One of the most frequent questions I get from people is, “How can an innocent person who loves balloons write such graphic horror?” I’ve heard it from other writers, my buddies, and sometimes reviewers. So how can I write graphic horror? Balloons and horror fiction go together like spaghetti and meatballs.
Think of Pennywise the clown in Stephen King’sIt. It had a lot of balloon scenes and King wasn’t trying to be cute. Pennywise lured his victims by popping through the gutter, brandishing a bouquet of balloons. “C’mon, Bucko. Don’t you want a balloon?” he’d ask his victim Georgie in a leering voice. “When you’re down here with me, Georgie, you’ll float, too.”
Jonathan Maberry’s book, Fire & Ash, features a scene where a character was getting bored blowing up balloons. I remember smiling until I found out the purpose of those balloons. They had a darn good reason being in the story. I don’t want to say more lest I give away spoilers.
Steel Rose has a balloon scene…or two. The balloons enable us to know Yeron better and how helium will affect people like him. I guarantee you that the helium from a balloon will poison someone later in the story. Ditto for “Echoes of a Distant World” in the Alien World anthology Tom Johnson and I cooked up. Why? Because the helium in the balloons are deadly to the alien attackers. You can also find balloon scenes in City of Brotherly Death (“Darkness Rising”). The balloons symbolized the protag Brianna’s humanity. Much as I like balloons, I would not use them in my tales without a reason.
Why? Because of Chekhov’s gun. I learned about Chekhov’s gun at the first writer’s conference I attended, and that information has stayed with me. Chekhov suggests that if you introduce a loaded gun on stage during the first act of your play, the gun should be fired during a later act. Otherwise, the gun shouldn’t be shown at all. Basically, he’s warning the writer not to put too much emphasis on unnecessary details. You can have guns, knives, balloons, or any other object, but they had better go into action before the story ends.
I’d also like to mention the MacGuffin. The MacGuffin is a goal, object, or person that motivates the protagonist in the beginning of the story, but becomes less important as the struggles play out. In It, Bill Denbrough decides to battle the monster that killed his brother Georgie, but as the battles continue, and the characters mature, Georgie’s death starts to fade into the background. If you’re not sure of your ending, you can use the MacGuffin to create a delightful story. But the Chekhov’s gun can be tricky. After you’ve finished your draft, go through it for any Chekhov’s guns, in case something you focused on turns out to be unimportant. Ask yourself, will the details advance your plot or tell us something about your characters?
Do you use the Chekhov’s gun and MacGuffin in your writing? How has these techniques influenced your tales?
In June, 2012, I posted a blog titled “Healthcare Workers and Zombies” in Charles Wellston’s Grits n Gravy page. My anthology, City of Brotherly Death, called for a reality check when I considered how modern-day people would respond to a zombie invasion. Eternal Press has slated Steel Rose for publication in February 2013. I anticipate more editing before the book goes to press. Another reality check.
The Kryszka aliens of Steel Rose, at least the bad guys, make zombies by injecting captured humans with a chemical to alter their brain function. The renegades starve their prisoners, gauge out their eyes, cut them, etc. When they’re through, the victim resembles one huge gaping sore. Afterwards, the soldiers will soak the prisoner with cadaverine and putrescine, chemicals found in decaying corpses. All the torture, brain damage and cell alteration strips away judgment and thinking, leaving behind an angry specimen starving for human flesh. At that point, people had better look out.
Unlike traditional zombies, the ones in Steel Rose breathe and have a pulse. They look and smell many days’ dead, but when they’re awake, they’re deadly. The chemical administered incites aggression, anger, and a craving that won’t quit. They only know hunger and will kill to satisfy it. Kryszka natives who ingest this chemical experience the craving, too.
Let’s revisit the hospital I mentioned in Grits n Gravy. Suppose our respiratory therapist is caring for someone who’s been “doctored” by the Kryszka renegades. Our doctors examine him, treat his wounds as best they can, and keep him sedated. The chemical coursing through his blood will never show in his lab reports. Our equipment, primitive by Kryszka standards, cannot isolate and identify the mysterious chemical. Keep in mind that hospital personnel are overworked and burned out as it is. When the patient wakes up and tries to bite people, most caregivers will label it “change of mental status” and restrain the patient. That’s the best case scenario.
