Brains Don’t Do Random, by Eric Witchey


Brains Don’t Do Random

Eric Witchey

Every year over Halloween weekend, I go to a group of cabins in the mountains on the banks of the Mackenzie River here in Oregon. There, a little over a dozen writers and I settle in on Friday night and write scary stories. We set the goal of starting Friday night and having at least one story ready to read out loud on Saturday night. Most years, pretty much every writer gets a first draft of at least one story. Some of the more practiced and prolific writers will produce as many as three in a twenty-four-hour period.

Every year, someone finds out about this event and tells me I’m lying. “Nobody can write a short story that fast.” My response is pretty simple. I say, “Okay.” Then, I go about my business.

Every year, someone else who finds out about it says, “How can they do that?” There’s a hell of difference between the first person and the second. For the second person, I settle in and answer as best I can.

As near as I can tell, there are 4 components to being able to write 1 to 3 short story first drafts in 24 hours. The people who show up at Ghost Story Weekend have all four. If they don’t and they show up again, they generally have all four by the third year of attendance. Here they are:

  1. You have to believe it’s possible. See it happen, and you start to believe.
  2. You have to have internalized a sense of what makes a story. This is easy. If you grew up in a family that uses language, you automatically internalized a sense of story by the time you were three years old.
  3. You have to abandon the concept of making it good or getting it right. This is easy if you’re still four. It’s harder if you’re an adult; however, it can be practiced.
  4. You have to train yourself to produce in order to discover possibilities. See 3 for caveats.

The next step of talking to a writer who asked the second question usually involves them wanting to know how to practice 3 and 4. That’s a hard question to answer since no two writers are quite the same, but brains do have some common characteristics. Brains are all about recognizing patterns. Where no pattern exists, the brain will create one. Anybody who has looked at the night sky and said, “Look! There’s Orion!” has acknowledged this ancient and wondrous phenomenon of the human brain.

So, back to number 2. The brain knows what a story looks like. The brain knows you want to make a story. Now, you can plan a story. In fact, I often do. I’m not in any way suggesting that you should or should not. What I’m trying to convey is how 15-17 writers can, and often do, produce 1-3 completed short fiction drafts each in 24 hours. We are not talking good, though some are quite good. We are talking fun, finished, and shared. See number 3

Where was I? Oh, yes. The brain knows what a story looks like, and the brain will create a pattern even when no actual pattern exists. So, the real trick is telling the brain you are going to create story so that it starts trying to create story patterns out of the stuff around you. There’s a bit of a ritual to this. You can make your own ritual. I have one I use every day, which I will share shortly. However, the ritual for Ghost Story Weekend is kinda like this:

  • Decide to go.
  • Sign up to go.
  • Participate in the meal planning.
  • Start paying attention to ghost stories and all things Halloween.
  • Show up, have communal dinner, laugh, talk stories, write like hell, talk more stories, walk, more communal food, get anxious about the Saturday deadline, write like hell, print it out no matter how bad you think it is, and run to the reading.

I know. That’s doesn’t sound like much of a ritual. No arcane symbols were drawn (probably). No goats were slaughtered (certainly). No virginity was lost. (as far as I know). Still, the brain experiences all this as intention. Ritual establishes intention. The brain is internalizing these things as a set of instructions to get its shit together and start building ghostly stories in order to be able to create, produce, and deliver in a community where the tribe agrees this behavior is a good, proper, and rewarded. Human brains respond to tribal values. They get this stuff. They love a good fire and a little shaman tale-telling. Even more, they love to tell the tale.

Okay, but how do you practice at home to get the brain to play this game on demand. For me, it’s been about getting up every morning and doing some speed writing. I pick a writing concept I want to practice and three random topics from a long list I’ve built up over the years. The topics don’t have to be from a list. They can be anything. The first time I did this, it was a dirty coffee cup, a newspaper article I had just read, and a picture of a submarine. In the example below, the number came from rolling ten-sided dice. I go to that number in my list and use that topic. Here are the topics from this morning:

Concept: Push Pop (a.k.a., moving in and out of backstory in this case); 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Next, I check my watch or start a timer. I’m going to write as fast as I can for fifteen minutes. In that fifteen minutes of, literally, non-stop key bashing, I will try to execute the concept and touch all three random elements.

I start pounding keys in my attempt to touch each random thing while executing the concept. I don’t force the concept or the items. I just keep them loosely in mind while I let myself move into the mental space of allowing free association to flow through my hands. If typing is too slow, do this longhand. If you are going to use dictation as your dominant mode of composition, dictate. The goal isn’t to get it right or do it well. The purpose is to internalize patterns (concepts) while seeking to strengthen your flow state connection from brain/heart to your mode of composition.

In terms of Ghost Story Weekend, the concept would be Ghost Story.

