Sunday, October 30, 2011

How Do You Write Scary?

For all kinds of reasons October is my favorite time of year. A recent reason is a couple evenings ago at a coffee shop a pretty young woman dressed as a cat approached me. She wore a skintight black bodysuit with big furry triangular ears on top of her head. A long, curly tail swished very slowly behind her, and she had whiskers painted on her cheeks. It's not unusual for people to talk to me about writing, but in December, March or August none of them are women dressed like slinky Halloween cats. That's strictly an October thing.

Viva October!

The cat said she had just finished reading my e-book of scary short stories, "Trust and Other Nightmares." She told me she enjoyed a good fright, so she liked the book a lot. I thanked her. Then, her tail twitching, she said she wanted to ask me something.

"How do you write scary?"

She put her hands on her hips and looked at me. She was waiting for an answer. Felines aren't renown for their patience.

I told her this: Many years ago I worked for a private security company. Some government jobs, corporate clients, but mostly we watched over the homes of well-to-do folks. I was working one snowy Christmas because the company was very short-handed and I was very broke. Late that Christmas night dispatch sent me and an alarm tech named Cleo to check out a client's house. It was more mansion than house, buried deep in a heavily wooded suburb off a winding road without streetlights. The clients were traveling abroad for the holidays, and the place was empty, so it wasn't good that its motion detectors were going off. Oddly, the perimeter motion detectors ringing the house hadn't been tripped --  just the interior detectors. I was tasked to take Amber to the site so she could fix what was obviously a malfunctioning system.

When we pulled up in the company SUV the house was completely dark, just as it should have been. The snow on the drive and walkways was undisturbed. Off in the distance to the south, through trees moaning under masses of frothing snow, we could barely make out colored lights winking at us from the living room windows of the nearest neighbors. Cleo grabbed her toolkit from the SUV and we struggled through the snow to the rear of the house. She used a remote to disable the perimeter alarms, and I went to the back door that lead to the kitchen to see if it was locked. It was, which was good. Through frosted windows we could see the light of the motion detector monitor in the kitchen beaming a steady red telling us all was well. I unlocked the door and turned the knob. It wouldn't open. I pushed against it harder, then Amber helped me. The unlocked door wouldn't move, no matter how much we slammed our weight against it. We stepped back, breathing hard in the cold, looking at each other. The motion detector light in the kitchen flickered a moment, then started flaring and flashing wildly. We were panting a yard away from it when the door softly clicked and slowly swung open. My pulse accelerated as I drew my weapon and lead Amber inside. From a console hidden in the kitchen she quickly and quietly disabled the interior motion detectors. I tried to turn on the kitchen lights, but they wouldn't work. None of the lights in the house would come on, even though the refrigerator's hum and the green glow of the digital clock on the microwave's face showed the power was on. Knowing back-up wouldn't arrive for hours if at all so late on a blizzardy Christmas night, we decided to check the house ourselves so we could finish and get out sooner rather than later. It took us almost an hour to clear the immense house, room by room, huddling behind the sweep of my flashlight and the barrel of my pistol. No intruders but us, spooked by a stuck back door.

Cleo took my flashlight and pulled up a chair to sit in front of the security console and begin her work. I flipped the kitchen light switches a few more times without effect while she hummed a Barry Manilow song I hated and dug through her toolkit. I told her I was going back to the truck to get a couple more flashlights and our thermoses. In the flashlight's glow I made out the silhouette of her head nodding as I turned to venture reluctantly back into the cold.

Sharp flakes battered my face and stung my eyes as I waded through waves of  thick, white snow. I kept my head down and followed the remnants of the tracks we left earlier. An icy wind alternately howled and whispered in my ears while I trudged around the side of the house to the driveway. When I reached the SUV my whole body was shivering. I threw myself in the driver's seat and slammed the door, eager to hide for a minute from the cold. The snow had piled up enough on the vehicle's windows while we were in the house that it was too dark inside to see. Fumbling with numb fingertips for the ignition, I slid the key in it, then flipped on the wipers and peered through endless whorls of snowflakes at the house.

Warm, yellow lamplight flowed from an upstairs bedroom window that framed Cleo while she grinned at me, giving me a big thumbs-up. I leaned toward the windshield and waved back, glad the job was done and we could head back to the warmth of the office. Then I was flung against the passenger door when the SUV lifted into the air and slammed into the driveway on its side. Yelping at a shooting pain in my right elbow, I scrambled to find my footing on the passenger door while the SUV rocked back and forth and a low, deep growl rumbled through the truck's steel skeleton. My reeling mind raced to right itself and fight off screaming panic. In a desperate attempt to regain my bearings I threw my eyes at the windshield and saw a hulking shadow drift past the overturned truck. The darkness moved past the windshield and my heart crashed against my ribs as manic snow hurled itself against the cracked windscreen and icy, jagged letters took shape in the broken glass.

You can't help her.

The brief pastiche above is nothing more than an hors d'oeuvre, a shard of story I riffed off the top of my head for the curious kitty while we stood for a few minutes in a crowded coffee shop. Still, it contains in one form or another every stalwart ingredient in the classic horror recipe.

But it's not the ingredients that make a story eerie. It's not the recipe. The best ingredients and the most decadent recipes will always fail to please unless a culinary artist brings them together in new and delicious ways.

It's how you write scary. That's what matters.

Happy Halloween. And for the record, I'll take the trick. I always do.

"We shall see that at which dogs howl in the dark, and that at which cats prick up their ears after midnight."
~~ H. P. Lovecraft ~~


  1. I was scared while reading the paragraphs about the check of the house. The scariest statement is "you can't help her". It's what will happen to Cleo, which we don't know, that is the most terrifying Nice job!

  2. Thanks, Peggy. I'm glad you enjoyed my short excursion in horror. Happy Halloween.

  3. Richard, could I have permission to use your CatWoman image above for a project I am working on? It would go perfectly :)