Archive for Scary Tales

IT’S A SCARY TIME OF YEAR: The Craft of Anticipation & Suspense

As someone who likes scary things at any time of year, I’m often surprised when October rolls around and suddenly . .  . IT’S SCARY SEASON!

I had thought a good story was a year-round thing.

But here we are. The bulletin boards turn to black and orange, the featured books in the library are about witches and zombies, and readers of all ages start looking for something creepy that will keep them turning the pages late into the howling night.

Even classroom teachers decide to share a not-too-terribly-spooky story with their class.

Just for fun.

Isn’t it nice, by the way, to remember that: reading a story just for the fun of it? More of that, please.

Have I got some books for you.

                   

There are six titles in the “Scary Tales” series, each with different characters in different settings. No need to read them in order. I think of these in the old vernacular as hi-lo books — high-interest, low reading level. Perfect for a wide range of reading abilities, from 3rd-grade to 5th, though I’ve met many 2nd-graders who adore these frightening stories as well as 6th-and 7th-graders who love the triumph of reading fast-paced, easy-to-read books filled with chills, thrills, and supercool illustrations.

What follows is a complete chapter from Home Sweet Horror, which you might wish to read aloud with young readers. But first, the setup: Do you know when you are watching a movie, someone will say, “Whatever you do, don’t go into basement.”

You know what must happen next, right?

The character goes into the basement!

You’re thinking, “No, no, no! Don’t go down there!”

But you are also kind of glad at the same time. The story is about to get more exciting. So you lean forward on the edge of your seat as, step by spooky step, our misguided character plunges down into the dimly-lit gloom.

Surely horrible things are about to happen. You’ve already been warned. Oh, joy.

Importantly, our sense of story requires it. This is the Rule of Chekhov’s Gun. The Russian novelist and playwright famously put forth the dramatic principle that every element in a story must be necessary. Elements shouldn’t make false promises. Here’s Chekhov:

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” 

Allow me to put it another way:

If the basement is described as dangerous, then a character must inevitably go down there — or else the writer shouldn’t mention the basement!

That’s what I love most about scary stories. The craft of anticipation and suspense, when readers lean in, feeling excited and nervous about what might happen next. As a writer, those are the dreadful moments I seek to create in this series.

Remember that great line by Oscar Wilde from The Importance of Being Earnest (later famously borrowed by Gene Wilder in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”)?

The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.

Exactly right.

Here’s Chapter Three . . . give it a try with your students. After all, it’s October! A great time of year to read just for the shivery thrill of turning the page.

Liam stood in the hallway of the kitchen, peering into the basement. The stairs were ancient wooden boards nailed across empty space. One false step and it was a long drop to the cement floor below. The basement gave off a smell of decay, of things gone rotten. A place where mice had crawled off to die. Home to cobwebs and spiders, trapped flies and ruined toys.

Liam flicked the switch on the wall. Nothing happened.

At the bottom of the stairs, he could make out a bare bulb that hung from the ceiling. It had a pull string. Maybe that would do the trick.

But an inner voice made Liam cautious. He remembered his father’s warning during breakfast. “I’ll be gone most of the day,” he said. “I know you like to explore, Liam. And that’s fine. Up to a point. But stay out of the attic, and don’t go into the basement. I don’t trust those old stairs. And that old furnace needs to be replaced. It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

When Liam stepped back to shut the basement door, a metallic sound came to his ears. Clang, clang, clang.

The sound came from . . . down there.

“Hello?” he bleated.

Again, in a stronger voice, “Anybody down there?”

Liam wiped his hands on his pants. He looked around. Puffed on his inhaler and thought about things. Breathe in, breathe out. Kelly was upstairs in her room. Still asleep, most likely. Or texting, texting, texting — like always. His father away on errands: groceries, the lumber yard, who knows where.

All Liam really knew was that he was alone.

In the house.

Or alone with the house.

Clang, clang. Clang-clang-clang.

The sounds echoed up in rhythm, like a voice calling to him, a song in the dark.

Come, Liam, come.

Doolin stood protectively at Liam’s side. Grrrr, she growled. A warning sound, low, from deep inside the animal’s chest. Grrrr, grrrr.

The metallic noises came louder now, more urgent. Clearer. They were calling to Liam. Come, come.

Transfixed, Liam took one cautious step down the stairs. He shifted his weight from his left foot to his right. There, creak, the old board held strong. Some fluttery something brushed across Liam’s face, like the shadowy hand of a ghost.

Apologies for the poor quality of my phone-camera shot. Illustration by Iacopo Bruno.

No, it was only a cobweb, a spider’s trap.

“Come on, girl,” Liam called to his dog. “Let’s explore together.”

The dog sank to the floor, head on her paws. She growled, a rolling rumble of fear and warning.