Worst case? Our patient is sedated, breathing through a tracheotomy tube with mechanical ventilation. His respiratory therapist must suction his airway and mouth. This goes doubly so if his EEG fails to show brainwave activity and the doctors expect to harvest viable organs. No one will suspect aliens or zombies, even when he wakes, yanks out his tube, and bites the hapless therapist.
Let’s backtrack to possible events leading to the patient’s admission. Perhaps an innocent Joe gets into a fight with a Kryszka renegade, and manages to shoot and kill him. Alas, many aliens travel in pairs. At least the Kryszka do. The renegade’s backup injects our citizen with the chemical and carts him off to aliens’ underground compound for the zombie treatment. Later, someone finds his body in an alley and calls the police. The paramedics put him on a ventilator and rush him to a hospital. The doctors may appreciate the severity of his injuries, his emaciated state, and then blame a wild animal for the attack.
The hospital in Steel Rose has an advantage because a refugee Kryszka doctor works there. He trains the other doctors well, and they learn to detect foreign chemicals in the blood. Treating casualties by Kryszka renegades becomes a routine event. Still, traditional rules prevail; guns are banned. People dumb enough to obey the no-weapons rule become a Blue Plate Special for the invading zombies. Administration hates spending money for competent officers, and the security guards employed pick up their marbles and run home. They might be able to handle one Steel Rose zombie, and I repeat one. Not a whole slew of them.
Then I started wondering. What would I do if a horde of zombies broke into the hospital where I worked? In my fantasy world, I’d run to the gift shop and hide behind the Mylar balloons. That might not be so bad. The helium in those balloons is lethal to the Kryszka soldiers who lead these zombies. A few inhalations from a punctured balloon will kill them. As for the zombies? Different story. Reality check: adrenaline enables people to do surprising things – either speed run or fight like hell. No one can predict what they’d do until the zombies show.
Our staff therapist could run. He could try to fight back. As I mentioned in my other post, his tools, like scissors and a screwdriver, won’t get him far with zombies. If he’s lucky, he will get underground employment by a zombie squad. That’s probably the only way he’ll survive.
Steel Rose portrays a scene where our protagonist shoves an administrator into the path of the zombies. Uh, oh.
The helium in these balloons is lethal to the Kryszka alien.
Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Chris Bauer. His debut novel, Scars on the Face of God: The Devil’s Bible has drawn attention from the National Writers Association and other media since its publication in November, 2009. He wrote this one with passion, addressing the mysteries of faith and fear, creating a plot that sizzles with suspense and tension. His work has earned 5-star reviews on Amazon asking for more, and he has made finalist for a 2009 Eppie award. So let’s hear what Chris has to say about the marketing process and future work.
BARBARA: I heard Scars on the Face of God: The Devil’s Bible made you a finalist for the 2010 EPIC award. Could you tell the readers a little about SCARS and how the publishing process went for you?
CHRIS: Yes, Scars is a finalist for the aforementioned award (awards were formerly known as “Eppies”) as best eBook horror novel of 2009. Winners will be announced in March 2010 at the EPICon Convention in New Orleans.
The elevator speech: Church caretaker Wump Hozer, 65, survived a knockabout childhood as an orphan and a stint in prison (nickname is from the sound a crowbar makes when it hits a man’s head) with the help of his beloved wife Viola. He’s lost his faith and has given up on one front, the Catholic Church, the Church having ignored the local monsignor’s salacious behavior. On a second front he’s taking matters into his own hands, looking for satisfaction against a tannery that is dumping waste into the local water supply, something Wump is sure has caused his son’s leukemia. What he doesn’t count on is resurrecting a nineteenthcentury hysteria that leads to confronting what may or may not be the anti-Christ. It’s old-school horror, suspense and mystery set in 1964 in the fictitious town of Three Bridges, PA, just outside Philadelphia.