The random topics can’t be tolerated by the brain. The brain needs a pattern, so it will almost automatically create one. Because of that, and no matter how impossible it seems, the mind will occasionally deliver the beginnings of an actual story. The more often you do this kind of thing, the more often it will deliver a story start. You don’t need to look for it or try to make it happen. When it does happen, you’ll know. You’ll be pounding away and have no thought in your mind of actually writing a story. Then, suddenly, you’ll go, “Huh. That’s a story. It just needs X, Y, or Z, and it’s a story. I’ll be damned.”

Of course, about then, the fifteen-minute timer will go off. You’ll think, “Shit. I was just getting rolling.”

So, you turn off the timer and keep rolling. I never place a limit on how much time I spend. I am always willing to continue beyond the fifteen-minute exercise. However, I do require at least the fifteen minutes.

Note: If you try this, keep in mind that it is very important to go as fast as you physically can. I tell people, and I mean it quite literally, if you don’t know what to write, write, “I don’t know what to write. I can’t believe that asshole wants me to do this stupid exercise…” Keep writing like that until something shows up or until the timer goes off. Over time, it gets easier. That’s the point.

Now, this ritual I have translates nicely into Ghost Story Weekend. At this point in my life and development as a writer, I get about three story starts per seven sessions. I get about one I really like per seven sessions. Add the ritual of intention that goes with attending Ghost Story Weekend, and the number of starts per seven sessions goes up. Normally, I need maybe three random topic sessions to find the first story I’ll draft at Ghost Story Weekend. Once I have one, others seem to come more easily, which I think is because my anxiety about getting the first one is gone. I can relax into the fun of the experience.

How do the other writers do it? I’m honestly not sure, but I think the combination of ritual, tribal values, and the brain’s innate need to find or create pattern is a part of the process for every writer in attendance.

The bad news is that this year’s event has been sold out since July. The good news is that the people who make this event happen have many other events coming up. Check out

Here’s this morning’s warm up draft from the random topics above. When my time ran out, I couldn’t quite see a story, but I could see that the map, the compass, the cold, the idea of a planned life–all of these could be used to support a theme about a good life being built from the moments in which we are truly lost. We’ll see. I saved it. I always do. You never know when the brain will wake you up at 3 a.m. and demand that you complete the pattern it came up with while you were trying to sleep.

Concept: Push Pop; 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Sixteen miles was eight more than I had intended. The truck welcomed me a little after sunset, and the late winter freeze of falling night washed through the valley and my skin. Even before I reached the truck, my body betrayed my fear, relief, and nascent hypothermia. Still, my ego made me look around to see who else might have parked in the sno-park—who might see the late day cross-country skier returning to the safety of his truck and wonder what he had been doing out in the back country so late into the afternoon that another half hour would have seen him returning to the shelter of park, truck, and warmth in a racing skin in temperatures nearing 0.

I knew it was stupid. Part of me even knew it was cold, hunger, and dehydration, but pride kills people, and I was a person. Nobody saw me clatter over the plow piled snow ridge and the edge of the lot. Nobody saw me fall, strip off my skis, and hobble to the rear of my truck, and nobody saw me drop my ass onto the bumper of the truck even before I made an attempt to get my car keys from my fanny pack.

A vague, self-observing part of me laughed at my vanity. Another, less vague voice, smiled in relief.

Hubris? Pride? Narcissism?

Hypothermia. I started to shake in earnest, and I knew I needed to get my keys, get into the truck, start it, and crank up the heat before I would be able to put my gear away.

The fanny pack didn’t cooperate. Twisting it around to the front was a gymnastic workout. Finding the zipper took hours. Gripping it was like using frozen sausages as tweezers to pick up a contact lens.

The morning had been so pleasant—so full of joy and promise. A new home. A new job. My first outing in a new set of mountains. This was it—what I had worked so hard for, for so long. I had entered the world of productive white-collar citizens, and I was enjoying the benefits. I could afford the truck after seven years of bicycle only living. I could afford new skis after hand-me-downs from racers and always being five to ten years behind competitive equipment. I had new toys and a new skin instead of my coach’s high school skin.

The morning air was clear, crisp, and green wax cold. For me, it was perfect. Blue skies and squabbling scrub jays welcomed me to the Northwest forest. My trail book and maps were in order, and I had plotted my route—a short four miles, a shakedown route. An easy ski on a beautiful day.


My hands shaking, the zipper finally gave. Digging in the pouch gave me a moment of panic. The keys weren’t there. If I had lost them on the trail, I was going to have to hike out to the main road and hope for the kindness of strangers.

Wax fell from the pouch. My compass. The emergency blanket that would have been my coffin if I had not lucked out and been directed toward the car by a couple back-country campers. I’ll never forget the concern and condescension on their faces—especially hers. I wished I had met her under different circumstances. He wasn’t worthy. He was a dick, and he would treat her like shit. Anybody who would tell a lost, cold man in the mountains that he was stupid didn’t deserve the kindness of a woman who shared her water and pointed out position on a map.

