No Terror in the Bang

What makes something suspenseful? What are the necessary ingredients that, when mixed together in just the right amounts, at just the right moments, cause us to feel the tension at a visceral level, and make us want to read through the pages at warp speed, desperate to see how it all turns out?

flippages

 

When asking such a question, who better to turn to than the Master of Suspense himself?

“There is no terror in the bang,”Alfred Hitchcock once said, “only in the anticipation of it.”  Indeed.  In his films, the acclaimed director is not seeking quick, cheap thrills.  He builds tension, slowly, incrementally, a nip here, a prod there . . . we as the audience are left knowing something will happen.  But when?  Where?  In what way?  The buildup has us on the edge of our seats.

hitch

 

Perhaps no movie embodies this more than Hitchcock’s most controversial work, Psycho.

For many, Psycho will forever be remembered for its shower scene, where the main character of the movie up to that point, Marion Crane, produces cinema’s most famous scream before being brutally murdered in the Bates Motel.

scream

 

Released in 1960, Psycho was a landmark, breaking many of Hollywood’s long-standing and previously iron-clad rules.  Never before had moviegoers witnessed such a graphic murder; never before had a star actress been eliminated not even halfway through a film; and, indeed, never before had a toilet been flushed on-screen, as it was shortly before the stabbing.

toilet

 

However, for all that, I would argue that Psycho‘s most effective, and suspenseful, scene occurs just prior to Marion Crane’s shower.

To back up for a moment . . . Marion has just stumbled upon the Bates Motel, well off the beaten path, as she flees from her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, a large sum of stolen money in her purse.  She is running away, to see her boyfriend, who lives just across the California state line, in debt himself.

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However, driving through a rainstorm on a dark night, Marion’s conscience begins to get the better of her.  We witness her inner struggle, as she wages battle with her personal demons.  We sympathize with her.  We get to know her.

batesmotelatnight

 

And by the time she checks in to the Bates Motel, she wraps the money in a newspaper, fully intent on returning to Phoenix the next day and setting things right. 

stolenmoney

 

But for now, for tonight, she has agreed to have dinner with the motel’s proprietor, Norman Bates, who has invited her to come up to the Gothic mansion that sits on the hill overlooking the motel.

mansion

 

The place is deserted.  The main thoroughfare no longer runs by the Bates Motel, as it once did.  Nowadays, as Norman himself admits, no one ever stops there anymore unless they’ve mistakenly turned off of the new highway.

As Marion, tucked away in her motel room, hides the stolen money, she overhears an argument between Norman and what we (and Marion) assume to be his mother, coming from inside the mansion atop the hill.  Their voices carry on the damp night air.  Mrs. Bates tells him, in no uncertain terms, that the “strange young girl”  is not welcome in her home.   Moments later, Norman sheepishly returns to the motel, a tray of sandwiches and milk in hand.

normanwiththefood

 

Awkwardly, apologizing for his mother’s outburst, he invites Marion to eat in the parlor behind the motel office, since “eating in an office is just too officious.”

As they enter the parlor, Marion notices a collection of stuffed birds hanging on the walls–crows, owls, hawks, assorted birds of prey. She asks Norman about this.

stuffedbirds

 

He shares with her the essentials of taxidermy, but explains he only stuffs birds, nothing else.  “Some people stuff dogs and cats,” he says.  “But I can’t do that.”  He smiles, looking and acting like the boy next door.

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normantaxidermy

 

“A man should have a hobby,” Marion says.

He smiles again, says a hobby should pass the time, not fill it.

“Is your time so empty?” she asks him.  “Do you go out with friends?”

He pauses, fidgets.  “Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother.”

At this point, the discussion inevitably shifts toward Norman’s relationship with his mother.  He tells Marion that when his mother yells at him, as she just did, he feels like “cursing her” and “defying her.”  But he knows he can’t.  “She’s ill,” mentally unstable.

