Tag Archives: horror

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. 

“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/

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

“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.

Changes

People argue that we don’t change, but let’s face it, we do. We change in the small ways- what we choose to eat, our fashion sense, what we read. We change in the big ways- our approach to resolving problems, faith and how we perceive the world. It’s a never ending cycle. And, while our loud and stubborn habits tend to steal the spotlight, there are dozens of small and wonderful changes that happen to us daily.

The same can be said for writing. Countless authors’ styles, subjects and inspirations have leapt around like jackrabbits. Iain (M.) Banks moved from mainstream fiction to science fiction and back again. Ian Fleming transitioned from spy novels to classic children’s picture books. Some authors’ changes have even revolutionized literature. Hemingway modernized today’s approach to book description by emphasizing direct, unadorned prose while William Faulkner shook the Earth by transitioning classic suggestive introspection into a stream-of-consciousness approach that we see today.

There’s nothing wrong with changing your approach to writing. Novice writers tend to lean on lengthy descriptions, repeating adjectives and a heavy dose of those wicked adverbs. They confuse grammar and sentence structure, and are addicted to the all enticing commas when they don’t belong. It’s a rite of passage that takes numerous wags of the finger from a proofreader or editor to understand. One that when amended, can draw new insight on what your writing potential is.

But it’s not just genres, grammar and inspiration that we can change when writing. It’s our perspective as well. When I was young I called myself an aspiring writer. When I was published, I became an author. Now, after ten years of experience, I see myself as a story enthusiast. Our outlook and relationship with the writing world is what makes us who we are.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” This year, keep in mind that whether it seems like it or not, you are constantly in a state of change. You’ve worked very hard to get where you are, be it that first published poem, completed manuscript or contracted novel. You’re doing yourself a disservice by not keeping your author-mind open and your literary-heart honest.  After all, it should be your writing aspirations that reflect your choices, not your fears.

The Sleeper

“It comes at night and perches upon your chest as you sleep. There it drinks your health like wine.” 

-Old Wives Tale

The mishmash of cultures in the Colonies leads to different folk tales and stories. Perhaps one of the most frightening comes from a German tale about “The Sleeper,” a demon-like creature that creeps in one’s bed at night in order to steal your breath. Much like an incubus, The Sleeper doesn’t just finish off its victims in one sitting. Instead, it comes and feeds on dozens of occasions, weakening its victim’s health. Those who are visited complain of poor constitution, exhaustion and mood swings. The only way to rid yourself of the creature is to smudge your house with white sage, cover your mirrors with blankets and roll an egg over your body as to absorb the dark energy. 

But is this creature really a spawn of Satan? Some speculate that it isn’t. The Sleeper seems to need life to sustain itself on Earth, which leads many to believe that it’s not from this realm. It is repulsed by certain bans and respects the laws of physics. Some parazoology experts theorize that the creature is merely a macabre spirit, while still others say that it is a monster from the depths of hell. No matter what the creature is, there’s been a sudden spike in its presence along New England, giving clues that this monster has traveled from the mother land in order to take advantage of the U.S.. 

The Tale of Private Thomas

“And I tell you this, the tale of Private Thomas is no silly ghost story. If you doubt what I say is true, walk his road tonight and see for yourself.”

-William Tassel during the annual Halloween feast 

It’s not an easy task securing the roadside, and for Private Talfryn Thomas, it was no different. Charged with patrolling the unruly New England highways, Private Thomas did so with the company of his horse and lantern. Any signs of restlessness were to be reported to the nearest British fort. But during a mundane patrol on a Halloween night, Talfryn exposed a secret rebel meeting. He was shot and thrown off of Hangman’s Bridge while attempting to report. But Talfyrn’s corpse wouldn’t rest. 

It’s said that on certain nights when lonely travelers take to the road, they can see Private Talfryn Thomas’s lantern flickering from afar. Stranger still, some folks claim to have passed a ragged British soldier on horseback. Upon examining him, they see that his face is rotted and his eyes are aglow. And if you’re a rebel that walks Thomas’s patrol, it’s guaranteed that he’ll drag you from his black horse through the highway, and then throw you from Hangman’s Bridge. And this legend would be just that if not for the several bodies that have been found in the river below Hangman’s Bridge over the years. 

Halloween Treats

Here it comes again, my favorite time of year. There’s a special place in my heart when the moon grows ominous, and the trees go naked. They’re signs of Autumn, and more importantly, they’re harbingers of Halloween. As for little old Justin Alcala, it means research for some of my darker projects. This year I’m cataloging some lesser known European and American folklore and tales. And how selfish it would be of me to not share them with you. So, until the children scream for Halloween, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite monsters and specters with you in order to lure you into the mood.

The Witch of Newark

“A witch should never be afraid of the darkest forest because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her.”-Terry Pratchett

Not every monster starts off as such. The Witch of Newark is a legend past down from generation to generation in both the New Jersey and New England area. As the tale goes, she was once just an ordinary Newark settler girl who’d come from Europe with her family. As time passed and the girl grew older, she turned away from God and began to deal in dark magic within the wilds. She then joined a witch’s cult where she fornicated with the devil. Though this gave her special powers, it also cursed her flesh. Her features contorted into a demon’s, and her skin became withered and old. It’s said that she uses powerful magics to disguise herself, though if you look at her from behind, you can make out her horrific form. She now wanders the forests of New Jersey and New England looking for victims. She tempts them with food, money and sexual favors. Those who fall for her ruse have their souls violently ripped from their bodies in order to sustain the Witch of Newark’s unnaturally long life. 

 But just because it’s a legend, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any merit. Though the Witch of Newark’s folktale may be embellished, occultists and witch hunters have claimed to have evidence of the creature. Huts with dead animals and missing children are found every several years, and it’s said that these are the dwellings of the dark mistress. More over, the occasional survivor of her sin-offerings occasionally comes forth to confirm stories of a young woman who offered them silks and honey, only to transform into a deformed hag that tries to eat them. And although much of it can be construed as fear mongering for curious children who wish to play in the forest, it hasn’t stopped several witch hunters from looking into clues. 

 

Book Signing at Bucket O Blood Bookstore

Hello Chicagoans,

Come to Bucket O Blood Bookstore to get your signed copy of “The Devil in the Wide City” from 5-7pm. I’ll be the guy at the table telling corny jokes.

Book Signing Event Details

3182 N Elston Ave, Chicago, IL 60618

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