? What does it give you to belong to a group? What happens in your group (writing talk, commiseration, editing help, brainstorming, etc.)?

MMY: My writer’s group is called The Illiterati, or The Interdimensional Wombats. Don’t ask, because I’ve long since forgot how that all came about.

Yardley2We meet face-to-face in the Wombat Lair every Tuesday for about three hours. And we do everything. Read each other’s work. Brainstorm. Edit. Fight. Eat pizza. Hold write-ins. Celebrate birthdays. We’re family in every sense of the word. We even argue like it, sometimes.

We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We know each other’s potential. Our main goal as a group is to make sure that we don’t let each other send something out that’s subpar. Anything less than our best.

Ideally, we’ll all move to a commune together. We’ll raise bees, grow our own vegetables, and hold writer’s retreats at our place. There’s an island in Chile that would be perfect for us. You know. After we buy it for twelve million dollars.

I’m also in a secret online group called The Pit Crew. It’s cobbled together by a few Illiterati, some members of Shock Totem. My literary nemesis takes part. There’s another horror writer whom I adore. This one is much more laid back. More quick reads and minor suggestions. Questions about the business.

The Illiterati is out for blood. The secret Pit Crew is backup. Though I guess we’re not secret anymore. 😛

TC: That makes me want to do an evil laugh and rub my hands in little circles.

Do you have an Ideal Reader? Is it a real person or a construct? Describe the person or audience for whom you write.

MMY: I actually wrote Nameless for my friend, Janyece. We’ve known each other since we were two or three. She’s my oldest friend. So in that sense, she was my first and only Ideal Reader. I’ve never specifically written for somebody before.

Yardley3Well, perhaps that isn’t true. I write the book for the characters. I write as though they’re reading, and I’m telling their stories. My short story “Black Mary”, for instance, is about a kidnapped little girl. Am I telling her story honestly enough? Truthfully enough? Delicately enough. Am I handling the situation with the respect and tenderness that it deserves? I’ve come to the realization that people identify with the characters and situations, especially the dark, painful ones. Sure, I’m writing about a person that doesn’t exist, but the pain she experiences is real. I’ve been astounded at some of the emails I’ve received, saying how people identified with characters, especially Montessa from Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love.

So I write to her. Montessa and Mary and Azhar and Reed Taylor and the characters I’m writing about. It’s perhaps a bizarre way to do it, but keeps the story true.

TC: Tell us about Nameless, which comes out this month. Who are your main characters and what do they want? What’s the journey they undertake?

MMY: Ah, Nameless! Nameless is one of my favorites. I wrote this very quickly, originally. I was writing a chapter a day for my friend. Then I lost two of my triplets at birth, and I couldn’t work on anything for a bit. It was a joy to come back to, when I finally did.

Luna Masterson has been able to see demons from a very young age. Everybody thinks that she’s crazy except for her father. He checks out while she and her brother are still fairly young, so they’re growing up on their own.

She’s mouthy. She rides a motorcycle, partly for the thrill and partly to keep people away from her. Sorry, there isn’t room for anybody else on here. Them’s the breaks. But she loves her brother, Seth, fiercely, and especially his baby girl, Lydia. She’d do anything for them, and she does.

Seth is very organized and logical. His ex-wife was a beautiful and vindictive woman named Sparkles, and she left Seth and Lydia for another man. So he’s trying to pull himself together, keep a job, and raise his daughter by himself. That’s where Luna comes in.

Reed Taylor is one of my favorite characters of all time. He’s a recovering addict who doesn’t see demons, but he falls for Luna. He has his own secrets.

And Mouth is a demon of some import, fairly high in the demonic hierarchy. He’s hanging around Luna for his own reasons. He and Reed Taylor loathe each other. I love putting them together and hearing the retorts fly.

They’re a diverse group of people. Ultimately, they’re all lonely and they’re trying their very best. They’ll get it wrong, of course. But they’ll also do some things right. If Nameless had a tag, I’d say it would be “Love hurts.”

TC: You’ve written several short stories, published a collection of shorts, and now you’re putting out novels. Do you have a preferred story length?

MMY: I adore flash fiction. It appeals to my short attention span and it allows me to tell several stories versus telling one story in a novella or novel. But in a longer piece of work, you get to explore things in a way that you can’t in a short story. It’s allowed to be a little more lush. I really enjoy that.

I think I’ll always think in short stories, but novellas and novels are my new playground.

TC: Do you write on a regular basis or as the mood (or your schedule) allows?

MMY: Excuse me while I sit in the corner and laugh uproariously.

TC: Yeah, every writer likes that one, along with the advice to “write at least (random word count) every day” when there are full time jobs, parenting, illness, and life in general competing for your time.

