Saturday, October 25, 2014
4:10 PM |
Notes on a Short Story: The Flicker
I wrote "The Flicker" because I wanted to scare myself. Before this, I had written one other story -- "The Painted Lady" -- when I was still studying in Japan, which tried to limn the atmosphere of a horror story, but its eventual effect laid bare the true nature of its intentions: I had written it as a kind of commentary about the exit of an old flame. It was my heartbreak disguised as a vampire story. I think it succeeded more or less as an emo take on lost love, skirting much of the vampire lore and the horror tropes and treating the genre wholly as some vague metaphor to what I was feeling inside: betrayed, lost, in mourning, still hopelessly pining.
"The Flicker" was none of that. I set out to write a horror story, and I wanted to horrify myself as best as I could.
In preparation for this, I read
. I always read before starting a story, to soak up on the cadence, narrative structure, and effect that other writers have accomplished with similar projects so that I, too, could be able to at least kindle a bit of inspiration to start things off. I read a bit of Stephen King's On Writing
, his memoir of the craft. In it, he demonstrated some of the things he was talking about writing in his book, and these demonstrations eventually became a short story he titled "1408." It was a haunted hotel room story. The excerpts from the book weren't complete, so I sought out the entire story and read it in one go -- and it proved to be one of the scariest things I had ever read.
I wanted to carry over some of those feelings of dread into the story I wanted to write. I wanted to write about a haunted house in a Dumaguete subdivision. I wanted to have a twist in the end that was adequately surprising, but also inevitable. I wanted to have turns in the plot that would push the reader to expect something -- like the typical "jump scare" in a horror movie -- only to thwart their expectations. And THEN to plunge them into something totally unexpected soon right after. I remembered that old Charlie Chaplin story about being asked by the screenwriter Charles MacArthur what made something funny in a movie, say involving a woman and a bananan peel. How do you make that funny and fresh on film?
Mr. MacArthur asked Mr. Chaplin. The great man of silent comedy said that he'd show a shot of the banana peel on the street, then a shot of the woman walking towards it, then a shot of the woman seeing the banana peel, then a shot of the woman walking around it, then a shot of the woman walking away, looking self-satisfied with her caution -- and then a shot of the woman falling promptly into an open manhole.
, and also I really wanted to see whether I could accomplish a haunted house story -- that most hoary of all hoary horror tropes -- and get away with it without making it predictable.
I think I accomplished what I set out to do. I promised myself I would not work out an ending before even penning the story. I wanted the ending to come to me organically, whatever that meant. I still remember the night I came to the ending. While I was writing it, in the process horrifying myself with the ending I managed to come up with, I felt the hair at the back of my neck stand, and I could feel some spectre -- a ghost? a ghoul? -- standing behind me while I pounded out the last few words of the story. That image of knives and flesh and bone crept me out, and I swore right then and there I would never write a horror story again.
I wrote this story at the tail-end of 2007, a surprising year. It was surprising because I became quite prolific that year, some happy accident of circumstance, drive, and inspiration. I wrote a lot that year, and came up with a sizeable inventory of short stories slated for publication. Before that, I used to complete at the most two stories a year, and I was also just coming off a long period of writer's block, which lasted three years or so, and which I thought would proved to be permanently crippling -- I had no idea it was slowly tapering away. I wrote about eight stories that year. It was a magical year.
"The Flicker" was first published in
Philippines Free Press, 22 September 2007. It was later published in
Philippine Speculative Fiction 3, edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar (Kestrel, 2007). Later, it was anthologized in
The Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction, edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar (University of the Philippines Press, 2013). It is also included in
Heartbreak and Magic: Stories of Fantasy and Horror (Anvil Publishing, 2011).
Illustration for the story by Hersley-Ven Casero, also published in Heartbreak and Magic.
Labels: fiction, horror, life, writing
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