When Marion asks him why he doesn’t go away for a while, he shakes his head.

eatslikebird

 

“I couldn’t do that.  Who’d look after her?  She’d be alone up there.  Her fire would go out, and be cold and damp like a grave.  If you love someone, you don’t do that to them even if you hate them. . . . You understand, I don’t hate her.  I hate what she’s become.  I hate the illness.”

“Wouldn’t it be better if you put her . . . someplace?” Marion asks.

Norman’s face suddenly darkens.  Gone is the smile.  He scowls, the stuffed birds behind him watching, lurking.

normanscowl

 

“You mean an institution?” he says.  “A madhouse?  People always call a madhouse ‘someplace,’ don’t they?  ‘Put her in someplace.'”

“I’m sorry,” Marion says, clearly growing nervous.  Norman’s demeanor has undergone a quick 180 since she first sat down.  The kind, almost chivalrous host has left.  In his place there is now a grim, angry alter ego.  “I didn’t mean it to sound uncaring.”

Norman spits out his next words through clenched teeth.  “What do you know about caring?  Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places?  The laughing and the tears, and the cruel eyes staring at you?  My mother there?  But she’s harmless!  She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.”

sheneedsme

 

The camera pans back and forth between the two. Marion is wide-eyed, concerned, realizing she has unintentionally snipped and hacked at a nerve.

marionbecomingconcerned

 

She apologizes again, tells him she meant well.

“People always mean well,” he says, teeth still clenched.  “They cluck their thick tongues oh so very delicately.”  Marion’s expression has now morphed from concern to fear.  What will this man do?

But then Norman sits back, his features softening.  “Of course, I’ve suggested it myself.  But I hate to even think about it.  She needs me.  It’s not as if she were a maniac, a raving thing.  She just goes a little mad sometimes.  We all go a little mad sometimes.”  And now the smile returns . . . “Haven’t you?”

normaninparlor

 

Marion admits that she has, and gets up.  Norman wants her to stay, “just for talk,” but she tells him she’s very tired.  Deferential now, the boyish charm back, he promises to bring her breakfast first thing tomorrow morning.

It is a breakfast that will never be served.  Mere minutes later, Marion is murdered in her shower.

shower

 

*************

Psycho‘s Parlor Scene is a masterpiece in mood, foreshadowing, tension, and, most important of all, character.  In one scene, we witness the many multiple aspects of Norman Bates.  We are charmed by his initial shyness, his polite, impeccable manners, his boyish good looks.

boyishsmile

 

But over the course of the conversation, as the pall of his mother takes over, we are frightened, right along with Marion, at his transformation into an angry, bitter misanthrope.  By the time the scene ends, and he swings back to the smiling boy next door, we can only feel a chill.  The smile no longer seems so innocent.  The kindness no longer feels so pure.  Something terrible lurks just beneath the surface.

lurkingbeneath

 

If the Parlor Scene had never occurred, the murder in the shower still would have stunned and horrified audiences.  But the effect would not have been as profound or memorable, or suspenseful, nor would it have been as earnestly won.  Meeting Norman Bates in the parlor, witnessing the duality of  his character, and watching how it all plays out in his interaction with Marion Crane, the tension builds to a crescendo, taking us further along on this winding, uphill journey into terror.

***************

Certainly The Eye-Dancers is nowhere near as dark or violent as Psycho, but it is, I hope, suspenseful where it needs to be.  It was my goal, when I wrote the novel, to place the main characters under the fictional microscope as it were, so readers would get to know Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski very, very well.

Suspense can be built into any kind of story or situation.  From a death-defying stunt to armed hand-to-hand combat on the one end, to the results of a test score or the outcome of a sporting event on the other.

rollercoastersuspense

 

You don’t need a groundbreaking, horrific shower scene to generate suspense.

You just need engaging, interesting characters and allow your audience the opportunity to get to know them.

insidebrain

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Doll in the Basement

There was nothing unusual or out of the ordinary about that day–at least, not at first.

