Category Archives: Halloween

Hotdogs, Marshmallows and Dread

Ah, summer, a time when we leave the safety of our cozy homes to brave the great outdoors. We trek near and far to hike, fish and be eaten alive by mosquitos. Then, at night, when our muscles ache, we fill our bellies with hotdogs and marshmallows as we cozy up by the campfire. There’s an anticipation that grows as the moon paints the woods pearl. It’s a readiness so salient, that even the trees inch closer in order to listen. That’s right, it’s time for you to tell a scary campfire tale. 

Now that you have everyone’s attention, it’s imperative that you tell the most captivating tale you can muster. It needs to be intoxicating, frightening and use the raw power of your surroundings to horrify listeners’ bone. While some storytellers like to shoot from the hip, a good raconteur knows that a little preparation can help shake your audience to the core. So, before you gather around the fire this summer, let’s go over the fundamentals of what makes the perfect campfire tale. Follow these suggestions and at the end of your eerie story, the audience will be far too reluctant to sleep, but much too terrified to ask for an encore. 

So first thing is first, let’s find a medium that matches the landscape. This is dealer’s choice. You can research local lore or make up your own. The most important detail is to find a subject that makes sense for your strongest ally, the wild backdrop. Don’t challenge the listener’s imagination with stretches. If you’re having a backyard outing, you may want to stay away from Bigfoot. If you’re camping in the desert, the ghoul living in an apartment basement may not be as scary as the witch of the barren wasteland. Your real life setting is your best friend, and will build tension before the story even starts.

Next, let’s figure out an ending before we build the framework. Unlike traditional stories, a campfire tale’s success lives and dies with the last five sentences. It needs to be something that causes the listener (or reader) to walk away thinking, “Oh man, I could be next.” The scariest campfire tales make the listener part of your story, a continuance long after the words have left your mouth. So, as a rule of thumb, build this first and never let the conclusion make people feel safe. You want the antagonist to still be lurking, the curse to still exist or the survivors to have lost something dear. This is a scary story, your mission is horror. 

Now that we’ve decided that we’ll end with the axe wielding convict still on the loose, we can take it from the top and begin our narrative arc. The opening should draw people in with local color. Listeners will be on the defensive, so let the scenery twist and betray them in order to crack their shells. Each line needs to leave your listeners looking over their shoulder or curling closer together. Some ways to build trust while suffocating your campers’ security includes lines that make them feel as if you, the storyteller, are on their side. Here’s a few examples…

“I read about this before we came here. Feel free to look it up later tonight.”

“I almost didn’t want to tell this story because it’s going to make me scared too, but according to the placard I read when we first entered the park, this place has a dark past.”

See what these lines do? They take a doubter and start breaking down their defenses. If you can add real lore or historic details to the story, all the better. Just don’t let them do any research until they zip up their tent. You can let them play fact checker after the fear has already took hold. 

We also need protagonists. It helps if your characters are relatable. Are you chaperoning a girl scout outing? Well, isn’t that funny because the last troupe, Pack 113, came to these woods for their wilderness badge. Try to lean away from characters that are too in depth. You don’t want interest to satellite around the support characters as much as their conflict. As a rule of thumb, give each support character a one or two sentence description of who they are. If you’re narrating, it doesn’t hurt to give people distinct voices, accents or phrases in order to portray them later.  

Now that we decided on a backdrop that closely matches your own, built a strong opening, have believable characters and know the ending, it’s time for rising action. Typically, you don’t want the route to be direct. Anticipation and mystery are your mediums. Let the dread leak in a drop at a time. First, the characters hear a few snapping twigs or a coyote yelp. The proof of something frightening or supernatural should slowly gather into the story arc until the weight can’t hold up. Fear of the unknown is the most potent terror there is. That’s when you strike with the climax. 

Some of the best climaxes and falling actions are those that leave the audience guessing. It’s a powerful thing to let the listeners come to their own conclusions. After all, no one knows how to scare a person better than themselves. You’re just coloring their imaginations in with creepy details. Fading to black or announcing that no one knows what happened to the victims is ideal. However, if you want to describe the exact details, I’d advise not clinging to the gory as much as the story. Did the last survivors almost make it or did the ghost change the protagonist in a way that’s nearly ineffable? Whatever you decide, be sure that it bridges to the ending you decide on in the beginning. If your last lines aren’t moving, the story may sink. Listeners need to walk away disturbed.  

