Month: December 2017 Page 1 of 2

Flavorwire’s 50 Scariest Books of All Time: The End of a Reading List

So it’s official:  I’ve finished Flavorwire’s 50 Scariest Books of All Time, from beginning to end.  It’s been about three years, although I didn’t start out focusing on this one; I’ve been working on several horror lists with MB Partlow and Shannon Lawrence. The Nightmare Magainze’s Top 100 is another, which is done, and up next is Shortlist’s 30 Scariest Books Ever Written.  Shannon’s original post tracking the project is here.  (She’s doing the best job of keeping track of things; also, we rarely agree on anything, which makes this even cooler.  MB and I tend to see things slightly more eye-to-eye, although I do differ with her strongly on atmosphere.)*

I’m tracking my end of things on Goodreads; my reviews are here.  If I had read the book and reviewed it on Goodreads already, I didn’t reread it, but if I’d read it before 2010 (my first year on GR), I reread it.

I liked most of the books on this list.  It might be easier to list the ones I didn’t like (there certainly were fewer of them).  I rated 22 of 50 as five-star.  But in the interests of “bah! forget that,” instead, here are my top ten, in no particular order:

  • The Turn of the Screw, Henry James.
  • The Woman in Black, Susan Hill.
  • The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty.
  • Let the Right One In, John Ajdvide Lindqvist.
  • The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson.
  • Lord of the Flies, William Golding.
  • The Girl Next Door, Jack Ketchum (which, I don’t know, isn’t really my favorite so much as the most legitimately horrific/scary)
  • 1984, George Orwell.
  • Piercing, Ryu Murakami.
  • Dawn, Octavia Butler.

I spent the most time with The Woman in Black, going fairly in depth to study it (and finding some Really Weird Stuff as I did), but I’m also working on The Turn of the Screw.  I don’t think those are necessarily the best books of the lot, but the ones whose plots and settings most appealed to me.

The one that’s most under-read from the list is, IMO, Daniel Auerbach’s Penpal, although I will grant you that it leans more literary than some readers will like, and it isn’t perfect.

What I liked more about this list than the Nightmare list?  Fewer eyerolls due to extreme sexism (not the curators, but the books themselves, which lean heavily 80s horror).  What I liked less about this list?  At first I was pleased that that the list drew from a broad spectrum across genres, with a lot of literary showings that don’t get listed as horror at first glance (for example, American Psycho or Blood Meridian).  But then…I got tired of it.  Some of the books seemed to have been picked just because they were the mostest that could be found, like The Painted Bird or The Wasp Factory, and I found myself dreading the last few books, going, “What fresh Hell will they drag me through, just because they can?”  The end of this list was far more exhausting to push through than the Nightmare list because of that, I think.

Next up for this project is the Shortlist 30 Scariest Books, or maybe the Kim Newman/Stephen Jones Top 100 Horror list.  But, being slightly burned out at this point, I’m going to finish up the Top 100 Crime Novels list first instead.

I do like me some lists.

Simple Mystery Plots Part 6: The Grid

I was reading a P.D. James novel and realized I hadn’t added this most basic plot of all.  It honestly feels more like a technique than a plot.

  1. A crime happens.
  2. The solver either mentally or literally lists the suspects, their motives, their methods, and their opportunities to commit the crime, as if on one of those teeny checklists from the Clue game.
  3. When only one possible suspect remains, the crime is solved!
  4. The solver laboriously explains their methods in case the reader missed a clue.

A lot of mysteries tap into this, but don’t rely solely on it.  A note: some of the better mystery-writers will add a technique of corroboration.  If multiple people don’t confirm an alibi, then it can almost be assumed to be a lie.


Simple Mystery Plots, Part 5: The Real Story

I found another one!  (Two, actually; another one tomorrow.)

The mystery revolves around the fact that there are multiple versions of the truth (or conjectures of the truth), which are structured as separate chapters/sections of the book.

  1. A crime occurs.
  2. Various people try to solve the crime, or are called upon to give their version of the crime.
  3. The ending may not see any resolution into the crime, but into the nature of truth itself.  (But often the crime is solved.)
  4. Often the verrrry ending wraps up with an open-ended question of some sort, even if the crime is resolved.

