Horror, Balloons, and Chekhov’s Gun

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’s It. 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?

Barbara Custer loves her Mylar balloons and zombie fiction.

Clutter in my Home, Website, and Writing

I’ve started a campaign to clean out the clutter in my house. Today I mopped floors, changed kitchen curtains, and filed away the atomic piles in my office. In case you’re wondering what “atomic piles” means, I’m referring to the growing piles of folders and NTD material on the floor surrounding my office chair. I’m ditching some of the empty boxes I’ve got as well. You’d be surprised how fast they accumulate if you shop online. I began the job with a balloon acquisition, of course. I never undertake a difficult task without fortifying myself with a balloon.

I’ve attacked my website, about 3 pages/posts a day. Why the website? Well, gremlins crawled into some of the pages, interjecting weird-looking symbols when I upgraded the WordPress software. Also, I had a learning experience about WordPress.org. When you upload photos to the Media Library to use on your pages, you’ve got to keep them forever. If you delete them, as I found out, the respective images will disappear off your pages and posts. That’s what I did, thinking I could conserve memory. Some of the people I interviewed changed publishers, so the images I have are obsolete. Also WordPress provides a thing called SEO, but you gotta type in your key words, summary and title with every blog post and page you do. So I’ll ‘fess up. I’d gotten lazy about doing that, so now I’m playing catch-up SEO installations.

Finally, my writing. While the floors dry and my website digests the changes I’ve made, I spent the next few hours going through When Blood Reigns, the sequel to Steel Rose. I found a lot of padding where words are concerned, so I’m tightening up the story. I’ve caught little inconsistencies which I’m fixing now. I’m missing an entire scene around Chapter 26, so I typed in “Chapter 26” and left a note, “insert a scene with Laurel and Woehar plotting here.” Yep, you’ve got it. Both women are up to no good, and our heroine Alexis is about to get the short end of the stick. I’ve stuck other notes in red here and there, to be addressed after I’ve gone through the whole story. I dread facing the ending; I struggled with it the first draft out. Steel Rose was meant to be a two-part serial, which means Needing A Satisfying Ending. Endings are tough. Coming up with a workable ending for “One Last Favor” (City of Brotherly Death) was a nightmare.

Okay, I’ll have some whine with my cheese, preferably Provolone because I love Italian cheeses. A purebred Italian, Alexis loves Provolone and homemade pastas. Alas, out in Zombie Land, shops that specialize in ethnic food don’t exist. She counts herself lucky to get canned spaghetti.

But here I digress. I’m focusing on cleaning up the clutter, the extraneous sentences and information dumps in my story, and facing the ending when it comes. Do you find yourself struggling with clutter in your WIP? I’d love to hear how you handle the revision process.

Steel Rose features zombie fiction by Barbara Custer.

 

Does Intelligent Life Exist in other Worlds?

I once asked a priest this question. As he put it, the universe is a vast place, and he would find it hard to believe that God would create the universe for just humans. So other questions came to mind: what are these people like? What color eyes? What color hair, if any? What about language, verbal and nonverbal? Do they possess telepathy, telekinesis, or any of the other powers with which our movies endow them? Are they gentle friendly beings or are they monsters that prey on weaker species?

I didn’t go into my other questions with this priest, but I searched Google and Yahoo to get others’ thoughts on aliens. I’m not referring to our neighboring planets where the environment isn’t hospitable to life as we know it. I’m considering the yet-to-be-discovered planets outside our solar system. If people live in these worlds and visit our own, their technology must surpass us by centuries to construct spaceships capable of traveling to Earth.

Some folks believe the aliens would treat us the way we do animals – capture, dissect, see what it’s all about, tag it, release it, and study it in its natural habitat. In some cases, we might steamroll over it, destroying the habitat and wiping out the species. At worst, they might eat us, enslave us, torture and attack us. In Steel Rose, Woehar and her evil renegades do just that – inject a chemical that turns their human prisoners into zombies. When she’s not torturing, she hunts humans for nourishment the way we might hunt a deer or pheasant.