It was just another in a string of  lazy end-of-summer afternoons, the kind of day that lingered, unhurried, like a traveler sitting on the front porch of some country store in a small New England town, feet up, sipping lemonade and chatting with the guests.

betterporch

 

lemonade

And that was fine with me.  With the new school year set to begin the following week, the day could take as much time as it wanted as far as I was concerned.  I was about to enter the fifth grade, and the teacher, a veteran of three-plus decades, had a reputation for being a no-nonsense disciplinarian who expected his students to perform from the get-go.  I knew I had to be ready.

But that was next week.  No need to dwell on it, not while a last sliver of summer vacation stood, like a buffer, against the onset of roll call and homework.

The day was hot, clear but humid, the air like a moist blanket that needed to be wrung out, drip by drip.  I decided to head down to the basement–the coolest space in the house.

The basement was split into two distinct zones.  The front, or “Light section,” as I liked to think of it, was partially finished, with food shelves, a freezer, a pool table, and a ping pong set.

pingpong

 

Every time I went down there, I felt as if I were being greeted by an old friend.  I could relax, unwind, let my imagination wander, as I dreamed up new stories to write or new games I could play with my friends.

But the back . . . the back of the basement was unfinished, darker, with metal pipes straddling the ceiling; an old furnace, tucked away in a corner that hummed like a living thing on cold days; a mysterious window, which I had nicknamed “the window to nowhere,” that led to a narrow crawl space; a workbench built in against the far wall, cluttered with hand tools and scraps of wood and paintbrushes; and a snug, pitch-black little compartment under the stairs, where all manner of knickknacks and other assorted sundries were stashed.

clotheslinesandpipes

 

I enjoyed scaring my friends with ghost stories about these tucked-away corners of the basement, and they were genuinely in awe of “the window to nowhere.”

windowtonowhere

 

But while I acted cool and confident in front of them, the truth was . . . I was uncomfortable being in the back of the basement, alone.  I imagined furry things curled up in secret nests; slithery, poisonous things that lived under the workbench or behind the water heater, who would reach out with tentacled limbs and pull me in.  Sometimes, when I ran upstairs, I could swear I heard something stirring in the shadows behind me, and my pace would quicken, my feet rushing, rushing . . .

monster

 

But on that day, with the afternoon heat at its worst and the reality of fifth grade and the demanding teacher on the near horizon, I didn’t think of unseen monsters or dark creatures with fangs and feral, angry eyes.  I just wanted to escape to someplace cooler.

So I went down and played pool with myself, pretending to be a high-stakes player performing in front of thousands of riveted spectators.

pool

 

It was fun for a while, but after a few minutes, I wanted something else to do.  I peered in toward the back of the basement.  Sunlight filtered in through a small window, and I could see particles of dust dancing in the beams.

Why not?  I thought.  Maybe I could discover something new with which to frighten my friends.

The first thing I did when I went back there was yank the chain that lit the naked lightbulb fastened to the ceiling.  The sunlight through the window helped.  But it was not enough–I needed full-on, bright light if I were to venture into this section of the basement, alone.

lightbulb

 

I walked slowly, alert, ready to bolt in a heartbeat if anything should happen.  The sound of footsteps upstairs, muted by the floor above my head, descended upon me.  It was a comforting sound, secure.  It injected me with a fresh dose of courage.

I continued on, heading for my father’s worn, paint-speckled workbench.  Clotheslines crisscrossed in front of it–though no clothes were presently on the lines.  What did hang from one of the lines was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll.

doll

 

I jerked back, not expecting to see her.  Whose doll was she, anyway?  My sister, never a big collector of dolls to begin with, had recently started college.  It wasn’t hers.  One of my cousins, perhaps?  I didn’t know.  And I hesitated, considered turning around and going back to the relative safety of the front portion of the basement.  From upstairs, I heard the dull thud of more footsteps.

The doll was pretty, wearing a dress, with a bow in her hair.  But something about her disturbed me.  I had never liked dolls anyway–maybe that’s all it was.  They always seemed like living things, sentient, only pretending to be dead.

dollalive

 

But when the lights were turned off, and night fell over the house like a shroud, I imagined them walking, on whispery feet, down the hallway, rummaging through dressers and drawers, scheming their secret schemes.