The keys fell out. Painfully, I groped in the snow for them. They couldn’t have gone far. The lot was paved.

Finally, my sausage fingers retrieved them. I managed to open the truck, settle in, start it up. A little afraid to look, I made myself check the gas gauge.

It was fine.

I had survived, and I would go home, but I would not tell the tale. Not ever. Not to anyone.

The first mile had been glorious. My body sang with the joy of stretching out my stride, finding my lungs and my heart rhythms, letting the winter song of roaring silence wash over me and sooth away the anxieties and frustrations of a week of dealing with code while surrounded by executive liars and bean counters who had no idea what went into the magic we did at our workstations.

The quarter mile sigh released all my memories of the week into the mountain air in one long, frosty misty cloud that I left behind.

I found my rhythm, and I knew I could keep it for an hour, which would bring me back to the truck around 11. I’d be back in town by 1. Shit, shower, and shave, and I’d meet Liss for an early dinner and a film. In the back of my mind, she was the next piece of my puzzle of life. I could already feel her next to me, my companion, my mate in life and all the struggles of building family and future. The vision was forming, and the trail ahead was clear.

-Stopped Here-


Childhood Terrors

By K. Ferrin

At the edge of a small town deep in the mining country of the upper peninsula of Michigan is a place called The Pits. At least that’s what everyone under four feet tall called it.

The Pits looked like two lakes on either side of an earthen road, cupped gently in the arms of two hillsides. Anyone from outside would look at the steep tree-lined hillsides and the steely grey water and find it beautiful. But those of us who lived there knew otherwise. They were not natural lakes, you see. At least not completely. They were the collapsed water filled remains of what is reported to have been the greatest iron mine in Michigan.



Everyone under four feet tall knew the dark history of the mines. 100s 1,000s 10,000s of miners gave their lives in service to the mine, and untold more died in the numerous collapses that eventually turned underground tunnels into the deep water filled pits that exist today. In 1940 it collapsed again taking a 150-foot section of heavily used roadway with it, killing no one at least a hundred people as it went.

None of the bodies were ever recovered.

The Pits, you see, were bottomless. No one had ever been able to determine their depths, though researchers tried for ages. The earth around them was pitted with miles and miles of abandoned and now underwater mines. And there were creatures that lived there. They were the reason children drowned in the Pits every year, and why their bodies were never recovered. We all knew someone who’d seen them, flitting shadows just below the surface of the water, or a glimpse of movement out of the corner of an eye. Mermaids, of a sort, but with mouths full of razor sharp teeth and a thirst for human flesh. Preferably those under four feet tall. That or ghosts. Also with a preference for eight year olds.

It turns out the history of the mines, for those of us over four feet tall, is not nearly as exciting. While almost certainly some miners lost their lives on the job, there is no history of these mines being any more dangerous than any others. By the time the mines began collapsing they had been long abandoned, and while one car did indeed plummet into the Pits when the road collapsed, there were no fatalities. There are still flooded tunnels beneath all that water, but The Pits are only about ninety feet deep. Not exactly fathomless.

But those stories stuck with me all these years, locked away in the vault of a writers’ mind, only to emerge decades later in the pages of a novel. Feral mermaid type creatures with mouths full of jagged teeth waiting for the fateful misstep of a careless sailor.

As adults we are terrified less by the monsters under the bed and more by the monsters that  walk amongst us and seek to do us harm. But as writers, it is worth plumbing the depths of these childhood terrors for our writing. At some point the innocent and terrifying ‘what if’ of childhood is replaced with the adult certainty of ‘not real’. But deep down inside, all of us are still terrified of the dark unknown. Reaching back into stories from our childhood can help us tap into those things that most deeply frighten and disturb us. Excellent fodder, I think, for shady writers such as us.

It’s Alive!

This week’s post is a little different than usual, because I finally get to announce the release of ShadowSpinners: A Collection of Dark Tales.  What started out as a flickering idea in this writer’s fevered imagination is now an actual physical thing! (We’ll save arguments regarding wether or not an ebook is an actual thing for later.)  For yes, we do have a print version, and it is truly a lovely thing to hold and fondle.  With the invaluable aid of ebook wizard Pamela Herber and print formatting genius Matt Lowes, ShadowSpinners can now offer up some of the fiction we’ve been ranting about for the past two years.  Thank you also to Cheryl Owen-Wilson for the gorgeous artwork.


I am profoundly grateful to be part of such an amazing group of writers.This has most definitely been a labor of love and I hope our enthusiasm for the project will warm your soul even as our stories chill your spine.

And now, so you’ll know what I’m raving about, here’s my introduction to the collection:

The tag line for the ShadowSpinners blog is “when nice people write bad things.” The writers whose works are included in this collection are nice people, mostly, in the daylight. But get us alone with our characters and bad things tend to happen. We’ve all written stories that have scared the wits out of friends and have earned us the question, often asked with a nervous chuckle, “Where on earth do you get these ideas?”

That is indeed an excellent question. Several of us have addressed it on the blog, (here, here and here) but while pondering how to introduce this rather eclectic collection, it came to me once again. Why do nice people write bad things? And what exactly makes a tale dark, anyway?

Within this volume you’ll find a broad compendium of styles, ranging from humorous to thoughtful to outright horrific. Yet there is a common thread, a dark undertow that explores the mysterious depths of the human psyche. The description “dark” can mean so many things, but in this volume the sense of something obscured, veiled by shadow, underlies each story, whether we are hearing the whispers of ghosts over the phone line, pondering the weight of a hollow existence, saving young souls from Satan or battling terrifying alien forces in the void of space.

Often, the darkness, the ghost, resides in our own minds. And when faced with an outside force of evil, an equal and opposing force may arise from within. Whether our characters will meet evil with evil or with an overcoming, triumphant strength is the question at the heart of many of these stories.

If you’re the sort of reader who likes to know what to expect, this might not be the volume for you. However, if you enjoy a rousing good yarn populated by fascinating characters in challenging situations, prepare to enjoy yourself.

The print version on Amazon

The eBook on Amazon

What the Hell Is Subtext? by, Eric M. Witchey

PunchingImpliedWhat the Hell is Subtext?
by Eric M. Witchey

I’m a lucky guy. A couple of writing groups in and around San Antonio, Texas recently pooled their resources to fly me to San Antonio to teach. Some were publishing professionals. Some were aspiring professionals. All were wonderfully kind and accomplished. While there, I even got to do some touristy things.

So far, I’ve written in general terms about things that were fun for me. Readers may now be thinking, “Get to the point, Eric.” However, if that first paragraph were in a short story or a novel, the reader would be, in the back of their mind, wondering what it means in the context of dramatic development. If, as would probably be the case, it added nothing to the reader’s sense of tension or character change, they would get disgusted, drop my story, and never look at another one of my tales.

Go, readers!

That’ll teach me economy in language. More importantly, it will teach me to figure out ways to imbue even apparently mundane passages with some additional layer of meaning, subtext.

Normally, I teach subtext by introducing students to a seminal article in discourse analysis. I then extrapolate from that article into the use of implication in dialog. Once that has become clear, I demonstrate how “subjective interpretation of setting through the character filter” can create an underlying sense of changing character psychology in the reader’s experience. That all takes a day or two, and it takes a fair amount of practice.

Did you catch the subtext? I’ll translate. “This set of very specific skills takes time and practice.”

However, I’m writing a blog entry, so I’ll try to give you the quick and dirty. I stopped short of calling this a shortcut. It isn’t. The time and practice is still necessary.

For my first bit of sleight of hand, I’m going to replace the term “subtext” with another term I think is more descriptive of the function of a number of techniques. The term is “implication.” Writers manipulate the text in order imply things that are not actually part of the explicit text.

Above, in the paragraph beginning with “Normally,” I described a longish process that wasn’t actually necessary if I just want to tell you what I’m about to tell you. However, I did put it in the blog entry, which tells the reader that I am either just horribly wordy or was implying something. The reader tries to fit what I wrote into their growing sense of the purpose of this blog entry. Since I then talked about a shortcut and the technobabble paragraph is more than I needed to write about the shortcut, the reader tries to find additional, underlying meaning. If they can’t, they think I’m stupid. If they can, they think I’m brilliant. In truth, they don’t even actually know they are looking for that subtext. The brain does it automatically.

In fiction, if a character says more (or less) than they would normally say or than they actually need to say in order to respond to their circumstance, some other meaning is being conveyed. The reader unconsciously examines text in conjunction with context in order to draw the special meaning from the text.

In practical application in fiction, it looks something like this.

“Honey,” he said, “I need to take the car to Bend this weekend.”

“The Metzgers are having a lawn party on Sunday,” she said. “Jennifer will be sixteen, and her oldest brother, the Army doctor, is in back from Afghanistan. Can you believe he wants to meet our daughter?”

She said a lot more than she would normally say in response to his statement about the car. In fact, all she had to say was, “Okay.” Of course, she might also have said, “No. We have a party to go to.”

Instead, she said, interpreting the subtext:

You have other responsibilities this weekend. Show some respect to our friends. Demonstrate that you at least pretend to care about their daughter. If you can’t pretend to care about our friends, then think about the returning soldier and how important his homecoming is. If you can’t get your head and heart around that, then at least think about the happiness of your own daughter.

To get all that from a couple lines of dialog, the reader needs a little more background. In fact, the reader needs the same things we need in the real world in order to interpret the wonderfully obscure things we say to each other. The following is a classic example is of people communicating by using implication:

“Honey, what time is it?”

