Storyville: Finding Original Locations to Set Your Horror Stories

So, I write a lot of scary stories—across horror, fantasy, science fiction—you name it. And one of the first things I do when I start thinking about the concept, is WHERE to set it. You can certainly lean into the tropes of classic dark fiction, but I encourage you to find new locations, less obvious places to start your tragic tales. Let me share with you a story about a recent project of mine.

Golden Sun

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in many anthologies that were edited by Michael Bailey over at Written Backwards. He has been nominated for many awards, and won a few as well! I was in Chiral Mad 2, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 3, and Chiral Mad 4. While I’ve gotten to know Michael over the years, I’ve had to earn my spot in every anthology. Which leads me to the most recent project, Chiral Mad 4.

The idea behind the project was collaboration—and since it was Chiral Mad 4, I decided that I would reach out to three other authors and see if we couldn’t create a linked narrative. In the end, I was lucky enough to pair up with Damien Angelica Walters, Michael Wehunt, and Kristi DeMeester. All three are authors I have worked with in the past, and I love their writing.

The first thing we talked about was how to create this shared world, how to divide up the story, and what that might look like. I suggested we do something like the film Rashomon where there are multiple perspectives, all telling their truth, even though they might contradict each other. We decided on a family—father, mother, daughter, and son—with the missing middle child (daughter) being the catalyst for the story. I ended up with the youngest—the boy, which also happened to be the last section.

I encourage you to dig deep, to pass on the first ideas that pop into your head, to go deeper, to get weirder, and take the less traveled path...

Here’s where setting comes in.

Once we’d decided to take this approach, and everyone had a character, and agreed that it would center around the missing daughter/sister, we had to make some other choices.

We all wanted to push to do something original, and so we had a long conversation about how we might do that. We already felt good about the Rashomon approach, and the structure of the family, but what next?

When you think of horror, what is the first thing that comes to mind? For me, it’s the darkness, the night. That seems to be the vast majority of horror stories—bad things happening in the shadows. So the first decision we made was not to set it at night, in the dark, but to set in the day, in the light. Right away that felt like a challenge. But I liked it. It was immediately forcing me to see sunlight, and the daytime, as different—something I’d have to work hard to make unsettling.

The next thing we talked about was the location. We tossed out any obvious settings, places that are known to be horror tropes—haunted houses/mansions/castles, woods (in cabins or other places), cemeteries, basements, insane asylums/hospitals, abandoned places, summer camps, hotels/motels, amusement parks/carnivals, etc. What we ended up doing was setting it at the beach. At the time, the only remotely close story I could think of was Jaws, and I knew we were not going to go into the water, or at least, not have a shark.

And then we decided on the season. For the most part, when I think of horror, I think of darkness, the cold, and the end of things—in other words, winter. I also think of things dying, falling apart, decay—which is fall. So that left two seasons that don’t immediately say HORROR to me—spring, a season of rebirth and life, and summer, which to me is happiness, no school, playing, and adventure. There have definitely been horror stories set in the summertime, such as all of the aforementioned summer camp flicks, but to me, it seemed the least obvious.

So—beach, summer, daytime. Screams horror, right? Not at all.

What ended up happening was we wrote about the kids, we wrote about what happened at the beach, we wrote about what it was like to parent, to be exhausted, and then to lose a child, for them to disappear—and in the middle of all of that it took some very interesting turns.

I can remember being in a car accident in my youth—driving around downtown Chicago in a car with my then girlfriend. We were headed westbound on a street and in the glint of the sun, I didn’t see a stop sign, and blew right through it, crashing into two cars. The shock, the blindness of the light and violence of that accident have always stayed with me. I was disoriented and confused. It was unsettling. I wanted to tap into that with my story.

In the daytime, in the heat, in the sand dunes—I was surprised to find some rather creepy elements. Not just the bottle the kids found, but the magic that lurked in the rituals, the strange man who hung out by the boardwalk, and the sing-song rhyme that came to the children, and permeated the story. There was a disorientation that took over as we roamed the dunes looking for the lost sister, one hill looking like the next, the sun beating down on everyone, nobody immune. The sparkling item in the bottle, swallowing it all down, it became nefarious. Her blue rain boots became an icon, a symbol, an echo, and a warning. So many elements that previously seemed innocent, were now clues, leading us towards something that lurked just under the surface, waiting to rear its ugly head.

This story, “Golden Sun,” ended up getting into Best Horror of the Year, Volume 11, out now. Which is a dream come true for me, an honor. So we must have been doing something right. And to take on this challenge, to go the opposite direction of every initial horror instinct—that was pretty exciting.

Innovating Tropes

When you sit down to write your next horror story, think about everything that has come before you, all of the classic stories, novels, television shows, and movies. Work as hard as you can to make it original and set it someplace different—or at least try to be original in those more conventional places.

I’ve been talking a lot about Brian Evenson in my classes lately, but his work springs to mind—the childhood drama set around a house in “Windeye,” and the ways it defies convention in structure, revelation, and abstraction; in “Smear,” a science fiction horror story that is incredibly unsettling, different than any space drama I can think of; as well as the claustrophobic flash fiction of “No Matter Which Way We Turned,” a girl with no face, and the religious fervor that surrounds her; as well as his novella, The Warren, that greatly influenced my novelette, Ring of Fire—a story with unreliable narration, set in isolation, so little to be trusted, elements of the movie, Moon, resonating within it. Looking beyond my own work, and “Golden Sun” for a moment, I feel like each of these stories takes familiar locations, and does something new with them—not a haunted house story, but something else entirely, tapping into folklore; not just an outer space story set in a ship, but one that is surreal and disorienting in its narration; taking on a rural feeling, but also a historic one, that feels both old and new at the same time; and then using isolation to create a place out of time, that has science fiction roots, but quickly descends into the uncanny, and the weird.

In Conclusion

In the end, what I think you can do here is take one of two approaches. The first is to find a location that does not immediately say HORROR in capital letters, and see what you can do with that. Think of happy places, safe places, locations where you are not immediately on guard. When I go into a dark basement, or an attic, it immediately causes my imagination to run wild. I don’t feel that in a daycare center, a church, the grocery store, the beach, or other majestic locations—Hawaii, California, Colorado. But I know the minute I mention all of these places, you horror writers out there will already have your gears turning, thinking of how you can flip it, of exceptions to the rule. GOOD. The other option is to work hard to take classic horror locations and really do something different with them—whether it’s the metafictional treatment in The Cabin in the Woods, the slow burn and reveal of Under the Skin, or the unreliable narrator in Shutter Island. Whatever decision you make, I encourage you to dig deep, to pass on the first ideas that pop into your head, to go deeper, to get weirder, and take the less traveled path, showing us places we haven’t been before, tapping into mythology and lore that is unfamiliar, showing us that the horror can lurk in any location—even at the beach, on a sunny day, in the middle of the summer. Good luck!

Image of The Best Horror of the Year Volume Eleven
Author:
Price: $15.99
Publisher: Night Shade (2019)
Binding: Paperback, 480 pages
Image of The Seven Deadliest
Author: John C. Foster, Bracken MacLeod, Kasey Lansdale, Brian Kirk, Rena Mason, Richard Thomas, John F.D. Taff
Price: $9.99
Publisher: Cutting Block Books (2019)
Binding: Paperback, 232 pages
Image of THE WARREN
Author: Brian Evenson
Price: $10.75
Publisher: Tor.com (2016)
Binding: Paperback, 96 pages
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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