Columns > Published on November 14th, 2019

Storyville: Using Rituals to Make Your Stories More Believable

When you write your scary stories, consider the different ways that ritual can inform and add authority to your tale. Think of myths and folklore, spells and prayers, ceremonies. Look at the voodoo, witchcraft, and sorcery that might inform your story. This can really help to add depth, setting, sensory details, and atmosphere to your work. Let me give you a few examples of how I’ve incorporated this into my work.

REPENT

So, I was writing this story, “Repent,” for the Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories anthology. I had been invited into it by two of my favorite editors—Doug Murano and D. Alexander Ward. It’s the story of a bad cop who is living out his life by killing when he can, taking advantage of the power of his position, and generally ignoring his wife and son. When the boy gets sick, the cop learns how much he loves and cares for his family. They try all of the usual things, but in the end, nothing seems to matter.

Consult texts, look online, ask your one weird grandmother from the old country, and take notes.

I frame the story by starting and finishing it in an alley—we get the sense that the man (the cop) is alone, and has been for some time, and that something is coming for him. That framework holds the tension, letting it hang over the entire story.

But back to the ritual. Somewhere along the way he lies in bed at night, in anguish, praying for help. When God doesn’t answer him, he asks anyone (or anything) that is listening to help him as well. And he is given some answers, and told to go to a warehouse.

In my research into Satanism, Wicca, and other witchcraft, I started going down some pretty dark rabbit holes, digging up spells, rituals, and diagrams—ways to summon, to heal, to transfer, to kill. I learned about various herbs and minerals, and how they might be blended to create pastes, powders, and tonics. I learned about candles, light, and fire. And most importantly, I started reading ceremonies.

It terrified me. I know it sounds silly, but when you’re alone, and realize that you have your OWN candles burning, and your OWN incense filling the air, that you have a sketch pad filled with drawings and patterns that you don’t QUITE remember doodling—it can freak you out. I had to do my research, but I found the more I read the words, the more I said them out loud, the less I wanted to continue. I felt like maybe I was getting closer to these things than I wanted to be. Why take any chances, right?

When the story was done, I made sure to do two things—I left out certain ingredients that were essential to the spells, ceremonies, and rituals. And I never wrote, or said out loud, any of the spells, or phrases, completely. I stopped short. I make sure they were incomplete. Just to be safe.

Here is an excerpt:

The double doors hang open like a mouth, and inside I see a red glow, an altar in the middle of the room, a pentagram drawn on the floor in white chalk…I take the three black candles I’ve brought and bring them to the pile that surrounds the altar, and light one of them from another, noticing for the first time that the ring of people surrounding the structure are entirely naked. Some are coated in blood, and some are actively violating their flesh, in a variety of ways, a bell ringing from the edge of the structure, a whispering of foreign words filling my ears.

IN HIS HOUSE

I also wrote a Lovecraftian epistolary story, “In His House,” that will be out early in 2020. I’ve never been a big fan of Lovecraft, or really, of the epistolary form, but I saw an open call, and wanted to take a shot at this weird email idea I had, tapping into the strange language that Lovecraft used.

The key to the story is that the reader has gotten an email: they (you) have been contacted by somebody, who is speaking in second person, talking directly to the audience. It’s both intimate, and if done right, unsettling. The speaker is telling a story, and throughout this invitation, there is a phrase that is uttered:

ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn

He makes you say this phrase three times in order to seal the covenant. In other words, as the reader, if you want to finish the story, you have to do exactly as he tells you. And what does that phrase mean? I’ll tell you:

“In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

So this ties into the other part of the email—asking for help, promising great things to come (“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” Satan asks in The Witch). By the end of the story, you, the reader, have been made one with the cult, with the followers, and I even take the time to show you some of the horrors:

