Lately I’ve been working on a new story that’s likely going to be a novelette or novella. It’s about ten-thousand words long at the time I’m writing this, and it’s unusual subject matter for me because it’s human-based horror.

I’ve written before on the differences between supernatural and human-based horror stories, and how authors tend to gravitate to one or the other with the stories they write. Personally, I tend to gravitate towards stories with supernatural threats in both what I read and what I write, But occasionally I do like a human-based horror story. In fact, the scariest novel I’ve ever read was human-based horror (The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum, and that novel still leaves me shaking!), and back in college I wrote a human-based horror/thriller novel called Snake that I had a lot of fun writing.

But this is my first time really delving into human-based horror since Snake, and I’m realizing a few things about it that separates it from supernatural horror. Specifically, the mechanics of such stories. Let me try to explain it: in my mind, supernatural horror stories work something like driving into a dark tunnel that you find out has some dangerous structural issues. Now prior to entering the tunnel, you’ve heard of structural issues, but you’ve been told to treat them like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, as in they’re not real and you don’t have to worry about them. Because of that, you may only half-believe in structural issues at most. Until you start driving into the tunnel, and you come to the realization that not only do structural issues exist, but they can kill you if you’re not careful navigating them.

This is how a lot of supernatural horror stories work: people go into a situation pretty sure that nothing beyond the natural realm can hurt them, only to realize there’s a dark, second world all around them that until now they didn’t believe in, and if they’re not careful, it’s going to kill them.

Human-based horror, on the other hand, works more like a downward spiral. At the very top of the spiral, things don’t necessarily start so bad. There’s probably a hint of evil, but nothing to really alarm you yet. But as you get further down the spiral, things start to get darker. Someone starts showing violent or cruel impulses. Someone else may end up grievously injured or even dead. As time goes on, the injuries or deaths may get more gruesome, or be explored in more detail. The person or persons causing the horror may get nastier, bolder, and crueler. This will only continue to escalate as the characters (and the reader) get down the spiral, and things come to its inevitable head.

We need only look at one of the most famous volumes of human-based horror, Misery by Stephen King, to see this in action. At the beginning, Annie Wilkes is only hinted at being the monster she is. But as time goes on, she starts torturing Paul Sheldon to do as she wants. First it’s small stuff: making him drink soapy water or withholding food and medication. But then Annie gets worse, hitting his legs when he complains about the typewriter, cutting off his foot when he leaves the room, and then cutting off a thumb when he complains about the typewriter breaking down. All leading to that fateful night, after Annie kills a State Trooper, where she and Paul have the battle of (and over) their lives.

I’ll let you know how the story goes as I continue writing it, shall I?

This is the mechanic that I’m keeping in mind as I write this new story. And so far, I’m finding it works. This is quickly becoming one of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever tried writing. Hell, I felt a little uncomfortable while writing one particular scene, so I can only imagine what it’ll do to my readers if I get the story published. And I’m learning quite a bit from writing it too. I’m looking forward to how this story develops as I continue writing it.

I’ll let you guys know how it turns out when it’s finished, shall I?

What tips or insights do you have for writing human-based horror?

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There’s a certain era of British history that writers write about maybe more than the medieval era. This era witnessed unprecedented growth and change for the British empire, as well as many of the greatest contributions to literature in the past three hundred years. Not to mention a whole lot of material for bodice rippers and horror stories.

I’m talking about the Victorian era. Named, rather obviously, after Queen Victoria, who sat on the British throne from June 1837 until January 1901. This has long been an era of interest to authors of a number of different genres, as well as among the general populace. Every year, hundreds of works of fiction come out set in that era: novels and short stories, movies, TV shows, comic books. We also have at least a couple of new books on any given topic of the era, and there are Victorian enthusiasts all over the world who research that age like crazy and even like to dress up as Victorians.

