Wednesday, October 31, 2012


I used to read a lot of horror anthologies when I was about 10 or 12. There was quite a vogue for them in the early Seventies, and it was a bad habit I easily inherited (along with most of the books that first got me into it) from my elder brother. I still have strong impressions of many of them, such as the Frighteners and Frighteners 2 collections. I was also a big fan of horror films in my childhood - regularly staying up late on Friday and Saturday nights to watch seasons of them.

Hence, many of the short stories I've penned intermittently over the years were experiments in this genre. Since it is Halloween today, I thought I'd share the outlines of some of these (and provide a few notes on where the ideas came from).

Still Waters
The new boy at school is shy and introverted, and finds himself ostracized or bullied by most of his classmates. He tries to build a relationship with his chief tormentors by joining them in their weekend hobby of fishing, but they spurn him and drive him away from their favourite fishing spot by the canal. Soon, though, the boy finds a solitary fishing spot of his own, and starts bringing photographs of impressively large fish to school each Monday. The two bullies at first dismiss his stories of fishing success, joking that he has bought the fish at the fishmonger's. But, intrigued and jealous, one weekend they decide to stalk the boy, to see if he does go fishing - and where. They disappear. The boy is slowly becoming more confident and outgoing - it could be due to the satisfaction he derives from his fishing hobby, or the removal of the bullies. However, there is still a certain awkwardness about him, a reserve and secretiveness that his teacher finds disturbing. Suspecting that he may be suffering domestic abuse, she tries to befriend him, and to discover more about his weekend passion for fishing. Eventually he agrees to take her with him to his secret fishing location one Saturday afternoon. It turns out to be a tiny, stagnant pond in the middle of a wood - the kind of place where you wouldn't expect there to be any fish at all, certainly not many big ones. But this 'lake' has a guardian spirit, a ferocious demon which rises from the waters to accept the boy's latest sacrifice - much more satisfying than his first one - and to reward him with another fish.
[A lot of obvious story archetypes here: the isolated child, the bullies, the exaggeratedly motherly teacher; the expected victims, and the unexpected victim. But the key inspiration for this was a series of public service advertisements they used to run on TV when I was a kid warning us against playing near landfills and so on where there might be pools of water of unknown depth and with possible entanglements of rubbish beneath their surface. These were seriously scary ads, and the pools of water shown were made to seem very, very sinister - positively demonic. These ads may well also have been responsible for my enduring reluctance to learn to swim.]

Morning After
A man wakes with a hangover after a heavy night of partying. He tries to piece together his disordered memories of the night before, troubled by sensations of guilt and shame and disgust. He is troubled also by his extreme physical symptoms, particularly the odd numbness in his mouth. He slowly recalls that he made some callous remarks that drove his girlfriend to break up with him. And when he staggers into the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror... he realises that he later cut out his tongue in self-chastisement for this.
[A lot of my story ideas in this field start out with a 'What's the worst that could happen?' question. In this case, I started off not thinking of writing a horror story, but just going through the exercise of trying to describe a really bad hangover, in a broadly humorous tone - which somehow suddenly spiralled into very black humour. Many hangover descriptions emphasise how odd your tongue feels: I took that idea and ran with it.]

The Tacklebox
A man strikes up a casual conversation with a stranger in the bar of a small hotel in the woodlands of the American north-west. He asks if the stranger is on a fishing holiday, and why he has brought his large tacklebox into the bar with him. The stranger is at first very defensive, suspicious of these enquiries and unwilling to respond. But, after a few drinks, the two men start to develop some rapport, and the stranger suddenly feels an urge to unburden himself. He has for years been a Sasquatch hunter, and he has finally obtained conclusive proof of their existence. He had observed a large female burying something in a forest clearing, and some hours later, when he felt the coast was clear, he had returned to the spot to investigate. He discovered the buried object was a miscarried foetus. This he now had with him in his tacklebox, which he wasn't going to let out of his sight. In the early hours of the following morning, there was a sudden loud commotion in the hotel that woke up several of the guests. The stranger's cabin had been broken into and ransacked, and the stranger himself had disappeared. But the police could find no evidence of foul play, and concluded that the stranger had probably trashed the cabin himself after overindulging in drink or drugs, and then run away in shame. The man who had been talking to him the night before told the officers that the stranger had had quite a lot to drink, and seemed to be somewhat mentally disturbed - but chose not to elaborate on the story he had been told. Sneaking a peek over the crime scene tape into the cabin, he noticed that the tacklebox was open on the floor, empty. And later that morning, he found in a corner of the  dusty parking lot one very large footprint - which he decided to cover over.
[I had long been intrigued by the possibility of trying to write something about a traditional sort of monster - and a monster that is believable, that perhaps really does exist. And I liked the idea of taking something like the Sasquatch and highlighting its human qualities - not having its violence be just an unexplained feral rage, but motivated by grief, maternal protectiveness, and respect for the dead. I also have a particular weakness for unreliable narrator devices, where we encounter the implausible or supernatural elements of the story secondhand through someone else's account - and share our protagonist's scepticism, until some additional evidence is presented. This idea came to me while I was Greyhounding across the States in the mid-90s, and having a lot of odd conversations with short-term travelling companions. The initial impetus came, in fact, from a Stephen King story I had just read at that time, in which there was a line about a man clinging to a suitcase as if it were the dearest thing in the world to him. What, I thought, could make someone hold on to a piece of luggage so obsessively? Oh, I know!]