There was a time in the beginning when I too questioned the plan—staring out over the deadlands, the wastelands, at the dry, desert landscape, the hellfires that burned over the horizon, the masses growing in number, filling in one valley after another. The way the earth cracked open, strange appendages and tentacles spooling out of the steaming cracks. The forests at the edge of the mountains spilling creatures on four legs, humping and galloping over the foliage, and into the high grasses as the growth turned into spoil. And up over the range lurked flying beasts with cracked, leathery wings—thick purple veins running through the expanding, unfurling flesh—elongated skulls holding back rows of sharp teeth, chittering in the settling gloam. Below the hills, pools of water, sometimes blue, but more likely a mossy green, a dark scum, filled with gelatinous blobs, covered with spiky hairs, a collection of yellowing eyes atop what might have been considered some kind of head. And snapping at my own heels, the furry creatures with mottled, diseased skin revealed in chunks, snouts exposed to show the fractured, bony skulls beneath it all, long, slavering tongues distending, lapping at the foul air around us.

The final words of the story tie back into the phrase that you have been uttering, reading, maybe even saying out loud. Here are the final lines:

“My work here is done. The Great Dreamer awakens. In his house, there will be much suffering.”

IN CONCLUSION

So what I tried to do with both stories was do research on ritual, prayer, ceremony, potions, spells, and much more. When you use voodoo, witchcraft, or any other dark art, take the time to dig deep, to write things down, so that we can see how this might be performed, adding depth and believability to your story. It’s the substances you use—the herbs, weeds, flowers, and barks. It’s the words that you say—summoning, communing, and worshipping. It’s the tableau that you set—filled with wonder, horror, hope, and fear. Consult texts, look online, ask your one weird grandmother from the old country, and take notes. When you add this to the rest of your story—the narrative hook, the inciting incident, the internal and external conflicts, leading to that climax, resolution, and denouement—you have a chance of doing something really special.

You might scare your reader.

You might scare yourself.


SOME EXAMPLES TO READ

A really good story I read recently that has some intense ritual in it is a short tale in the current Best American Short Stories (2018) by Matthew Lyons, “The Brothers Brujo.” Another from last year’s Best Horror of the Year (Volume 10) is Brian Hodge’s “West of Matamoros, North of Hell.” I’d also add The Blair Witch, A Dark Song, and of course, Adam Nevill’s novel and film, The Ritual.


DISCLAIMER: Not all witches or Wiccan practice the dark arts or are evil. As in any religion, group, or organization there are good people and bad. It was not my intent to portray all witches as vengeful, hateful, or dangerous. In fact, the witches I know focus on healing, acceptance, and helping others—harming none. 

About the author

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.

Similar Columns

Explore other columns from across the blog.

Book Brawl: Geek Love vs. Water for Elephants

In Book Brawl, two books that are somehow related will get in the ring and fight it out for the coveted honor of being declared literary champion. Two books enter. One book leaves. This month,...

The 10 Best Sci-Fi Books That Should Be Box Office Blockbusters

It seems as if Hollywood is entirely bereft of fresh material. Next year, three different live-action Snow White films will be released in the States. Disney is still terrorizing audiences with t...

Books Without Borders: Life after Liquidation

Though many true book enthusiasts, particularly in the Northwest where locally owned retailers are more common than paperback novels with Fabio on the cover, would never have set foot in a mega-c...

From Silk Purses to Sows’ Ears

Photo via Freeimages.com Moviegoers whose taste in cinema consists entirely of keeping up with the Joneses, or if they’re confident in their ignorance, being the Joneses - the middlebrow, the ...

Cliche, the Literary Default

Original Photo by Gerhard Lipold As writers, we’re constantly told to avoid the cliché. MFA programs in particular indoctrinate an almost Pavlovian shock response against it; workshops in...

A Recap Of... The Wicked Universe

Out of Oz marks Gregory Maguire’s fourth and final book in the series beginning with his brilliant, beloved Wicked. Maguire’s Wicked universe is richly complex, politically contentious, and fille...

Learning | Free Lesson — LitReactor | 2024-05

Try Reedsy's novel writing masterclass — 100% free

Sign up for a free video lesson and learn how to make readers care about your main character.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: