Sometimes you have story ideas that don’t work out. They seem like brilliant ideas at first, but then they just slowly die.  It can take a while to even realize your story has died–I know I’ve kept working on some long after they’ve passed on.

Last month, the Economic Security Project had a contest to write a short story about Universal Basic Income. I tried my hand at it, but didn’t get far. I thought readers might be interested in seeing an example of a story that died.

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It’s a very interesting spot. I’ve gotten a lot of ideas for my writing here, including this poem and one of the stories in this book.

These pictures don’t do it justice. Even video wouldn’t do it justice. It’s very peaceful, standing here and feeling the wind rustling the leaves and listening to the creaking of the trees.

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thingprequelfairuseI have a tradition of watching a horror movie around Halloween.  This year, I selected The Thing because Joel Edgerton is in it, and I’ve thought he is one of the best actors around ever since I saw him in Jane Got A Gun earlier this year.

The Thing is a prequel to a 1982 film of the same name.  I haven’t seen that one, but from what I have read, the plots of the two films are the same: a team of researchers in the Antarctic are terrorized by an alien life-form that can disguise itself as a human being.

It is a strong setting.  The isolated Antarctic has potential for an eerie atmosphere, and the shape-shifting monster attacking the trapped team could have made for a tense, Alien-like horror picture.

I say “could have” because it squandered its potential.  The biggest flaw was the wildly inconsistent behavior of the monster. It would attack people, replicate them exactly, and seemingly copy all their memories and knowledge. Sounds pretty smart, until you realize that in its normal form, The Thing was powerful enough to just wipe out everyone there with brute force.

Also, it was a major plot point that The Thing could only copy organic material; not artificial stuff like fillings in teeth.  Again, this was a cool idea, but it was completely contradicted by the fact that The Thing apparently could copy the clothes its victims were wearing, because whenever it appeared in disguise as another human, it was always dressed identically to the real person prior to their demise.

None of the characters were especially memorable–Edgerton’s was probably one of the better ones, but that may have just been because he was the only actor with whom I was familiar. The heroine of the movie, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is not bad, but the script is muddled as to whether she is supposed to be just a regular scientist fighting to survive or an Ellen Ripley type of character.

In the end, The Thing suffered from the most common problem in all horror fiction: it showed the monster too much, instead of relying on characters and atmosphere to create a mood of fright and tension.

All of us dressed in our Witch-Sabbath best
To celebrate Halloween’s coming.
There was the Countess Villette and her one-eyed pet
Hosting that mad night of mumming.
There was the fiery hell-cat, in her black pointed hat,
And a lumbering mountainous man.
There was the old gypsy crone, and a creature unknown
Who looked like a doll from Japan.
O! Not even the Devil could imagine that revel;
That cosmic costume soirée of the weird.
Its ghoulish appeal was so very surreal
And nothing was what it appeared.
We laughed and we danced, and all were entranced
As if by some powerful hex.
The fiendish fell spell could be felt down to Hell;
A cocktail of madness and laughter and sex.
Then the clock struck thirteen, and with that, Halloween
Had ended as fast as it came.
And everyone vanished–the occult magic was banished,
And once more, all was quiet and tame.

The trees are blue beneath the autumn moon;
The witches and the devils all cavort–
The creatures of the dark awake, and soon,
The King of Night shall hold his Court.

Whether in the gloom of lonely countryside,
Or on the garish neon city streets;
The Spell is felt by people far and wide,
And finds expression in saying “tricks or treats”.

‘Tis not merely some carnival of lights,
Nor yet a complicated costume ball;
‘Tis the exaltation of those magic nights
When all the world is held in Other Forces’ thrall.

The changing of the seasons brings along
A touch of the mysterious and weird.
As we acknowledge, in story and in song,
The spirit world that men have glimpsed and feared.

Be thou not afraid, my pious friend;
To hearken back to old beliefs of yore.
It would be utter folly to pretend
Such things were not here long before.

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In the gloomy, grim Midwest

One dark October day,

I rode along a hilltop crest,

Past a quarry cold and grey.

It was late that afternoon

And I turned to head for home;

When across the barren dune

I saw a figure roam.

I called to him, but no reply

From that figure reached my ear.

And I could not believe my eye

But then he seemed to disappear!

