My (Very) Brief Stint as a Ghostwriter

calvin-hobbes-writers-block

For a good while I was really interested in finding a job that involved creative writing to be my day job when I’m not working on my novel. I love writing, I reasoned, so it only made sense that more writing can only be good.

It turns out that may not be the case for me.  I certainly have every hope to be able to quit my day job to work on novels full time, but working on projects that are not my own doesn’t seem to work very well for me.

So, here’s the story:  A couple months ago, I got an email from the Utah workforce services website.  I had used the site a few months prior to try to find a job (my wife and I moved at the end of the year).  Part of it involved inputting desired fields, so naturally I put in writing.  Move the clock forward, and I’m reading an email stating that there is a creative writing job that had just been put onto the site.  I put off checking it out for a few days, feeling quite content with my new job (a credit union teller), but curiosity won out.

The job was for a company that hires writers for a variety of book projects.  The company then owns the rights to the books and tries to sell them to publishers.  The posting specifically mentioned fantasy, mystery, and sci-fi projects, so I thought the job might be right up my alley.  After emailing back and forth for about a week (making sure, for example, that I wouldn’t be doing something like signing over the rights to my own writing projects) I got an interview set up.  At that interview I was told that the company had openings for writers of a few projects, but only one of those projects was fiction.  The rest were for a nonfiction project dealing related to business, drawing lessons from a wide variety of people or things depending on the project.  My interviewer told me that, if I was willing, that I could be hired on for one of those books and then could be moved to a fiction project when another opened up.  The pay was by page, and the nonfiction project paid a little more per page than the fiction projects, so I told him that should be fine– fiction definitely was more up my alley, but I thought that writing for money would make me content to matter what I was working on.  Plus, the company was expecting a minimum of 10 hours of work a week, which I thought would work out fine with my job and my own writing.

I wish that were true.  About a week later I was sent a project, partially complete, that I was to finish over the next few months.  I set to work, but the topic– lessons from the richest men in history– didn’t interest me, and in spite of my best efforts, the level of research I had to do on each individual I had to write about resulted in my production rate being far too small.  I was ideally supposed to be producing around 3 pages an hour, but I was realistically doing only half that.  That meant low pay for a lot of mentally strenuous work.  I quickly felt frustrated with the project and that frustration spilled over to my other creative projects.  Simply, by the end of my time spent writing I either didn’t have time to work on Dark Art or just was too burned out to do so.

Also, I was sad that with how the writing job was setup I had no real part in the business side of publication.  The material I was producing could very well get published in a year, or ten years, or never– and I wouldn’t hear anything about it unless I stumbled upon it at a bookstore while passing through a section I don’t peruse.  I took the job hoping to get a better feel for what I’ll be dealing with when my novel is complete and publishable, but that wasn’t going to happen.  I also hoped to gain some connections in the industry, but once again I just emailed my material to one person, who made sure it got edited and that I got paid, so networking was out, too.

I lasted one pay period– two weeks– and was glad to get out.  It was a good experience in terms of learning what ghostwriting can be and learning that it is not for me.  I suppose I’ll be working something less exciting than writing until I can find a way to go full time as a novelist…

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Why I’m (Continually) Thankful for Brandon Sanderson

In the last few weeks, I’ve become even more grateful for the great writer Brandon Sanderson.  I’ve already given a brief dissertation on why his writing is awesome and why I find him to be an inspiration to my writing.Brandon_Sanderson  I’m going focus on two points here: firstly, I’m just going to talk about some of his other writing I’ve read in the past few weeks, and also I’m going to talk about Writing Excuses.

At the job I recently left I listened to a lot of books.  This was really my first notable experience with audiobooks instead of print books, and I must say that it can be an enjoyable way to experience good writing.  Overall I still prefer the convention medium, but audiobooks have really been great for making long stretches of repetitive activity much shorter and more interesting.  As I’ve mentioned in my other Brandon Sanderson-related post, I listened to the audiobook of his recent novel Steelheart, which was pretty well done, and to his novella Legion, which I thoroughly enjoyed listening to.  More recently I listened to another of his novels, this particular book a fantasy novel targeted for the YA audience.  Though I highly enjoyed this book, The Rithmatist, in its content, I wasn’t as pleased with the reading thereof.

As usual, hisrithmatist story and magic system for the book were both rich and unique.  The magic system, rithmatics, is based on chalk drawings and geometry, somewhat reminiscent of things like alchemical circles in Fullmetal Alchemist, though certainly more clear in what it does.  It uses circles drawn around the rithmatist, which serves as both a defense measure as well as the framework for additional lines or drawings which can be used to defend or attack.  One of the most intriguing elements of the system that tends to differ from other drawing-based systems is chalkings, which are combatant two-dimensional drawings that can to damage to rithmatic lines or living beings, and that there are numerous wild chalkings that are engaged in constant combat with the military.  The story is, naturally, closely tied to rithmatics.  Sanderson is thorough in how he deals out the implications of the magic system and how it has shaped the world in numerous aspects, including military, education, and religion.  I also liked the characters, even though they were clearly written for an audience a decade or so my junior.  I felt that they were pretty solidly presented in their youth.  I didn’t have the usual urge to roll my eyes that comes with much of YA literature, with writers clearly out of touch with what it actually is to be adolescent.  The setting was also one of the most compelling aspects of the novel, both in the school where most of the action takes place and in the world in general.  It is set in a turn-of-the-century America that, instead of being a single landmass, is a cluster of islands.  The sociopolitical history of the world is cleverly demonstrated in ways that are refreshingly subtle– for instance, to indicate a heavy Asian influence throughout Europe, the characters eat “Italian food,” which is noodles covered in a tomato-soy sauce and eaten with chopsticks.

So, as I’ve stated, the book itself is a pretty good read.  It seemed pretty clear that Sanderson intends to write subsequent novels, and I welcome that.  I almost certainly will not be partaking of them via audiobook again, however.

My qualms with the audiobook are fairly simple.  First, the reader wasn’t particularly compelling.  He sounded like a tired older man, which really didn’t work as the voicing character is a young teenager and also just made the story kind of boring.  Also, the book featured diagrams that served to explain elements of the magic system more clearly.  The reader partially explained what was in the diagrams, and there was a PDF with them all included, but it was a pain to stop what I was doing to look at them.

Next up I’m just going to touch on 01_elantris_ukanother of his books– Elantris.  I’m only at the beginning of the book, but I bring it up now because of how I’m experiencing it.  I’m listening to the GraphicAudio version of the book, which is a very different sort of audiobook than what I’ve grown accustomed to in the past few weeks, in a way that I feel is mostly positive.  Instead of just having a reader or two read the book aloud, the GraphicAudio version features a full cast recording.  Every character is voiced separately, as is the narrator, and things like dialogue tags are dropped.  There are also sound effects and implied dialogue, such as a person babbling on as the narrator states that the person wouldn’t shut up.  They claim it’s “like a movie in your mind,” and for the most part, it’s true.  It’s interesting to have a book presented almost like an old-school radio show.  There are a couple little problems I’ve had in the listening to this particular book, but they are relatively minor drawbacks when compared to how much more interesting the book is in this format than conventional audiobooks.  Specifically, I don’t like a couple of the voice actors (they sound too old or the like), and there are times when there is a crowd shouting or something that wasn’t mixed well enough to keep the narrator’s words clear above the din.

