Short Story: “Blank” By C.A.Brown

Note: This will be the last short story in the series. Stay tuned for a series retrospective tomorrow evening 🙂

The snow outside the window looked as pristine as the computer screen sitting in front of Phoebe. She let out a deep sigh and reached for the crumpled tube of biscuits on the edge of the desk. There were only three left. No, forget that, there were only two left.

Phoebe sighed again. She had to write something. Her publisher had said as much in their e-mail. But, putting words on the screen seemed almost as sacrilegious as leaving a trail of dark footsteps across the perfectly iced ground outside the window.

A smile crossed her face. Hadn’t there been an art gallery somewhere that had shown off canvases that were just covered with white paint? Hadn’t people paid millions for them?

Phoebe remembered a comedy book that one of her uncles had bought during the 1990s. It had been titled “Everything Politicians Know About Real People” and it consisted of two hundred empty pages.

For a second, she wondered whether she could get away with changing the title and adding a few extra pages. But, she remembered that her uncle’s old book had already been re-badged as a four hundred page tome called “Good Pop Music 2010-18: A Definitive Guide” that she’d seen on the internet a few nights ago.

Phoebe opened up her document folder and looked at the titles of her previous books. “Beneath Dark Spires”,”Post-Mortem” and “Spectral Signs“‘. She ate another biscuit. Why was this kind of horror fiction so popular these days? She ate the final biscuit. When did horror become so… sophisticated?

Of course, she knew that horror fiction had always been like this. Whether it was that copy of “Dracula” she’d never got round to finishing, or those hilariously formal Dennis Wheatley books that she’d found in a charity shop when she was a teenager, the natural state of horror fiction was one of sophistication. The horror fiction that she really loved had been an anomaly, a mutation, an aberration.

There wasn’t much history to go on, of course. But, when she was growing up, she would always see these books on market stalls, in charity shops and in the kind of second-hand bookshops where you can still smell the dust. They would have midnight black covers with wonderfully realistic paintings of skeletons, zombies and creatures. They read like music. Great crashing crescendos of blood and guts, counterpointed with gentle bucolic descriptions and functional dialogue between functional characters.

It took Phoebe a surprisingly long time to work out that if lots of these crumpled, dog-eared paperbacks were being sold second-hand, they must have been new once. Sure enough, on the internet, she had seen mention of a “horror boom” during the 1980s and 1990s. Apparently, lots of shiny new copies of these books used to festoon newsagents, motorway service station book racks and other quality literary venues.

It just wasn’t fair, dammit! By the time Phoebe had read enough of these books to want to write a horror novel of her own, the only new horror novels were sophisticated ghost stories, clinical police procedurals, gothic vampire stories and Stephen King. Lots of Stephen King. Well, at least some things remained the same.

So, with a heavy heart, she had written a tragic vampiric tale of lost love and eternal mourning. Then she’d written a clinical police procedural. Then a sophisticated ghost story. Everyone loved them. She’d even got good reviews from the critics in the broadsheet papers. She still felt guilty about that. Good horror, she thought, should disgust and appall pompous critics.

And now, with the three popular commercial genres used up, she found herself staring at a blank computer screen. Her eyes drifted to the perfect snow outside once again.

Then, without even thinking about it, her fingers flew across the keyboard “Crimson splashed the unholy altar. Gary’s agonised screams tore the sepulchral air. Above the splashing and screaming, the robed men kept chanting. Like an amateur production of Julius Caesar, they raised their dripping daggers in unison..

She stopped. She blinked. It was the best thing she’d written in three years. She kept writing. A smile crossed her face. She finished the prologue in less than an hour. Her computer pinged at her. Another e-mail from her publisher. With a heavy sigh, she started the first chapter: “In the pristine laboratory at New Scotland Yard, D.I. Stevenson carefully examined the body for forensic evidence..

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Things That Splatterpunk Fiction Can Teach Writers (Even If They Don’t Write Horror)

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Well, with Halloween getting closer, I thought that I’d look at how one old sub-genre of horror fiction can teach you about writing… even if you don’t write horror fiction. I am, of course, talking about splatterpunk fiction.

This is a sub-genre of horror fiction that was popular in the 1980s-1990s, although it has pretty much been absorbed into the “mainstream” horror genre these days. It’s a pivotal genre in the history of horror fiction because it was the first time that horror writers stopped relying on subtle implication and actually described the grisly parts of their stories in a level of extreme detail that varied from coldly clinical to poetic word-painting depending on the author.