I started, then, upon the path

Down into the dark ravine,

Shuddering to think what hath

Lain long therein, unseen.

When once I reached the floor

The afternoon to night was turning,

But in the dark, I heard a roar

As of a massive fire burning.

And from the distance came a cry

That left me feeling sickened.

And feeling Duty bade me try

To help, my pace I quickened.

The night wind tore my cloak

As I passed trees all dead and rotten.

The smoky, stony place bespoke

A time long since forgotten.

The wolfpacks bayed and howled

From distant, lonely places,

The tree trunks leered and scowled

With twisted moonlit faces.

When that last fatal bend I rounded

I saw the mighty fire, and the rings

By which it was surrounded

Of leaping, grinning, cackling THINGS.

And at the center of the blaze

I saw that at which they chanted,

A sight I’ll not forget for all my days

And on my deathbed shall be haunted.

I turned and ran, in mindless fear,

My faith and reason torn in half.

As I plunged on, I nigh could hear

Those awful creatures laugh.

Now I try to live what life I can

On my lonely country farm;

A broken, shattered, frightened man

Who lies awake for fear of harm.

I will only go out in the day;

And sometimes, in my room at night,

I think that I can hear them, far away,

As they chant their Diabolic rite.

scary story

At this time  of year, I like to read scary books, watch scary movies, and play scary games. With that in mind, what follows is a list of some of my favorites of each type. I think I’ve blogged about all of these individually before, but I decided to compile them into a list for a convenient reference.

  • The Haunter of the Dark, by H.P. Lovecraft.  My favorite Lovecraft story.  I don’t know what it is exactly, but something about the setting, and the mysterious pull of the distant church that draws the protagonist’s eye really works for me.  I feel its one of his best for not over-explaining things.
  • The Omen, directed by Richard Donner. (1976) The scariest movie I have ever seen, and the only one that’s ever kept me awake at night. The opening music is, as I’ve said before, absolutely chilling.
  • Green Tea, by Sheridan Le Fanu. There are other good stories–notably Carmilla–in the collection “In a Glass Darkly”, but this is the one that stuck with me.  I like the idea of overdosing on a commonplace drink causing someone to be haunted.
  • The “We Don’t Go To Ravenholm” level of Half-Life 2. I’ve been critical of this game in the past, and even this level has its flaws.  Nevertheless, I have to give Valve credit for putting a survival-horror level in the middle of what is otherwise a sci-fi action game. That’s a great way to do horror: drop it in where the audience isn’t expecting it.
  • The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers. The best example of a “weird tale” I have ever read.  It’s so good that I recommend it even though only the first four of ten stories are actually in the horror genre. They are that good.  “The Repairer of Reputations” is particularly memorable.
  • The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise. (1963) This is cheating a bit, since it’s based on a book.  But the movie is very good.  I didn’t like it when I first saw it, but it’s an acquired taste, and after repeated viewings I came to appreciate how subtle and ambiguous it is.
  • Quake. In terms of game play, this is just a Doom knock off, which means it’s basically all fighting and no suspense.  How does it get on this list, then? Two things: the artwork, though primitive by today’s standards, is very atmospheric and ominous.  And the intriguing level names, like “The Haunted Halls” and “The Tower of Despair” evoke a more subtle fear and deserve better than the mediocre gameplay within.
  • Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore. Did you think I could get through ten whole things without mentioning Gilbert and Sullivan?  You must be new here. Anyway, yes; this is technically a comic opera.  That doesn’t make the scene of the paintings coming to life or the Wagnerian “Ghosts’ High Noon” any less creepy. Gilbert complained that Sullivan’s “ghost music” was too scary for a comedy.  He was right–and that’s why it works.
  • The Damned Thing by Ambrose Bierce. Horror is what you don’t see and don’t understand.  This story probably packed a bigger punch when it was first written; the concept is old hat at this point.  Nevertheless, it’s still effective.
  • Spec Ops: The Line. I thought long and hard about whether to put this game on here.  Unlike everything else on this list, it contains no supernatural elements… or at least, no overt ones.  And also unlike everything else here, it is in no way “Gothic”.  But it is very dark, very disturbing and above all, a prime example of psychological horror.  It does share certain storytelling elements with The Haunting and “the Repairer of Reputations” and is just bizarre enough that I decided to include it.