The last thing I want to mention in my discussion of the-hero-of-ages-by-brandon-sandersonmy recent reading is the final novel of his Mistborn trilogy.  I’ve already raved about how good the magic system and world is generally, but I just wanted to comment that the series’ conclusion is very impressive.  Everything comes together in unexpected ways that are, simply, brilliant.  He set up a number of very critical elements from the very beginning of the first book that stayed beneath my radar until he wanted to skillfully pull back the curtain and show what he’d been doing the entire series.  I even more highly recommend reading this series now that I’ve finished it.  Even the most careful reader is going to be surprised, and it’s simply delightful.  I am very eager to read The Alloy of Law, which is set hundreds of years later, in part because the original series is so good and also because I can’t wait to see how the important events that conclude The Hero of Ages have an impact on future generations.

I’m going to say it again: read Mistborn.  It has an incredible magic system, dynamic characters that you actually care about, interesting creatures, and vast (but not overwhelming) scope.

Okay, I’m done foaming at the mouth fromwriting excuses how good he is at writing.  Now, on to how good he is at teaching.

Writing Excuses, if you are not familiar with it, is a podcast about writing.  Brandon contributes, along with other Utahn writers Howard Tayler and Dan Wells.  So, a fantasy novelist, a sci-fi cartoonist, and a horror novelist.  There is also another regular contributor later, but I haven’t gotten to her contributions yet, as well as numerous guests including Pat Rothfuss, Brandon Mull, Tracy Hickman, and Steve Jackson.  In each 15-minute episode the podcasters discuss some aspect of writing, specifically focusing on helping new and aspiring writers improve their craft.  It’s a lot like listening to college-level creative writing class lectures, but I honestly think they are frequently better than the classes I’ve taken in that they bring in multiple perspectives.  These are all genre fiction writers as well, so the advice is targeted at the kind of writing that I do (and is thankfully free of the judgmental tones that often accompany professorial discussion of anything that isn’t “literary”).  I can’t understate how wonderful this podcast has been for my writing.  First of all, they talk about a lot of topics that are important to take into consideration in writing– everything from specific aspects of worldbuilding to how to brainstorm to giving characters individual voices– and also about the business side of professional writing– that it is being a small business owner, the importance of cons, what publishers look for.  The most I ever got about the business of getting published in college was essentially “always be submitting.”  That’s it.

Not every podcast has been super-relevant to my writing, but every podcast has been at the very least interesting to listen to.  I’ve never had any interest in writing card or board games, but I still was fascinated when they had Steve Jackson on.

The most important thing about Writing Excuses is that it has provided me a regular opportunity to think about my writing.  I’ve listened to it during my commute to and from my last job (total two hours of driving, which is why I no longer work there), so I spent two hours in which I usually did nothing thinking about my writing from numerous angles.  I’ve learned a lot about my characters and what I need to do in my current revision process of my novel– and I’m not talking just about line edits, I mean big-picture changes and refinements.  It’s been invaluable to me, and I’m already seeing that my writing is improving because of it.  It’s also good in that it reminds me, frequently and in no uncertain terms, that I need to set aside time to write.  I need that reminder and I’m thankful that the Writing Excuses guys have gone out of their way to provide it and their experienced advice to anybody who wants to download it.

Discovery Writing

I am a discovery writer.  I have both a great love for and great frustration with my writing process.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, discovery writing is figuring out what happens next in the story as it is written.  It’s writing with little-to-no outlining.  Writing by the seat of the pants, writing reflexively.

What I love:

  • Discovery writing is fun.  It’s all of the thrill of creating something awesome, plus the thrill of experiencing a new story, being along with the ride’s twists and turns.  It’s writing a book while reading it for the first time.  I must say, that is the biggest part of why I don’t outline or the like.  I love not knowing what is ahead.
  • The story quickly takes a life of its own.  Because it becomes its own entity (though one living in my head), it does things that I wouldn’t come up with if left to my own devices.  I don’t feel like I would be able to come up with the twists that the stories I’m putting into text form have on their own.  I know this seems like a weird idea– I am creating the story, after all, but I feel like if I’m trying to get it to conform to a plan, then I would miss out on far too many interesting arcs and directions that have happened organically in my writing.
  • My characters take on lives of their own.  One complaint I’ve heard from people who outline is that their characters frequently want to do things that they didn’t have planned for them.  Because I take the planning out of the equation I don’t have that issue, and they frequently surprise me in wonderful ways.  I feel that I don’t have the trouble of my stories being awkwardly forced into a storyline because my characters are making their own decisions.
  • My first drafts tend to come pretty quickly.  My first draft of Dark Art took, in total writing time, probably a quarter of the time I’ve put into it.  The story just kind of happened, and there’s hardly anything more thrilling than to have a little story world that’s taken form.  It’s the quick gratification that brought me into writing.  Now I just need to love the long haul more…

What drives me crazy:

  • Drafting.  As I’ve said, I don’t outline, but by the fact that I’m dealing with an existing story, writing later drafts of a story is very similar to writing with an outline.  In fact, it’s often more constraining than a list of points I want to hit in a story.  I love writing my first draft as a discovery writer, but when it’s time to buckle down and make my writing good I am out of practice in developing existing ideas and plans further.  Also, it becomes really difficult for me to jump from section to section, making changes early on to tie into something I’m fixing for late in the story or the like, because I’m in the mindset of writing a story from beginning to end, not sporadically as needed.  I’m experiencing this problem right now, as I’m working on a later draft of my horror novel-in-progress.  How I’m doing the drafting is inevitably going to result in several drafts more than I otherwise would need to do, so I’d better find a way to fix my approach at this point.
  • It’s really easy to get writers block.  Really, really easy.  I’ve found that because discovery writing is so much fun, whenever I hit one of the tricky spots that isn’t just “flowing right,” I stop working on a story/essay/blog post for much longer than I should.  Notice the time gap between this post and the previous one?  Yeah, things weren’t flowing, so I found it harder to make myself sit my butt down and write.  Ultimately, I’m letting my discovery writing process create excuses, and that clearly needs to stop.
  • It makes it easy to forget that writing is work.  This is both a blessing and a curse– I love writing, and much of the time I spend doing so I enjoy so much that it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life to make my living.  It’s wonderful to have that level of passion for something that is a viable career.  But, to actually make it a viable career I need to treat it like one.  I need to make myself work, so pushing through the rough spots, making myself write come hell or high water, is part of the gig.
  • I don’t know what’s coming next.  I’ve already mentioned that I love being surprised by my stories, but it also sucks in that I don’t have goals in writing.  I don’t know what to write toward, what to move my characters toward.  I feel like all too frequently my characters can fall into meaningless action or dialogue because, even if they have goals, I don’t.
  • It’s hard to pack in more after my first shot.  Because my story has given me surprises all along the way, it’s very tricky to make future additions fit in as well.  I do make interesting discoveries, things I missed, while I’m revising, but adding compelling subplots, side characters, compelling dialogue– it doesn’t come quite as naturally to me.
  • Prewriting and worldbuilding is more difficult.  I’ve recently found that I really enjoy writing things that don’t go into the finished text– writing the things that make their way into the story subtextually.  Since I tend to discover things as I go along, it’s hard to get to know my characters and world as much as I really should before I dig in to the storyline.  I need to make myself do a lot more of this while I write that first draft, because doing so to help color later drafts is helping me a great deal, and I love it.

Now that I’ve written this all down, this seems like I’m really just saying that writing is hard work sometimes.  For discovery writers, the bulk of the hard work comes after the first draft or where ever the story slows down.  For outliners, the hardest work seems to come with the planning process, then with ironing things out to work with the plan, or figuring out how to adapt the plan to make a better story.  Either way, it’s worth the effort.  There’s nothing quite like putting a story to paper.

