Columns > Published on October 17th, 2013

The Dark Stories Dark Writers Tell in the Dark

As Halloween approaches, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what scares people. Ghosts line the yards of my little street in Suburbia. Witches, too. And zombies and goblins and vampires and spiders and any other creepy-crawlies you can imagine.

My five-year-old thinks she has it all figured out. “I’m going to be a zombie-clown for Halloween this year,” she said to me. “That’ll really freak you out.”

She might be right.

But really, what’s scary? What gets under people's skin? I really want to know.

One of the best parts of my job as a writer is getting to talk to other writers, so I decided to ask some experts. I reached out to some of my favorite writers to see what they had to say about the topic of fear.

He put his hand on the stone and said, "This is my grave. I owned a cotton mill. My wife ran off with the foreman, so I shot the cheatin' bitch." And, again, the dude was four.

First I talked to Chuck Wendig, a master of urban fantasy. Perhaps best known for his novels Blackbirds and Mockingbird, he’s the author of many tales of terror, including my own favorite vampire-zombie mash-up, Double Dead. You can always find Chuck spouting words of writing-wisdom at his web site, Terrible Minds, and sharing random bits of the bizarre out on Twitter.

Next came Delilah S. Dawson, who is, to me, the Queen of the Clockworks. Her steampunk fiction (Wicked as They Come, Wicked as She Wants) is awesome — all petticoats and fantastical creatures and terrifying Blud-suckers. As she expands her reach into the paranormal worlds of YA and even graphic novels, she’ll continue to terrify her audiences with her wild imaginings.

Then we have Ben H. Winters, the Edgar Award winning writer of The Last Policeman and Countdown City. His books are frightening in that they’re terrifyingly possible – what would happen if a world-ending comet was bearing down on Earth, ready to end everything? How would everything fall apart? It’s the meticulous detail of Winters’ novels that scares me. It’s so well-researched, well-planned, it feels real.

And finally, there’s Adam Christopher, whose Empire State won SciFi Now’s Book of the Year award for 2012. Since then he’s come out with several more novels, blending comic book nostalgia with noir-style writing to create science fiction thrillers ripe with alien creatures, haunting presences, and even robots. And seriously — I happen to think robots in general are super-scary, so there you go.

I asked each of these fabulous writers three simple questions. That's it. And their responses...well, you just have to read them to believe them. But I think they get to the heart of what's scary, from real-life ghosts to the thought of something happening to any of our children.

In most families, if you go back far enough, you can find a “true” ghost story, passed down through the generations. Sometimes they’re scary, sometimes they’re guardian angel-ish, but they’re almost always present somewhere. Does your family have one? Will you share it here?

Chuck: Oh hell yeah. And my story proves that ghosts exist -- er, at least for me.

Here's how: my cousin and I once used a Ouija board in my house. Which is, probably, a bad idea. We used it. We got a name. And we were interrupted in the middle of our use by a couple of carpet-layers coming to lay carpet in the room — and we interrupted the "conversation" because we were embarrassed. 

Two things happened, after that.

First, what was an unhaunted house become a haunted house. For years after, lots of strange happenings occurred in our home: electronics going goofy in the middle of the night, footsteps, a little flag in our kitchen waving inexplicably, sounds of singing outside at night. Strange stuff.

Second, a few years later I was talking to my father about our house and its history, I think for some kinda school project. And I had been under the mistaken impression that our house had been our house for a long time. "In the family," so to speak. What he told me was, no, that wasn't true: my grandfather had purchased the house from a whole other family. And that family's son died out in the woods — not sure how or why, though I'm guessing he got lost or fell down or something. 

The real booger is, that boy's name was the same name we got on the Ouija board that bright and sunny day.

True story.