“The ice cream truck just went by.”

The answer does not, strictly speaking, answer the question. However, both people know it is four o’clock because they share history that involves the ice cream truck.

Consider once more the car and weekend problem from above. In order for the reader to get the full impact of the indirect statement made in response to the statement about using the car, the reader has to be aware of the same shared experiences of the characters that allow the characters on stage to speak to one another in indirect ways.

We use this kind of implication all the time when we talk. In fact, it turns out that when we are trying to cooperate and get something done, we speak pretty directly to one another. If you and I are building a dog house together, I can say, “Give me that hammer.” Your answer might be, “Okay.” It might also be to hand me the hammer. Either way, it’s pretty direct and clear.

However, if you and I have some personal history with home projects not getting done, you might answer differently. Consider this dialog couplet:

“Give me that hammer.”

“And the paint brush, broom, and shovel?”

Now, suddenly, you are telling me I have a lot more to do. Additionally, neither one of us is having a good time.

Turns out that we figure out what these kinds of non-responses mean because they differ from direct, cooperative responses in one or more of the following four ways.

  • The response says more (or less) than is needed.
  • The response doesn’t appear at the surface to be a relevant to the initial statement or question.
  • The response isn’t clear.
  • The response somehow lacks the needed quality to be a full response.

The short list is quality, clarity, quantity, and relevance. Even so, this kind of communication relies on shared experiences. Those experiences can be shared within culture, community, family, or individual association.

Given the above, getting dialog to be indirect so that it implies more than is said is a pretty direct process. Start with something direct and revise it until is drips with additional meanings.

Draft 1:

“Take me home,” she said.

“Okay,” he said.

Draft 2:

She says, “My bedroom ceiling is more interesting than these people.”

“That guy,” he said, “spent last year in Tibet.”

“And my bedroom is warmer than this field.”

“They’ll light the bonfire in a minute.”

“Two cuddled under quilts is the best warm.”

“Oh,” he said. “I’ll just say goodnight.”

In draft one, the two people are being cooperative and direct. In draft two, one is being too clever, and the other is being a bit dense. A lot more is going on in terms of the psychological interactions of the desires of the two people. Of course, the passage could be improved—a lot. That’s not the point. The point is the implied meanings. In this case, the reader gets them because of shared experience in cultural context.

If, as writers, we understand our characters, their growth, their needs, and their backgrounds well enough, we can manipulate the text so that multiple layers of meaning appear from this kind of indirect interaction.

Narrative, when compared to implication in dialog, is both the same and different. If the narrator is external, the narrator can be seen as engaged in a sort of dialog with the reader. What has come before in the main story or in back story can be used as shared knowledge (the ice cream truck). However, narrative is usually more powerful if it has moved into the heart/mind of character.

The following two passages represent a transformation from one of the great traps into which writing instructors fall, focusing on the use of “concrete details,” to the use of those same details to imply more about the life of the character than is strictly accounted for by the text.

Yes, concrete details are necessary. However, students of the written word often focus too tightly on the detail and miss the point that the story is about a character who inhabits the fictional world.

Passage 1 (concrete details):

He entered through the south door and paused. He wore J. C. Penney docksiders, pale blue argyle socks, tan cotton Dockers, a burgundy, button-down Bugle Boy shirt, and a thin gold chain around his neck. His build was medium and toned. He had a sharp jaw line, straight nose, blond hair and blue eyes. He wore a businessman’s haircut. He looked to his left. He looked to his right. He crossed from the door to the dining room table and placed a small pile of envelopes on the table. The table was made of stained cherry wood veneer over a pine base. In places, the veneer was worn through and the pine was visible. The table had brass screws holding it together. Three chairs were mission, two were Victorian, one was a folding steel chair. He walked around the table, called his wife’s name, and exited the room through the north door.

Passage 2 (implication through the use of details):

Squeaking hinges announced his arrival and reminded him that Sharon had a honey-do list for him this weekend. He crossed the threshold into neutral ground, the dining room, paused, and turned his head to better catch noises coming from the kitchen. Concentrating on the sounds of the house, the ticks and creaks and movement of air through dry, old cracks in the walls and floorboards, the mail he held nearly slipped from his sweating hand. He gripped it more tightly and crossed to the dining room table, careful to tread lightly on the white-rubber balls of his topsiders. He sorted the mail so the bills were on the bottom then set the stack in a neat pile at Sharon’s place, in front of her martyr’s chair, the folding metal church chair she insisted that she use so no one else would have to be subjected to its indignity. He wiped his palms on the burgundy Bugle Boy she’d given him for his interview, then he thought better of it and checked to see if he’d stained the shirt with his own sweat. Satisfied that he was presentable, he rounded the table and headed for occupied territory–her kitchen.