Published in: on February 8, 2014 at 4:29 pm  Comments (1)  
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Why I’m Thankful for Brandon Sanderson +Steelheart

A few years ago I first caught wind of the writing of Brandon Sanderson.  It was in one of Gabe’s posts on Penny Arcade, briefly praising a fantasy novel he’d recently read called Mistborn: The Final Empire.  The title of the book, as well as Gabe’s words, piqued my interest.  I made a mental note, which I quickly Brandon_Sanderson_signfiled away in the back of my mind because I was obsessively reading through the complete library of Stephen King (a task that I’m still working on, now with the end in sight).  I also had then-recently fallen mostly out of love with the fantasy genre because of a number of mediocre books that I had read over the year previous– the exceptions to my genre abandonment being King’s The Dark Tower series and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.  So, when I later heard that Sanderson had been selected to finish The Wheel of Time after Mr. Jordan’s unfortunate passing, I felt hope that the series might be given the conclusion it deserved.  A quick glance at Sanderson’s Wikipedia page stated that he was selected for the Herculean task after Robert Jordan’s wife had read Mistborn and had, like Gabe, been impressed.  I moved the novel up a few notches on my to-read list.

It was not long after this that I went on my LDS mission, so all of my fiction reading was halted for a couple of years.  When I got home, Sanderson was about to release his second of the three Wheel of Time books he is responsible for, so I quickly set myself to acquiring and reading the continuing adventures of the Dragon Reborn and his companions.  I was, of course, overjoyed at how 9781429997171seamlessly Sanderson picked up the series.  His style for the books was very similar to Jordan’s, and the story picked up with almost the same momentum it had left off.  I felt like Sanderson knew the extensive collection of characters almost as personally as their creator had.

So, there’s my first reason to be thankful for Brandon Sanderson: he finished The Wheel of Time, and did a dang good job doing so.  I was distraught the day that I learned that Robert Jordan had died– I needed to know how the story concluded.  Now, some people may think that selfish of me, thinking only of how much of a cliffhanger I’d been left on, but I think that’s one of the greatest honors that I could pay him.  I was upset because I just had to know how the wonderful story I had been reading for around 10,000 pages ended.  I loved the world he created, and I wanted his legacy– one of the greatest of all fantasy series– to be complete.  Brandon Sanderson honored Jordan’s legacy, praise the light.

Between the time Mr. Sanderson released Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light, my wife-to-be and I visited some extended family in Arizona.  My favorite uncle and I were chatting about books and our discussion turned to The Wheel of Time, and how happy Brandon Sanderson’s handling of it was making us.  My uncle mentioned that he had read a number of his other books, and that they were excellent.  He mentioned that one of Sanderson’s books, Warbreaker, is a free PDF on his website, so I quickly downloaded it (you can acquire it here).  I put it on my kindle.

A few months later, I got married.  While waiting in the airport to head off to our honeymoon, I dug my kindle out of one of my bags warbreakerand suggested to my new wife that give it a read.  She is also a big fan of The Wheel of Time, and had read a little of Sanderson’s other writing already, liking what she had thus far read, so she was excited to agree.  She had already indicated to me that his writing would be fun for us to pursue.  We silently read the prologue in the terminal, then the first chapter or two in the air, nodding to each other for page turns.  Soon, taking turns reading Warbreaker aloud to each other became a nightly ritual, with additional large chunks being knocked out whenever a lengthy car ride occurred.  We fell in love with the characters (Lightsong is my personal favorite) and with the vivid, fascinating world of the novel.  The magic system was especially spectacular– and refreshing– because of how unique yet logically sound it was.  With how impressive the system is, it was no big surprise to me that he has published laws for writing magic systems in fantasy.  The story is wonderful, with some very intricately set traps for the reader.  I recommend it to anybody who loves good fantasy lit– plus, it’s free if you don’t feel like making a trip to the bookstore.

After finishing Warbreaker, my wife and I decided that reading Brandon Sanderson’s writing at night was a ritual that should remain unbroken, so we quickly moved on to the first book in the Mistborn trilogy, The Final Empire.  This time we weren’t just drawn into the world he had created, but were yanked in.  The series (which we are reading the third book of currently– we’re taking our time to really savor its wonderfulness) is simply some of the best fantasy I’ve ever read.  The characters, especially Vin and Kelsier, are compelling, strong, complex.  Sanderson also boasts three mistborn(three!) magic systems in the series, all of which are based around metals.  Just explaining the main system, allomancy, has caused a number of friends to immediately purchase all three books in the main series (there is also a novel set hundreds of years after the trilogy that I look forward to reading).

So, the second reason I’m thankful for Brandon Sanderson is for his magic systems.  They both make for some refreshingly different fantasy reading and have helped me as a writer.  I’ve been working on a fantasy novel off and on for years.  Actually, for just about as long as I’ve been wanting to be a writer– since sixth grade (and I’m now a college graduate).  The ideas I have for the story are pretty decent, I think, but the story was always missing something that could make it have something that made it distinct from the numerous small group of good vs overwhelmingly powerful evil stories that tend to make up most of the fantasy genre.  By reading Sanderson’s books, I’ve come to realize that my magic system was a mess– an amalgam of pretty much all of the typical magics I’ve read over the years.  The only way I can save the story is to start yet another draft, this time with a solid system of magic drawn out.  Mr. Sanderson’s laws will really help me do so.

The third reason I’m grateful for Brandon Sanderson is that his writing is an example to me as a writer.  As I’ve noted before, I’m LDS.  I’ve been long trying to figure out what that means to my writing.  I want to write in a wide variety of genres, focusing on horror, and sometimes the material I want to write, that I have great ideas for, has resulted in extended periods of time staring at a blinking cursor, pondering what to do next.  I often find that my characters do not have the same moral perspectives that I do, or find themselves in extreme situations, which leaves me wondering where the line is.  How do I balance being true to the story and characters against my own views on profanity, violence, and evil?  I have no desire to go the direction of LDS literature (that is, lit specifically written for a Mormon audience), as I find most of it tacky at best.  I’m glad to have two popular literature writers who are LDS– Sanderson, and Orson Scott Card– whose work I both enjoy and can learn from.  I haven’t found the most absolute footing in this conundrum yet, but looking at Warbreaker and Mistborn have helped point me in the right direction.

Plus, he just brings me lots of joy. I really want to go to one of his workshops. And just be as awesome as a writer as he is.

Since it doesn’t 13452375quite fit in with the “thankful” motif (I can’t think of any solid ways to tie it in to that seasonal idea) I’m just going to break to talk about some of Brandon Sanderson’s other writing that I’ve acquainted myself with.  The first discussion will be brief– his novella, Legion— while the second will be a bit more extensive– Sanderson’s newest novel, Steelheart.

I became acquainted with Legion as the result of some ad I came across for Audible.  For most of my life I’ve tended to pay audio books no mind, but the ad caught my interest as it featured the name of Sanderson– next to the word “free.”

Free will almost always catch my attention, and will manage to hold it if I can quickly determine that free is actually free.  So, I clicked on the link, saw that Audible would actually allow me to download Legion, in its entirety without taking my credit card information, if I set up an account with them.  A few hours later, in a car ride of moderate length, I was listening to it.  I was pleased, I’d like to note, that the reader for the novella was very good.  He has a voice that kept my interest and I liked that he gave each character their own unique feel.

The basic premise of the novella is that a protagonist is able to see and interact with a titular legion of vivid, unique people, most of whom are brilliant experts on different subjects– but all of whom are actually just in his head.  Working with them, he’s able to solve the most baffling of mysteries– if any catch his interest.  I must say, I really enjoyed the idea, and felt like it was well-executed.  I would really love to see more with the character (or should I say characters?) in the future.