The novel took three years to complete – think “day job,” then over a year to interest a publisher in it. Publisher Drollerie Press is an engine-that-could small press that delivers stories steeped in legend and fairy tale. Inspired by The Devil’s Bible, a thirteenth century religious artifact that according to legend was written in one night with the help of the Devil, the novel was a natural fit for the publisher. Available first as an eBook, Scars was also released as a trade paperback on 12/1/2009.
BARBARA: I read your excerpt and was intrigued, enough to want a print copy when I next visit Doylestown. What motivated the title?
CHRIS: Religious instruction during my formative years included talk of God’s perfect face. Hell, that sounds so sanitized. The grade school nuns and their discipline around having us learn our catechism drilled this and other teachings into our fertile young minds. But common sectarian sense (such a thing?) might say that if the anti-Christ expects to confront the Almighty, it’s only natural he’d want to scar his face up a bit, know what I’m saying? But I honestly can’t remember exactly how/when the title popped into my head. Best guess is it came from one early-morning Dunkin’ Donuts coffee-fueled epiphany or another.
BARBARA: I suspect Scars required a fair amount of research. How did you go about it?
CHRIS: The novel took shape in three areas. First, I began questioning what I recalled to be an abnormal cluster of impaired children I knew during my northeast Philadelphia childhood. Couple that with having just read Jonathan Harr’s non-fiction A Civil Action which chronicled the alleged effects of dumping carcinogens into the environment by corporations with leather tannery operations in the small town of Woburn, MA. Subsequent research taught me that there was a proliferation of leather tanneries around the Philadelphia region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Be advised here that the tannery waste dumping issues and the impact they have on the novel’s Philadelphia setting is strictly fictitious.) When I learned through a writer friend of mine that tanning leather was hastened by the introduction of dog feces into the process, I endowed my protagonist’s childhood with a neighborhood doggie-dung-for-dollars (actually pennies) business.
Second, my social worker wife Terry told me that in the mid to late nineteenth century there weren’t enough U. S. laws to protect children from abuse by their parents. [Alert! Graphic image coming!] Child protection groups cite anecdotally that orphanages were built in some urban environments simply because the local sewer systems couldn’t handle the volume of infant bodies being discarded into them by poor families with too many mouths to feed. Plus, since there weren’t enough laws to stop such barbarism, it wasn’t uncommon for some of the citizenry to resort to invoking local animal rights/abuse statutes and penalties in attempts to stem this and other child mistreatment when it was discovered.
Third, the movie The Devil’s Advocate (Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves) produced an “aha” moment when Pacino’s Satan talks of rewriting history. It made me ask if religious history had ever been recorded from Satan’s viewpoint. A quick internet search produced The Devil’s Bible (aka Codex Gigas aka The Giant Book) mentioned earlier. This legendary tome became a plot anchor.
BARBARA: How did your signings go at Doylestown and Claymont? What are the advantages of working with an independent bookstore?
CHRIS: Had a great time at both. My post-signings Facebook entry: “Sign this, eat that, smile here, no, smile here, is there a real Devil’s Bible, can my eight-year-old read this (no), it cost what?!!, can I get the recipe for the cookies, you look mean in your picture, you’re shorter than I thought, nice poster.” Thanks to all who were able to stop by. I ENJOYED EVERY BIT OF IT.
Working with the independents is a more personal experience for both the author and the customer. Independent owners are in it more for their love of the literature itself, much as authors are. They’re readers and writers and community organizers and charity-givers and neighbors. And authors love the independents for the same reason actors like to do stage work: it’s more of an up-close and personal venue for serious, dedicated readers to interact with the authors they follow.
BARBARA: What suggestion would you give authors trying to market their first novel?