“What’s the matter? Too dark for you?” Liam asked, honey in his voice. “You’ve never been bothered by stairs before.”

The dog whined.

“Come,” Liam ordered, his voice deeper. The sound of command.

Doolin inched away.

Liam shrugged, moved down another step, and another. Halfway down, he could bend at the waist to peer into the vast, dank basement. It was filled with crowded shelves, boxes, and broken furniture.

Clang, clang, clang banged the noises. It was something in the far back corner, a heavy, black shape. The furnace, perhaps. That was the source of the sounds. At last Liam reached the lightbulb, pulled on the string. There was a burst of wild electrical light and — pop! — the bare bulb shattered into pieces.

It startled Liam. He sensed a shape drifting through the basement, soundless and black, moving toward him. He turned and ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time, landing heavily with each step. Crash! A board cracked and Liam fell, slamming his shin hard against the wood. He grabbed the top step, catching himself before he fell. He wheezed, felt dizzy, woozy. Liam’s left leg dangled in the air, kicking at nothingness. He felt a thin, skeletal grip around his ankle. Like a claw pulling, dragging him down.

Liam yanked his leg free, and scrambled to the top of the stairs. He crawled into the kitchen, into the light. He slammed the door shut behind him and twisted the lock, heart thundering, boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom.

His back against the door, Liam sat on the floor, legs splayed. He took a puff from his inhaler. And another. Breathe in, he reminded himself, breathe out.

Down below, through the door, he swore he heard the sound . . . of laughter.

 

 

 

 

PC Culture or Fair Criticism? A Reader Complains, A Writer Replies

I recently received a letter that made me think. And without disclosing my own conclusions, I thought I’d share that letter here, then pass along my reply, as well as provide an excerpt of the offending scene.

If you’d like, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. 

I almost titled this, in part, “a writer listens.” But that sounded far too pretentious and self-satisfied. Yet it is what I hoped to convey to Cathy in Nova Scotia. That her thoughts are worth hearing — these are good conversations to have — that Cathy’s feelings are valid and valued. I’m happiest with the talking and the listening. We need more of that in our world, less about who is “right” and who is “wrong,” fewer assignations of blame. 

It’s worth noting, too, that Cathy wrote to me with a question rather than an accusation. More than anything, that’s what started us off on the right foot. 

 

Hi James,
 
I am a literacy coach working in Nova Scotia. I have been putting several of your books from the Scary Tales series in the hands of students. They are really enjoying them. I have the task of compiling a list of books to be purchased for schools. In preparation, I am reading and completing a bias evaluation tool on each book. I am currently, “Scary Tales: One-Eyed Doll”. On page 59, I encountered the sentence, “No, thanks, Malik thought. He had bigger dreams.” This was in response to the custodian saying Malik may take his job one day. I question how this line could be interpreted by the reader and does it imply that a custodial job is less than?
I thought I would bring this to your attention as I was enjoying your book but this sentence made me stop as it makes me feel uncomfortable. 
Kind regards,
Cathy
I replied . . .