MMY: I would love to write every day. Ideally, that’s the case. And I try. But things always seem to get in the way. So I write as my schedule allows. I’m always in the mood. Writing is what I want to do more than anything else, besides spending time with my family. But real life seems to demand its time, too.

TC: You’ve said that you write quickly and passionately, then go back and give the pieces a couple of light polishes and that’s it. Have you always worked this way or is it a method you’ve developed to suit your work, needs, or time schedule?

MMY: Not only is it the way that I work, but it’s the way I live my life. Whatever project I’m doing at the time, I’m 110% into it. Passionately, wildly. It consumes me. I throw everything I have into it, and do so until something else comes up and interrupts. Then the flame cools and I can go back over it with a more refined eye later.

Short, intense bursts, and then reality. I’ve always done this, and it works well for me.

Yardley4TC: When I read your collection Beautiful Sorrows, I was moved by its magical realism, how you handle it with a light touch while it’s intrinsic to the stories. Do you find readers to be excited, put off, or a combination of both when they encounter something like a talking star or river?

MMY: Of course every reader is different. Some really seem to like the delicacy of magical realism. Pixie eggs grow in the corner of windows. The desert leaves footprints as it stalks around your front door. Boys hang stars, naturally. I think there’s charm to it, and some readers really seem to enjoy the sweetness.

Then again, I get readers who are very vocal in their distaste. There needs to be a reason for the pixie egg. Why do they grow there, exactly? Is it the humidity? A nexus? A blessing or curse? It drives some people crazy that these things aren’t explained. “So that guy just walked through the wall and began brushing her hair? How does he do that? Why?”

Their brains are beautifully mechanical. Gorgeously logical. That isn’t how my mind works. Dig too deep into the meaning of things and it loses its magic. Don’t tell me why. Simply show me that it happens, and I’ll follow you there. I want to believe.

TC: Speaking of magical realism and genre, your stories have strong horror elements, maybe even a bit Gothic or outright romantic. In terms of genre, do you like to color within the lines or do you like something a little more like watercolor that runs and blends together? Also could you tell us about “whimsical horror”?

Yardley5MMY: “Whimsical horror” is a description that I made up. My work isn’t tra-la-la light and it isn’t straight-up horror. It’s stuck somewhere in the middle in a genre that I’m told doesn’t exist. I needed a way to describe it quickly so people’s eyes don’t glaze over. So I found the phrase that was most apt, and “whimsical horror” was it.

Your description of watercolor that blends together is beautiful. And I think that’s how I write. I write what I find lovely and/or horrifying at the time. I find that horror and sorrow and beauty are closely linked. They all cause this type of exquisite pain. I also find that writing helps me work through my current thought processes and issues of the moment, so naturally my emotions come to the forefront. Horror, despite the stigma that is associated it, is all about emotion. So I find that lovely.

TC: You say that the main characters in Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu are “wonderfully, beautifully broken people.” When creating characters, do you have their flaws in mind from the outset or do they develop as you work?

MMY: Lu had a fire within him. Montessa was dead, only her body hadn’t caught up with her soul. They were going to fall in love, and it would be wonderful and tragic.

That’s all I had when I started. I’m a pantser to the extreme. I have a gem of an idea and then sit down and write. The characters are fleshed out as I go. Ha, even the plot is created as I go! I have no idea what’s going to happen. In my favorite novel that I ever wrote, I didn’t know if the main character would live or die until I wrote the final chapter! So I don’t have their flaws in mind when I sit down to create. I’m as much of a reader as I am a writer. I sit at the keyboard and I’m excited to see what’s going to occur in the story that day.

TC: Two themes I find consistent in your work are hope and love. Is this a conscious statement you’re making with your work or something else, like an extension of your personality that naturally comes through?

MMY: I want there to be hope in the story. Of course, my idea of hope is usually a little different than most people’s. One of the guys in my writer’s group, Ryan Bridger, and I got into a friendly little brawl about my definition of happy endings.

“All of my stories have happy endings,” I said. “They’re all about hope.”

“Which happy ending?” he said. “The one where they all die?”

“They don’t all die!”

“Or how about the one where she’s abused, freezing to death, and possibly crazy?”

“She escaped, Ryan. Doesn’t get much happier than that.”

“What about the one where—”

“Just shut up, okay? Shut. It.”

I guess what I’m saying is that life is bleak. It just is. But we’re survivors. Humans are resilient. There’s always a silver lining. Always something worth striving for. I hope that’s something that always comes through, because it’s something that I very much believe.

TC: You seem to be a natural creatrix, not just with words but with food and you’ve tried knitting (i.e. “stabbing …beautiful yarn with sharp sticks ”). What are the last few things you’ve made that didn’t involve words?

