Hey horror fans. My name is Tobias Wade, and I’ve been writing horror stories here for the last six months. I recently found a technique which I feel has vastly improved my descriptive prose, and I hope sharing it will inspire others to try it out for themselves.
I discovered it last week when I visited my Grandmother Riley. Okay, so it wasn’t so much of a visit as indentured servitude, but she has been struggling with her progressing Alzheimer’s and my mom wanted me to help out. I’m currently living between places (which sounds much nicer than being homeless), so it seemed like a win/win situation: I get a rent free room which allows me to devote my full time toward writing, and Grandmother gets to stave off the mind-numbing isolation and dilapidation she resides in.
I’m not going to mince any words here. Grandmother Riley is only still alive because God won’t accept her and the Devil can’t stand her company. I don’t think even she wanted to prolong her miserable existence, but some greater fear of the unknown kept her clinging to a desperate existence which shouldn’t be confused with life.
Riley barely talked. She didn’t read, and wouldn’t even watch the TV anymore. She spent her dwindling hours sitting in the living room (or the ‘Hospice of Hope’ as I’ve affectionately named it) just staring at the wall. She can barely remember her own name, let alone mine, and 91 years have already stolen each fleeting joy and treasured memory she once possessed.
Her husband is dead. Her children live in different states, and she has outlasted every member of the human race who once thought of her as a friend. Even the white roses in her garden have withered from neglect, replaced with a dozen stones engraved with the names of dogs that she stubbornly outlasted.
It isn’t hostility that makes me describe her so. I truly feel nothing for the ancient creature who did nothing to prove even the capacity of emotion. I would cook her breakfast in the morning, make sure she took her pills on time, and then plop her down and get on with my life. If our relationship was a country, it would be Switzerland. And that suited me just fine, because it gave me more time to flush out my fledgling novel.
Writing short stories is a simple matter. It’s very hard to get lost between point A and B when they’re only a page or two apart. If I was going to bind my essence into the pages of a book though, I wanted it to far surpass any of the chills and creeps I’ve managed to communicate so far. I wanted something epic which would redefine horror – not as the thriller/mystery it is today, but something new which slithers into the reader’s veins to subvert their heart into an expression of my will. I didn’t want to talk about fear; I wanted to create it.
There was just one problem. I’m a perfectly sane, middle class, white American boy. I’ve never met a monster, man or otherwise. I’ve never been to war or suffered much from love or death, or any other of life’s great calamities. There’s a very well-known writing maxim that says “Write what you know”, but I have to confess that I’m a complete fraud. I love the idea of what a good horror story can do, but I am utterly bereft of the tools and experience necessary to perfect my trade. Now that, to me, is a truly horrifying thought.
I don’t want to be good; I want to be great. From Nietzsche’s tortured madness to Dostoyevsky’s prison camp, master writers have delved into the darkest profundity of the human spirit and wrestled free the barbs in their own soul. And here I was, trying to challenge the darkest dreams of men who were nightmares unto themselves, and I was utterly at a loss.
That’s when I had my idea. The thing that will transcend my craft into the higher vaults of realism. Write what you know. The obvious first step therefore, is to know.
Grandmother Riley. Decrepit and frail, lost and confused. Her passing would be felt no more than transient indigestion. With her age and host of health problems, I can imagine a nurse taking one look at the body and simply writing “no wonder” on the inspection report. I have read about death, studied it, watched it in the curling of a dried insect, but now I had the chance to actually hold it in my hands and be its master.
From the dark joke of its conception, the idea stubbornly clung to the back of my mind, hiding behind every conscious thought. Throughout the night it took solid form as smoke given shape by its confinement. The fantastical scenario I played in my mind became more realistic with each iteration. The cold sweat of my secret shame evaporated into a flush of excitement. This was real. This was easy. I could kill my Grandmother, and no-one would ever know.
I found her reclining in the Hospice of Hope, bathed in a cold morning light. A thundering frown crushed her features into a mess like spoiled fruit. There was a faint flicker of recognition as she watched me enter the room, but it quickly submerged once more behind her shroud of sluggish thoughts.
“Who are you?” she snapped.
“I don’t know yet,” I replied, “but I think I’m about to find out.”
I studied her as I approached – trying to see something in her eyes which would give me a reason to stop. Dull cloudy glass, hidden behind swollen puffy lids. I couldn’t imagine them changing much after she died, although I would like to watch the moment where she slipped between the two. Perhaps there was some secret in that last fight between life and death that gave meaning to both. If there was, I would capture it and preserve it forever in my book. In a way, I was doing her an honor.
“Where’s my breakfast? It should have been here by now,” her throat rattled like a sandpaper serenade.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m here to take care of you.”
I placed my hands on hers where they rested in her lap, feeling them tremble despite the summer air. I could clearly see the strain of blue veins bulging beneath skin as translucent as rice paper. Her hands clasped uselessly at mine, but I batted them aside as I reached up for her throat. Her frown burrowed deeper into her features, utterly failing to capture the significance of my new position.
It wasn’t until I had actually touched her throat when her eyes finally flared in alarm. Confusion. Shock. Disbelief. My fingers sank into her skin which distorted grotesquely as the loose folds were drawn tight. I’d thought about doing it cleanly, but I would have missed out on a wealth of information. Aha, so that’s how much force is required before the trachea collapses, not much more than popping bubble wrap. I never would have thought limbs could bend in such unnatural angles in their last spastic convulsions. Even the innocuous odor of sweat was heightened by my gorging senses into a river of sticky-sweet exaltation.
And the eyes! Just as I had hoped. Lolling back into her head with ecstasy’s bad dream, the lids flickering like malfunctioning a strobe-light. In the rare instances her pupils did actually land on my face, I was able to see a helpless pleading that utterly mocked the wastefulness of her spent time.
Was it possible, that this spent shell of a human still harbored some unspoken contemplation? Even reduced as she was, was she still sad to say goodbye?
My grip slackened enough for an accusing wheeze to escape grandmother’s shattered throat. It seemed as though she had finally remembered my name, but something deep within me commanded my hands to constrict before I was forced to hear it. No, this wasn’t sadness that made her body shake from head to foot, buckling in violent motions that I would have sworn were no longer possible to her. I had found what I was looking for.
Fear. True, mindless fear; a hunted animal beating itself to death against the wall of its cage. Fear of a past she couldn’t remember and a present she couldn’t comprehend. Fear of what was still to come, and that starker dread that nothing waited at all. All this flashing in the space of an instant…
and then it was gone.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt for her more strongly than I did in that moment. But it wasn’t love, or regret, or even fear which struck me numb in that moment: I was angry at her. This was supposed to be my transforming moment. How dare she teach me so little. I brushed against the end of all things and the greatest mystery to wrack pen and poet since the first conception of man, yet still I know nothing.
Next time I will need to keep them alive longer. I will need to chart their decay, interviewing them and taking notes on the progression and climax of despair. But how can I even stop there? What secret will they cling to past their final breath that will forever elude my writing? Only when the hunter has become the hunted will the electric thrill of my nerves shout what I need to know.
As I have dealt, so must I play, only then returning to you beloved readers. I will bear the insight of that preternatural terror like a black torch beneath the midday sun, and together we will illuminate the naked mask of fear.