This would be things like RashomonThe Poisoned Chocolates Case, Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter, or even things where things are pretty straightforward but multiple POVs chime in to move the story forward, a la The Woman in White or Laura by Vera Caspary.

Copywriting Technique: What Do Readers Want When They Want Your Book

I’ve been struggling with this one, which seems stupid.  I mean, isn’t this something that all writers should just know?  There was a reason you wrote the book in the first place, wasn’t there?  And yet:

  • I regularly go through phases of, “Everything I write is terrible.”
  • Therefore, why would anyone want to read the book?
  • The advice I’ve read about writing summaries/synopses of one’s book is geared toward presenting one’s plot in an entertaining way.  Plot.  Plot plot plot.
  • But nobody gives a damn about the plot, unless it’s some huge twist story, and then–irony of all ironies–you have to convince the reader to read your book without describing the big selling point.
  • Isn’t that how you tell people about movies and books you like?  Tell them the plot?  Why isn’t that working as a copywriting technique?

Over the last few days, I posted about atmosphere.  I was mostly joking, but I think atmosphere is actually the answer.  People want to escape; part of what a fiction copywriter wants to do, I think, is show them where they’ll be escaping to.  And one of the easiest ways to do that is to describe the atmosphere.

I’ll be trying that next.  Reporting back soon.





Atmosphere Part 3: Atmosphere Is Also Posters

So atmosphere is weather, and even background sounds.  But what do you do for atmosphere if you’re indoors?  Well, first, you can make the scene atmospheric by adding fog.  No reason not to add fog to any setting, indoors or out.

Or you can make it dark, so that most of the details are obscured and hard to see.  There’s some atmosphere for you!  (I checked out Alien, which was the #2 atmospheric movie on my list, and it was both dark and foggy.)

But what do you do if your scene has to be both indoors and brightly lit?

Hang up some posters.

Like the lip-syncing scene in Pretty in Pink.  Or, magnificently, the museum scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Okay, it doesn’t have to be posters.  But put something on the walls–unless the indoors has to be deliberately blank, as in Let the Right One In, in order to contrast with the (highly atmospheric) world outside.  Or make the walls themselves interesting, as in The Shining.



Atmosphere Part 2: Okay, Also Atmosphere is Literally Just Background Noise Too

So the other day I joked about how atmosphere is literally just the weather (mostly fog).  But there’s more to it than that.

There’s also background noise.*

Go back to your list of atmospheric movies and/or novels, and pull up a scene/page from one of the items on the list.  The first movie on my list was “Seven,” and the first scene that I was able to pull up was the “What’s in the box?” scene.

The scene starts out with Morgan Freeman in front of an old-gold-colored sky.  The sun is about to set, I think, and the light is golden.

Background noise:  several types of birds chirping, wind blowing.  Nobody speaks, we just hear the sounds of Morgan Freeman cutting open that cardboard box with a pocket knife.  We switch over to Brad Pitt, and suddenly there’s the sound of a helicopter in the background.  As Morgan Freeman opens the box, the wind rises.  We get a cut of a helicopter coming in, a voice over the radio.  Then back to Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey, with a big background of desert hills and powerlines behind them.  Then we start getting background music.

I recommend going to whatever movie/novel you think is most strikingly atmospheric, and looking for a) the weather, and b) background noises, and especially c) the weather making background noises.


*Also known as ambient noise, a synonym for atmospheric.

The That’s-Not-A-Christmas-Movie Christmas Movie List

I consider Die Hard to be a Chrismas movie.  I asked for other people’s suggestions to add to my list.  I got suggestions that had nothing to do with the winter holidays, some that were traditional Christmas movies (some of which I’ll include, oh well), and a few that people started getting snarky about because they weren’t good enough movies.

AND A LOT OF GREAT NON-CHRISTMASY CHRISTMAS MOVIE SUGGESTIONS.  If it had some kind of winter holiday reference, I leaned toward including it, quality be damned.  Please note, I grew up with Christmas as my winter holiday, but I would be delighted to get a wider variety of holidays in here too.

Here it is.  Just in case you get bored.

