"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The witching hour nears

We've never discussed witches, have we? Well, apart from this chick.

"Why no, Mrs. Danvers, I don't want to roast marshmallows."

Here's what I find weird about witches: they seem to be goth fairies. Compare them. Both have magic powers.

Both can be capricious.

It's just a matter of dress.

When I saw the Wizard of Oz as a child, I was fairly terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West. That black and white scene where she morphs from Miss Gulch into The Witch made me shiver to my soul. Of course, I played it brave for my family, because when I admitted fear, they laughed.

I'm telling you, I could have won an Oscar at my house.

As I grew older, witches grew less frightening. Snow White's stepmother was scarier when she transformed into the old hag, but not awful. Maleficent should have been crazy-scary, but I actually loved the dragon. I was sorry to see how that ended.

Bette, Kathy, and Sarah Jessica were adorably hideous as the Sanderson Sisters. Not horrible. Adorable.

Then WICKED (the book) happened and turned the Wicked Witch into a sympathetic anti-hero, and the musical took that idea and made being green and powerful a good thing.

She's not wicked, she's misunderstood.

Who's your favorite witch? Fairy? Dragon?

It's coming closer...

Look out behind you.

Or don't.

It doesn't matter. If the monster wants you, it'll get you. (Seriously, what is wrong with that mother? And what's with all the cats?)

Unless, of course, you have the code word (sorry, I'm a sucker for this clip):

P.S. These are great examples of building tension, dread, and terror. In the second clip, I'm not sure we even have to see the leopard to feel that girl's fear.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What is horror?

Sure, we have a definition of the horror genre -

A genre of literature, which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten, scare, or startle its readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. Literary historian J. A. Cuddon has defined the horror story as "a piece of fiction in prose of variable length... which shocks or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing." It creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. Horror is usually supernatural, though it can be non-supernatural. Often the central menace of a work of horror fiction can be interpreted as a metaphor for the larger fears of a society. (Wikipedia)

(Note: Yes, I cite Wikipedia in those cases where there are enough references to verify its accuracy. Sue me.)

Still, sometimes I look at the books I've read, or movies I've seen, and think, "It may have been a mystery/thriller/romance/literary fiction, but I was terrified. Why isn't it in the horror section?"

A.C. Doyle's Professor Challenger stories always seemed to horrify me at some point, but they are listed as fantasy or science fiction. H. Rider Haggard's SHE has a most scary ending - the shower of eternal youth and beauty must only be used once. It is also listed as science fiction. Even the Indiana Jones movies have a horror element to them. I mean, heads explode, faces melt, hearts are ripped from living bodies... the list goes on. It's billed as action/adventure, but trust me, I was pretty repulsed by the man aging to a skeleton by drinking from the wrong cup.

As for works that are considered in the horror category, we shudder when we think of Poe's writings. I don't know about you, but reading about people being buried alive, plagues, and madness induced a feeling of ickiness in me.

Stephen King is definitely horror. His stories frighten, scare, startle, and repulse me. I used to read King voraciously. I still love his non-horror novellas, STAND BY ME and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. But I stopped reading him after Pet Sematary because he killed a child. I let him have a pass with Cujo. I guess with me, it's two strikes and you're out.

Dean Koontz has a horror edge to his tales, but he is not horror to me because at the end of the book, his heroes survive and evil is vanquished. I can breathe easily and sleep at night, knowing Mr. Koontz has saved the earth from the enemy he created.

So my own definition of horror would have to include an ending which does not promise a bright tomorrow. The hero might survive, but so would the villain. Even if the evil is eradicated, the cost is terrible.

(Aside: If horrific means having the power to horrify, why doesn't terrific mean having the power to terrify?)

What is your definition of horror? Do you read books or watch movies that scare you, even if you don't like the horror genre? What makes the difference?

Oh, and BTW, which one of Koontz's books would you like to see as a movie?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The (horror) tales we tell to children

Fairy tales - the original horror stories. Much like mythology, they are supposed to show us archetypes, reveal truths, and teach morality. The only real difference is that we pretend these are children's stories. We don't normally teach little ones about Zeus and his wandering Johnson, but we do drag out The Three Little Pigs - to teach how far a wolf is willing to go for a little bacon.

Does it bother no one that the wolf is trying to eat the pigs, and the pigs end up trapping the wolf in a boiling cauldron, where they cook him, alive, and eat him? (Yes, I know there are versions where they just chase him away, but seriously, who doesn't think he'll be back? Sooner or later, someone is going to die.)

I still have a book of fairy tales my grandmother gave me.