I approached the clotheslines and the doll, slowly, quietly.  Finally, I stood there, face-to-face with her.  I shook my head.  Why had I been afraid?  How ridiculous!  She was made of porcelain, not flesh and blood.  Besides, what could she possibly do?  I scolded myself for being so jumpy over nothing.

I swallowed, reached for the doll.

The doll winked.

I stumbled back, nearly falling over, and was sure I could hear the murmur of some unseen piece of machinery grow louder, closer.

thingsinthedark

 

I turned away from the blonde doll with the blue eyes and the hair bow.  I raced for the stairs, forgetting to switch off the light on the way.  As I took the stairs, two at a time, my mind imagined the doll on the clothesline, smiling now, her eyes staring, empty, calculating, wanting me to return.

childdoll

 

I never did.  I did not venture alone into the back of the basement again until that doll was gone, nor did I tell anyone about what I’d seen.  I’d occasionally head down with my father if he needed to search for something on the workbench–though I always made sure to keep my distance.  I peeked in, sideways, checking to see if she was still there.

Finally, nearly a month later, the doll was gone.  Just as I never learned where she had come from, I never learned where she went.

*****************

To this day, I still ask myself:  Did that doll really wink at me?  I was nervous as I approached her, so it’s possible my mind created the illusion.  Marc Kuslanski would favor that theory.

But I have always believed that she did in fact wink.  I saw her eye close, slowly, and then open again–as clear as the sunlight that filtered in through the small window on the other end of the basement.  Perhaps, in her own way, she was the reason the blue-eyed “ghost girl” appeared in my nightmares years later, the same girl who haunts Mitchell Brant‘s dreams at the start of The Eye-Dancers.

ghostgirl

 

That version makes for the better story, anyway . . .

betterstory

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

An Effluvium of Hysteria

I love words.  I always have.  I caught the bug at a very early age.  I remember when I was eight years old, reading comic books, I would sometimes come across words I’d never heard of.  When I did, I would immediately put the comic down and open the dictionary I had, easily accessible, on a book shelf in my room.

words!

 

One of the first words I recall discovering this way was “sanctimonious.”  It occurred in Fantastic Four # 111, and it was Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) who uttered it.  Back then, reading issue after issue of my favorite comic book, I could always count on old Reed to introduce me to new and exciting words.

ff111

 

reed

 

In school essays, I would occasionally show off, and use some of the intimidating words I’d learned.  When I was nine or ten, teachers would comment favorably.  They were just happy I was reading and learning vocabulary.  But when I reached junior high, and especially high school, the response was different.

I remember on one essay, the teacher had circled the word “clandestine,” and wrote in the margin:  “Better to say ‘secret.'”  I took the paper to him after class and asked him why.

“If you want people to know what you’re writing about,” he said, “you have to speak to them with the language they know.  If you use words they’re not sure about, you’re going to lose them on the first page.”

simple

 

I thought about it that night, and though I understood what he meant, I didn’t fully agree.  Of course, I realized, if you pepper your manuscript with hundred-dollar words, you’ll come across as snobbish or out of touch, interested first and foremost with your own perceived brilliance.

beconcise

 

But on the other hand, if you oversimplify everything, and strip your prose down to a fourth-grade level, aren’t you losing something precious, too?

I turned to books on writing and style.  What did the experts have to say?  For the most part, they agreed with my teacher.

“Be concise.”  “Do not use needless words.”  “Avoid adverbs.”  “Too many adjectives will derail your prose.”  “If you need to look a word up in a thesaurus, don’t use it.  It’s not the right word.”  And so on.

elementsofstyle

 

And again, I didn’t disagree.  This struck me as good, sensible advice–most of the time.  But sometimes . . .