However, I’d like to think that bad and good qualities exist in the extraterrestrials just as they do in humans. The bad ones like Woehar might regard us as subservient beings deemed for slavery or an entrée for the dinner table. The decent ones might work shoulder to shoulder with us at a job, use their knowledge to help find cures, and may try to understand what it means to be human. Yeron, a refugee alien, works at Jackson Hospital in a research laboratory, trying to develop cures for cancer and other killer diseases. He works closely with the human doctors in that laboratory and shields Alexis from the evil hospital administrator. Sometimes humans make the worst kind of monsters.

Even in best case scenarios, the aliens’ culture and beliefs will be radically different from ours. Their logical minds would preclude a belief in any god. Before his compound exploded, Yeron grew up doing experimental treatments on human prisoners and releasing them (into their natural habitat). In his mind, he was doing The Right Thing by treating their injuries and ailments. The people getting the treatments didn’t agree, and he had to hypnotize them into forgetting. Alexis and Yeron have a tough go at working together at first because of the cultural differences.

Talk about diversity training. Imagine working with a boss from Planet X or having lunch with a coworker from Planet Y. Most workplaces teach diversity, and alien coworkers would present new challenges for the instructor.

Someone on Yahoo asked what people would do if they saw extraterrestrials roaming the streets. I’d stay in the house and watch between the drapes before taking any action. How do the aliens treat humans? If any blood spilled, I’d lock my doors and windows and hide under my balloon tree. If however, the aliens and humans engaged in pleasant interaction, I might come outside and introduce myself. And if there was one alien, and people were shooting at him, I might invite him in my house and offer him shelter under my balloon tree. Above all, I hate seeing people bullied, human or alien.

Whether we anticipate it or not, we might have to prepare for a meeting with people from other worlds one day. The weather patterns have gotten more erratic with tornadoes, harsher blizzards during the winter, and droughts that result in fires, not to mention earthquakes such as the kind that leveled Haiti. It may not happen in my lifetime, but one day the severity of these patterns will make Earth incompatible with human life unless we build underground or dome-covered cities, or migrate to other planets. Will we find friendly neighbors and embrace diversity? Might their advanced technology afford cures for diseases like cancer? Or will we be fighting for the right to live?

In Barbara Custer's Steel Rose, her characters learn what it means to work with extraterrestrials.

Does Alexis of Steel Rose Like Balloons?

Barbara Custer's Steel Rose features a character who likes balloons. That’s a good question. After all, I can’t go into a supermarket without buying one. The balloons take on a life of their own when I arrive. My balloons have a way of creeping into all my blogs and seminars about respiratory care and writing. The characters in Alien Worlds and City of Brotherly Death have had a thing for balloons. Why not the denizens of Steel Rose?

Indeed.

Let me put it this way. Alexis doesn’t mind having balloons. She stockpiles them the way I do because she believes that the helium in them will protect her from Kryszka renegades. Yeron counts thirty balloons during his initial examination, and this doesn’t go over well at all. The helium in them is deadly toward his species. The balloons threaten Yeron, and an imaginary conversation plays through his mind:

Balloons: That’s right, Yeron, you don’t belong here.

Yeron: I do not like you either, so the feeling is mutual.

When Yeron contemplates his next approach to Alexis, the balloons grin at him. Is that so? You don’t know as much as you think you do, buddy.

On that last, Yeron hurries to his suite where he keeps his helium-proof mask. Initially, Alexis fears Yeron the way she does all men, and the balloons make an effective barrier. How then can Yeron and Alexis get romantic with all those balloons in the way? Well, folks, you have to read the story and find out.

Outside of protection, Alexis does not have a fixation on balloons, but she appreciates the sentiments written on them. She knows someone who has a thing for balloons. One of the other doctors has a wife who fancies balloons, and Alexis thinks it’s cute. Later on, the balloons will play an important role. They have to, just like Chekhov’s gun. You can’t introduce a loaded rifle into your story without using it, and the same goes for Mylar balloons. Much as I love my balloonies, I would not have put them in Steel Rose without a good reason.

In the sequel, the balloons will go bye-bye. Alexis will be too busy kicking zombie ass.

Steel Rose has just gone live, and you can read some excerpts here.

 In Barbara Custer's Steel Rose, Yeron finds his way toward Alexis despite all the balloons in his way.

Book cover by Dawné Dominique; Promo by Cyrus Wraith Walker

What Would You Do in a Zombie Invasion?

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.

The helium in these balloons is lethal to the Kryszka alien.

 

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