Cathy,

Thank you for this note, and for sharing my books with struggling readers. It was always in the back of my mind with this series, that older readers — thanks to the sophisticated look of the artwork — would embrace and succeed with these high-interest, easy-to-read stories.
Yes, I believe that I did intend for Malik’s thought to be exactly that: He had bigger plans.
But I can see where the phrasing of that might have given you pause. If I had the chance of a do-over today, I’d make a simple change: He had other plans.
That would remove the unfortunate (embedded) value judgment.
It is complicated. Because if we are honest, not many people “dream” of becoming custodians, service workers. This doesn’t mean that they are “less” than anyone else or unworthy of our respect. It’s just not where Malick hopes to end up; he’s dreaming big. Writers put thoughts into the minds, hearts, perceptions of invented characters — but at the same time have to be vigilant about what we (they/I) put out into the world. I wish I found a different way to express Malik’s ambitions without making the comparison. Still, there’s “truth” in his thoughts and he treats the custodian with kindness and respect.
I am grateful for the sensitivity of your reading. I’m glad you pointed that out to me. I’ll try to do better in the future.
James Preller
HERE’S AN EXCERPT FROM THE SCENE IN QUESTION (Chapter 9, One-Eyed Doll)
It was a quick bike ride to the nursing home — if you pedaled like your hair was on fire.
Malik made it in six minutes flat.
His mother had worked in the kitchen since he was a baby. Malik was a familiar face to the nurses on staff. When he was little, before he could fend for himself, Malik spent a lot of time in the back rooms. Drawing pictures, building with Legos, eating snacks, looking at picture books. It was cheaper than hiring a babysitter.
The home was a curious world, full of odd smells and old people. Most folks were frail, like glass figurines on a shelf you shouldn’t touch for fear they might break. Some still had sharp minds. They played cards, watched tv, and carried on conversations. Then there were the folks who seemed . . . finished. Like burnt-down candles. When Malik walked the halls, he would sometimes glimpse them sitting in their rooms. Alone and silent, waiting for a bus that would never come.
It was sad, and Malik tried not to think about it.
“Say, Malik! What are you doing here today?” Curtis the custodian chirped. He stopped pushing a mop around the floor and, instead, leaned on it with both hands. Happy to pause and chat. 
“Just thought I’d stop by,” Malik said.
“Getting big!” Curtis observed. “If I don’t watch out, you’ll be taking my job.”
No, thanks, Malik thought. He had bigger dreams. But he said with a grin, “I just might.”
He started to walk away, then thought twice. “You’ve been here a long time, right?”
Curtis looked up, as if the answer was written on the ceiling. “Twenty years, next September.”
Malik whistled. He decided to take a shot. “You remember the old place on my block. Right? The one nobody lives in.”
The brightness left the custodian’s eyes. “I know it,” he said. “That place is bad business. Bad voodoo over there.”
“Do you know anything about . . .” Malik said, stepping forward. “I mean, can you tell me about it?”
“It’s not my place to say,” Curtis said.
“It’s important,” Malik said. “It means a lot to me. Please.”
Maybe the old man was in a talkative mood that day. Maybe there was something in the way Malik asked. The look in his eyes.
“There’s a patient here,” Curtis said. “Miss Delgado. She was the last person who lived there — but that was, oh, thirty-something years ago. She used to be in the mental hospital, you know, the asylum. But she’s no trouble anymore.”
“She’s here?” Malik asked.
“Room 17, just down the hall,” Curtis said. “I don’t think she can help you, Malik. She hasn’t said ten words in all the time she’s been here.”
“Can I see her?” Malik asked.
Curtis looked up and down the empty hall. “She been through enough. Leave an old woman alone.”
“Please, I’ll be respectful,” Malik said. “Just for a minute?”
“If you get caught,” Curtis said with a sigh, “I don’t know anything about it. Understand?”
He turned in the opposite direction from Room 17 and pushed the mop down the hall. The conversation was over. Malik was on his own.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: ONE-EYED DOLL, captured by iPhone (so forgive the poor quality).

THERE ARE 6 TITLES IN THE SCARY TALES SERIES, MOST POPULAR IN GRADES 3-5 . . .

Fan Mail Wednesday #306: A Reader “OBSESSED”

There’s something about readers who enjoy scary stories. They bring a unique level of enthusiasm — of passion — to their reading. They don’t just like a book, they almost seem to take up residence, they dwell inside it. While I’ve written many types of books over the years, across various genre, there’s nothing that works better in front of a large audience than reading a carefully-selected passage (not too scary!) from one of my “Scary Tales” books. 

Which is to say, here’s a card from Gracyn in Texas . . . 

I replied . . .

Dear Gracyn,

Thank you so much for your wonderful card. My wife had saved it but mistakenly tossed the envelope. So, yeah, I had to do the deep dive into the garbage bin to retrieve your return address.

(Old coffee grounds are gross, btw.)

Texas, hey. I’ve been fortunate to visit your state several times for book conventions, author visits, and even to play in a men’s baseball tournament. Always a good time.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from “I Scream, You Scream!” AKA, “Dr. Z’s Adventure Park.”

You aren’t too shabby a writer, yourself. “I could not stop telling my friends all about it in grave detail.” Wow, that’s a great choice of words. It’s an ordinary sentence until the end there, when you added in grave detail. Perfect! Keep that up and I’ll be reading your books someday.

Be sure to thank your teacher for having my book in your classroom library. I appreciate that. There are six “Scary Tales” books in the series. I find that everything I write helps me become a better writer. My most recent novel, Blood Mountain, is a realistic story about two siblings who are lost in the wilderness. It’s a scary, suspenseful, survival thriller. The lessons I learned writing “Scary Tales” helped me write that book. In this case, the frightening things were “real” compared to the ghosts and zombies and swamp monsters in the series. But the writing is very similar. Still building suspense, setting up situations, trying to make the reader lean in.

And if a girl named Gracyn can become OBSESSED, well, that’s the best I can possibly hope for.

Thanks for that.

Um, and now . . . I better go wash my hands.

My best,

 

James Preller

 


P.S. This is the cover of Blood Mountain. Because one good book leads to another!

 

 

The Pleasures of Speculative Fiction: Scary Tales and Outer Limits and the Genius of Harlan Ellison

A teacher-friend posted this image on social-media, what she calls her “custom reading pillow.” I like it!

And, yes, I love the book tucked inside it, from my “Scary Tales” series.

Writing those books was a pure pleasure. All my life up to that point, I’d honed pretty true to the Realistic Fiction genre, both as a writer and a reader. Give me a closely-observed scene of a family sitting around the dinner table and I was happy. That’s still true, but I’ve grown over the years. 

For “Scary Tales,” I was able to open up to new inspirations and wild imaginings, new channels of communication. Zombies! Swamp Monsters! Benign Robots! Creepy Dolls! Good times, good times. And I made sure the books were fast-paced and easy to read, in hopes of connecting with hard-to-reach readers (best for grades 3-5, I’ve met many middle school readers who tell me they don’t usually like books, but love that series. Alas, Macmillan never had as much success getting those books into the public’s awareness as we’d hoped, so the series stopped at six stories.

        

In format, I was hugely influenced by Rod Sterling’s “Twilight Zone” series. Each story was unique: new characters, new setting. They were unified only in that each one promised a similar experience for the reader. Creepy, twisting, full of page-turning suspense.

The book tucked inside the pillow is titled I Scream, You Scream, and it turns on a boy who might not be all that he seems to be.

Okay, spoiler alert!

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno!

I was recently reading about “The Outer Limits” television series, which I only vaguely remember from my childhood. One episode gets mentioned a lot, often topping lists of best episodes ever: “The Demon with the Glass Hand,” written by the legendary pioneer of Speculative Fiction, Harlan Ellison. It’s on Netflix now, or Amazon Prime, one of those, streaming on television. The story hinges on a “shocking” conclusion, which might not shock modern viewers, since we’ve seen it borrowed many times since (“Terminator” and “Bladerunner,” most notably). I don’t know if Ellison was the first writer to pull it off, but he certainly did it in a big way, blowing minds on national television. What the what??!! Watching it, I couldn’t help but recognize that I owed “Outer Limits” and Mr. Harlan Ellison a tip of my hat along with my lasting appreciation.

Plot Summary: Days ago, Trent awoke with no memory of his past. Since then, sinister men have pursued him constantly. He manages to stay one step ahead of them by following the advice of his hand. Made of glass and apparently capable of speech, Trent’s hand can answer many of his questions. But it cannot tell him who he is or why his enemies seek him until he finds all of its fingers. The only trouble is that they’re in the hands of his enemies.

 

AND LET’S NOT FORGET . . .

 

“The Outer Limits” had a classic opening to every episode. A disembodied voice would announce: “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission . . . For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: There is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to . . . THE OUTER LIMITS.”

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #300: Shyan Loves Scary Stories

Wow, this is the 300th fan mail response I’ve shared on Fan Mail Wednesday across more than ten years of blogging. I don’t know if that’s a world’s blog record, but it’s certainly the most on my street. Here’s Shyan’s letter and my reply . . .

 

Shyan writes . . . 

I replied . . .

=

Dear Shyan,

It’s so nice to get mail, don’t you think? A real letter. Thanks, also, for including a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Much appreciated. In my work, I still receive snail mail fairly regularly, though not an overwhelming amount. But I wonder about someone your age. How many old-school letters have you received in your young life?

I’m glad you enjoyed the books in my “Scary Tales” series. I loved writing each one, particularly since I hadn’t written anything quite like it before. I love the shivery aspect, the dread and suspense. I especially loved breaking away from the demands of the realistic fiction genre, which is what I usually write. Suddenly, in the “Horror” genre, my imagination felt free, unchained. It’s hard to describe, but it was like I was exercising muscles I hadn’t used before. For each story, the impossible suddenly felt . . . possible. The trick was selecting that one impossible thing and then playing it out in a realistic context.

I believe that everything I write contributes to my future projects. The skills accumulate. I learned lessons and honed skills from those six “Scary Tales” titles that I was able to bring to future books. For example, my most recent novel, Blood Mountain, is a book a reader like you might enjoy. This story is realistic fiction — no zombies or evil dolls — where two siblings are lost in the wilderness. I wanted to generate much of the page-turning excitement and suspense that I achieved with “Scary Tales.” So, Shyan, if you feel like you’ve graduated beyond those books, but still want something similar-but-different, please give Blood Mountain a try.

I was glad to read that you wrote your own scary story. It’s interesting to ponder what scares us. Oh, there are obvious things –- ghosts and roller coasters and dark caves filled with bats – but it’s cool when you can think of some specific detail that feels fresh and new. A faucet that drip, drip, drips. A ghostly flicker on a television screen that makes you think, “Wait, what was that?” The feeling we get at the dentist’s office, when maybe something isn’t quite right.

Hmmmm. That gives me an idea . . .

Thanks for writing, Shyan.

(I love your name!)

All good things,

James Preller