Although I read quite a few old second-hand splatterpunk novels when I was a teenager and have read a few vaguely splatterpunk-style modern horror novels (such as “Double Dead” by Chuck Wendig) during my twenties, it’s a genre that I’ve drifted away from somewhat. But, it’s still a genre that has had an influence on my creative works. So, what can it teach you, even if you don’t write horror:

1) Pacing, contrast and descriptions: Although there are some notable exceptions to this rule, one of the fascinating things about the splatterpunk genre is that how splatterpunk writers sometimes varied the detail level in order to emphasise parts of the story. Most of a splatterpunk novel might be written in a fairly “ordinary” kind of way but, whenever something horrific or gruesome happens, then the level of description skyrockets.

By describing certain scenes in considerably more detail than others, a writer can lend those scenes a lot more dramatic impact. However, and this is the important part, highly-detailed descriptions only stand out when they are contrasted with shorter and more “mundane” descriptions in other parts of the story. It’s kind of like how a lightbulb might not look that bright in the middle of a sunny day, but it looks significantly brighter in the middle of the night.

If there’s one thing that you can learn from splatterpunk fiction, it’s that it’s worth saving the extensive, poetic descriptions for scenes where they really matter.

2) Cover art: Although people might tell you not to judge a book by it’s cover, cover art matters. And the splatterpunk genre contains so many great examples of this. With a couple of notable exceptions, many splatterpunk authors weren’t famous. So, if their publisher wanted to attract new fans, attention-grabbing cover art was essential.

If you look through a second-hand bookshop, you’ll be able to recognise the 1980s-1990s splatterpunk novels at a glance. They’re the novels with the ominously dark covers that are often emblazoned with dramatic macabre imagery. For example, the cover art of the very first splatterpunk novel I read (“Assassin” by Shaun Hutson) just featured a decaying zombie’s hand holding a revolver, contrasted against a solid black background.

Publishers of splatterpunk fiction knew how important dramatic cover art was. They knew that, even if the audience didn’t know what the genre was called, they still needed to be able to easily recognise splatterpunk novels. So, they made sure that the cover art gave the audience a general expectation of what to expect if they bought the book.

3) Trends, meaning and variation: One of the more amusing trends during the heyday of the splatterpunk genre was a weird craze for writing about plagues of evil animals. This probably started with James Herbert’s “Rats” novels, but it led to things like two novels about flesh-eating slugs by Shaun Hutson and a series of novels about giant homicidal crabs by Guy N. Smith.

The interesting thing about this trend is that no other author seemed to be able to replicate what made a couple of James Herbert’s “Rats” novels so creepy. The first “Rats” novel is, from what I can remember, as much about poverty and the misery of everyday life in 1970s London as it is about giant rats. Likewise, the third (and best) novel in the series (“Domain”) is genuinely chilling because it’s more about the horrific aftermath of a nuclear war than it is about giant rats. In both books, the killer rats aren’t really the only source of horror.

But, seeing the success of these books, other authors probably assumed that they were popular because they contained plagues of evil creatures. This, of course, led to some hilariously silly – but enjoyable – monster novels. But, although these novels are brilliant examples of how to create original variations of a pre-existing concept, they’re also a cautionary tale about what happens if you follow trends without looking at why something was so effective or popular.

So, if you’re fascinated by a literary trend and want to be a part of it, then ask yourself why the things that started this trend became so popular. The answer might surprise you.

4) Extremity (isn’t everything): If there’s one word that defines the splatterpunk genre, it’s “extreme”. The genre was truly revolutionary for the time because it took the horror genre to new extremes of gruesomeness and grotesquerie. No-one had really done this before.

There’s something to be said for extremity in fiction. It’s something that gets authors noticed and talked about. It’s something that makes the audience remember what they’ve read. But, it has to be done in a sophisticated way in order to stand the test of time.

To use two non-splatterpunk examples, Chuck Palahniuk’s “Guts” is a short story that will probably shock, disgust and repulse you the first time you read it. But, once you know what happens in the ending, a re-reading of the story will make all of the story’s underlying hilarious dark comedy stand out a lot more.

On the other hand, I once read a couple of chapters of Charlotte Roche’s “Wetlands”. This is perhaps the only story I have stopped reading out of genuine revulsion. Yes, it might be because I was too easily-shocked, but there didn’t seem to be anything there to accompany the “shock value” and turn it into something greater.

Many splatterpunk novels feature ludicrously gory descriptions, but these are often accompanied by things such as a mysteriously thrilling storyline, dark comedy or other types of horror (eg: psychological horror, supernatural horror etc..). In other words, they contain more than just extremity.

So, if you’re going to include any kind of extremity in a story, then there has to be something else there to give the extremity value and meaning. Extremity for the sake of extremity rarely works well.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