On writing horror
My book of short stories, "Shades of Red," is available now!
Grief, guilt, paranoia, and shame fuel the terrors of SHADES OF RED: a collection of stories that range from the eerie to the horrific, the private to the global, the mundane to the apocalyptic. Here, horror comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and shades.
I recently published a collection of short horror stories entitled Shades of Red. The collection includes eight stories of varying lengths. It is available in both Kindle and paperback formats.
Writing horror is what comes most naturally to me. It's the mode that most lends itself to starting from just a germ of an idea, a seed. A horror story generally begins with me asking myself a simple "What if?" question. What if this happened? What if the world worked like this? What if a dog brought you the gift of revenge? What if depression could walk and talk? What would it look like and what would it say?
I'm at my best when I start from the "What if?" and "Who to?" angle. Horror makes this easy. If I'm writing a drama, a comedy, or something less speculative, even a crime-thriller, it immediately puts me in the position of having to think about plot. I don't just have to ask myself "what if," but also "Why?" and "How?" These are the questions I can get stuck on. It's the difference between story and plot. If the story is what happens, the plot is how it happens.
When I write horror, I feel free. No matter how dark the subject matter or how bleak the tone, horror allows me to approach a story from the place where I'm most comfortable as a writer.
Writing this way, asking myself these "what if?" questions, can give way to a lot of ideas that are smaller in size and scope. They might not make full-length stories, but some are still worth exploring.
That's how a lot of the stories in Shades of Red came to be.
What if my boyfriend transformed into a mythical, man-eating monster at night and started eating my friends?
"The Wendigo" started as a five-minute monologue I wrote and performed for my friend's live show, The Newness. The overall idea was that I was in character at this live event, talking about my fear of intimacy with my new boyfriend, while slowly revealing that he may be a man-eating monster called a wendigo.
Through this question, I started to explore my own relationship with fear. Living with anxiety and C-PTSD, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between gut instinct and paranoia. My brain doesn't always have a firm grasp on what is actually hurting me. My protagonist here has the same issue.
This is Fantasy and It Means Nothing
What if strangers were looking in on your most horrific moment and commenting on it?
In some ways, this story builds on the dilemma of the first. What do you do when the person you love turns out to be a stranger? This story is more external. Snippets of social media comments, which are a horror show of their own, bolster the protagonist's experience of learning that her fiancé is a murderer.
The inspiration for this one is a bit more obvious. It was inspired by one particular murder case in a town I used to live in and how that killer was caught, but more generally, it is based on the reactions I see on social media after any horrific crime, and the circle of blame and vitriol (much of it warranted) that took place afterward.
That Boy Sure Can Wash a Car
What if a run-down, working-class house was haunted instead of a big, ornate mansion?
Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is horrific because we're never sure how much of it is actually happening and how much is the effect of Eleanor Vance's broken psyche. But what if the house in that story were more like the ones I grew up in? With their crumbling foundations and half-finished paint jobs and cheap drywall, what would it mean for the house, say, my grandmother lived in to be haunted? What happens if a man like that house, crumbling from within, is pushed to the edge, as the fear and shame keeping him from lashing out erodes day by day?
The Reminiscences of the Last Known Bear
What if a bear started speaking to a hunter?
This idea was simple enough at first. Somewhere between fantasy and character study, I originally wrote this one as a short play while at Northwestern. It started as a comedy, and it only got more depressing as I chased it down. This usually happens to me. The only real changes I made in adapting it to fiction was a bookend involving the Hunter character, who was a little underdeveloped in the play.
What if sriracha were so good it made you want to eat whatever it touched?
Back when I was in college, it seemed like two products, sriracha sauce and Nutella, exploded into full-blown crazes. For some people, liking them almost seemed to supplant a personality. I seem to remember a sriracha shortage being covered at one point, although I'm not too sure if that actually happened. But people talked about sriracha and Nutella as if they were ravenous for it.
This is another one that started from a simple idea before it took on greater political themes. I thought of the memes about white people's inability to season our food (despite waging literal wars over spices), and the frenzied desperation of white people who want so badly to be seen as "one of the good ones." Or the white people who date people of different races and think it gives them carte blanche to speak for that particular group.
The "vulture" refers not just to the act of devouring all in one's path, but also the idea of the "culture vulture," who takes and takes to fulfill their own sense of political and moral purity. After combining these two ideas, "Vulture" was born.
What if nuclear destruction was imminent?
The most haunting moment of any piece of nuclear war media I've encountered is that moment after the electromagnetic pulse. When cars, electronics, anything electronic or mechanical, are suddenly and irreparably shut down, stunning the world into silence. Purgatory. The moment between life and death. This is where I chose to tell a story about a family eating dinner, trying to maintain the nuclear unit (pun intended), until it inevitably crumbles.
Again, this story had its first life as a short play. Some of the representational aspects still exist in the text. It seemed appropriate, as this is such a strange, unreal moment, suspended outside of time.
What if a dog kept bringing dead animals to your door?
I was at a party with distant relatives once, and one of them told a story of what she called "the adopted dog from Hell." She described how a dog she and her family adopted kept bringing dead animals into their house. This included spiders, birds, mice, what have you. This behavior escalated until the dog brought something big, I can't remember if it was a squirrel or a rabbit, and literally chased my relative around the house with it. Trying to give it to her, I assume.
This is when "An Offering" started to germinate.
Of course, the story takes this idea to the nth degree. In some ways, this was the hardest story to write. It relied on the inner life of parents who've lost a child. It's a profound thing and one that I have zero knowledge of myself. What I chose to focus on, though, was what connected me to the two grieving mothers. Both struggle with guilt and both have different coping mechanisms.
What am I supposed to do? What could I have done differently? How much of this is my fault? Do I deserve to ever feel better? Why don't I feel worse? These are all questions I've asked myself. Grief and depression make those questions worse. But the question of what will bring this family back together is the central dilemma of this story. It won't be pretty.
Miss Iola's Rough Time
What if depression itself could walk and talk? What would it look like? What would it say?
I first wrote a version of "Miss Iola's Rough Time" back in 2015. It began with the image of an old woman, sitting on a porch swing, talking to a man in dusty black clothes and a hat, like the traveling preacher played by Julian Beck in the Poltergeist movies.
It later became a short play which, like "The Wendigo," was first performed at The Newness. Depression has always been a large part of my life, even before I knew what it was. I think back to being ten years old when that feeling like lead in my limbs would glue me to the couch, to my bed, even to the floor. It was anesthetizing, like a warm bath. The thing about depression is how seductive it can be. When you can't even bring yourself to get up, staying in bed seems like medicine.
But the version of depression we see here is beaten, ragged, malnourished. He smells like something sweet gone rotten. The references to what he used to be to her, how much he has changed, how powerless he has become. But he's still alive, and he needs watching.
Shades of Red, Volume One is, as implied, only the first in a series. I hope to keep writing and publishing under the banner. Get your copy today!
Also, these stories first premiered to my Patreon supporters. If you're willing and able, for just $3, you can have access to all my stories and patron-only posts at Patreon/joeshetina: