The Girl from the Dream: JO

Ever wake up from a dream and think, “Hey, that’d make a killer story/character/movie?”

Ever actually attempt to write that story/character/movie?

I did it. It…wasn’t easy. But I now know anything is possible, and today I’m celebrating the release of JO, the story of the girl from the dream that started it all.

So first…the dream. It was of those early morning ones, where you know you’re waking up soon, and yet somehow it’s vivid and clear. In the dream, I was in my first college dorm room. My bed was across the room from the door beneath the only window. I was sitting on the bed.

There was a knock at the door, and it opened inward. There, in the doorway, was a girl. She had long, tangled hair, and a serious expression.

Beside her stood another girl, and she couldn’t stop giggling. But it was a nervous giggle, you know? Not at all a joyous, mirthful one.

The tangled-hair girl looked at me, sitting across the room, and she said something to the effect of, “I’m dead. Can you tell? Can you smell it on me? The death?”

And then I woke up.

Let me tell you, those two girls stuck with me like white on rice, and I found myself wondering for days and weeks: why was the girl dead? Who killed her? Why? And how was she there to tell me about it?

I can still see them standing there if I close my eyes. I grew obsessed with these two girls, and I spent countless hours trying to figure out the answers to the questions posed above.

It soon came to me that Jo was a mangled science experiment, a walking corpse running on a dying battery, and that she was desperate to find a way to save herself. That the story would take place on a college campus was never in doubt, but where and why was a bit trickier.

Where took shape in the form of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a place I visited and fell in love with many, MANY moons ago. Why? Well, I couldn’t exactly set the story in Charleston, where I currently live, could I? Jo was a walking corpse, for God’s sake! In the heat of South Carolina, she’d surely rot!

So no, I needed somewhere colder, somewhere with nooks and crannies in which the girls (and the bad guys) could hide. So a remote mountain college, then, in the dead of winter.

Thus, my snowbound story found a home.

It took a lot more time to figure out the answers to all the questions posed in those early days following my dream, and I’m certainly not going to answer them all here! I want you to find the answers for yourself! Because the girl with the tangled hair became Jo, the title character in my modern-day re-telling of the Frankenstein monster that releases TODAY OHMIGOSH I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S TODAY!!! The giggling girl became Lucy, Jo’s best friend. Their story, in part, begins here:

From behind the door, Lucy groaned. “Come on,” she said, in a voice so muffled I could practically see her head buried under her fluffy, ragged comforter. “It’s too early. Leave me alone. Please.” Always polite, in her own, special way. That was Lucy.

I banged on the door, still afraid to trust my voice.

“Please please please go away, I said.” She was grumbling, whining, but at least she sounded more conscious.

I moaned. I couldn’t help it. It slipped out. But then I tried out my voice again. “Luce!” I said. “Lucy! It’s me!” I didn’t sound like me, that was for sure, but it was enough.

The door jerked open. “Jo? Is that you? Jo, what the fuck! Where have you been? We’ve been worried sick about you! Come in, come in! What are you doing? Whose coat is that? Eli’s been by seventeen times looking for you, he’s so worried. I didn’t call your mom, but I almost did. Where the hell have you been?” A mile a minute, that was Lucy. Finally she stepped aside to give me room to pass. “Ugh, you smell like ass!”

I looked at my friend as I stepped into her room. She was still muffled, wrapped up in her favorite blanket, with big, fuzzy pajama pants peeking out the bottom. From the way she squinted, it was obvious she didn’t have her contacts in. She was blind as a bat without them.

No wonder she let me in. I didn’t think it would be this easy to get inside.

“Get your glasses,” I said. “Please.”

“What’s wrong with your voice?” she said as she shuffled back toward her nightstand, where her black-rimmed glasses sat on top of a philosophy textbook.

“Put them on.”

She did.

“Now look at me.”

She did. Her eyes flew open, her own mouth dropped wide, and she stared. Stared. “Jo? What’s going on? What’s wrong with you?” Her voice rattled like tree branches in a wind storm. She stepped back, closer to the wall.

“Luce,” I said, my voice gravely and wrong. “Luce, I think I’m dead. Can you help me?” I reached for her. I wanted to be held, to be told everything would be okay. I stepped closer, arms still outstretched.

Lucy’s mouth opened wider as if to scream, but no sound came out. She stumbled away until the backs of her knees struck her bed frame. Her legs gave out and she wobbled dangerously. I reached a hand out to catch her and the parka slipped from my shoulders, revealing all of me.

Lucy fainted.

Naked again, I caught her and lowered her gently to the bed.

I should have expected that, I thought as I headed to the bathroom. After catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I realized I’d faint too, if faced with a walking corpse.

JO by me, Leah Rhyne, releases today! For more information on her tale, visit Goodreads, Amazon, Smashwords, iTunes, or Barnes & Noble. Or you can visit my web site any time and say hello! I’d love to hear from you!