  • Die Hard – #1
  • Hogfather (okay, my second favorite Christmas movie)
    • The Rise of the Guardians, which has a similar plotline, is the most Christmasy Easter movie ever made, and I’m not sure about adding it, but here it is, the recommender was most firm about this.
  • Christmas Horror
    • Rare Exports
    • Invader Zim Christmas Special
    • Krampus (please note, the actual holiday movie Home for the Holidays seems to be the light-side version of the same flick)
    • Silent Night Deadly Night
    • Black Christmas/Black X-Mas (1974/2006)
    • Better Watch Out
    • Holidays (2016, anthology)
    • Christmas Evil
    • A Christmas Horror Movie
    • Sint
    • The Children
    • Jack Frost (1997)
    • Elves
    • Home for the Holidays (1972)
  • Shane Black Movies
    • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
    • Lethal Weapon
    • The Long Kiss Goodnight
    • Iron Man 3
    • I’m looking forward to the Shane-Black-directed Doc Savage movie with the Rock, and I HOPE THERE’S A CHRISTMAS SCENE.
  • Terry Gilliam Movies
  • Classic Movies
    • The Thin Man (the suggestor mentioned the tree shooting scene, here)
    • The Lion in Winter
    • The Shop Around the Corner
    • Bell Book and Candle (Jimmy Stewart!)
  • Chris Columbus Films
    • Harry Potter movies almost always have a good Christmas scene, especially the Chris Columbus ones.
    • Gremlins
    • Home Alone
    • Jingle All the Way
    • Rent (the non-Christmas Christmas musical?)
  • Tim Burton Movies
    • Edward Scissorhands
    • Batman Returns
    • The Nightmare Before Christmas
  • Actual At Least Kind of Christmas Movies that Aren’t Too Sweet
    • National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
    • The Grinch that Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff Cartoon only)
    • A Christmas Story
    • Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol
    • The Muppet Christmas Carol
    • Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas, which I’d never heard of and had to look up.  Jim Henson.
    • The Holiday
  •  Misc
    • RED
    • Children of Men
    • Love Actually
    • Hebrew Hammer (Hanukkah)
    • Bad Santa
    • The Addams Family (remember the Christmas Carolers)
    • The Ref
    • Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (MST3K option available)
    • When Harry Met Sally
    • The Ice Harvest
    • Scrooged
    • A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas
    • Fargo
    • Babe (la la laaaaaa!)
    • Funny Farm (has a Christmas scene)
    • A Tuna Christmas (which is actually a Christmas play about the folks in Tuna, Texas, trying to put on a production of A Christmas Carol)

Let me know if you have more.  I’ll add ’em if I feel like it, which I probably will, unless you’re like, “But It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t that sweet…?”

Atmosphere Part 1: Atmosphere Is Literally Just Fog

A thought experiment for you:

Do a Google search for “atmospheric movies.”

Check out how many of the movies had posters with some sort of fog, weather, smoke, or translucence in them.  Of the ones that don’t, if you’ve seen the movie, ask yourself, “Is some element of the weather a factor in the story?”

Now ask yourself if you liked most of those movies.  You can, of course, do the same thing for novels.

Your book doesn’t have to start with a dark and stormy night, but it doesn’t actually hurt.

Simple Mystery Plots, Part 4: The Big Twist

I’m not sure I’m going to do this one justice, so I saved it for last (so far).  I’m calling it The Big Twist.

  1. A crime occurs.
  2. By design or accident, the crime is completely misinterpreted.
  3. The solver(s) proceeds forward in good faith, as if it were one of the other types of simple mysteries or whatever.
  4. Discrepancies build up.
  5. The crime is revealed to be not what it was supposed to be.
  6. Wrap-up, the end.

A note, the solvers are often in some kind of danger.  This is stuff like Shutter Island, Gone Girl, and And Then There Were None.


Simple Mystery Plots, Part 3: The Two Cases

Another mystery plot.  This one I like to call The Two Cases.

  1. Crime #1 occurs.
  2. Crime #2, a minor/funny crime, occurs.
  3. The solver tries to track down one of the two crimes, but it’s no good.
  4. They run into something from the one crime that reminds them of the other crime.
  5. Wait wait both these crimes are related.
  6. Switching from one crime to the other reveals both.  Wrapup, the end.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Inspector Montalbano mysteries lately.  Like that.  This seems like a good Police Procedural template, because it’s easy to believe they’re juggling multiple things at once.  They aren’t as limited by location as a cozy, but they do have to center around one location (their district), so this is a good way to jerk the reader around realistically by overwhelming them with two sets of clues.

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