Yardley6MMY: Oh, I love to make things! I make all sorts of things. I like to work with paper, so I make a lot of cards. I also make different types of jewelry. I especially like to work with stones. Wire wrapping, beading. I made a few sets of really fun dragon horns. I love baking. Trifles. Cakes. I make my own Twix candy bars, and my own peanut butter cups. In fact, one of my favorite things was getting all of the horror writers to help me make peanut butter cups at 2:30 in the morning at Killercon convention this year. We didn’t have any rolling pins so they crushed up the graham crackers with tequila bottles. It was definitely memorable!

I like making things. It really makes me happy. Really gives me joy.

More Mercedes:


14-01

Imaginable Horror

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror.
Apocalpyse Now; screenplay by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola; based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness

Horror fiction might seem to be everywhere these days, from prime time TV to sparkling vampires. Truth is that horror is probably the oldest form of genre fiction. Some of the earliest English-language fiction has horror elements. Today’s Young Adult sections are full of horror-tinged series (and have been as long as “young adult” has been on the shelf). Horror is for everyone, to some degree.

Think of early short stories, novels, and films. Horror is almost always the first genre storytellers use (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Frankenstein, short 19th century films by Georges Méliès). It hits us at our most primal points, which is why horror so often uses or implies sexuality as well as the horror itself. The Count Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel is hardly a romantic figure but the metaphor of vampiric possession as sexual awakening has caused the character and his ilk to evolve into Byronesque figures. Gary Oldman’s “old” Dracula in the Francis Ford Coppola film is closer to the novel’s description while his “young” Prince Vlad is what audiences responded to and closer to how vampires are portrayed on screen and page today.

Horror binds us together, like the group of kids who have to work together to defeat a boogey man or the humans who work as a team to defeat the invading aliens. We’re all on one side and the horror is on the other.

Passed down for generations, horror stories and urban legends serve as warnings that serve to protect or inform. The story of “Dead Man’s Curve” can remind a teen driver to slow down when you get to that spot the locals call “Devil’s Elbow.” Don’t forget: if you go parking with your sweetheart, you’re likely to get home and find a hook hanging from the car door handle. Listen around a campfire of elementary-aged scouts and you’ll hear tales of mysterious creatures that lurk in the very woods around you.

What is horror?

Horror is written to scare, horrify, or unsettle the reader (see our Writer’s Glossary). There’s no set of rules for antagonists, situations, etc. Horror can be subjective simply because what frightens Reader #1 might not frighten Reader #2. You’re not even limited by your ending; it can be upbeat (they get away!) or downbeat (they all become cyberzombies!).

Your objective as a horror writer should be to get into your reader’s gut as well as her mind. The most successful horror stories literally haunt the reader, sometimes to the point where the reader is torn between walking away to regroup versus finishing a compelling story.

You can say anything with horror. You can speak out about a social issue, give advice, correct a slight, live out a fantasy—all the things you say with any type of fiction writing. You can put any other element with horror—think romance or humor, for example—and it will work. These two examples work particularly well with horror because they are so basic to humanity.

I was taught (in health class of all places) that there are really only three human emotions and that everything else falls under them: love, anger, and fear. Sounds like the building blocks for a horror story, doesn’t it? Don’t feel that your horror story—or the characters in it—is limited to only expressing horror. Horror is the chilled spine around which your story wraps. Your characters can express love, joy, anger, and desire all while experiencing fear, uncertainty, or even madness.

Horror, above all other genres, is about humanity. Horror forces humanity to face its one commonality: mortality. When we write horror, we hold that mirror up to humanity and force it not only to acknowledge but to accept the fact of mortality.

What horror fiction isn’t is a story with horror elements stuck in for fun. Horror readers are a fun and generous lot but they can spot this in a second (as can editors).

Understand the reader

Like all genre fans, horror readers have expectations that should be met. With horror, this is particularly tricky as people—including editors—define horror in myriad ways. Some readers love “splatter” horror with lots of gore and violence whereas other readers despise a horror story that wants to look like a blood-soaked film.

The best rule of thumb is true for horror as much as any other type of fiction: write what you would want to read. If you’re writing to publish, horror journals and anthologies will provide guidelines for you to let you know if your story is right for them.

As is true in all fiction: show; don’t tell. This is especially true in horror. Horror won’t work if you tell the reader he should be scared. Your goal is to weave a tale that gets under his skin and makes it crawl. Bring your reader along for a thrilling ride rather than put on a show for him to watch.

Different things are scary to different people

My six-year old son has innate fear of spiders. He’s not a fan of bugs in general but the very mention of a spider will send him screaming from the room. As a Florida native, I have yet to meet the bug that creeps me out (and am therefore the designated bug killer in the household). So I could read Charlotte’s Web and be fine whereas my son would consider it a horror story.