I have always been a fan of Ray Bradbury.  His enthusiasm, imagination, and rich, layered style have always served as an inspiration for me.  And while handbooks on the nuts and bolts of writing are useful tools every writer should own, I find the best teachers are not the grammarians and professors.  The best teachers are the authors.

When I was in high school, searching for my voice, learning to create fiction worth reading, I was much more likely to listen to Ray Bradbury than William Strunk.

And there is one Bradbury story in particular that I read for the first time when I was a senior in high school that clarified this entire issue for me more than any style book or teaching guide ever could.  In fact, just the first two paragraphs of the story did the trick.

smallassassin

 

“The Small Assassin,” first and foremost, is a terrifying short story.  Bradbury’s writing ability transcends genre.  He is often labeled a sci-fi author, but he has created tales in nearly ever genre, including horror.  “The Small Assassin” definitely falls within that category.  It gave me nightmares for a week.   It remains to this day perhaps the most frightening story I have ever read.

Much of the story is written in clear, concise fashion, not always the case with Bradbury.  Stories such as “The Sound of Summer Running,” for example, are really prose poems dressed up as short stories.

soundofsummer

 

Not so with “The Small Assassin.”  Here, while he maintains his writing flair, the prose, in general, is more streamlined, razor-sharp, honed to a cutting edge.  Nevertheless, he does not entirely avoid difficult words . . .

The first paragraph of “The Small Assassin” reads:

“Just when the idea occurred to her that she was being murdered she could not tell.  There had been little subtle signs, little suspicions for the past month; things as deep as sea tides in her, like looking at a perfectly calm stretch of tropic water, wanting to bathe in it and finding, just as the tide takes your body, that monsters dwell just under the surface, things unseen, bloated, many-armed, sharp-finned, malignant and inescapable.”

This paragraph has the customary Bradbury magic of syntax and style, imagery and metaphor, but, apart from the possible exception of “malignant,” there isn’t a fancy word to be found.

It’s the first sentence of the second paragraph that shifts the flow.  The second paragraph reads:

“A room floated around her in an effluvium of hysteria.  Sharp instruments hovered and there were voices, and people in sterile white masks.”

whitemask

 

When I first read “The Small Assassin,” in my eighteenth year, I had never before come across the word “effluvium.”  I had no idea what it meant!  And yet . . . it held me rapt, mesmerized.  I didn’t look it up until after I finished the story.  I couldn’t put it down.  Because even though I didn’t know the dictionary definition of “effluvium,” the word elicited a feeling, a rushing current of hidden meaning and subtext.

webster

 

Webster defines “effluvium” as “an invisible emanation; an offensive exhalation or smell.  A by-product, especially in the form of waste.”

So . . . what, then, is an effluvium of hysteria?  Perhaps Bradbury could have simply written, “A room floated around her.  She felt nervous and afraid.”  Or, perhaps.  “There was the offensive odor of hysteria.”  Either of these would have been concise, simple, matter-of-fact.  But it would not have been memorable.  It would not have stayed with me, years after I read it.  It would not have implanted itself in a crevice deep within the folds of my brain.  It would have been ordinary.

In the context of “The Small Assassin,” an “effluvium of hysteria” sounds like a car spinning out of control, careening downhill; a person falling from a great height; or, someone on the brink of madness, panic-stricken, gripped with a terror too powerful for words.  “Nervous,” “odor,” or “hysterical” just can’t compete with that.

spinning

 

This is not to say that the general accepted advice is “wrong.”  Ninety-nine percent of the time, clear and concise and simple trumps wordy and difficult.  But to eliminate that special 1% altogether?

Of course, much depends on context.  An instruction manual surely would not want to incorporate the word “effluvium”!  (Though it would make for an interesting manual.)  And in dialogue, certain characters, Marc Kuslanski included, will have a penchant for fancy words.  But in general, as is the case with so many writing “rules” and guidelines, the key is finding a happy medium.

balance

 

So the next time you’re writing and one of those “too-difficult” words pops into your head, go ahead and use it.

Because sometimes, every now and then, nothing but an “effluvium of hysteria” will do.

ideasend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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