Now, on to Steelheart17182126The idea of this book is also very fun– when I read a little promotional card for the book in my local bookstore a few months before it came out, I was immediately enthralled.  Basically, the book is about a world where people begin to get super powers– but, every person who gets these powers is evil.  One of these Epics– as these superhumans are called– named Steelheart has declared himself the emperor of Newcago.  Steelheart is virtually invincible, having defeated any challengers to his power.  The story follows a young man, David, who has sworn revenge on the dictator of his city for killing his father years before.

I really like this idea, though I do have one concern with it.  Essentially, the idea of a believed-invincible emperor being challenged by a small, specialized group who theoretically has no chance of standing against him does feel a lot like the basic story of Mistborn: The Final Empire, and was a little difficult to shake in my listening to it (I listened to the audio book at work– it was also very well done, and it is my understanding that it’s been nominated for Audible audio book of the year).  But this feeling of similarity is really my only criticism of the story.  It does a lot to stand on its own, and I especially loved how the powers of the Epics worked.  Instead of all following a set system, each had its own rules with strengths and weaknesses, giving the story a feel quite different from Sanderson’s fantasy novels.  Instead, the world felt an homage to the universes of comic books, though in many ways having a wide variety of powers and abilities in a way that worked much more seamlessly than the worlds of Marvel or DC, which seem to be inconsistent in how balanced their universes are when attempting to blend the stories and abilities of their heroes and villains.  For example, in the DC universe, I always feel like writers really struggle in bringing the tone of Batman and his associated allies and villains into the universe as a whole, especially when he has no superhuman powers himself, and many of his foes tend to be a little more plausible than that of Wonder Woman or John Constantine.  There are plenty of good stories that manage to blend Batman in, but with a story like Steelheart Sanderson has already set himself up for success in that the world is set up with many heroes already in mind, rather than trying to mediate between very different backstories and general atmosphere.  The origin for all of these Epics is the same– the arrival of the star Calamity.

Many of the Epics had powers that I thought were particularly excellent.  The idea of one of Steelheart’s generals, Nightwielder, was particularly compelling, with his incorporeal nature and his ability to bring darkness upon the city.  How he fights, flying and stabbing with tendrils of darkness, is, simply, very cool.  The technology present in the novel, such as gravitonics and the tensors, is also very cool and contributes to the world.  It’s great to see everything that Sanderson does with the sci-fi genre instead of fantasy.  It’s great to see one of my favorite writers change things up.

I look forward to seeing what happens in the future books of the Reckoners series.  I also look forward to reading the other novels that Sanderson has written.  I’ve been curious about Elantris, and I’m eager to see what The Stormlight Archive is going to hold.

P.S. – This post has a sequel!

Waiting for Pyramid Head – Part 2

For starters, only read this if you’ve already read my previous post, found here: https://partisobscurum.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/waiting-for-pyramid-head-part-1/

Enjoy second half of my essay (I decided to only break it into two parts because I couldn’t really find a good breaking point again).

As part of my religious tradition I believe there are real, evil supernatural entities that plague the earth, that these were the followers of Lucifer, and that they hated us for our bodies. They were miserable, and wanted only to make us miserable. My parents, who were my principal religious instructors, would occasionally mentions these evil beings as they taught me but discouraged any form of lengthy discussion. They explained to me that thinking about evil too much invited it, and the last thing I needed to be dealing with in my life was manifestations of evil, be they temptation or literal creatures.

I took their word for this: I hadn’t had run-ins with evil, but others around me had, and I knew their stories.

My best friend, Nick, for example, was playing in his unfinished basement with his younger sister. She sat in a baby carriage that he shook back and forth like it was a ship. Abruptly the small bed began to shake and moved by an unseen force beneath the stairs, trapping his sister beneath while both screamed. It took both of their parents to free the little girl. Nick and his sisters were forbidden to go downstairs without supervision for years until the downstairs was finally finished.

Or my friend Jared, whose old house either had very peculiar wiring problems or something supernatural messing with their lights and electronic devices.

Or my uncle Keith, who faced down a possessed man while proselyting on his LDS mission, who snarled inhumanly with a visible darkness around him, charging my young uncle full speed before being repelled by an invisible force of light.

I sit, my right leg bouncing rapidly, a manifestation of my eagerness to take my turn to stand at the podium and read my story. At the beginning of the open mic night I let myself dive into the stories and essays and poetry being presented. Not so now– each word becomes dragging, road bump after road bump in the way of getting up and reading.

The piece in my hands is a revised copy of “The Cruelest Masterpiece of Gunfire,” part one of the horror novel I have named Dark Art. I can’t wait to read the words, even though I know I will stumble over them at times. I am hungry to see the reaction of my friends and peers. I crave the validation I’ll feel if I create a shock.

Writing horror is now more powerful than any other kind of writing for me. The emotional reaction– the strong emotional reaction– that comes with it is thrilling. The idea Pyramid_Headthat I can do more than just entertain my readers– or, in this case, my audience– but that I can make them feel a certain way, is exhilarating. It makes me create something real.

I’m going crazy to try to scare people.

As I finally stand at the podium, I can see a monster with a metal mask sitting in the back row in my peripheral vision as my eyes scan the text of the epigraph. “First smiles, then lies, last is gunfire. Stephen King.”

“Ah, what the hell.” I spat on the ground and went back into the warehouse, steeling myself against the horrors awaiting me. I put on rubber gloves and got on my hands and knees. My investigation took only ten minutes.

It didn’t surprise me that Verrick didn’t notice my discovery– he never had a very fine eye for detail. He was good at making connections, but he wasn’t good at finding the evidence that made those possible. I wasn’t surprised that when I showed him my little gem of evidence he instantly got an idea of where to go from here. I found a domino, white with a single black dot. It was hidden beneath a splash of blood. Familiarity flashed in my mind on several levels, but before I thought too deeply about the significance of the game piece, Verrick pointed out that not too far from us was a building with a sign bearing the same symbol.

I can’t help but feel a little sick inside as my mission president tells us he is revising a statement known as “My Purpose,” published in the church’s official missionary guide, Preach My Gospel, which states that as missionaries we are to “invite others to come unto Christ” by a variety of methods, instead reducing the statement to a mere five words: “My purpose is to baptize!”

I know that baptism is extremely important, but I do not believe for a second that it is my sole purpose as a missionary. Almost from day one of my mission in South Carolina, I have hated the bombardment of the idea by the mission president and other mission leaders that to be a successful missionary we must be a baptizing missionary, even though the scriptures– and most of the training materials published by the church– define success in much broader strokes than that. I see Christ’s apostles and church leaders helping change lives in small ways alongside the radical. I see people coming back to church, or coming to see Christ in their lives, or even just receiving a bit of kindness like brightening a day.

Soon the questions suggesting criticism of my work, proffered by other missionaries who are given assignments over me, become direct attacks. “Why are you not baptizing?” “Why don’t you stop seeing that person? They haven’t come to church yet.” “You are not working hard enough.” “You are not focusing on the right things.”

I keep my reactions bottled inside me, forcing myself to not shout back, You do not know what I am doing. You are not focusing on the right things. I am doing my best to try to help others, so shut up. You don’t know what you are talking about. You are baptizing without any care for what happens to the people you baptize. You don’t care if people actually change their lives. You just want to go home and say you’ve baptized X number of people, aren’t you so great? You just want a pat on the back from President McConkie. Instead, I just lower my head and keep doing the work I know to be right.