But what is it about the Victorian era that entrances people? Why do so many authors visit this age to write?* Well, I have a few guesses as to why that is:

  • The romance and glitz of the era. I think this is our first association with the Victorian age. I don’t know where or when this association popped up, but it’s the main reason. More than any other reason, there’s a romanticism to that age. Perhaps it might have something to do with the number of famous novels that came out during that era. A number of them have romance as an important plot or subplot. And as many of these books have endured the test of time, they’ve colored our associations of that age.
    Which brings me to the next point:

  • The literature. While I’m not the biggest fan of the Victorians’ writing style (racism aside, if he weren’t a halfway decent writer, I’d give up on Lovecraft for taking too much after them), it’s undeniable that many of the authors from that age left quite a mark on our modern literature. We still read Charles Dickens in classrooms across the world, and there are countless adaptations of A Christmas Carol out there. The Bronte sisters have all created works that have been held up as timeless romances for generations of readers. And as my good friend Angela Misri will tell you, no character has become more synonymous with the word “detective” than Sherlock Holmes. Truly the literature of the age has had an effect on our view of it.
  • An era of widespread change. Victorian Britain went through an amazing number of changes during Victoria’s reign. The most obvious, of course, was this was the age of the Industrial Revolution. Factories and manufacturing became the hub of the economy, and millions moved to the cities to find work. This change also contributed to a number of new work practices, as well as contributing to the overcrowding of cities and the widening gap between the rich and the poor that we still see today. This was also when Britain spread its empire across the world and into new territories, including parts of Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
    But there were other changes. For example, who was allowed to vote was widened, women gained many more rights, and education became available to the lower classes. And that’s just scratching the surface of the number of changes that occurred while Victoria was on the throne.

And of course, Jack the Ripper’s the perfect embodiment of the age’s dark side.

  • Victorian Britain had a dark and dirty underbelly. While most of us associate the era with glitz and romance, there’s a darker side to Queen Victoria’s age. Poverty was widespread, and many people struggled to make ends meet. Women often had to turn to prostitution just to get a bite to eat or a place to sleep for the night. Many turned to alcohol or opium to numb their troubles. This was the background that allowed Jack the Ripper to hunt down those prostitutes.
    On top of that, medicine, cosmetics, and foods were more likely to kill out of you than help you. Opium or arsenic in your gout cure, lead in your foundation, poor refrigeration and rat droppings in your meat. Hell, your clothes could choke you to death and the dyes could stain your skin for months. People bathed only once a week, and the rest of the time they used heavy perfumes to mask the smell. And if you lived in London, you could expect mud and shit to line the roads rather than bricks!
    And God help you if you had a mental illness. Or a woman who wanted anything more than being a dutiful wife and mother. You could get locked up and have cold water dumped on your head from great heights while doctors came up with all sorts of crazy reasons for why you were mad. Common reasons include not being religious enough, having faulty menstruation, or masturbating.
    Yeah, you laugh, but imagine having to live through it. Pretty nasty, right? It was even worse if you were Irish. The Irish potato famine was going on around this time, and let me tell you, the folks in Parliament could’ve done a lot more to help out with that.
  • It lends itself to many genres. This is probably the biggest reason of all: it’s adaptable to many stories. Historical fiction, obviously, but you’ll find the Victorians appearing in many different kinds of stories. Romances are often set in that world, but also science fiction (steampunk especially), horror stories (Gothic and ghost stories especially, and some cosmic horror too), fantasies (especially ones with fairies or little girls falling down rabbit holes) and of course, mysteries and thrillers.

All these and more are why the Victorians enjoy such staying power in our media. It’s a perfect storm of factors for making a time period not only endure in literature, but give it a special cast that makes it interesting to the writer and average person alike.

I actually first fell in love with the Victorians while in college. I read a manga set in Victorian England, and while it was heavy on the romance and glitz, it got me interested. I’ve kept reading since then, and found out quite a bit more. And seeing as during my research, I’ve come up with more than a few ideas for stories, all that research will definitely come in handy.

If you would like to dive into the Victorian world and learn a bit about it, here are my recommendations:

If you want a good intro to Victorian England, this might be a good gateway drug for it.

  • Emma by Kaoru Mori. In no way related to the novel by Jane Austen, this historical romance manga was my first real introduction to the Victorian period. Beautiful art and a simple yet engaging story.
  • Victorian Britain from The Great Courses. Narrated by Professor Allitt of Emory University, this series of lectures is a great overview of the period for the average visitor.
  • The Complete Jack the Ripper by Donald Rumbelow. You want to know the most about the most notorious serial killer in history and cut through all the rumor and bullshit? This is the book for you.
  • How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman. You want to know what the average life of a Victorian was like? From rich to poor, this is the book for you.
  • Victoria: A Life by A.N. Wilson. A friend from college sent this to me as a birthday present. It’s a rather eye-opening look at Queen Victoria’s life and reign.
  • Unmentionable by Therese O’Neill. Want to know all about Victorian bathroom habits, and the stuff they don’t talk about in the bodice rippers or polite society? You will laugh yourself silly with this one. Trust me, I just finished it yesterday, I would know.

Well, I’ve about talked your ear off on this age. But can you see why? It’s a fascinating era, and it’s one that’s going to continue to show up in fiction for years to come (especially if I can write a good story or two in it). And it’s amazing how just one woman’s reign, the first in centuries in her country that nearly never happened (seriously, read how she became heir to the throne. It’s insane!), has endured as much as it had. Whether romantic and shiny or dark and seedy, there’s a story in this era just for you.

Do you enjoy or write about Victorian England? Why? Why do you think it’s so popular?

What media do you recommend for anyone wanting to learn about the era?

*I’m not suggesting, by the by, that this age is visited more than any other. One needs only look at the breadth of literature to see that storytellers are drawing from all of known history and even from dark prehistory to tell stories. I just chose Victoria’s reign because that one has special importance to me, as you can tell.

I heard about this film a few months ago, and thought the trailer looked promising. Even when the reviews came in and said the film was terrible (one review I saw called it a “soulless possession flick”), I was still interested. So today I got in the car and went to see it, thinking it would either be as terrible as advertised, or I might like it more than others had.

Well, you can’t live on caviar alone, can you?

The Possession of Hannah Grace follows Megan, a former cop and recovering addict who gets a job on the night shift at a hospital morgue. On her second night, a body gets dropped off with extensive damage, the result of a botched exorcism, and immediately weird things start happening around Megan. Machines won’t work, someone breaks into the morgue, and the body seems to change in very odd ways. Soon Megan realizes the corpse, the human formerly known as Hannah Grace, may be more than just a dead body. It may be the vessel for something much worse.

This film was rife with problems. I mean, it had a great set, and the actors put their all into their roles. Shay Mitchell as Megan does a great job as vulnerable, and it was a nice surprise seeing Stana Katic from Castle as Megan’s friend/AA sponsor (I miss that show sometimes). And there are a couple of good jump scares here and there, plus some pretty brutal death scenes. There’s a good horror film trying to break out of here.

The problem is, it’s just not scary. It starts off showing Hannah Grace’s failed exorcism and how she dies, and that takes out much of the mystery and suspense of the film. I feel if the film had been given a different name and the knowledge that Hannah’s botched exorcism until two-thirds through the film as a twist reveal, it would’ve been more effective. As it is though, we know too much, and see where it’s going much too soon. That wouldn’t be a problem (that’s usually how films in the Conjuring series or some of Blumhouse’s films operate, and those are often very good), but the lack of atmosphere and the poor attempts at jump scares don’t do the film any favors.

Also, the ending gave me so many questions. Not the good kind of questions, like the ones that make you return to the film to look for Easter eggs or hidden meanings. The kind that make you scratch your head and wonder what the filmmakers were thinking when they made these decisions. I won’t say what they were in case you don’t want to be spoiled, but let’s just say they left me a little disappointed, and I’d be more than happy to vent in the comments.

And oh my God, you can hear every breath Megan makes! And while that’s normal for characters in a scary movie to breathe hard, here it’s just distracting for some reason.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving The Possession of Hannah Grace a 1.5. It’s a crappy possession film that’s trying to market itself as a B-grade popcorn muncher but not doing any of the work to get that distinction.

On the bright side, based on the ticket sales for this film, we won’t have to worry about a sequel or prequel. That’s something to be thankful for.