I showed these passages to one of my writer friends. Their response was, “Eric, that’s just close, subjective narrative.”

Well, yes. It is.

That’s sort of the point of close, subjective narrative. We know the characters, their needs, their current desires, their underlying desires, their changes, their emotions, their back stories, their relationships, and their minds. Because of that knowledge, we can write in a way that implies many things that are not explicit in the text.

For example, we can write narrative that reveals levels of marital tension, the nature of personal fear, levels of social dominance, tacit agreements about control of territory, habitual behavioral dynamics, and the psychological underpinnings of two people who have driven one another to estrangement. Later, the reader will share this understanding with character and narrator. If done well, the reader won’t even know they have picked up on these cues. These things can then be exploited more deeply through indirect dialog and subjective narrative as a story moves forward.

The subtext of the opening paragraph, based on shared experience with my friends in Texas, is, “Thank you.”

I suppose I should stop now. This blog entry is late, and I have said a lot more than I needed to say in order to fulfill my responsibility to my cohort of shared bloggers.

Since I have written more than was strictly needed, there is subtext. The subtext is, to be explicit, that I believe this idea of implication (subtext) is very important for writers who want to enhance the reader’s experience of story.

Horror and the Quest for Identity or the Devil Always Gets the Best Music

by Stephen T. Vessels

At the heart of every horror story is the quest for identity. Whatever beliefs we hold, the unknown crowds around us from all sides. The biggest, scariest unknown is death. Who, or what, will I be when the line goes flat, the story ends, the lights fizzle out forever?

All stories have an element of horror in them. It’s in sacred texts, myth, Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce and Hemingway. It’s in Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and Sue Grafton. It’s in H. G. Wells and Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s even in romance – what will become of me if I am rejected, what, if I am accepted? Will I know myself or be consumed? What hell did Jane Eyre suffer to possess herself, what further hell to bond with Rochester? What is love anyway if not a bulwark against the darkness, a backwards finger at the dial of entropy?

It’s even in humor. Hermann Hesse wrote in Steppenwolf, “All humor is gallows humor.” Our worldly concerns become absurd in the face of death. The Dalai Llama pointed out that we don’t have to look any farther than the graveyard for commonality, and suggested we might do well to reflect more on that commonality, one and all.

Horror, as a genre, merits respect, because it addresses the unknown head-on, bluntly, without apologizing for its methods. Reality is harsh and brutal, and it takes more than a feather duster to examine it. Horror stories employ extreme and fantastic measures to render the crisis of identity in bold relief, not unlike the way Van Gogh exaggerated colors so that they could be felt. Nowhere is the inseparable bond between character and story clearer than in horror.

If the bond is compromised, it can be instructive. I finished watching Season One of American Horror Story a few nights ago and felt vaguely ill. I realized it was not because the ending was particularly “horrifying,” but because I felt jerked around, like I’d been taken for a lurching ride through a ramshackle Halloween house of horrors. The gratuitous shocks and flimsy plot twists left me empty to the point of nausea.

The Murder House season of American Horror Story is more akin to performance art than storytelling. The plot is really a vehicle for loading on historical, literary and film allusions, and the characters are props. The actors did their best to lift the material, and ornamented a disjointed narrative with sparkling moments. But a buffet of spooky shots and Hitchcock references does not a story make. I can’t care about characters if I don’t know who they are, and I only know who they are by being told a coherent story about them.

Who am I? What am I, moment to moment, particularly after I die? What if I am eaten by a monster and remain conscious while being digested? One might say that we are being eaten alive by time, every second of every day. What becomes of my identity if every comfortable association and circumstance is taken from me, peeled away like flesh, one agonizing strip at a time?

I used to own a mask carved by the Tsimshian Canadian sculptor Joe David. The mask is entitled “Lost in the Woods.” The visage it presents is entirely human, without any suggestion of an animal aspect such as most northwest coast native masks have. The wood, though masterfully hewn, is unpainted. Small, ragged bits of hide have been tacked to the wood, like peeling flesh, with the nail heads showing. The teeth, made of bone, are bared in a skeletal grimace. Horse hair, affixed to the upper perimeter of the mask, hangs down in a bedraggled state to frame the face. The eyes are circular voids. The depiction is of a person who has wandered so long in wilderness that everything has been stripped from them but the organic will to continue. There is no memory in those eyes, no identity, no belief, no thought or regret. Stimulus and response, that’s all that’s left. And yet, I am called to remember that I am looking at a mask.

"Lost in the Woods", Joe David. Photo: Wayne McCall

“Lost in the Woods”, Joe David. Photo: Wayne McCall

Behind that mask lies a story.

Fiction is the conscience of belief. Cosmological enquiry lurks behind every dark tale, from Godzilla to The Devil’s Rejects. And at the heart of cosmological enquiry lies the question of identity. No author addressed this more directly than H.P. Lovecraft when, in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” Randolph Carter discovers that his identity is but a particle in the mind of the idiot god Yog Sothoth.