The Forecast
We follow an office-working drone through a typical day: unsatisfying job, overbearing boss, boorish colleagues; cheap sandwiches for lunch; a long commute home on crowded subway trains; and then a lonely evening at home mechanically watching TV. At the end of the mid-evening news, the weather forecaster comes on and cheerily announces that "Tomorrow will be similar to today." Realising the awful truth of this statement, the man goes upstairs and swallows all the pills in his medicine cabinet.
[That line does seem to crop up rather a lot on British TV weather forecasts, and I have often found it deeply depressing. Here I was fascinated by the idea that it is the mundanity of everyday existence that is truly horrifying, rather than ghosts and monsters. And also by the realisation that, when you're at a low ebb, a very little thing, something seemingly quite innocent and inconsequential, can prompt you to do something terrible.]

Bad Behaviour
A man is acutely pee-shy: he can't bear to be in a public toilet with anyone else. Attending a wedding reception in a very upmarket hotel, he finds that the ballroom toilets are always too busy, so he sneaks upstairs in search of an empty toilet, and finds one in an obscure annexe that contains only an exclusive private dining room. He is just about to relieve his bladder when a very fat and very drunk man lurches in, and leans against the wall a couple of urinals down from him (our protagonist also has a morbid horror of fat people - and drunk people). He finds himself trapped in his ultimate nightmare, too embarrassed to leave, but unable to pee while the fat drunk man is standing next to him - and increasingly desperate to empty his painful bladder. The fat man burbles obnoxiously, wretches and belches, and pees all over the floor. Our protagonist is disgusted, but paralysed - unable to react or move away. Another diner comes into the toilet to assist the fat man, and shoots our man a suspicious, sinister look. The fat man begins to vomit profusely. Our protagonist's disgust reaches new heights. But then he notices something strange in the fat man's vomit, a recognisable piece of undigested meat - a piece of meat that looks horribly like part of a baby's hand. The second diner notices him noticing - and this is very bad. The Cannibal Club is strictly invitation only.
[I like the notion that real horror exists in the mind, that it is our social hang-ups and phobias that usually cause us far more acute anxiety and distress than actual physical threats. So, I loved the idea of trying to write a story about being pee-shy. Then I thought, how far can we take this, what other similar anxieties can we pile on this poor chap - horror of obesity, of gluttony, of drunkenness, of boorish public behaviour, of vomiting? And then a brutal reimposition of perspective: all of that is really pretty trivial compared to cannibalism, compared to the possibility that these drunken oafs might be about to kill you for uncovering their secret. I am not pee-shy myself; but I could produce quite a long list of 'Story ideas that have come to me in a public toilet'.]