Finally, leave them while they want you to stay. Once you’ve delivered those final lines, don’t indulge the audience with curious questions. They’re trying to reestablish security. Instead, a creepy smirk or telling them you’ll elaborate in the morning should they still be curious will suffice. Try to hand the torch to someone else once you’re done or time it to where it’s time to go to bed. You want your words to reverberate, being told in the back of their minds a hundred more times before they fall asleep.

And there you have it. These suggestions are meant to be tools, invitations to build a terrifying campfire tale. Ultimately, you’re the best measuring tool to deliver a great scare. Remember, even if you mess up a detail or your gathering aren’t convinced, you’ve still done a fantastic job making the backyard bonfire or backpacking trip even better. After all, we make up scary campfire tales in order to remind ourselves of how wondrous nature really can be, from its beauty to its horror. 

Have suggestions? I’d love to hear them. Please feel free to share your techniques in order to tell the perfect campfire tale. 

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“It Dances Now” Available at Crimson Street Magazine

When Hell comes to Earth, horrors are born. Check out the Civil War horror mystery, “It Dances Now”, written by yours truly with art by Jon Stubbington. It’s available on Crimson Street Magazine’s May copy.

http://www.crimsonstreets.com/2019/05/19/it-dances-now/

Justin Alcala’s “The Offering” Contracted by Rogue Planet Press

Just when you thought it was safe, another nightmare leaps onto the pages. Horrified Press (imprint of Rogue Planet Press) has contracted Justin Alcala’s short story, “The Offering” for the Cthulu themed “Candlemas 2020” Anthology. There’s no shortage of talented authors in this book, which hits shelves Christmas of 2020.

Author interview: Henry Anderson

Oh the magic of books. What would life be without them? More importantly, where would we be without their authors? We take for granted all of the dreamed up stories on our bookshelves and iPads. We forget about all of the work, love and struggles that goes into each word. 

Today on the Justin Alcala blog, I’m excited to interview Solstice Publishing author, Henry Anderson.  Henry Anderson is a former news reporter who has written for national UK newspapers. He spent time as a farmhand in Australia before working in publishing and journalism. His current novels, “Cape Misfortune” and “The Mouth” are fantastic tales available on amazon. But before you pick them up, let’s learn a little bit about the man behind the stories. Let’s learn about the talented Henry Anderson. 

Thanks for joining us Henry. I wanted to start out by asking about the great journeys you’ve taken to get where you are. What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

I suppose in the old days pilgrimages involved seeing sacred relics like a piece of a saint’s finger. It made things seem much more real. Similarly an artefact like a book or the page of a handwritten manuscript makes the writer seem less remote. Seeing Shakespeare’s birthplace was amazing. I was lucky enough to study at the same college at Oxford University as Oscar Wilde. I visited his grave in Paris. We used to wear green carnations in his honour on exam days.

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Take a step back and think about whether other people will find your writing relevant or important! 

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Self-doubt is the enemy of most art. On a bad day the words look terrible.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

You have the ability to get something published. Stop procrastinating and get on with it.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I wrote a play once and stood at the back of the audience on the nights it was performed. It was incredible to watch people being so involved with the story. 

What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?

Nothing, unless you are writing autobiography. I suppose if you admire someone you might try and do justice to them. If you feel someone has mistreated you there is always the villain.

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

I have a screenplay, several short stories and two unfinished novels kicking about. I hope to return to them one day.

What did you edit out of this book?”

Anything that didn’t advance the story. I find if I stray off the path, description or dialogue loses meaning or relevance.

Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

I suffer from a chronic illness called myalgic encephalomyelitis. There are a few hidden references to that. They don’t make any difference to the story but they add a bit of depth for me. I suppose the trick is not to be too self-indulgent.

What was your hardest scene to write?

There is a scene in the book where the characters are travelling astrally, out of the body, over the Pacific. That was difficult. It was the first part of the story that was out-and-out fantasy. There is a devil sitting on my shoulder that is scornful about straying from realism. It’s now one of my favourite scenes.

Henry, what advice do you have for unpublished writers?

The Internet has changed the literary landscape. There is less stigma about self-publishing now. I haven’t self-published yet but would do so in the future rather than hang on to a manuscript for years. You have to roll with the punches and move on.

Henry, thanks so much for joining us on the blog. You can learn more about Henry on his website. All links are provided below. And please be sure to pick up Henry’s latest novel, “Cape Misfortune” available on amazon. 

Cape Misfortune

“Welcome to beautiful Cape Misfortune.  Come for the rugged coastline and unspoiled beaches. Stay for the quaint customs and friendly welcome.”