CHRIS: They need to realize that it won’t sell itself. That there’s a reason why agents and publishers are so damn picky: NOBODY KNOWS YOU. That even those of you with major publishing deals will still end up doing most of the work. That there’s a direct relationship between face time (internet based or other) and reader interest. The standards: you need a website; you need to blog, which I do woefully little of; you need to join Facebook, MySpace, Goodreads, Librarything, Shelfari, any place where readers and writers will friend each other because they, ah, read and/or write. If your book lends itself to identification with a group or a community organization or hometown, exploit the connection. Case in point: writer friend of mine author Marie Lamba (What I Meant…, an excellent YA title from Random House with a bi-ethnic teenage protagonist) does talks for Girl Scout troops. This has produced mucho publicity for her. I’m still looking for this type of plank for my platform. My novel has too much explicit language, violence and fright material for me to consider a marketing venue like the Scouts, however. Even knowing there are some less impressionable Scouts out there who no doubt already read graphic comics, pulp fiction and the like with their Scout-issue penlights at night, I of course can’t market directly to them. But you get the idea; these types of venues are of interest. I am accepting suggestions.
BARBARA: Like me, you’ve had the benefit of The Writers’ Coffeehouse meetings and forum. Have you taken any of Jonathan Maberry’s nine-month writing courses? How has Jonathan and other well-published authors influenced your writing?
CHRIS: My Jonathan Maberry exposure has been limited to the wonderfully interactive Writers’ Coffeehouse meetings plus one very nice gesture Jonathan made to me. A few years back he went out of his way to deliver on the spoils of winning a horror contest, this after the group hosting the contest had closed its doors due to financial issues. FYI my winning entry for this contest was the first chapter of Scars.
One other horror author I’m enamored with is Dean Koontz, this because of his Odd Thomas series and the terrific voice he’s given this twenty-something I-see-dead-people fry-cook protagonist. Great storytelling on Odd’s part. And this character’s first person POV delivery forced Mr. Koontz into more of a minimalistic approach with his prose, keeping the storylines on task and less literary, something I found refreshing.
BARBARA: Where may someone get information on the Devil’s Bible, other than the Library at Sweden?
CHRIS: Plenty of info on the internet. Pictures, background, real and legendary history. When Googling the topic you’ll also find it returned to the country of its origin, the Czech Republic, in early 2008 to be displayed for a short time. And the National Geographic Channel did a documentary on it which they occasionally repeat. I’ve never seen the show since my cable company doesn’t carry the channel and Blockbuster didn’t have it on disk the last time I checked, but I’m on the lookout for it.
BARBARA: Do you have any sequels in the works?
CHRIS: Pardon the pun, but it’s a long story. The short answer is maybe. I loved doing Wump Hozer’s voice so much that I feel I need to bring him back. My first novel The Rabbit, Stilled, unpublished as so many first novels are, actually begins where Scars left off (yes, this potential sequel in large measure had been written before the original) but with no Wump. And it’s a mainstream novel, not horror. Acknowledging that these are two formidable challenges to overcome in making The Rabbit, Stilled a sequel to Scars, I can only say “We’ll see.”
BARBARA: I notice you have a WIP: Hop Skip Jump. How is that work going for you?
CHRIS: I love the story but the writing’s not moving along as fast as I’d like. It’s a paranormal mystery about reincarnation and what might happen if a person returns to a place and time where she’s needed the most. I’m about midway through the first draft. Haven’t really tried to market it on spec. I’d much rather it be finished so I can deliver on any interest it might generate.
BARBARA: What do you think the future holds for horror / dark fantasy / SF and other genre fiction sales?
CHRIS: The future’s plenty bright for the dark arts for sure. Just look at the popularity of zombies and vampires and wizards. I do have a short story I’m just starting to shop called Zombie Chimps from Mars. Yep, we’re covering a few bases with this one: the walking dead; monkeys (they like to throw their own, ahem, excrement; how cool is that?); and a hint of fantasy/sci-fi. And while these topics are all worked into this 2000-word piece, I feel the story is about something else entirely.
Barbara, in closing, I want to thank you for the opportunity you gave me to talk shop with you. Folks can check out my website or reach me at email@example.com. Continued success with all your writing endeavors, and wishing good things for all of us in 2010.