My mother always has hated horror- really, any form of entertainment that focuses on dark themes. M. Night Shayamalan’s film The Sixth Sense frightened her deeply. At the time The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings movie came out she barred me from watching it, considering the Ringwraiths too dark for me to handle– and I was eleven and had read all of the books– so I had to watch it behind her back.

I was very sheltered in that respect.

The strange thing is that my mother is a very strong, brave woman. It is no exaggeration to say that her example and that of my father helped me develop what I feel is a strong personal moral compass.

She advised I avoid horror. “You don’t want the bad spirit it invites,” she said, implying a connection to earlier lessons about thinking about real evil.

The nervousness I felt when my friends and I watched The Ring at my house for my thirteenth Halloween was only in small part due to the complications of the plot. My mom avoided the room where it was playing the entire evening.

Even though it was the middle of the night, we decided to try knocking on the door. The safest course of action was to fix Verrick up with a wire. This was a dangerous job, and I felt my curiosity should be satisfied with minimal risk. I didn’t want to risk my life in helping an old friend make a buck. Thank God I felt that way. That decision may make all the difference in the world.

I sat in his car, a few hundred yards away, listening on a radio as Verrick approached the building:

A door knocking, a faint creak as it opened. “May I help you?”

“Yes, my name is Dalton Verrick. I am a private detective investigating an accident that happened a few streets up. At the scene we found a domino that is identical to the one on your sign. I’d like to ask some questions.”

“Certainly. We would love to dismiss any possible suspicion of us with involvement with… whatever it is you’re investigating. Please, come in.”

The creak of the door opening wide to permit entry, followed by footsteps.

“This way, Mister Verrick. I’ll take you to my boss’s office. James Jackson. Lucky for you, we’ve been working a late night.”

“Oh, what is it you do here?”

“We’re in charge of shipping for various manufacturers. We have a big order to send out in the morning.”

“Happen often?”

“Far too often.”

Verrick laughed. “Yeah, I hear you there. As you can see, this job doesn’t exactly have the greatest hours either.”

“Ah, here we are. Make yourself comfortable while I find James.”

The sound of a door shutting, the clack of a deadbolt. Muffled laughter.

“What the hell’s going on?”

An inhuman squeal. Horrible screams. Dalton Verrick, one of the ballsiest people I know, screaming. A sloshing, ripping sound.

My shaking fingers turned off the radio with a click. What in God’s name just happened in there? I must be mad, but even though I had just heard Dalton Verrick die– oh God, I hope he died, I can’t imagine living after whatever it was that happened to him– I had to know what was inside that building. Verrick was right, my curiosity had to be appeased. I would go mad not knowing, just like silently not understanding my wife’s death ate away at the back of my mind.

The mystery of one death almost destroyed me. I could not deal with another.

I didn’t want to die, but I had to know. I absolutely had to. And now I’m not sure whether that curiosity is a blessing or a curse. Either way, I’m haunted by my decision whenever I fall asleep.

I am standing in an empty baptismal font with a woman standing next to me that we had been teaching for several weeks. I am filled with indescribably complex feelings of compassionate love for her. “Will you follow the example of Jesus Christ and be baptized?” I ask, tears filling my eyes.

She looks unsure at first, but the emotions that are filling me begin to reach her as well. She slowly says, “Yes.”

My companion Elder Edwards, a large, softhearted Texan, helps us out of the font. “Wait,” our investigator says, keeping us from leaving the chapel that is connected to the font. “I need to tell you something.”

I nod. “Of course.” We all sit.

“Well, you know I’m pregnant.” She had brought it up in past lessons, but she wasn’t showing yet. “The day that I met you guys, remember how I was sitting on the porch? Well, I was waiting for my boyfriend to come pick me up. He was going to take me to get an abortion. When you talked to me and taught me about Jesus, I just knew that I couldn’t do it. He showed up a little bit after you left and I refused to go with him. I’m keeping my baby.” Tears rolled down her dark cheeks, matching the ones that both my companion and I were crying.

That was the last time we saw her– she must have been told to stop meeting with us, and avoided us like we were an illness. We were sad, and frustrated, that she was not going to be baptized and become a member of the church, but those emotions were nothing in comparison to when we sat in the circle and learned of her decision to keep her child– and our role in helping that happen.

In high school I had three video games hidden in my sock drawer: Half-life 2, Resident Evil 4, and Silent Hill 2, each of which featured prominent horror elements or were full-blown horror games. I played them very rarely, only when I was alone (which , in a family with eight members, was pretty much never). I didn’t want my younger siblings to have the nightmares I had when I was eight, but moreover I didn’t want my mom to know I owned such macabre games.

After my youthful experience, I was pretty sure that if she saw the words “Resident Evil” on a case she would have been angry, or worse, disappointed.

I kept darker Stephen King books in my backpack rather than on my bedside table while reading them.

Simply, I kept my fascination with works of darkness in the darkness.

I drove home: I needed a weapon.

I snuck into my house, avoided waking up Natalie. Dug around in my sock drawer and pulled out my Smith & Wesson .357. I probably would have sold it if I had retired for any other reason than the death of my wife, but I had instinctively held onto it, feeling a need to protect my daughter from the haunts of the night. I dug out my shoulder holster, which I hid beneath my jacket.

I kissed my daughter’s head and slipped out. I drove Verrick’s car back to the building marked with a large domino. I popped open the trunk of the car and found some lock pick tools. I pocketed them, and slipped through an alley to the back of the building.

When I got to the back door, I drew a small bottle of oil from my pocket and greased the hinges and tried the door. Locked. I pulled out the lock pick tools and got to work. I was out-of-practice, so I was surprised at how easily and silently I was able to unlock the door.

The carpet was dark red, like you’d see at a movie awards show. It looked expensive, but looking at rest of the building, it probably wasn’t– the cement walls were cracking and there was dust everywhere. I had to fight to resist coughing– especially hard with my asthma.

Using my oil to maintain stealth, I began peaking into rooms one-by-one. Most were vacant, but a few held tools.

I have my headphones on, listening to a Silent Hill soundtrack, immersed in the macabre as I work on my craft, editing the third part of my horror novel, “The Artist.” My narrating protagonist, a middle-aged art critic named Laura, leads a group of her neighbors in battle against a bare-chested monster that was once a detective, while my ears are filled with industrial sounds of the quasi-religious nightmare Otherworld that the small lakeside resort town of Silent Hill becomes when sirens blare and dense fogs rolls in. As the creature saws through the chest of one of Laura’s fallen companions, I hear a long scrape of steel and wonder to myself if Pyramid Head is nearby.

It is widely believed in South Carolina that there is a dark entity known as the Hag that spends its time afflicting people at night. It is a shadowy figure that stands at the foot of one’s bed while you awake, paralyzed, unable to make a sound and unable to look at anything but the creature. Sometimes it just departs from there, other times it makes physical contact– prodding the sleeper, or even laying on top of the unfortunate victim. On my LDS mission to the said state, I heard stories of the Hag and shrugged them off as superstition.

Until I was shared a personal experience by another missionary whom I trusted– who was visibly frightened by his experience. The hag had stood over him, poking him until he awoke. My belief was underlined when, a few nights before Valentine’s Day 2011 a member of the church I was close to told my companion and I about when he had been “hagged” a few years prior, the awful creature pressing down on him as he was frozen in bed, about how he listened to talks by religious leaders on repeat all night for weeks.

The night of Valentine’s, I had an experience of my own.

I didn’t get “hagged,” but I did awake at about 2:00 AM, feeling confused beyond normal sleepiness. I couldn’t focus mentally at all. My mind darted frantically, voicing internal expressions of bafflement at the chaotic state I was in. It was as if there was another voice– another presence– in my head, controlling (or more accurately, fighting for control) of my thoughts. I couldn’t focus. It was beyond my grasp.

