How do you hold reader interest in a scary story?
This is the first in a series where I’ll share a little writing and comment on it. I invite questions and criticism, because this is as much practice and learning for me as exposition to you.
Lucius used to call me up and read me a passage and explain a little about the technique he used to make it work. I consciously use some technique, but whether it works is up to you, and if you think it does and want to know how, ask me questions, and if you think it doesn’t and think you know why, please tell me!
Here are two similar stories (or are they vignettes or openings? What’s the difference? We can discuss).
One is mostly true.
* * *
Edge of the Wilderness
Madeline and Bob, two Forest Service workers, drove out of the midnight woods onto the logging landing, Madeline at the wheel. As Madeline swung the truck around, the headlights stabbed over the slash piles, seeming to animate the broken rigor-mortised limbs. Madeline stopped beside a dark ditch with a steep slope of rhododendron rising beyond, and then killed the engine. Mist drifted up through the high beams a moment before they dimmed and went out.
The hot engine ticked like a dying mechanical heart. Bob was tired, and guessed Madeline was too. They’d been at the spotted-owl inventory for several hours, calling at preset map locations and recording any responses. After the last call, they’d been obliged to skip a couple stations because a great horned owl had answered. Protocol said you couldn’t risk luring a spotted owl into a great horned owl’s territory. The great horned owls ate them.
As Bob’s eyes adjusted to the dark, silhouettes of giant firs resolved in the distance. At last he gathered the energy to move. “Let’s go,” he said. The dome light came on as he swung the door wide, revealing a dark, uncertain drop. “Uh, you need to pull forward. You got us too close to the ditch.”
Madeline re-parked a few yards up. Bob got out as she grabbed her clipboard to make notes. He had to pee, and satisfied she was distracted with the paperwork, he walked around to the back of the pickup. The parking lights shone faintly, just enough to close him in a cave with dark for walls, lighting the edge of the ditch and a few bleached fir limbs and fat green rhododendron leaves on the other side. The air was cold and humid, and his piss steamed as it arced down out of sight in the deep ditch.
He finished up and on the way back toward the cab, he heard Madeline now in the ditch below, snapping twigs.
“Where are you going?” he said.
“What do you mean?”
But her voice did not come from the ditch. She was behind him, back in the truck. The hair rose on his neck. Below him, something began to growl. Rhododendron limbs swished madly. He jerked open the cab.
A moment too late.
The New House
He slept uneasily and then woke in the darkness. He’d dreamed of the baby crying, but she was quiet in her crib. Since his parents had left them alone after the move, he’d slept poorly every night, but he could not account for the anxiety. Work was fine; the new house had been a steal. Realizing his bladder was full, he got up, slow and careful so as not to disturb his wife beside him.
But, no, she was ahead of him in the bathroom. The rush of her pee abruptly echoed in the stillness. As he stepped though the half-open door onto the cold linoleum, he was just able to make out the top of her head in moonlight against the low window. The stream plunged hard into the bowl. He had to wait a surprisingly long time.
At last, she tapered off. Drip. Drip.
The shape of her head looked wrong. Drip. He had an icy feeling in his gut and up his spine.
“Are you all right, Ted?” his wide said from the bedroom.
The thing on the toilet made a growling chuckle. His bowels let loose. From the shadows to his right a small apelike accomplice scuttled out and shut the door.
The thing on the toilet leapt.
* * *
I wrote these for Halloween the other day. I find the second story creepier. The idea of having your space so casually and intimately invaded by monsters; the vulnerability of a young family; the ambiguous silence of the baby – they all work on me.
Of course, the first story is the true one, and I was that Bob. The thing was a bear, but rather than attack, it huffed and then ran off up the slope. You can see how the first story led to the second, which I actually made up during a trip to our dark bathroom where I was surprised my wife had arrived ahead of me and I listened for her to finish.
It came together in a flash, and when it was my turn, it was a relief that it was her after all.