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The Craft of Terror

How to tell a spooky story

We like to be scared. Maybe not too much, but enough to feel the chill of possibility in our bones.
    As chilling night temperatures tell us the frost is near, time has come to tell spooky stories.
    This week, Bay Weekly guides you to the haunts of Chesapeake Country in a special section of Halloween Tricks and Treats.
    We have a spooky story, too, imagined and written for you by Richard Johnson of Deale.
    As a World War II bomber pilot of Flying Fortresses, Johnson must have learned a lot about terror. As a spooky storyteller, he has followed in the ghostly footsteps of the master, Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), who lived for many years and died in Baltimore.
    For panicked possession, no story ever told beats Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.”
    Preparing for this week’s paper, I scared myself with it again, searching out my very old Modern Library edition of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe. There I found “The Telltale Heart,” marked with a pencil check after I first read it so many years ago.
    Having again read its age-soft pages, I write with shaky fingers these instructions on how you, like Johnson, can create your own spooky stories.
    First, put some poor soul in trouble.
    The unfortunate can report the story first person, as do both Johnson and the hearer of the Telltale Heart. Alternately, you might choose some she or he to endure the worst you can imagine.
    Whoever — I, he or she — must have blundered into a situation about to get out of control.
    The blunder can be accidental, as in the many stories and movies where luckless characters move into a haunted house. Even the possession in The Exorcist, story and movie, was accidental, as poor Regan did nothing to invite demons to occupy her body.
    Blunders into accidental, unaccountable troubles remind us that the world is a dangerous place in more ways than any mere mortal can fathom.
    Or she, he or I can take an adventure too far. Go into the depths of time or space — the past, the ocean or the cosmos — and monsters may well find you. That’s why ancient mapmakers so often marked terra or mare incognito with the legend dragons be here.
    Trouble-provoking blunders can also be foolhardy, as in Johnson’s “Sleeping with Ghosts.” Yes, it’s blaming the victim, but don’t you believe it’s asking for trouble to venture into a cemetery on Halloween or a haunted house in a storm?
    Of course trouble is just what they get.
    For soon, things begin to go wrong. The clues should be small at first, niggling noise, inexplicable movings or sightings just beyond peripheral vision. Reason will, of course, ignore these signs, but animal instincts will not. You must have the hair stand up on your character’s — and your audience’s — neck.
    Atmospherics add to the experience. Haunted houses naturally have creaky floors and doors, and cemeteries at night hold dark shadows, invisible webs and eerie com­pany. Woods, outer space and oceans offer vast spaces where anything might be.
    The daring storyteller might reverse expectations, setting a spooky story in a sunny spot. For few spaces on earth have not seen terror and tragedy. You don’t have to go to a cemetery to find a ghost.
    Wherever you choose to set your tale, give the anything some whiskers and wiggle.
    That’s all you need to give it. The source of the trouble need never appear. Perhaps it shouldn’t. Movies can manage a spook as scary as the Alien, but even their technology and makeup often fail. Moviegoer Diana Beechener regularly complains about monsters that don’t live up to billing.
    Create your spook by the signs its malice leaves behind. A world changing out of control is a terrifying place. Manipulate the terror — and our heart rates — with devilishly clever pacing. Troubles should come in ever-worsening steps. Follow Poe’s model in the horrifying “Pit and the Pendulum,” my favorite of his stories, with moments of respite, as if escape might be possible.
    Of course it isn’t.
    Thus the very best way to realize your spook is by dramatizing the effects it works on your poor victim. Scare by scare, the person you’ve sentenced to serve as your victim must go to pieces, à la Telltale Heart. Encounter by encounter, realization must grow. Until, at the end, the lost soul knows the impossible is true.
    She or he may live, if you so desire, but as a person forever changed.
    That’s the storyteller’s moment of triumph.
    Your listeners are petrified with pity and fear, as if you’ve whispered Who-o-o-o-o’s got my golden arm? You do!

P.S. Even a very short story can do the trick, opening up the terror of possibility. See for yourself in reader Amy Porter’s 300 words below in Your Say.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com