 

Story in the Round – Part 4

The air whooshed from my lungs in a single heartbeat, and I remembered Danny’s warning once again.

Watch out for fairies and wraiths.

I opened my mouth to speak, but Danny pressed a finger to my lips. His eyes were wide, vacant; his mouth hung slack until his own lips parted in speech.  He turned to Aria and dropped to his knees. “We’re at your service,” he said, bowing his head.  “We must obey your king.”

I gasped. What is he doing?

Aria’s lips curled into a satisfied smile. Moments earlier I’d have called her beautiful. Now she was intimidating.  Frightening. She seemed to have grown taller, more solid. Her eyes burned into Danny’s, steady and unblinking.

“Danny,” I hissed, knowing the fairies could hear me, wishing they couldn’t. “Danny, what are you doing?”

He ignored me, and reached for Aria’s hand. She gave it willingly, and he pressed his lips to the fine, white flesh of her inner wrist, his eyes never leaving hers. The fairy’s skin pulsed with light from within, her tattoos dancing as though alive. Their steps matched almost exactly the steps Danny and I had danced moments before.

Alek stepped closer to me. He smelled of cinnamon and something else. It was a rotten, carrion scent, and I resisted the urge to cover my nose. His hand gripped my shoulder. “And you?” he hissed, his mouth suddenly too close to my ear. His breath was hot and wet.  “Are you at our service as well?”

Get away from him!

A voice – my mother’s voice, emerging  as though from a long-forgotten dream – pierced the chaotic hum of my sudden panic, commanding me to obey. I stepped back, out of the ring of smoke, away from the thump-thump-thump of the drums, away from the dancers, the fairies. Away from Danny.

Alek hissed.

The world trembled as I emerged from the smoke. It blurred. When it came back into focus, Danny and the fairies were gone.

“Danny,” I cried, peering into the smoke. My cry was swallowed whole by the drums, by the fire.

“Danny!”

The dancers continued dancing to the beat of the drums, and I was left alone in the darkness.

****

Our shoebox house sat at the foot of the hill atop which the bonfire burned. It was to there I ran, hoping to find Danny sitting on the front stoop, waiting for me, as if the whole night had been nothing but a terrible dream.

As I sped toward the glow of the single-bulb porch light, the fireflies around me ceased their nighttime frolic. The thrum of cicadas quieted and the rhythmic calls of bullfrogs silenced.The stars winked out one by one by one, and, finally, the porch went dark.

The warm, velvet air of the summer night turned cold.  My skin blistered with goose flesh and I shivered against the breeze. My house  – our house, mine and Danny’s – became shadow in the night, nothing more than a darker spot against the darkness.  I approached, and saw a flicker, a movement on the front stoop.

“Danny?” I called. My heart leaped. Maybe it was just a dream.

Then the flicker began to glow. It took form, shape, and my mouth dropped open.

“Mom?”

Listening to Fear

I remember reading once that we are born with two innate fears: loud noises and falling.

Every other fear we have is learned behaviour.

Scary Mask 10-24-2009a
“Let’s go kiss some babies.” Scary Mask 10-24-2009a (Photo credit: Brendan O’s)

I’m not saying go test this out by dressing up as a grotesque monster dripping blood and cooing at some babies to see if they giggle or scream, but when I think about the things that scare me, they are things that I’ve learned.

I learned to fear spiders when I watched Arachnophobia at the age of four. I learned to fear clowns when I saw It at age eight, and I learned that dolls are creepy when I watched all the Child’s Play movies when I was six or seven. All of those things stuck with me because filmmakers and writers created something truly frightening.

creepy Chucky doll lashed to a bike
Yup. The little freak still creeps me out. Creepy Chucky doll lashed to a bike (Photo credit: massdistraction)

For years, I would read R.L. Stine’s Fear Street books before bed and sleep just fine. Rotting purple flesh, decomposing cheerleaders, bodies hanging like pendulums — none of that scarred me for life, but it taught me to respect fear.

Fear is an emotion that’s made out of many series of psychosomatic impulses. It’s mind and body, working together to give you a wiggins. It’s why the image of a foreign finger tracing an ice cold line down the back of your neck is probably creepier than a knife by itself. Fear is something that is built up in the mind and expressed in responses of the body.

The great writers of horror, like H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, understand that creepy is a state of mind. Before you can make an audience jump or shiver or perspire, you have to lure them into your world. Here are a few of the ways to do that.

Creepy House on Mill Dam Rd
Creepy House on Mill Dam Rd (Photo credit: vork22)

Isolation

Are the scariest scenes set in crowds of bodies? Not usually. Most real horror involves isolation. Most often this is physical, but sometimes it is mental isolation. One of the first films I remember truly terrifying me was The Blair Witch Project. In that film, the three protagonists are isolated in the Maryland forests. Once it becomes clear that something scary is going on, they can’t seem to find their way out. They are in almost total isolation, stuck with a malevolent force.

