Tag Archive for James Preller 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.

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

Scary Tales: Free Book Giveaway!

 

 

NOTE: I ran this contest the previous two years, and I’m doing it again. AND ALSO: The odds of winning are not as hard as you might suspect. HINT: Nobody reads blogs anymore!

Welcome, Fearless Readers! Here we are nearing the ghostly season when things go bump, and squish, and hooowl in the night.

I wish to remind educators and young readers that the books in my “Scary Tales” series will make your life better by upwards to 63% or less.

No one gets murdered in these stories, everybody comes out okay, but the suspense might rattle your cage. Reminds me of that great line by Oscar Wilde: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”

Here’s how you can win a free book.

Yes, free book, mailed to your domicile.

I’ll show six illustrations below by the great Iacopo Bruno, one from each of the “Scary Tales” titles in random order. Beneath that, I’ll list the titles. You or (hopefully) your students or children need to match the illustrations with the correct titles. Then send an email to me at Jamespreller@aol.com under the subject heading SCARY TALES. Entries must be received by October 20th. On that date, I will send a signed book to six randomly-selected fearless readers who respond with their best answers. (Don’t have to be right!)

Please feel free to share this page with friends and foes and fish and fowl alike.

Illustration A:

night_land_interiors_06a

Illustration B:

Illustration C:

Illustration D:

homesweethorror_1use

Illustration E:

swamp-monster_interiors_11

Illustration F:

zombie-3-van-der-klemp

Now match the illustration to one of these six titles:

1. Home Sweet Horror

2. I Scream, You Scream

3. Good Night, Zombie

4. Nightmareland

5. One-Eyed Doll

6. Swamp Monster

THANKS & GOOD LUCK!

Play the “Scary Tales” Matching Game and WIN A FREE BOOK!

NOTE: I ran this contest last year (2016), and I’m doing it again. AND ALSO: The odds of winning are not as hard as you might suspect. HINT: Nobody reads blogs anymore!

Welcome, Fearless Readers! Here we are nearing the ghostly season when things go bump, and squish, and hooowl in the night.

I wish remind educators and young readers that the books in my “Scary Tales” series will make your life better by upwards to 63% or less.

No one gets murdered in these stories, everybody comes out okay, but the suspense might rattle your cage. Here’s how you can win a free book.

Yes, free book.

I’ll show six illustrations below by the great Iacopo Bruno, one from each of the “Scary Tales” titles in random order. Beneath that, I’ll list the titles. You or (hopefully) your students or children need to match the illustrations with the correct titles. Then send an email to me at Jamespreller@aol.com under the subject heading SCARY TALES. Entries must be received by October 20th. On that date, I will send a signed book to six randomly-selected fearless readers who respond with their best answers. (Don’t have to be right!)

Please feel free to share this page with friends and foes and fish and fowl alike.

Illustration A:

night_land_interiors_06a

Illustration B:

3rd-try-page-9-1-2-mb

Illustration C:

one-eyed-doll_p28use

Illustration D:

homesweethorror_1use

Illustration E:

swamp-monster_interiors_11

Illustration F:

zombie-3-van-der-klemp

Now match the illustration to one of these six titles:

1. Home Sweet Horror

2. I Scream, You Scream

3. Good Night, Zombie

4. Nightmareland

5. One-Eyed Doll

6. Swamp Monster

THANKS & GOOD LUCK!

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #245: The Boy Who Only Wants Books for His Birthday

postalletter-150x150

 

Here’s one from a fan of my “Scary Tales” series. I particularly liked the end of his letter, so that’s the part I’m sharing below:

 

 

Scan

 

I replied:

Dear Mustafa,

Thank you for your wonderful letter. It was really kind of you to go to all that effort, and to say such nice things. You made me happy.

So I guess you are one of those kids who likes “really spooky and scary.” And I agree with you. The artwork by Iacopo Bruno –- who lives in Italy, by the way –- is totally cool.

And creepy, too.

Art from GOOD NIGHT, ZOMBIE, by Iacopo Bruno.

Art from GOOD NIGHT, ZOMBIE, by Iacopo Bruno.

I tell readers, “Don’t worry, no one gets murdered in these books, there’s no gore, everything turns out okay in the end,” but hopefully you’ll have a few shivers along the way. I wouldn’t want you to read one and complain, “Hey, that wasn’t scary!”

There are six books in the “Scary Tales” series. I wonder which one is your favorite?

Oh yeah, about your birthday: You are going to have to ask for more presents than that, dude! I think when I was your age, I asked for boxing gloves, a baseball bat, a box of 64 crayons, a bicycle, a home detective kit, chocolate pudding, a telescope, a dinosaur, and a new sister.

I think I got a book.

I like Fairport, by the way. I’ve even been there –- stayed on a hotel up on a hill — and I love the Rochester Children’s Book Festival. Maybe I’ll see you there in November? If you go, please say hello!

Thanks for reading my books!

James Preller