I had to force myself to stand, walking into the bathroom with my scriptures in hand. I washed my face, trying to get my body to wake up more. I tried to read the scriptures to clear my head, but I could barely get my eyes to focus on the words on the page, much less make them to make any sense. I fell to my knees, the scriptures clutched against my chest, and prayed.

I prayed until my knees started to ache, the whole time pleading to God internally while struggling to maintain control of my thoughts. My prayer was reduced to a simple phrase, repeated over and over, begging to be freed from the dark confusion.

The powerful duality of my mind persisted for most of an hour.

I wasn’t freed until I woke my companion and asked him to pray for me as well.

I held my scriptures like a teddy bear every night for the following week.

I came to a room marked with dozens of dominoes. I found that it held an occupant. It staring at me, wide-eyed. It was a monster. Its skin was the same color as its irises–red as rouge. When it saw it had a visitor, it smiled warmly and sloppily licked its pale lips with a deep crimson tongue.

My body stiffened. What the hell?

It had four main limbs, like humans, but rather than a distinguishable difference between legs and arms, it seemed to have four of the latter. Long hands with sharp claws clacked on the floor as it stood.

I ran, not restraining the screams that tore at my throat, forgetting I had brought along my handgun for protection.

The monster darted after me, catching the door before it latched and flung it open. It giggled and chattered in high, animalistic tones.

It was much faster than me. It caught me quickly, throwing me down to the floor. As I felt ribs crunch upon impact. As I stared at the carpet I thought it must be that deep crimson color to hide blood. I began laughing hysterically– no, that can’t be right! My mind flashed to the colors, the horrible yellow, from earlier.

My laughter transformed into screams as I felt its claws rip into my back. I tried to roll over to face my assailant, but as I turned, my face was ripped open, blood splattering into my eyes. It tore with claws like thorns. I felt my body surrender to imminent death, curling into the fetal position.

I am finishing a short story, nearly fifty handwritten pages in length, called “A Glass Darkly.” There are monsters in the story– a few supernatural, but the most frightening monster is a kind much more commonly found in real life: an abusive husband and father. Only known in the story as “Papa,” the creature leaves broken fingers and “clumsy accidents” in the wake of his drunken cruelty.

Just weeks earlier I had an encounter with a dark force that was beyond my ability to adequately express. Now, with pen and paper, I am finding my way through horror fiction to give words for an anathema that is real. Not problems that I have known personally, but rather the terrors I have seen hiding in the corners of eyes in many of the people I have been dedicated to helping and teaching who live in project housing. I write about poverty, of alcoholism, of dangerous relationships. I grow. I begin to understand.

Even Pyramid Head, who has been reading over my shoulder, can’t help but shake his head as my little protagonist, Alice, is left alone, crying next to the bloody corpse of her mother. I look up at the blood soaked monster and give him a nod of appreciation.

I am at Universal Studios’ Hollywood Horror Nights. I am breathing heavily, my asthma burning my lungs, drowning in smoke machine smoke, drawing heavily from an emergency inhaler that is not my own. I remember now that mine is in my suitcase. I silently curse myself for my stupidity.

We’ve just ridden the rides up to this point– Jurassic Park in the Dark, The Mummy, Transformers– so I feel now like I have my asthmatic body under control enough to walk through one of the horror mazes.

I have been dying to go one in particular to since I saw a friend’s link online– Silent Hill.

We move to stand in the line leading to a passageway that loudly sounded with an air raid siren over and over and over.

Soon my friends and I find ourselves in Silent Hill, clearly built as the Otherworld version of the town, where things go from unnerving to openly hellish. I dart past a Lying Figure, a humanoid creature that almost looks like a man turned inside out with no arms. It throws itself at a chainlink fence as we pass. I hiss, “Oh hell!”

My hand in my wife’s, we slowly follow our friends through a room marked with the Halo of the Sun, a red symbol of The Order, a cult that worships a chaotic goddess and the creatures of her Otherworld domain. Then, another dark room, full of grotesquely sexualized nurses who move with inhuman locomotion, snarling at us beneath masks of flesh.

Room after room: the Bogeyman with his long-handled sledgehammer, three Robbie the Rabbits, each a pink amusement park mascot with a smear of blood matting the fur around their mouths. Two of the rabbits are props, one jolts to life just as we are about to pass it.

And then, him. Guilt himself, Pyramid Head, the Red Pyramid. He rushes us with a spear and we cower in a corner. He chases us down a hallway, then herds us into a room full of bloody corpses swinging from the ceiling, reaching for us with his long, muscular arms. His glove-clad fingers brush against my shoulder just before I step out of the room–

And find myself outside, in the smoke, once again with my favorite monster behind me.

Waiting for Pyramid Head – Part 1

I want to put more of myself into this blog, more of my relationship to horror.  In my penultimate semester of college (I only completed my degree in April) I took an advanced nonfiction writing class that was focused on the lyric essay.  We had to write two pieces, one playing with a conventional form (which I did as a piece called “Letters,” in which I wrote to some personal heroes of mine, most of whom are fictional– don’t worry, I’ll put it up here, eventually) and another following an invented form that fit the piece itself.  Due to the notable size of the latter work, I will be posting it in sections, probably three.  I feel like it is perfect for this blog because it was an exploration of my attraction to darkness, to horror.  I followed several threads throughout the piece: narrative of my interactions with the horror genre, self-reflection, descriptions of the fictional town of Silent Hill and its related works, and excerpts from part 2 of my horror-novel-in-progress, Dark Art (part 2 being titled “The Brightest Nightmares”).  I hope you enjoy this first section.  Also, don’t hesitate to post criticism or notations of errors, this is a work that deserves more polish, and I really hope to get it published.

“Horror is truth, unflinching and honest.”

-Kealan Patrick Burke

The creature stands tall, taller than most men, well over six feet in height. Muscled, scarred, looming, and yet his posture suggests indifference. That somehow is far worse than obvious menace.

His apparel is a long, stitched up robe with no arms. It’s fabric’s color is nearly indeterminable as it is totally filthy– covered with dirt and gore. The most prevalent feature is his mask, his long metal pointed pyramid-shaped helmet that totally hides any humanity the miscreation could possess. The metal of the pyramid is black mesh, rusted and blood-scabbed, the long point coming down to mid-chest. There is a long bolt in the back that secures the iron executioner’s cowl to his skull.Pyramid_Head

With one hand he holds a Great Knife or a long spear. The knife he drags on the ground; the screech of steel on cement heralds his approach.

He is Self-Loathing and Self-Fear. He is Guilt made manifest for those he plagues.

He haunts James Sunderland through the town of Silent Hill for smothering his cancer-riddled wife. In the neighboring town of Shepherd’s Glenn, he is Adam Shepherd’s guilt for breaking a pact to sacrifice his first son.

He is called the Red Pyramid, or Red Pyramid Thing, or simply Pyramid Head.

My Sunday school teacher reads from The Book of Mormon aloud, “But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” He proceeds with his own thoughts: “It is absolutely important that we learn to love others– even total strangers– the same way Christ loves them. The best way to learn to love others is by serving them. So, help around your house, even when you are not asked to. Participate in service projects. Service is one of the best ways to follow Jesus Christ and become more like him. His whole life was dedicated to serving others– healing the sick, raising the dead– and His Atonement was the greatest act of love and service, sacrificing himself and suffering for everyone’s sins.”