Not Like Us
A man walks in a park, waiting to rendezvous with his fiancée. He stops to rest on a bench for a few moments, next to a harmless-looking old woman. He soon regrets his decision. The woman proves to be quite deranged, and proceeds to explain to him her paranoid ideas. She has since her teens been a spiritual healer, believing that she can see auras around people which help her to diagnose their health problems. Recently she has noticed more and more people who have no auras. She believes they are some kind of automata who are infiltrating human society with a view to a global takeover. She doesn't normally share these fears with anyone, but she feels that the man has an especially trustworthy aura. And she is becoming worried that 'they' are on to her: she has been noticing the aura-less automata looking strangely at her, and she thinks she is being followed by mysterious men in dark suits. The man finds it difficult to pull away from the woman, after she has flattered his aura like that. And although she is obviously mad, she is surprisingly lucid and cogent - she spins a persuasive tale. Nevertheless, he is very relieved when his girlfriend comes into view and he can finally make his excuses to part from the old lady. He hears a sigh or gasp from her as he starts to walk away, and glances back for a moment. She is staring at his approaching girlfriend, her face white with horror; and as she catches his eye for the last time, she mouths the words, "No aura!" The man laughs it off, and walks away with his girlfriend. But a few minutes later he notices the old woman being escorted out of the park by two men in dark suits...
[Lots of cliché elements here, of course: alien invasion, sinister 'men in dark suits', the person who may or may not have a gift of second sight. But there are two distinct seeds to this story. One is, as in Bad Behaviour above, social anxiety: if we find ourselves buttonholed by a nutjob, how can we extricate ourselves politely? The second was the notion that women in general - and, perhaps, our partners in particular! - are essentially unknowable to us, so fundamentally different from the male gender that they are in effect an alien species. Many of my stories arise from posing myself a question. In this case, it was, "What could make you doubt the person you feel closest to, the woman you love?" Some madwoman on a park bench?? Well, maybe... And that, for me, is the true horror here: not whether or not the alien invasion conspiracy is real, but simply the fact that the protagonist is induced to start distrusting his girlfriend.]

The Years Slip Away
Back in the 1940s, a young man enjoys a few beers with his friends. He has just recently got out of the army after wartime service and returned to a well-paid civilian job. And he is full of excited anticipation because tomorrow he is getting married. He feels that this has been one of the happiest days he has experienced in a long time, and he realises that an important new phase of his life is about to open up. He goes to bed full of hope for the future. When he wakes up, he feels that something is very wrong - but he is weak, confused, he can't think clearly. He gets up and walks over to a mirror on the wall - where he sees that he is now in his seventies. Last night he suffered a stroke which wiped out the last 50 years of his memory.
[Perhaps I don't really like horror stories that much, because most of the ones I've written have actually been just regular stories about ordinary lives - that are transformed by a dark twist at the end. And this is a uniquely personal horror for me: the fear of being mentally compromised by a brain injury of some sort, and in particular of having something impair my memory.]

The Meat Locker
An astronaut is woken from cryogenic sleep by his ship's computer. The computer tells him that it has woken him because his cryogenic unit was about to fail. Unfortunately, the ship is still many decades away from its destination, and the computer is not authorised to release any of the ship's food stores to him. The ship is carrying many thousands of passengers, whose object is to set up a colony on a distant Earth-like planet. All the ship's food stores will be needed on landing on this new world. The man has been saved from asphyxiation in a faulty cryo-chamber, but will now inexorably starve to death. Unless... The computer reveals to him that in one of the passenger compartments the life-support system for all the cryo-chambers has failed, leaving their hundreds of occupants dead, but still frozen. The man isn't convinced that he is yet willing to contemplate cannibalism to stay alive, but he breaks into the compartment to investigate the situation there. Unfortunately, he wasn't aware that, while in flight, the cryo-compartments are protected against intrusion by automated laser turrets. The ship's computer is deliberately waking up passengers one by one to conduct a social psychology experiment on them as to whether they can be induced to attempt to resort to cannibalism; it has developed a multiple personality disorder, and is wagering against itself as to whether certain subjects will or won't succumb.
[I wasn't sure here whether to try to explain the computer's homicidal madness or not. This is, of course, inspired by the HAL 9000 episode in 2001; and I found the absence of explanation for the computer's violence in that somewhat unsatisfying (the novelization does make an attempt to explain it, but is not wholly convincing). I considered describing how the computer had sustained some damage which disrupted its personality circuits and its morality failsafes. But I was more attracted to the idea that it had simply 'gone mad' through boredom after several centuries of having almost nothing to do. I wondered if I could establish a convincing logical framework for this murderous little game being somehow not contrary to its moral programming (Asimov's Laws of Robotics, and all that): it had become fascinated with the idea of wielding the power of life and death over humans, and frustrated at not being able to kill them directly; but this scenario enabled it to allow them to get themselves killed, without contravening its programming. Eventually, I decided it was simpler - and more unsettling - just to end with the computer having a conversation with itself about which 'subject' to wake up next. This would demonstrate that it had definitively gone mad, and there didn't seem to be any real need to describe the mechanism of how this had happened. It can be argued that this is a superfluous twist anyway, since this situation is already quite horrific enough even if the ship's computer is still operating normally.]

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