Some time ago I was sitting on the front porch with a friend of mine and he told me he had a ghost story and then he told me it. Most people have a ghost story and I tend to believe every one I hear. This particular friend, his eyes were watering when he told me his tale and by the end I had the chills and I was standing up and saying things like, “Oh MAN. Wow. What did you DO?”
It took us a while to get unscared again.
We went on to talk about other (less freaky) things, but his story had already colored the night and whenever I stepped down to the lawn to take a pee or went inside to fetch us a drink, I saw I hadn’t really shaken it yet. Naturally I started thinking about how I needed to write a book that was as scary as his story, and somewhere in the blur of the night I was struck with an image of the disparate word counts of his story and the novel I’d eventually write to match it. How long was his story? Two paragraphs? Certainly less than two pages. And so how the hell did he scare me so badly with a story less than two pages long?
This truth, for a man of lecherous letters, is worth thinking on.
What if the scariest stories are the shortest? A sentence, a couple paragraphs, a glance?
It’s no secret that the imagination goes hiking when it’s only given a nugget to play with; you invent the rest– the origin, the end, where all this evil is going. And so what if the formula really is so simple; the shorter the story, the scarier the story. And the longer the story, the harder it is to maintain the Dreadful Mood.
Let’s play with that.
Your buddy tells you he woke up one night and had to use the bathroom bad. He walked the dark hall to the bathroom and on the way he peered into the guest bedroom and saw the doll that his sick mother has come to believe is her actual child sitting up on a chair, facing the door, facing him.
Scary enough, yeah?
Now, the short story version (20, 30 pages?) includes Mom’s psychological demise, gives you a little more about your buddy, how he looks, what he likes, doesn’t like. Maybe the doll even calls him “brother.”
Sounds cool, but have we lost any of that initial Mood?
We might have. And it might be worth it to us, too.
The novel, of course, gives you a lot more, and at the same time struggles to maintain that initial Dreadful Mood. Now you got other characters… some kind of arc… the doll has become Mom’s real child… the narrator doesn’t trust it… tries to replace it with another one… but oh no it turns out that anything Mom believes becomes true. (I like that btw) So now she thinks this NEW doll is her living child, and so it is. She also thinks the refrigerator is alive. And hungry. And so it is.
By now we’ve definitely lost the initial Mood. And that’s okay, in the name of the novel, in the name of having a dark book to dip into for days. (NOTE: is the Mood distilled even further if it’s an epic novel? Probably, except that most epic novels have huge casts of characters, which works somewhat like a collection of short stories, until they all meet at the end in some epic battle of pretty vs ugly, smooth vs wrinkled, good vs bad. Which of course is like a short story of its own.)
So lets say this little idea is law. Let’s say you can get yourself a plaque at craft stores like Michael’s and greeting cards at big bookstores that say: SHORTER IS SCARIER
Where then do we go if we want the brevity of the Mood itself but the weight of the novel? The weight in our hands?
Isn’t there anything… between the two?
The toaster (that Mom thinks is alive, and so it is) suddenly pops to life and burnt into a piece of bread are the two words: THE NOVELLA
The answer. An answer anyway. And one most horror fans already know a lot about.
“The novella!” cries the bedposts in Mom’s bedroom. “The novella!” screams the toilet. The walls get more specific:
“The novella is the ideal length for a horror story because it’s just short of the moment in which the novel has to turn tricks. The novella gives you a chance to spread out the initial Dreadful Mood over less than 200 pages, while still happily give birth to girth.”
I’ll take it. I’d already started thinking this way before Mister John F.D. Taff approached me with his (brilliant) concept for I CAN TASTE THE BLOOD. Five authors. Five voices.
Five NOVELLAS, too. Five chances to listen to a friend’s horror story, to get into it for a day or two, to feel the satisfaction of a long story without losing that first quick burst… the idea… the glance… the brief account.
These five novellas, however, paint a single Bigger Mood (like the Constructicons, five construction site vehicles that band together to form Devastator) without losing their individual Dreadful Moods, the kernels by which all chilling stories are told.
Often on a front porch. Drinking. Late night.
A page or two in the dark.