This isn’t to say we can’t identify with the horror (Frankenstein’s monster, King Kong). You’re not limited to the victim’s point of view when writing horror. Using the horror as a narrator or empathetic element could be chilling for your reader.

One of the guidelines we have in Dead of Winter every year is not to use clichéd monsters as the antagonist in a story. We have seen too many vampires, werewolves, zombies, and people who don’t know they’re dead. It’s not that we don’t like these horror baddies; it’s just that they’re so rarely fresh. We’ve found that ghosts, for example, seem to get writers to be more creative simply because there’s no standard definition of “ghost.” If you want to use these classics, think of new ways to present them. It’s fine if your vampires sparkle in the sunlight. To some people it’s ridiculous but to some it’s a fresh take and a long overdue addition to vampiric canon. The Incredible Hulk is a variation on a werewolf. Think outside the Universal Horror films when you’re deciding what these creatures are in the world you’re creating.

Bad choices

Bad choices are essential to move fiction forward, especially in horror. Why else would the teenager, knife clutched in her trembling fist, continue up the stairs toward the boogey man instead of simply running to the neighbor’s house to call 9-1-1? Because her bad choice not only moves the story forward but it also triggers our protective instinct. Then again, jaded readers might think that if you’re making an obvious bad choice you deserve what you get, Character. But what if there is no good choice? Make sure your characters have reasons—or at least excuses—for what they do.

As the creator, you get to choose what’s in the darkness beyond each fork in the road. Maybe your character hears scratching at the window. He can decide to investigate or to hide deeper in the house. If he goes to the window, he could be attacked or distracted. If he hides, he could become trapped.

So long as your characters are active and resourceful, you can keep a reader along for the ride. If your characters are idiots, your readers might stay with them but start rooting for them to meet their ends. If you’ve ever watched a lazily-written horror film with a group of people, you’ll find the tide turning toward the horror picking off the weak rather than rooting for the potential victims to get away.

One way horror writers get off the hook with characters’ choices is that our characters’ decisions don’t necessarily have to be rational or realistic due to the fear clouding their judgment. This might happen in other types of genre fiction (for example, a character making a poor choice due to being blinded by love) but horror readers tend to be forgiving because this fits in with human nature. Making bad choices is part of human nature as well (see any daytime talk show or court show) and when you compound them with being made under the duress of fear, you can get away with a lot.

Don’t forget that your horror—be it a monster or a vague sense of unease—is also a character. It has motivations, limits, choices, and what it does is under your control. Think of what the horror wants, what it will do to get it, and what the stakes are should it fail or succeed.

What to show and not to show

When Bruce the animatronic shark didn’t function properly, Jaws director Steven Spielberg had to come up with a way to have a shark in his shark movie. So the shark was represented by its dorsal fin, by an actress whose character’s demise opens the film (she was pulled back and forth by ropes below the water), and by yellow barrels jetting across the surface of the sea. Spielberg later said, “The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen.” In other words, the shark—the horror—became scarier because it existed in each audience member’s imagination rather than being onscreen.

All horror readers expect to be frightened or disturbed. One advantage written horror fiction has over horror films and TV is that we can draw as little or as much of the horror as we like, allowing readers to fill in the blanks. Think of how your mental picture of a character changes once a film of the book comes out. We have every physical detail of the character filled in.

There’s a word for horror that shows violent detail: spatter/splatter. If that’s what you want to write there’s no shortage of journals whose editors and readers love it. That said, don’t assume that all readers want blood and guts strewn across the page. There’s more to horror than that. Even within the fanbase, there are degrees and limits as to what people want to experience.

Can you go too far in horror? Ask yourself if anything is “too far” in any kind of fiction. If you fear where your story wants to go, follow it. Don’t worry about being able to shine a bright light into dusty corners. It’s more interesting if you’re on the last hurrah of a weak set of batteries.

So how do I start?

Writers get inspired in a lot of ways, especially horror writers. A horror writer could find inspiration in an antique shop, a bakery, a pet store, an insurance office.

Write what you find frightening. Someone else is also frightened by it. It could be spiders, clowns, or pocket squares. Write it well and when you get uncomfortable, push further into that discomfort. It’s fun to scare yourself and how often do you get the opportunity?

Horror hinges on humanity. The horror can be as fantastic as you can imagine but it should touch something in the soul of the reader. Horror can be as fantastic as your imagination allows so long as it has a root in genuine humanity to anchor it to our world and to your reader.

Horror is about choices, reactions, and fear. Stakes may be high or low. The monsters may be without or within. Horror is the human condition at its most vulnerable. Horror readers accept that vulnerability, going along for a roller coaster of a ride. Part of your job as a horror writer is to make them feel like once the ride is done, there’s something following them home.

Final Poll Results