Horror, as a literary form, can seem subversive, particularly if you’re worried what your children are thinking. It can seem disrespectful of everything that defines decency and respect and the foundations of polite society. In fact, it’s usually written by very nice, polite people, and I doubt well-written horror is any more likely to have an ill effect on a reader than the evening news.  It’s important to make a distinction between veneer concerns and what really bothers us, the deep inchoate fears that make us reach for pillows and partners in our beds at night. Who am I, in the grand scheme of things? Where do I come from and where am I going? This persona I hold together, from day to day, as my cells replace themselves and my body degenerates, what is its real shelf life? Does my consciousness linger beyond the grave, and if not do I exist at all? Am I – the I I perceive myself to be – simply the product of complex chemical interactions?

It is a terribly intimate question.

I feel the crisis of identity in a story only if the character is real. And the character cannot be real without a story. By the diverse subtle gestures that are the writer’s art, the character is animated in my mind, brought to life within me, resonant of the very existential conundrums that echo through my own beleaguered bones. I accompany them on their journey, and make it part of my own.

And when a character encounters a horror that brings them intimately into confrontation with the potential loss of self, I am visited, in the safe remove of my armchair, by an endearing chill. When the agent of death approaches through the mist, whether undead wearing a flowing cloak, lizard-like with acid blood, mythic with horns and cloven hooves, or wearing a trenchcoat and a fedora and holding a revolver, cue the music, because in that moment I am possessed by the thrill and wonder of the unknown.

I find my reaction telling. I want to know what is on the other side of that mask. One day I’ll find out.  And I’m going to put that day off just as long as I can.


Stephen Vessels lives and writes and prays for rain in southern California. In 2012 he received the Best Fiction Award from the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. His short story “The Butcher of Gad Street,” will appear in the upcoming anthology, “Equilibrium Overturned,” from Grey Matter Press. His short story, Doloroso, published by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and included in their anthology, “The Crooked Road, Volume 3,” has been nominated for the 2014 International Thriller Writers Award.

Whose Ride Is It?

by Eric Witchey

I read fiction because I love a ride through unexpected twists and turns.

Opening a new book is like settling in under rubber-padded restraints in the fiberglass shell of a tiny capsule shaking under the pull of a chain as it rolls up an inclined rail toward the peak of a hill beyond which lies the unknown.  With each word, my adrenaline surges. I anticipate the moment the chain lets go and I hurtle through time and space, pressed and pulled by the ups and downs and twists and turns of human experience molded by the g-forces of plot, sociology, and a cosmology I discover for the first time with each page turned.

It’s my father’s fault, this thrill addiction.  He put me on my first ride when he opened a dog-eared copy of A.E. Van Vogt’s “The Silkie” and read to me by the light of a camp fire.

That’s why I read.

I write for the same reason engineers build faster, scarier rides.  Somewhere along the path, the fascination with the ride became an obsession, and the obsession led to study and analysis of where each tiny, savored thrill was born.  The need to know how fast, how far, how much it took to make a scream erupt from the lips of a rider became a new kind of thrill.

But whose ride is it—the reader’s or the writer’s?

Every writer who has written a first draft has handed their work to someone only to see the tale evoke the same reaction as a ride in a wheel-barrow pushed by a limping man.  Of course, a first draft may have moments of scream generating power, but it also invariably has gaps and dead end forks in the track.  A reader thrown off the ride offers the writer no second chances.

During revisions, we writers often find the story has lost its emotive power over us.  No longer thrilled at the discovery of new hills, new twists, new nuances of character psyche, we may abandon the work or begin new work.  Often we assume the reader will feel the same absence of power what we feel, so we begin creating a new ride in which we can find new highs and lows.

This is a moment of truth for a writer. It is the moment at which the writer has to decide to whom the story belongs, for whom the writer is building the ride.

If the ride is for the writer, the ride is over.  There are no more surprises—no more thrills to be found in the writing.  The emotional power of the images in the writer’s head is complete, fully crystallized and experienced.  The writer has ridden the ride to its end, squealed in delight, screamed in fear, cried at the pain of sacrifice and the ecstasy of love born in their dreamer’s soul.  The writer is exhausted and ready to head for their favorite watering hole for a drink and a sit in the shade.

On the other hand, if the ride belongs to the reader, then the writer is just starting.  The writer knows where the reader should throw up their hands and scream.  Will the reader do it?  Will the reader cry?  Will the reader laugh out loud while sitting in a work place cafeteria turning pages to get to the next dip and the next twist?

Probably not.

About the time the writer is finished developing their own sense of the ride, the reader is only just beginning to be able see framework that suggests the possibility of a ride.  Peaks and troughs and twists and spins in the mind of the writer can be a long, flat track up on stilts to the reader.  It may be high and long, but it is ultimately boring.