Happy Hanukkah and Happy Holidays, one and all.

(For those curious as to what Hanukkah is about, I gave an explanation in the comments)

I’m going to try to keep this post short, though there’s a great temptation to write a thousand words or more. And that’s because despite how crazy this past week has been, its also been kind of uplifting. Why? Because my organization really showed me how much it wanted to make sure all its associates felt included during the holidays. And that included the Jews.

Now as many of you know, I am Jewish (this will be important in a bit). And as many of you also know, I work for a supply organization in a role called an Equal Employment Opportunity Specialist. It’s kind of like HR, but we’re focused on promoting diversity, accommodating associates with disabilities, and combating discrimination and harassment in the workforce. It’s an important job, because a properly diverse and accepting workforce is one with a wide talent pool and a healthy mental state.

Okay, enough background. Let me get to the important part. On Tuesday, I was sitting having breakfast in my office when our Director of Operations (hereafter referred to as the DoO), a member of our regional executive staff, came to visit me. Which is pretty unusual. I see him on occasion around the building and we’ll chat, but I don’t interact much with the executives in my organization. You can imagine my surprise when the DoO came to talk to me, and understand my first thought upon seeing him: I’ve had this nightmare before, but I was naked in it.

Turns out, the DoO wanted to consult me. You see, I did a stand-up routine at a company talent show last year (yes, that happened), and it was centered around kosher cooking. Since then, I’ve gained a reputation as the resident expert on Judaism. With that in mind, the DoO wanted to know if it would be a good idea to have a menorah to represent Hanukkah at the Executive Open House, one of our organization’s annual holiday events when you can go through the executive suite and schmooze with the top brass. That event usually has a lot of tinsel and Christmas trees, but no menorah. And the DoO wanted to know if including one would be a good idea.

I said yes, that would be a wonderful idea, and I gave some other suggestions of things to include (dreidels, chocolate gelt, etc). I then gave him some ideas where he could find all those. Less than an hour later, I was asked to go shopping with him at the nearest place to see if we could find a menorah. I said sure, hoping to God I wouldn’t embarrass myself, and we went shopping. We found plenty of gelt, but they were fresh out of menorahs. One thing you need to know about my organization, though, we don’t do anything partway. So I got into contact with one of the local synagogues, which I knew had a gift shop with plenty of menorahs. After work that day, I went straight there and bought a menorah, along with a ton of dreidels. Mission accomplished.

The DoO and I with the menorah. So grateful for this kind gesture.

Fast forward to today (Thursday, if you’re reading this later on), I brought the menorah and dreidels in. We set it up first in the DoO’s office after he invited me up to the Executive Suite, and then later it ended up in a more public space when another associate brought in their menorah from home. And I have to say, it looked really good there too.

But through all this, I couldn’t help but thinking how wonderful it was for the DoO and the rest of the top brass to be thinking of my people. As many of you are aware, there has been a rise in anti-Semitic incidents and attacks lately, the worst being the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October. These attacks on my people have been tough on all of us. I’ve been feeling an upswing in anxiety since October myself. However, I’ve been trying to fight back by staying strong and filling the world with more good and kindness than they can fill it with evil. And this simple thoughtful gesture, while small, was huge in its impact, and I can’t help but thank the DoO for helping to put a bit of good back in this crazy world.

I hope it’s part of a greater trend to make the world a nicer place.

Happy Hanukkah, Followers of Fear. I hope this brought some light into your life during the Festival of Lights. I’m heading off to bed. Until next time (possibly this weekend), pleasant nightmares one and all.

The real Annabelle doll next to the movie version.

The other day I was driving home from grocery shopping, and this silly insurance commercial came on the radio about a creepy doll. According to the commercial’s announcer, the scary doll, which can’t help being creepy and claims horror movies as its natural habitat, knows paying less for car insurance is good sense. The announcer then says, “The only question is, how did the creepy doll get down the hallway? I would get out of the house if I were you.”

I responded to said commercial, “Well, you’re not me. And after I finished going ‘Oh holy shit, the doll moved!’ I’d take the opportunity to find out as much as I can about the doll and the spirit possessing it.”