Just don’t ask about the people who are going missing.

https://www.amazon.com/Henry-Anderson/e/B01JAS49AO?ref=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000

Henry Anderson

https://henryandersonbooks.com

Solstice Publishing Contracts “The devil in the wide city” by justin Alcala

It’s official, @Solsticepublish and I will be teaming up to bring “The Devil in the Wide City” back to the pages. Editors are already busy proof reading so that Ned can prowl the streets of Chicago once more. I am beyond excited. #newbooks#readerslife

When Ned, a fallen angel who’s as suave as he is brainy, accidentally starts the Great Chicago Fire during an assignment, he all but gives up on ever visiting Earth again- that is until his replacement goes missing, and Ned gets a chance at redemption.
 

Crimson Street Magazine Contracts Short Horror Story “It Dances Now” By Justin Alcala

When Cecil Gibbs’s mind shatters during the American Civil War, he becomes a battlefield horror. The man slips through the shadows, carving the wounded like art as the war’s first serial killer. However, once word of Cecil’s atrocities hits the ears of Union command, they send in a Pinkerton by the name of Oliver Lamb to investigate. Through his perilous tracking of Cecil, Oliver learns that Cecil might not be alone. Witnesses have glimpsed a shadowy figure dancing along Cecil’s side, whispering instructions to the broken surgeon as he continues his onslaught. 

“It Dances Now” is a short horror story contracted by Crimson Street Magazine. It hit shelves in late summer of 2019. 

http://www.crimsonstreets.com

Forged by Fire: An Editor’s Guide

The truth can be tough, especially in writing. Authors aspire to tell a tale. They gather the courage to put it on paper. They present it to friends and family, receiving a roborant surge of encouragement that emboldens them to pitch query letters.Then finally, a publishing contract is signed and the editing begins. 

The editor, donned in all black complete with cape and eyepatch, sits down to look over the manuscript. The boots they tuck under their desk are worn from crushing dreams. They open up the writer’s story, ready to pounce. On cue, their sharp and evil eye spots an unnecessary comma, the use of then instead of than, and the misspelling of the word, accommodate. The editor clicks their Track Changes option, and the onslaught begins.

Weeks later, the writer receives their manuscript back, marked with enough blood red font to illustrate the Battle of the Bulge graphic novel. Each comment causes the writer to scoff, shout and tremble. Before long, the writer has reworked their story so much that they’re huddled under a blanket in the corner, frozen on page fifty’s complete rewrite of the narrative’s abrupt pace change.

But occasionally, editors don’t just rip apart a manuscript for the sake of their malevolent thirst for pain. Instead, they’re trying to improve the writer’s work. The editor, in their tenure, has learned how a book’s composition works, and asks for mutual trust when developing the manuscript. It’s through constructive criticism, tough questions and needed changes that a writer’s work truly becomes the story it deserves. The strongest steel is forged by the fires of hell.

Letting your writer’s guard down can be tough when it comes to the editing faze. Most self-deprecation authors have already put themselves through the gauntlet. They’ve trudged through drafts and shades of their story for months. By the time editing is abound, some people are emotionally drained. Just remember though that your first draft is not your final result. 

Forged by Fire Blog Pic

I hear a lot of stories about mean editors. There’s a difference between disrespect and critical thinking. If your editor is flashing shade, it might be time to reach out to your publisher. Before you do though, know this. The chances of a writer being oversensitive about their work are far greater than the possibility that the editor enjoys collecting the sentimental skulls of writers for their mantle. Try to accept the fact that you might be going through a phase of denial. Then and only then, can you and your editor merge your talents to truly create something wonderful. 

“Dim Fairy Tales”Contracted by AllThingsThatMatterPress

Umm…this is awesome. AllThingsThatMatterPress has officially contracted Dim Fairy Tales for publication. This will be my third novel, and second within the Plenty Dreadful Universe. I’m very proud to partner with AllThingsThatMatterPress, who has brought the world great books for over ten years. More to come!

https://www.allthingsthatmatterpress.com

https://twitter.com/ATTMPress

The Crowned Maiden: A Christmas Fairytale

Long ago, during the dreaming dawn of history, there lived a young maiden within the hollow of the Harvest Woods. Born on a day when the sun and moon rose as one, it was said that she was destined for greatness, if only she could survive her early hardships. For the girl’s mother passed shortly after giving birth, and soon after, her father was lost to war. Alone amongst the trees and stags, the girl grew up unaided, pitied by the villagers whose fate was far too meager to offer charity. There, within a cottage made of stone and thatch she cared for herself, surviving through the seasons with little more than resolve. 