To pour the adrenaline into the blood of the reader, the writer has to decide that it is not enough to ride their own vision.  They have to decide to make that vision live in every soul-catching, tear-wrenching, scream-generating detail in the mind of the reader.

To do this, the writer has to come back to the fiction with dual vision: the memory of the ride they have ridden and a self-imposed discipline of innocence that allows the writer to admit to only the images and evocations created by the words on the page.  This discipline requires that the writer ruthlessly revise the text to grab and drive the heart of someone who is coming to the story for the first time, someone who is caught in the restraints looking up the track to the peak of the hill and anticipating the best ride of their life.

The writer has to give up ownership of the ride and give it over to the reader so when the chain stops pulling, when the car hovers at the peak in a meta-stable moment of Newtonian decision, the reader looks out over the track unfolding below in hoops and twists and curves and loops, and the reader screams and reaches for the corner of the page to turn it.

We have to go back to the thing we have built and check every scene for rising stakes, to see that each character is affected emotionally by their experience on the page, to strip away words that flatten the peaks and fill in the troughs the reader craves.  We have to look past our own memory of intention and see how each word adds a beat to or takes a beat from the heart rate of the reader.  When a scene opens on a peak, it has to feed the reader into a trough and bring them to the next rise.  When a scene opens in a trough, it has to fly upward and spin and twist and dump the reader, screaming, crying and laughing, into a turn they could never have anticipated.

When every rider screams in delight, when the most stone-faced rider blanches and smiles as he takes a wobbly step away from the car at the end of the ride, then the writer can smile and head for the drink the shade and begin to dream a new ride, a bigger one, a scarier one, one that will set fire to the blood of a child inside the circle of magic light cast by a camp fire.


by Christina Lay

Every year about this time I partake in an annual ritual in which I retreat with like-minded folk to the foggy Oregon woods in order to conjure the dead.  No, I’m not a member of a satanic cult, but merely a writer and the conjuring is in the form of crafting a ghost story.  Every October, I send my mind wandering down the sort of dark paths a well-adjusted person might normally avoid.  Inevitably the resulting stories, when read by unsuspecting family members and friends, lead to the question “where on earth do you come up with these ideas?” The question is usually accompanied by a suspicious frown, a sideways glance, and a subtle increase in physical separation.

I answer with a sly chuckle because who doesn’t like unnerving those who’ve become complacent in thinking they know you?  But for the sake of this near Halloween blog, I’ll try to explain.  For me, only the spark of The Idea is the ghost, or paranormal entity, around which the conflict will revolve.  I need exert very little effort to come up with a vast array of things that scare me.  The harder part is coming up with a thing that scares me that I want to spend time with; some aspect of fear that beckons more than it repulses.  There are so many paths I have no desire at all to follow, or think about long enough to portray convincingly.  For to create the world of the ghost, monster or what have you, the writer must enter fully the world in which said monster exists, dwells, and dominates. This can be a fairly unnerving task. The better you do your job, the more disturbing it may be.  And yet, to write a scary story, I think we have to scare ourselves, at least a little.

The author scaring herself

The author scaring herself

Of course, ghost stories aren’t all about scaring the beejeebus out of the reader (though that’s certainly a bonus worth wringing one’s hands over in evil delight).  It’s not even all about fear and what scares us. Fear is actually a rather simple emotion.  The more intriguing story question is often, what becomes of the fear?  How do we respond to true terror? How does witnessing the impossible affect us?  Do we overcome horror or succumb to it? Do we fight or flee or become monstrous ourselves?  How does the world of daylight and hard shadows change for us? Do we change?  Does our perception shift forever? What does our reaction to threat tell us about ourselves? Do we rise above the sea of the unknown or sink beneath the waves?

When setting out to write a ghost story, the underlying theme is often not how to kill a werewolf or rid your beach house of undead occupants, but the aftermath.  How to take a simple survival response and twist it into something fascinating, bizarre, perhaps improbable but with just enough truth to undermine certainty.  Hopefully to reveal some hidden corner of the human soul we’d rather not see.

So while all sorts of fearsome scenarios dance merrily through my head in these pre-ghosting days, the real struggle is in finding the situation with the highest potential to lead me down a dark path I’ve never explored before; to find the character both strong and weak enough to tell the story, the one who I’ll torment and set in harm’s way; to choose a setting that will reflect and amplify the character’s predicament, adding delicious layers of creep, mystery, exoticism or sterility and then at last, at the black heart of it all, awaits the ghost.

I like to think of ghosting as an adventure akin to storm chasing or spelunking, only it’s our minds, our awareness, our emotional well-being that we risk as we wander further and further from the light, drawn to danger in spite of ourselves, ready to push our protagonist off a cliff while stepping precariously close to the edge ourselves.