I sit and nod. I have heard this lesson, worded slightly differently, dozens of times before, even though I am just twelve or thirteen. The message being taught is something I believe.

I can’t help but wonder, though, why a few weeks ago we talked about having good friends– and avoiding having friends with those who do things that don’t align with what the church teaches. I understand not joining with friends in making poor decisions, but how Christlike would it be to disassociate myself from friends just because they don’t have the same perspective of morality as I do?

Didn’t Christ spend his time among the sinners?

My phone rang at 11:32 that night. Verrick. He hadn’t called for help on a case in a year and a half, just a few months after I left the business.

I sat up, pulled on a pair of jeans, turned by habit to inform my wife I was going out. Felt a stab of pain remembering that she was no longer there.

I reached into my pocket for a cigarette. No carton. Remembered that I had quit last year.

Verrick sounded unnerved. That scared me– he wasn’t an easy man to unnerve, and it took far more for him to swallow his pride and call his old partner. He blamed me for his lack of success after I left.

The pay must have been monumental.

I found my shirt and coat and headed to my apartment door, which creaked loudly. I swore at it, then heard my little daughter’s voice come from her bedroom, “Daddy, where are you going?” Golden curls bounced as her little head popped up, gray eyes peering into the darkness.

“I gotta go help an old friend, angel. Be back in about an hour.”

“I don’t want you to go.” Heartbreaking.

“Don’t worry, honey, I’ll be back. I’ll lock the door so you’ll be safe. Go to sleep.” I hated myself for leaving her home alone like this. God damn life as a single parent.

She whimpered as I stepped out the door. “I love you, daddy!” I heard her muffled yell as I locked it securely, all three locks. I smiled, let my thoughts wander to the dream that had been interrupted by Verrick’s call. It was about my wife. She was still alive. It was my very last good dream.

When I was in the third grade I went over to a friend’s house and played PlayStation with him, primarily the game Oddworld, a quirky sidescroller. Shortly before the time set for my mom to pick me up, the friend popped in Resident Evil, a game featuring a mansion full of zombies and similar monsters, telling me that I would like it. The first combat experience opened with a cutscene featuring a zombie eating a decapitated body with the head laying across the room, face frozen in screaming agony. The image shocked and deeply frightened me. I backed against a wall and refused to let him show me more. Subsequently, I had vivid nightmares almost every night for three months.

My mother never let me play there again.

My uncle, Dallin, has always influenced my interests. It makes a lot of sense– he’s just four years older than me, so he seems much more like an older brother than my mother’s brother. On one visit to my grandparents’ house in Arizona when I was fifteen he showed me a couple of movies and two of his favorite video games– Half-life 2 and Resident Evil 4,we played each for an hour or two. I was pleasantly surprised with each of them, relishing the adrenaline rush of fighting off zombies and other twisted monsters.

Shortly after that experience, I saw a part of the film The Green Mile on TV. It was brilliant, and the supernatural elements of the plot caught me off guard. I interrogated my dad, who had been watching it, but found his explanation of the parts I missed lacking, so I turned to Wikipedia to learn more about it. I learned that The Green Mile was originally a serial novel by Stephen King. Immediately I sought out the book, and found myself deeply impressed with his powerful writing style. Intrigued, I began to dive into a wide variety of his works, including darker novels like ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining. I soon decided that I was going to read all of his books because I loved how powerfully evocative his writing was, and that it dealt with darkness in a way that I had not found in any other genre of writing before, expressing a fear of the unknown and of darkness, while still being willing to appreciate its complexity. Villainy was no longer just about power, some evil king wanting to conquer a land, but rather it was often very familiar. Very human.

Yellow. Bright, vivid yellow spattered all over the floor, on the walls, the ceiling. The world seemed to scream yellow. I inhaled the acrid stench of yellow, tasted a bitter yellow bite on my tongue.

I turned around and retched until I could only dry-heave. I stared at the puddle of bile and felt surprised and relieved that it wasn’t that god-awful yellow.

Shaking, I forced myself to face the room again. It was nauseating, but I managed to suppress more spasmodic vomiting. As my eyes moved across what lay before me, I took in other vivid colors. Greens and blues and oranges and violets splayed unnaturally over everything within sight. Every color but red. Well, there was a little of it, browning as it dried, but with what was decaying on the floor, there should have been red. Lots of red.

In the center of the room was a corpse. First glance showed a simple stiff, like you’d see dead of natural causes or a poisoning or the like. When I walked closer I saw the corpse wasn’t regular at all. The head was facing the wrong direction. So were the arms and legs. Small wonder the face was frozen in the most disturbing scream I’ve ever seen. Oh, and the skin was paler than normal, like there was no blood in the body at all.

When I realized just how awful the body was, I looked away to push away my resurfacing need to vomit. My eyes fell upon Verrick, in his distinctive topcoat and fedora, standing in a corner, looking as dazed as I was. I used to have a hat almost identical to his. My loving wife used to make quite a few jokes about our clothing, referencing to pulp detective stories and film noir. She loved to call me Sam Spade or Bogie. God, I miss those days.

I was able to find things in horror that I hadn’t been seeing in the other genres I was interested in– the genres my parents approved of.

With the exception of a lot of famous older horror writing, stories by Poe or Lovecraft or Stoker, I didn’t tend to see the typical good versus evil motif. Things were more complicated than that. Characters began to become more real. Nobody was just good or just bad, every person had their flaws or redeeming qualities. Even monsters and ghosts tended to be more complex than incarnations of pure evil. They had their motivations and ideologies, even if they were fueled with twisted logic.

For example, in pretty much any movie involving zombies the real, driving conflict of the film is internal among the survivors. Yes, zombies kill people, but it is almost always because of the decisions and flaws of the humans. Humanity is the problem, not the masses of undead. The horrifying monsters are no more the villain than a natural disaster is. The villain is human weakness, or of trying to live only by ideals in an imperfect (or downright hellish) world. Virtue can become just as deadly as vice.

In horror I was able to find a wide spectrum of exploration of the moral grays that fill real life, and it began to make me more complex, more thoughtful. I became more able to find ways to live what I believed in.

I’m fifteen, at a family reunion, shooting shotguns at clay pigeons with my dad, uncles, and some cousins.

I am disappointed with my shotgun. It is an accurate weapon, but it’s just a 20-gage while almost every other gun is of the more powerful 12-gage. It’s also a single shot, while the weapons my relatives own can fire again and again, the shotguns all semi-automatics. My mind starts to piece together an idea for a story about a master gunman who uses cheap, lower-quality weapons with great skill, “Surely a true master sculptor can create a masterpiece with any chisel. A true master gunman can kill with every shot, no matter what type of guns’ trigger was pulled.”

That evening, I pull out my notebook and write the story in a single session. The story develops in an unexpected way– instead of a hero sniper, like I anticipated when I sat down, the story becomes about a robber who creates a slaughter in the bank. Even more surprising, the story has a supernatural twist ending, a “Twilight Zone ending” as I like to call it, in which the robber only steals a painting from a safe deposit box on which is the “same scene of carnage” as the massacre he just created. I title the piece “The Cruel Masterpiece of Gunfire.”

I don’t know it yet, but there is a dark, masked figure watching my efforts from a distance.

In high school a good portion of my friends are not LDS, and a number who are do not live as the church teaches, spending weekends drinking or engaging in sexual activities at the ends of dates. I do not participate in any of their wilder activities, but I am able to look past what I perceive as faults or sinful behavior to see good, sincere people who I relate with. True friends.

I try to be there for them, even if others do not. Two of my closest friends (one of whom I had dated) struggle with understanding the lessons they had been taught in church, and I try to make it clear that if there is anything that they need help understanding, I am available to help. Even though my offers to help are rarely accepted, I do not stop offering.

I care deeply for my friends, even though they make different decisions than I do. Maybe in part because they make different decisions, because they are more complicated. They are real, flawed people, like the characters in the books I read and the movies I watch and the games I play.

Verrick watched me with wide eyes. “Terrible, isn’t it? Lord, I’ve never seen anything like it in my life- in my whole career.” He lit a cigarette. I bit my lower lip to keep myself from bumming one off of him. “It’s like god-damned horror movie shit.”

“Hell, worse.” I didn’t want to, but I had to ask, “It isn’t paint, is it?”

“I wish to God it was. It glowed under a black light. I think it’s blood.”

“God.” I shivered. “Any idea on the cause of death? The neck snapping when the head got twisted or what?”

“I turned him over– there’s holes in the belly. All the vital organs were ripped out. Like gutting a fish. Looks like that happened first.”

I swore again, staring at his cigarette. “Are the guts still around?”

“No. Ah, hell. Let’s walk outside. I don’t want to be in here any more than I need to.” He brushed past me and through the doorway, nearly stepping in my vomit on the pavement. I followed. The cool night air was soothing.

“Any clues?”

“No. No imprints in the blood. I haven’t dusted for fingerprints yet. No signs of resistance from the victim, nothing.”

“So, what’s the job, exactly?”

“Gotta figure out who did it, why, how. This would be a hell of a job for an FBI crime lab.”

“So you called me.”

“Yeah. I didn’t know what else to do. I need the money.”

I coughed. “How much?”

“They’re paying twenty plus. And you should have seen the girl who hired me, a real class-act. Almost a short, blonde version of Annette.” Ah, there it was. Typical– he brought up my wife.

A new story idea comes powerfully, unbidden, while I’m driving. Not a concept, but text, almost like the story is already written somewhere, being read aloud in my mind. The story being told is about a man who has vivid, head-splitting brightly-colored nightmares, then goes into a hardboiled crime story.

When I get to my destination, I track down some paper and scribble down the words that are firing through my mind. By the next day the story has become disturbing, a detective and his ex-partner investigating a grisly murder where there is a mangled corpse in the middle of a warehouse with walls splattered with multi-colored blood. My stomach churns as I paint the gruesome scene, and yet I can’t stop. Unnerved, I push forward to discover where the plot of “The Brightest Nightmares” is heading.

The story rapidly flows into a document on my family’s desktop computer. The detective and ex-detective argue about their pasts and then–

I stare at the screen, not believing the words that have clumsily made their way onto the page: “My wife never came home. In her place, almost the same time I expected her home, were two police officers that told me they had terrible news. The love of my life had, along with many others, been gunned down at the bank by a robber.” I read it again. Again.

The story had connected itself to “The Cruel Masterpiece of Gunfire.” The “Twilight Zone ending” of the first story was no longer an ending.

It was a beginning. Of a horror novel.

A dark figure steps into the room where I am writing, dragging a long, blood-encrusted sword.

House of Leaves

I recently read Mark Z. Danielewski’s first novel, House of Leaves.

Wow.

The book is a horror novel, but strangely, it is not straight-up scary.  When I was given an explanation of what the book was about– a friend, who was rereading the book while in the car on a long road trip, offered, “It’s about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside”– I shrugged.  It seemed a fun little idea for a short story, but enough to form a book as hefty as the one he carried around?  He could see my skepticism, and thankfully, handed me the book, inviting me to just read the introduction.House_of_leaves

Suddenly, I was introduced into the mind of Johnny Truant, a sex-obsessed, drug-abusing tattoo artist who, through unusual means, is introduced to a manuscript, heavily needing an editor to prepare it and its complex documentation for printing, written by a blind man who died gruesomely and mysteriously.  Immediately I both hated Truant for his lifestyle and was strangely fascinated by him.  Then, as quickly as I began to be drawn into what he said about the manuscript, which makes up the majority of the text of House of Leaves, the introduction was over, and my friend had reclaimed his copy of the book to resume his study thereof.

The introduction referenced a short film, “The Five and a Half Minute Hallway,” in which the owner of the titular House films an unduly long hallway in his family’s new residence.  This method of presenting the “bigger on the inside” idea was surprisingly riveting, and I had to know more.

So, a week or so after getting back from the trip, I tracked down the lone copy of House of Leaves a local bookstore had.  Wincing to pay nearly twenty dollars for a trade paperback (yes, I want to be a writer and make my money selling books, and yet I usually buy books from thrift stores), I walked home with my new acquisition, reading while I walked (a skill I acquired in college).  I quickly reread the introductory section, then excitedly dug into The Navidson Record, the blind man’s manuscript as edited by Truant.

I was surprised to see that it was written very much as a scholarly paper, with extensive footnotes (complete with publication info) for almost everything in the text.  It chronicled and picked apart a documentary film (which Truant explains in his own editorial notes he can find no other reference to, nor to most of the noted texts) filmed by Will Navidson, the owner of the house.  Quickly, the story begins to work on two fronts, the blind man’s Record and Truant’s experiences while working with the text (which, in spite of fictionalized sexual exploits and parties he throws in, quickly becomes very dark).  Soon appendices, referenced in footnotes, begin to become part of the story as well, working to further and provide context for both of the novel’s stories.  The book even goes so far as to contain letters written in code, which resulted in me writing in the margins of the book, something I doggedly avoid in spite of years of being told to do so by professors and teachers.  Simply, as the story drew me in, I had to know everything the book had to offer me.  I started with one bookmark, but midway through my read had to incorporate four or five at a time to keep myself from missing anything as footnotes of footnotes quickly led me down the rabbit holes that litter this story.  It is also very impressive how Danielewski makes use of how the house-of-leaves-sideways-2words are laid out on the page, or what color certain words are, as part of how the story is conveyed.  The reading becomes very difficult at times to follow because of the novelist’s wildly experimental techniques, but as a reader you feel as though the novel is worth all of the time and effort that was necessary to put in to get through it.

So simply, if you like fascinating, well-written horror that breaks genre conventions, read this book.  But, be warned: the novel is ergodic, confusing, and difficult.  It is scary on a very psychological level.  You don’t walk away from it feeling truly satisfied, because there are questions that cannot be answered– it’s what keeps the characters up at night, too.  And a heads-up to readers who don’t care for certain types of mature content, there are some uncomfortably sexually explicit sections in Truant’s notes (I skipped over most of these notes– they are important only as far as they show Truant’s imagined self, which gets broken down throughout the text).

A pro tip for those who want to get a really full experience in their read of the book, it may be worthwhile to get the album Haunted by Danielewski’s sister, the musical artist Poe, which is a companion piece House of Leaves (featuring such songs as “5&1/2 Minute Hallway” and “Dear Johnny”).

Obligatory introductions

faeAs per tradition, I feel I should introduce myself.  I am Nathaniel J. Darkish, an aspiring writer who is  yet to be published.  I recently completed a bachelor’s degree at Utah State University, majoring in English, emphasizing in creative writing.

My biggest interest is in writing horror fiction, and I have a horror novel in the works (currently in major revision– second draft).  It is Dark Art and is available for reading (as is most of my writing) on my deviantART account (see my link to check it all out).  I am also working on a fantasy novel (very slowly, I’m focusing mostly on Dark Art) and a number of short stories.

The purpose of this blog is twofold– one, to chronicle my experiences as a writer trying to complete something worthwhile and get my work published, and two, to share my thoughts on things like literature that I love (especially horror lit).

I hope you find a home here.

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