Delilah: My grandmother had a younger brother named Jerry who was always peculiar and claimed he could see ghosts. When he was four, their family was walking through the old cemetery on the way to a burial, and Jerry stopped at a tombstone that was so old it couldn't be read. He put his hand on the stone and said, "This is my grave. I owned a cotton mill. My wife ran off with the foreman, so I shot the cheatin' bitch." And, again, the dude was four.

I live in the same town, and my writing group meets at an historic building very near that cemetery. The building is haunted by a ghost from the same mill whose name is Clarence. Clarence likes me and will steal my jewelry if I leave it on the table. So far, I've lost a favorite earring and a ring.

Ben: I can't really think of a good true ghost story. Maybe I come from exceedingly rational stock, and no one ever went in for that sort of thing. The closest thing I can think of is that when my youngest daughter was born, we had just been home from the hospital a couple days when—in the middle of the night—and of course we're up, or at least my wife was up and the baby was up and I was at best semi-sleeping—a bat flew out of our closet and started swooping around our bedroom. My wife rushed the baby from the room, and I managed somehow to capture the thing in a pillow case and escort it to the back yard. Later we'd figure out that it had come down from the attic. But at the time it sure felt like a spirit, like a living embodiment of all of the anxiety and fear that comes with a new child. (Along with the joy, of course.) 

Adam: Oddly enough, we don't have one. I grew up in an old house in which some odd stuff happened, although I should point out that the house was subsiding — there was a huge crack in the wall of my bedroom — so it wasn't just an old house, but an old house that was moving on its foundations. Which probably explained a thing or two.

Finish this sentence please. “If I were trapped in a dark room, the one thing I wouldn’t want to find hiding in the corner is…”

Chuck: A clown.

If [a] clown is in a dark room and hiding in the corner, that's a clown with some dark shit going on. That's a bad clown. That's one of Satan's clowns.

Now, listen, I'm not the type to be particularly afraid of clowns. Clowns can be a little goofy (adults in garish makeup chasing around children, desperate to amuse? eeeesh), but I don't consider them the manifestation of evil or anything.

But if this clown is in a dark room and hiding in the corner, that's a clown with some dark shit going on. That's a bad clown. 

That's one of Satan's clowns, is what it is.

Delilah: The guy from Red Dragon. If Francis Dolarhyde targets you, you're basically screwed and will end up dead with mirrors in your eyeballs. That, or a ball of wolf spiders.

Ben: "…instructions." In all of these new  horror movies, the bad guy is always leaving people bound in horrible ways, with these grisly instructions on how to save themselves. You gotta use this saw, or shoot that other guy, or chew off your leg, or whatever. If I'm trapped in a dark room, I hope it's just an accident, and no one has done it on purpose and left me a note about it.  

Adam: ... a shadow that moves. Seriously, I have a thing about shadows. ERK.

All of you write stories that have dark elements, which can rattle readers and get under their skin. But what gets under your skin? Is there anything that bothers you so much, you’ll never actually write about it?

Chuck: Nothing I'd never write about. I like confronting my fears in my books. Hell, Mockingbird confronts two of my fears: hydrophobia and hypochondria.

Delilah: Kidnapping and hurting children. Of all the horrors Stephen King planted in my mind during my formative years, Gage in Pet Sematary really freaked me out. 

Ben: Never say never, but I don't think I could ever write about young children in explicit danger. Yes, I find it deeply upsetting, but also I find it's often done as a cheap way to earn the sympathies of the reader (or, more often, the viewer). 

Adam: I like my scares to be vague, oblique, implied — so when they do appear in my work, that's the form they take. I can't put a finger on anything I wouldn't write about because it bothers me too much... but then perhaps I don't approach this kind of territory in my work often enough to know.

Having said that, I've written plenty of stuff that bothers me — I think if you can generate that kind of reaction within yourself, as the WRITER, then you're in exactly the right place.

So now, dear readers…

It’s your turn. Tell me, in the comments if you’re so inclined: What scares you? What don't you want to find, waiting for you in the dark?

About the author

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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