Yeah. That’s me in a nutshell.

My relationship with dolls have gone through a transformation over the years. At first I was freaked out by them, but over time I’ve become enamored of them, and even have a small collection of dolls and figurines. And the idea that some dolls and figurines might be inhabited by spirits fascinates me. I enjoy the Annabelle films and would love to own the collectible version of it (I hear the actual Annabelle doll is a little hard to come by, especially since it’s under lock and key. So that’s out). I enjoy watching videos about haunted dolls on YouTube, including this one from Buzzfeed.

I seriously thought this doll was haunted at one point. For better or worse, it’s not.

And it probably won’t shock you that I once suspected one or two from my own collection were haunted (I swear I thought I saw the arm of a figurine move, though that particular arm has no joints). I even checked one of my dolls, the one I thought most likely to be haunted, to see if it had any spirits. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on your opinion), my dowsing rods experiment didn’t yield any meaningful results, so I’m going to have to say that’s a no.

But a part of me would like to own a haunted doll. Why? Well, I guess for the same reason people collect salt and pepper shakers or go out of their way to get comic books. Something about the item in question appeals to them. Dolls already appeal to me, and I’ve been to haunted locations before.  Seems like just a great meeting of two loves, like scaring people and writing.

And as the Buzzfeed video above says, you can find those pretty easily on sites like eBay. I was actually on Etsy the other day and saw this one haunted doll that I felt almost drawn to. And it was reasonably priced. You know, for a doll that might actually have a self-aware spirit or intelligent entity attached to it.

Of course, the problem there is that, yes, the doll has someone or something attached to it. Some dolls, like the actual Annabelle doll, supposedly have one or more demons attached to it. Imagine taking something like that into your home and being negatively affected by it. The doll or its spirit could destroy property, threaten lives, etc. Robert the Doll supposedly curses anyone who takes pictures with him without permission, which can lead to financial ruin and physical harm.

And if it does have something nasty attached to it, what would I do to contain it? I’m acquainted with one of the former owners of the Dybbuk Box,* and he had to go to all sorts of lengths to keep that box from affecting him and his family. Imagine what I might have to go through to keep that doll from messing with my life.

But I guess that’s the risk bringing anything into your home that’s alive. Yeah, a haunted doll would be a lot more complicated than a pet, but it’s still something I would like to try.

Perhaps in the future I’ll be given the chance to bring a haunted doll into my house. And who knows? It might not lead to anything, but I’ll hopefully have fun and get a few story ideas from it.

But tell me, do you think haunted dolls exist? Do you have any stories you’d like to share? Would you own one if you could? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading another post by me about just how strange I am. As always, appreciate the support. I’ll hopefully have another post out later this week. Until then, my Followers of Fear, good night and pleasant nightmares!

*For those of you who don’t know, a dybbuk is a ghost in Jewish folklore that’s turned away from Heaven and Hell and possesses living people to interact with the real world. The dybbuk box is a wine cabinet that supposedly has a malevolent dybbuk attached to it, and has been blamed for a number of misfortunes that befell past owners. Currently it’s housed in Zak Bagans’s Haunted Museum, where you have to be 18 or over and sign a waiver to see the box, as it curses anyone near it, including rapper Post Malone.

If you think you’ve heard of this before, that’s because the Dybbuk Box was the inspiration for the horror movie The Possession (which I highly recommend), and dybbuks in general have inspired countless pieces of literature and theater, including a famous play and ballet, and even a certain short story from my college days.

You know, sometimes you come across movies in the weirdest ways. Sometimes they’re just on while flipping channels, or someone makes a reference to it and you want to know the interest. I heard about Down a Dark Hall because I heard AnnaSophia Robb (aka the kid from Because of Winn-Dixie) was in it. I remember she used to slay in anything I saw her in (especially The Reaping, another horror film she was in), and the fact that this was a horror film got me interested. I asked my local library to order it, they said yes, and I picked it up this weekend, not sure what I was going to get but looking forward to finding out.

