“The Law Of Nightmares” By C. A. Brown (Short Story #2 – Halloween 2016)

Stay tuned for the next short story tomorrow at 9:30pm GMT/UTC

Stay tuned for the next short story tomorrow at 9:30pm GMT/UTC

People always make one fatal mistake whenever they have nightmares. They fear that things will get worse. Inevitably, things always do.

If you think that the old pile of leaves beside the empty house looks a bit like a monster, then it will become one. If you’ve seen one too many horror movies and expect a jump scare when you look in the mirror, then you’ll get one.

Nightmares always follow this logic. Once you’ve learnt this, you can fight back. Or, you can try at least….

The trouble with nightmares is that they rarely start out as nightmares. They lull you into a false sense of security with their surreal normality, until things gradually begin to get worse and worse. Before you even realise that you’re not supposed to worry, the nightmare already has you within it’s claws until you wake up gasping and sweaty in your darkened bedroom.

By the time that this has happened, it’s too late to take back control. After all, when things become so terrible that you realise that they just can’t be real, you’ve still got to work out what to do about the robed man in the doorway, the bodies on the linoleum or the shrivelling flesh on your face. Fear sets in, instinct takes over and you’ll just end up making things worse for yourself.

Nightmares start out by making a small bite in your mind and they let you do the rest. They’ll show you something slightly out of place, something slightly wrong and then they’ll let you scratch at it until the fear flows freely. Nightmares are the ultimate parasite. Not even the humble mosquito or the sneakiest tapeworm could ever dream of gaining the evolutionary advantages that nightmares have.

But, like every good parasite, they remain hidden. No scientist has ever been able to trap one in a jar, or dissect one on a table. Well, not officially at least.

There has, of course, been clandestine research into the subject. Very little is known about this, but what evidence exists suggests that, in the fifties, the US Government managed to extract one. They had apparently thought that, with the right conditioning, they could train it to be a new type of weapon. But, they forgot the one law that nightmares always follow.

Descriptions of the nightmare are vague at best. An unconfirmed fragment of an old report that surfaced online during the nineties described it simply as “alien” and “fearsome”. This was, of course, their largest mistake. If you are afraid of a nightmare, you’re putting a tempting meal in front of it. Once it gets hungry enough, not even the thickest glass or the strongest chains can hold it at bay.

Declassified files and interviews with relatives seem to suggest that approximately thirty scientists all died within a single week from an outbreak of smallpox, following a lab accident. Of course, with the bodies swiftly cremated, there is no way to tell whether it was smallpox – or something else.

Nightmares always follow one law, but they may have others. These are, unfortunately, not known to us. They may slither and scuttle around the realm of sleep, unseen by all of us in our waking lives – but they are always there. They must have some kind of unwritten criteria for selecting their victims. After all, some people are fed on by them every night and some can go months or years between being bitten.

Perhaps we all taste different? Perhaps some nightmares are hungrier than others? Perhaps they have rotas and quotas? Perhaps they choose people who will try to fight back, or perhaps they don’t? Perhaps one is even lying in wait for you tonight…

What A Nightmare Taught Me About Plot Twists In The Horror Genre- A Ramble

2016 Artwork Nightmares and horror fiction article sketch

Well, it’s been a while since I wrote an article about writing (and storytelling in general). It’s also been a while since I wrote about the horror genre too. Even so, I’m going to have to start this article by talking about my dreams for a while.

As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later – although I should warn you that, since this is an article about both nightmares and the horror genre, it may contain some disturbing descriptions. But, I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.

The night before I wrote this article, I had a nightmare (which was probably caused by the fact I was watching “Supernatural” at the time). It wasn’t really your garden variety anxiety dream, it was an actual nightmare – with creatures and everything. Well, one mythological creature of some kind, a monster hunter and everyone else.

The interesting thing about this dream was that it wasn’t actually seriously scary until the very end. Yes, this dream actually had a creepy plot twist.

The twist was, of course, that I (unknowingly) turned out to be the ancient creature that the monster hunter had been following. I haven’t even seen “The Twilight Zone” and even I know that this twist is taken directly from that show.