"To Gayle Sue from Grandma Wetherholt, March 11, 62

Let's take a look at some of these children's stories.

Little Red Riding Hood - the wolf has a nice conversation with our naïve Little Red, tries to eat her grandmother (in some versions, he succeeds), nearly eats Red, but her dad arrives at the last minute to chop the wolf's head off (in the alternate version, Grandma jumps out of the decapitated wolf, none the worse for wear).


Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella - all pleasant young girls who are targeted by evil women and have to hang around, useless and sometimes comatose, until some guy shows up to rescue them.

What does this teach our kids? To trust grownups, or to be proactive?

The worst stories in this book are Babes in the Wood, and The Goose Girl.

In the first, two little tots are orphaned and left with an aunt and uncle who want their inheritance. The uncle sends them off with henchmen to be murdered. One henchguy has a change of heart, kills the other one, then leaves the kids in the woods and says he'll be right back.

That's right. He never returns and the children die. They freakin' die! The uncle and aunt keep the riches, evil is not vanquished, good does not triumph.

There's a lesson for you, Kids.

In The Goose Girl, a princess is sent to be married but her maid forces her to switch positions. The awful part of this story is the princess has a talking horse, Falada. When they arrive at the new kingdom, the maid (now masquerading as the princess) instructs the knacker to kill the horse. The real princess talks the guy into hanging the horse's head over the town gate - where it still talks.

Couldn't she have talked the knacker into not killing the horse?

Of course, the whole story is found out and the maid is not just executed, she's tortured - put naked in a barrel stuck with nails and dragged behind two white horses down all the streets in town until she's dead.

That's what horse killers get in these parts.

I was 8 years old when I read these, and while they horrified me, I wouldn't say they scarred me for life. But would I have encouraged my 8-year-old son to read them? Yeah... no.

If none of those made your hair curl, maybe this little scene of Beauty and the Beast (Fairy Tale Theater) can give you some goosebumps.

Did you read fairy tales as a child? Did they scare the pants off you?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pardon me while I do some productive procrastination

I'm trying to get the next Peri novel finished. If I can meet my schedule, I should be done with the first draft by the beginning of December. Two thousand words a day can be hard, especially when you get to the middle and you're pretty sick of the story and you want to get to the exciting conclusion, but you can't yet and you have to still make every page worthy of turning.

Still, if you are that person who writes "Author" in every space that asks for your profession, you set a schedule and work your hours and write your two thousand words without complaint.

But I digress...

I'm trying to write, and I'm approaching nose-grinding Middle Territory. Every once in a while, I sneak a peek at Facebook and notice August McLaughlin's status. Lucky girl, she got to meet Oprah Winfrey and get inspired to be even more than she is, and she's already plenty. Here is what I read:

"I was up before dawn doing my homework from Oprah. Want to join? Envision your dream life then write it down with specifics." - August McLaughlin

Being one of those people who believe in positive thinking, daily affirmations, etc, this sounded exciting to me. Envision my dream life? Write it down? Use specifics? Count me in, especially if it delays me in getting back to the writing. 

What would my dream life look like? Well, I'd live in a different house. It used to be a large house on a cliff overlooking an ocean, with a wraparound porch and lots of windows. After visiting Scotland, I replaced that one with a simple stone cottage in the Highlands.

Less to clean, you know, although it has to come with good internet access.

But then I thought, what about my friends and family? I couldn't stand to be that far away from my son, or to not get together with my pals. My gal pal Tameri lives in Carlsbad, which is about 90 minutes from my house - we practically have to stand on our heads to schedule a play date. Getting her to Scotland would be even harder.

And my horses - what about them? I can't envision a life without my horses, and as long as I have Snoopy, I need Niki to be my trainer. I can't imagine any trainer who would love Snoopy the way she does. Plus she's a fun friend - I feel a definite connection. She and I both had not planned to have any children, only to change our minds later in life. She's a little younger than me when I had Marcus, but she's still on the edge of being the "older mom." I now have someone to impart my little pieces of wisdom from my days raising an only son.

So maybe my dream life would not include a move to the Highlands, unless I could convince my friends and family to move with me. I suppose I could envision living in a cozy home on a large horse property here in southern California. Niki could train horses there, unless she envisions her own place.

I'd ride in the morning, then write in the afternoon. In the evenings, Dale and I would go to the local bar/café and have drinks and appetizers and watch some sporting event. Then we'd go home and I'd do a little reading before bed.

The thing is, this is the life I'd envision today, but what about tomorrow? Maybe I need to envision my dream life in terms of what I want to be doing, not where I want to be doing it.

Do you have a dream life? Is it about a place, or people, or who you want to be?

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