This theme is also true in one of my new favourite shows, American Horror Story. In the first season, you have a family isolated in a home filled with dead people. They can’t sell it, and they can’t afford to move. In the second season, the show bridges both the inherent physical isolation of an asylum, but also integrates the mental isolation of the asylum’s masters and those imprisoned within its walls. A great example of mental isolation is the film The Craft, where the protagonist isn’t necessarily physically isolated, but the tension between her and her coven gradually increases her mental isolation from her family, her classmates, and her love interest.

Baby socks
Baby socks (Photo credit: Being a Dilettante)

The Unexpected

Sure, the image above isn’t that creepy by itself. But what if I told you it was taken at a crime scene? That would bring to mind questions. Who arranged those socks like that, and why? Were babies harmed? The unexpected isn’t about startling people into jumping high enough to bonk their heads on the ceiling. The unexpected is about putting something safe and familiar in a hostile context.

Some of the most iconic moments in horror stem from something unexpected. A child twitching a finger and saying, “Red rum” over and over again — who doesn’t remember the first time they realised he was saying MURDER backward?

Museum Collections Centre - 25 Dollman Street ...
Museum Collections Centre – 25 Dollman Street – cages – grandfather clock (Photo credit: ell brown)

Toy With Time

Fear is closely tied to suspense. Both are an anticipation of something to come, though fear has a more negative connotation. As writers, we have the unique ability to slow time and stretch out moments. Where fear and suspense in film are often heightened by details and focus on one thing (a long dark hallway, or silence), in writing you have to tie together multiple elements to create a truly scary scene.

Time can be slowed by zooming in on one detail. A fluttering curtain when all the windows are meant to be closed. Or it can be slowed by concentrating on a protagonist’s emotion, like the slickness of sweat on the back of his neck. The real magic happens when you strike the balance of giving the reader just enough to pull them from sentence to sentence while drawing out the moment of reward as long as possible.

Military Cemetary

Repetition

When done with care, weaving in a repetitive detail to a narrative can increase suspense. It can provide a reader with clues about when it’s time to be scared. In cases where repetition is used with extreme subtlety, it can foster a sense of foreboding without the reader even being able to pinpoint the reason for it.

An example of using repetition is what was done in the film The Ring. By the time you first saw the video in the film all the way through, you already associated the phone ringing with death and violence. When I first watched that film with friends, the phone happened to ring at that exact moment. We all screeched — wouldn’t you? This is one of the more obvious examples of repetition, but it can be a very effective technique no matter where you aim on the spectrum of subtlety.

Creating fear in a reader is a daunting task. It takes drawing on your own experiences as well as an understanding that just about anything can be frightening if you give it the proper attention. As writers, our words and stories can take people beyond the simplicity of loud noises and falling to deep psychological disturbance and pulse-pounding terror. It’s all up to how you use them.

What are your first memories of fear? What experiences do you draw on when you write scary scenes? How do you twist the mundane to push the reader in uncomfortable territory and then over the line into fear?

On Writing Creepy Stuff

I love writing the dark stuff. Some writers say it’s too much, that writing brooding, deep, dark stories makes their moods correspondingly brooding, deep, and dark. I live for the macabre, and have since I was little.

That doesn’t mean my stories are unrelenting pages of creepiness or woe, though. (It just means all the other little girls thought I was a wee bit…strange. Anyway.) There has to be balance. I like to think of my stories like the rhyme about the little girl with the curl on her forehead:

“When she was good she was very, very good

And when she was bad, she was horrid.”

If you’re going to write in the paranormal genre, I think you should give it your all. If you want to venture into creepy territory, do it with abandon.

Enlightened, my urban fantasy which will be out in February 2013, deals with demons. I’d never written about demons before, so I broke out many a research tome (including ye olde standby, Google) to learn all I could about them.

Subsequently, I came to love them so much that I had a couple of ideas for prequels and side stories for major characters in the novels. This meant more research and more demon-creation.

People, let me tell you, I had fun. Maybe a little too much fun, because I began to have nightmares about my bad guy. In my head, he looks a bit like this:

Via aaronsimscompany

Needless to say, sweat-soaked pajamas had to be changed. And yes, that’s the demon from Constantine. (Which, by the way, is one of my all-time favorite movies. Watch it if you’re a horror fan like me—your life will be enriched.)

If you want to write scary stuff, you have my full support. Even if you’ve never done it before, I recommend jumping in with both feet. Read some of the masters like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Shirley Jackson, but don’t be afraid to take risks and really make the ghouls your own. Once you set foot into el creepo territory, you’ll never look back.

Happy writing, and Happy Halloween!