In retrospect, this melodramatic plot twist should have been obvious – given that the monster hunter shot me within two minutes of the dream starting ( at the time, I just assumed that he was aiming at someone else and had missed). Not only that, when I actually saw the bullet wound later in the dream – it was surprisingly small, almost painless and totally bloodless.

Then again, this wasn’t really that shocking for the simple reason that, in most other nightmares that I’ve had, any horrific injuries that I sustain are almost always totally bloodless and only mildly painful at most. It always seems perfectly normal at the time for some reason.

No, the really creepy part of the dream was the sudden change in the emotional reactions of everyone around me towards me when it was revealed that I wasn’t as human as I thought I was.

Although I overheard the monster hunter talking about the creature earlier in the dream (and mentioning that it can be harmed with milk), it wasn’t until after I’d seen my injuries in the mirror that the monster hunter suddenly appeared behind me and poured a glass of milk over my head.

Although the milk produced a theatrical cloud of smoke and some loud hissing sounds, it wasn’t particularly painful or frightening. It was everyone else’s shocked and/or hostile reactions that startled me into waking up quickly.

So, why am I talking about a nightmare that I had? What does any of this have to do with storytelling?

Well, it has to do with how plot twists are handled in the horror genre. As anyone will tell you, all good plot twists should be foreshadowed earlier in the story. To make a plot twist truly shocking, the reader needs to see a couple of subtle clues about it earlier in the story that theoretically give them a chance to work out the twist before it is revealed.

In the horror genre, readers expect a lot of strange and horrific things to happen. They expect tragedy, unusual characters and bizarre events. As such, there’s a lot more room for horror writers to hide clues about upcoming plot twists than there is in many other genres.

For example, I mentioned that all of the injuries in my nightmares tend to be totally bloodless. Most of the time, this just feels like an “ordinary” part of the dream – except for the one time that it was actually a clue that I was actually some kind of ancient creature. If this dream had been anything other than a nightmare, the fact that a gunshot hadn’t really hurt me much would have been a huge clue that something wasn’t right.

Another thing to remember about plot twists in the horror genre is that at least half of the shock value comes from the way that the characters react to these plot twists.

Yes, even if the twist itself is extremely shocking, it’s often only truly horrifying when the characters actually react to it. Regardless of whether they react with abject horror or with cold indifference, character reactions are an extremely important part of any plot twist.

Again, the truly frightening part of my nightmare wasn’t the fact that I was some kind of immortal ancient creature (since this, in itself, would be kind of cool). It was the fact that the people around me suddenly saw me as some kind of monster that had to be killed in the most horrific way possible. That was the true horror of the nightmare!

So, remember to foreshadow your plot twists carefully and – more importantly – remember that your characters’ reactions can make the difference between a scary plot twist and a silly plot twist.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Should You Use Your Own Nightmares As Inspiration For Horror Fiction?

But, alas, Scott Cawthon got there first....

But, alas, Scott Cawthon got there first….

The night before I wrote this article, I had a couple of nightmares. Well, that’s not quite true – they were so disturbing that I kept on waking up and falling back asleep at regular intervals. So, it was more like two or three nightmares in ten parts or whatever.

[WARNING: Before I go any further, I should probably point out that since this is an article about nightmares and writing horror fiction, it will contain graphic descriptions of nightmares and it will also include a rather gory splatterpunk scene from an unpublished horror novella I wrote in 2009. As such, the content of this article may be somewhat disturbing, so reader discretion is advised.]

Anyway, since one of the nightmares involved being chased around a giant kitchen by the monsters from a horror game that I’ve never actually played (called “Five Nights At Freddy’s“), it made me think about the connections between the horror genre and the nightmares that we all have occasionally.

The other nightmares were a bit more random, but they still had a surprisingly large number of connections to the horror genre – one involved someone accidentally killing two people with an experimental shrink ray (due to one of the problems with shrinking technology mentioned in this episode of “Doctor Who”) and then pressuring me into covering up the accident for him. A while later, I actually fell asleep within the dream and saw nothing but gory “Silent Hill“-esque images of flayed bodies.

Of course, all of this stuff also raises the question of whether we should use our own nightmares as inspiration for the horror stories that we write. Since this is one of those questions that doesn’t really have any clear “right” or “wrong” answers, this article will just be my opinion on the subject and nothing more.