This turned out to be a decent example of modern Gothic horror.

Based on the Gothic YA novel by Lois Duncan, Down a Dark Hall follows Kit, a troubled teenager whose mother sends her to an elite academy with the hopes of straightening her out. There with only four other similarly-troubled girls, Kit finds that the school’s very unique and focused program starts to have results. Weird results. Results that devolve into obsession, addiction, neurosis and trauma. On top of that, Kit has been seeing things in the hallways and in the dark. Faces, people, movement. All this collides to lead Kit to a terrifying realization about the school, and what its staff is doing to the students.

For starters, the actors in this film all do a very good job in their roles. AnnaSophia Robb as Kit slays again, inhabiting this very angry girl who slowly finds herself actually liking the school and then distrusting it as things get weird like a second skin or as if she’s done this a hundred times before. The same goes for Victoria Moroles as Veronica, who hides her own tragedies in a badass attitude. And Uma Thurman does a great job as the aristocratic and charismatic Madame Duret.

The film’s story is also very compelling. It checks all four of the boxes I mention in my article on Gothic fiction, all in a very pretty set, and you definitely find yourself caught up in the mystery of the story. Some of the most disturbing moments of the film are when you see these girls falling under the spell of the school, becoming obsessed with math or music or painting or whatever and how badly it affects them. And the special effects aren’t half bad either, more subtle than garish or distracting.

However, the film isn’t without its issues. I never felt very scared, and there wasn’t much of an atmosphere or sense of threat. Outside of the moments of obsession, that is. In addition, a few things in the film felt a little extraneous. There was a certain bald-headed and scarred ghost that really didn’t serve any purpose beyond a few extra scares, and the romantic tension between Kit and her music teacher was inserted, but nothing was really done with it. Seriously, the question of how to portray those relationships in fiction aside, either use it or cut it out and just show them as close student and teacher!

Finally, I also thought that the ending was wrapped up in too sweet a bow and maybe a few minutes too long. In some ways, it felt a little too hopeful compared to the rest of the film, which jars the viewer and takes away from the experience.

Still, Down a Dark Hall was a good Gothic horror film. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving it a 3.8. It’s no Kill Creek (which I highly recommend by the way, check out my review as to why), but if you turn off the lights in your living room and put this on the Blu-Ray player, you probably won’t regret it. Check it out and see for yourself.

I’m going to try to keep this post short, because it’s very late and I should be in bed right now recharging for tomorrow’s labors. But I got caught up in the writing and ended up finishing a short story this evening. And as is my habit, I have to write a blog post about it. Some things you just can’t stop me from doing. And at 13 pages and 3,352 words, this is one of the shortest short stories I’ve written in–damn, I don’t know how long. Maybe high school. Maybe ever.

Malkah, for those of you who aren’t aware, is the Hebrew word for “Queen,” and it plays a bit of a role in this story, about a pair of Jewish parents who lose their daughter to a horrific act of anti-Semitism. One of the parents goes the extra length to ease the pain, with horrific consequences.

If you read my last post, you know I’ve been a little on edge lately from the rise of anti-Semitic incidents I’ve seen in the news lately. Between that post and this one, I saw another one about a man trying to run over Orthodox Jews leaving services on Saturday with his car. Needless to say, with the subject matter in this short story, I channeled some of that uneasiness and fear into my writing. Whether or not that made the story any better is up to the reader. Still, I feel it taps into fears we all feel at times, especially when it comes to our loved ones.

And if the editing process goes well for this one, who knows? I’ve got my eye on a particular publication I’ve tried getting published in a few times in the past. Perhaps they’ll like this one and want to publish it. And if not, there are always other fish in the sea (or publications searching for stories). And I feel the work I’ve been producing lately has been of a higher grade than usual. Perhaps some of it stands a chance.

Well, that’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’ll take a day or two to relax from all the marathon writing, and then get into my next short story. This one, I’m sure, will leave quite a few people disturbed. Hell, it disturbs me just thinking about it. Given my tolerance for scary, I think that says something.

Well, I’m off to bed. Until next time, my Followers of Fear, pleasant nightmares!