The short story, “The Lantern Quiety Screams” by Justin Alcala is due to be published by Castabout Art and Literature just in time for Halloween. Stay tuned so you can get your copy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Hello from my underground bunker!
Here’s an update on the upcoming novel. Dim Fairy Tales is currently in the “Queue” for edits with AllThingsThatMatterPress. Time tables depend on demands, but typically take a few months. The book is on schedule to be released by late 2019 (DEC).
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.
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.
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!