But, before I go any further, I should point out that you obviously shouldn’t directly use any nightmares based on pre-existing horror movies in your fiction for copyright reasons. If you’re going to use something from a horror movie-based nightmare in your story then be sure to make substantial changes (eg: use completely different characters and/or monsters) and to add a lot of new and original details, so that no-one can accuse you of directly ripping off someone else’s work.

Anyway, the main reason why nightmares can be useful for a horror writer is that they can give us a glimpse into our own fears and anxieties. Whilst some types of nightmares are fairly universal (eg: being chased by monsters, experiencing your own death, nightmares featuring horrific injuries, nightmares based on horror movies etc…), many nightmares are often a lot more specific and are only scary because they tap into your own personal fears.

For example, if you’re afraid of clowns, then a dream set in an old-fashioned circus would be absolutely horrifying. But, if you aren’t, then it would probably just be bizarre and whimsical.

Likewise, if (like me) you don’t exactly like spiders – then a dream about a giant spider/crab creature crawling across your bedroom window would scare you senseless. But, if you aren’t, then it probably wouldn’t.

Nightmares based on personal fears can be invaluable to horror writers because a good horror story should be as scary (if not more) to write as it is to read, but they can also cause a few problems too.

Why? Because not all of your readers will have the same fears and anxieties as you do, so your story probably won’t scare them as much as you might hope it would.

So, if you’re going to write fiction based on your nightmares, then it’s best to focus on the “universal” types of nightmares that I mentioned earlier. Yes, this won’t produce anything stunningly original, but there’s a good chance that the exact details of your nightmare will probably be at least slightly unique. After all, everyone has a subtly different imagination and this will inevitably be expressed in different ways.

For example, one of the strange quirks of my subconscious mind is that most of the nightmares I’ve had that involve me sustaining horrific injuries rarely feature any blood. It’s almost like my body in these nightmares is actually one of Dr Gunther Von Hagens’ “plastinated” bodies. This isn’t too disturbing in the nightmares where, say, I only lose a finger – but it can be downright horrifying and unreal for more serious injuries.

So, this is the kind of thing which would be perfect for a horror story. It taps into a universal fear (eg: serious injury), but at the same time, it contains enough strange and unique details to ensure that even the most jaded fans of the horror genre are shocked and surprised.

In fact, I actually used one of these nightmares in an unpublished horror novella I wrote in 2009 called “Ostenta” (although I’ve edited it for quality here, it was written in just three days – and it shows!) Or, rather, I cruelly inflicted my nightmare on a random character in order to add some melodrama to the story. Here’s the scene in question:

He opened the door of the en-suite bathroom and pressed another light switch, the bathroom bulb flickered several times before coating the coffin-like room in dim light. He walked two steps to the sink and reached for the empty glass beside the taps, not really looking up at the mirror. He filled the glass with cold water and began to drink. As he finished the water, he saw himself in the mirror. He almost dropped the glass.

The skin beneath his right eye seemed scarred and twisted, as if it had been caught in a fire. The skin seemed to be lumpy, parts of it were twisted into tight raised lines. Slowly, he reached up and scratched it. The dull ache disappeared in seconds, replaced by a harsh, stinging agony. He tried to wince but only his left eye closed itself, he could barely see anything through his right eye. He felt a wetness in his hand. He was holding something, sticky and leathery. He dropped it.

Despite the pain, he managed to open his left eye and saw a red blur on the tiled floor. He turned towards the mirror again. The scarred skin below his right eye was gone and he could see every muscle around his eye- red, taut and twitching. He could see the bottom of his eyeball, the dim light above him shining off the white orb. The wound did not bleed. The pain grew more intense. He screamed.

As you can see, this scene taps into some fairly universal fears (eg: mysterious injuries, disease, the human body, blindness etc…) but, at the same time, it includes enough strange and unique dream-like features to make it unpredictable and, therefore, genuinely shocking.

So, what I’m trying to say here is that it’s a great idea to take inspiration from your nightmares when you’re writing horror fiction. However, it is also a good idea to make sure that you only use the nightmares that you know will scare other people too.

Likewise, it can also be a good idea to take strange things from your nightmares and use them in scenes which aren’t directly connected to your nightmares.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