Yet the maiden never despised her circumstances. Because for her, everything she thought she’d needed was bequeathed to her by the Harvest Woods. It fed her when she hungered, bathed her when she was filthy, and hummed her to sleep under the twinkle of the stars. It gave her friendship in the wildlife, family in the trees, and wisdom in seasons. How she adorned her forest, and in return, the forest adored her. 

Soon though, the young maiden came to understand that although the woods were very dear to her, they could not always offer what she required. For curatives, tools and proper clothing, she was forced to travel to the markets where she traded the forest’s bounty in exchange for the necessities she so desperately needed. And though her fire licked hair and grass colored eyes drew the heads of the young boys, the maiden always returned home to her true love, the forest.   

But time has a way of changing what doesn’t wish to do so. Soon the young maiden grew to be even more beautiful, and although she only desired the woods for the rest of her days, rumors in the village whispered that she would make a fine wife for anyone cunning enough to tame her. So, it was no surprise that once summer began, all the young villagers trudged through the woodlands in search of their bride. Day after day they arrived with offerings of coin, cattle and jewelry, and day after day the maiden declined.

“I owe my hand to the autumn harvest that feeds me,” she’d reply, “and the harboring oaks that keep me safe.”

But the will of men is strong, and their yearnings even stronger. Soon affluent suitors from faraway lands received the maiden’s reputation as a challenge, and came crooning with great promises. They offered feasts fit for kings, castles built for armies, and riches suited for cities. Yet no matter how musical the musician or noble the nobleman, her answer always remained the same. With a gracious smile she’d reply-

“I owe my hand to the autumn harvest that feeds me, and the harboring oaks that keep me safe.”

Then one snowy autumn night, on a week that had three Sundays, fate stepped in. The young maiden had just snuggled into her blanket by the hearth when a wrapping came at her cottage door. It was near the witching hour, and the young maiden answered with warranted trepidation. To her surprise, waiting at her entrance was not some monstrous monster, nor another suitor in silks or admiral in armors. Instead stood a stranger like she’d never seen before. He was tall and regal, stitched together by arcadian beauty. His hair flowed like wheat and his skin colored like honey. He wore a cloak weaved from the fall brush and a tunic of blood red. The stranger bowed when his eyes met the maiden.

“Good evening my Lady,” he greeted. 

“Apologies young Sir,” replied the maiden as she clung to her cottage’s door, “but I’m afraid that I’ll be hearing no more offers this evening.” 

The young man lingered, a simple smile spread across his sharp face. The maiden had seen such persistence before. It would not be long now before the stranger proposed his dowry. She gave a short curtsy and then wished a good night. But as she thrust her arm to secure the cottage door, a fierce breeze whistled from the forest, disputing her intentions. 

“My lady,” said the stranger over the dying wind, “I apologize for my daftness, but allow me to make amends. I am in search of my bride and have finally come to claim you. I adore you and wish to be yours forever.” But to this, the maiden only answered as she had done so many times before. 

“Your words are sweet like plum wine and promising like the morning sun, but I must insist that you go. For I owe my hand to the autumn harvest that feeds me, and the harboring oaks that keep me safe. My loyalty is in the flowers and grass I walk on. I love that only for the rest of my days.”

Contrary to the maiden’s anticipation, the stranger did not grow crestfallen. Instead, he beamed with delight, placing his hand over his heart. With a bold step forward he moved to one knee, digging into his cloak and removing a crown made of branches. The young maiden watched as the bachelor offered a diadem of wood and vine. As the young maiden studied the offering, her own heart began to flutter. Gazing into the young man’s eyes, she felt her very soul stirring and drawing open. For the feeling she had was the same she felt when she stroked a doe or drank from the brook. 

Reaching her arms out, she removed the wood crown from the young man’s hands and placed it over her fiery head of hair. The stranger arose, striding backwards into the trees. As he did, his boots rooted into the frosted soils and his cloak faded into leaves. And as the winds took him up and the earth brought him down, with a whisper and tender smile he bid her farewell.

 “And I will always love you,” he confessed.  

So it went, her and her love together. He fed her when she hungered, bathed her when she was filthy, and hummed her to sleep under the twinkle of the stars. He gave her friendship in the wildlife, family in the trees, and wisdom in seasons. How she adorned her husband, and in return, he adored her.