Posted in Film, Writing

Why Mirrors Are So Effective in Horror Fiction

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Oculus (2014)

The horror film genre has always been my favorite, and yet it’s so rare these days to find new, original, effectively scary films. Thankfully we seem to have finally outgrown that terrible period of torture porn that existed during the time of the Saw sequels, and maybe, just possibly, we have moved on from all the dreadful remakes of classic 70s and 80s horror (maybe because there’s simply nothing left to remake). Now we are seeing more and more micro budget films from producer Jason Blum, and while not all have worked, these original small-budget horror movies have been a positive influence on the current genre scene.

Every year I’m looking for good horror, both mainstream and indie, and it’s especially a thrill when one comes out that I know next to nothing about. Oculus, released in 2014, was one of those finds. I hadn’t even hard about it until a week before its release, but as soon as I saw the positive reviews and storyline of the movie, I knew it was a must-see. One of my first short stories I ever wrote in the third grade was about a haunted mirror, and I was curious to see how a modern horror film could be made with this eerie but potentially silly hook.

Thankfully, writer/director Mike Flanagan (who has gone on to make the terrifying Gerald’s Game and the monumentally creepy The Haunting of Hill House for Nextflix) understands that, especially in horror, less is more, and for most of Oculus he lets the tension build and build, only showing us small traces of the evil that is to come.

One element I loved about Oculus was the emphasis on two dual story lines, one in the past concerning a family of four who contend with an unexpected demon, and one in the present concerning those two children, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), now grown up, facing their fears with the mirror once and for all. At first the cuts back and forth to each storyline were jarring, but by a half-hour in the rhythm works extremely well.

The performances are on a very high level for a film like this, especially Gillan, and, best of all, the scares come fast and fierce, especially in the second half. The twist ending I didn’t see coming, either, and usually I’m able to guess where these kinds of narratives are headed.

Oculus isn’t on the same level as 2012’s supremely chilling Sinister, still the best of the Blum-produced movies. There are a few lulls in the movie, and Flanagan actually shows a little too much, I think, in the last half-hour. But overall, Oculus is a solid horror film that’s different from the usual fare. You might not look at your mirror the same way again.

Watching Like a Writer

This film makes me think about how mirrors can be used so effectively in horror fiction. It might be a touch scarier in a film or TV episode than it is on the page for the reader, but mirrors have always struck me as a particularly useful tool in my scarier stories. Like I said in this review, one of my earliest stories I ever wrote was about a haunted mirror (and if I remember correctly, the title was Mirrors Can Be Deadly and I wrote two sequels!). My first screenplay I ever wrote had a haunted mirror. So many short films I wrote and directed used mirrors in the visual storytelling. I’ve always been obsessed with mirrors, and finally, after all this time, I’m beginning to outline a middle-grade horror novel that will use mirrors as a part of the story. What makes them so creepy? How can they be used in a way we’ve never seen before?

Exercise!

Pitch me a scene from your latest WIP that a mirror could play a major role in. What does the mirror add to the scene, and to the development of one of your major characters?

Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #46: Our Brand is Crisis (2015)

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The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.

Gravity was Sandra Bullock’s biggest success to date, skyrocketing at the box office and earning Sandra a second Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She had just won the Oscar for The Blind Side four years prior, and she had since enjoyed success in a new blockbuster comedy, The Heat. So what in the world would she do next?

First, she played it safe by offering her voice talent to a film that was going to make a bazillion dollars regardless of her participation — Minions, a prequel to the Despicable Me series, that debuted in theaters in the summer of 2015. Sandra played the villainous Scarlett Overkill, her name plastered on all the trailers leading up to the film’s release. The movie earned nearly 1.2 billion dollars at the worldwide box office and provided another huge success to be added to the Sandra Bullock canon. But, about two years now since Gravity’s release, Sandra had one more surprise for audiences up her sleeve. She had a new live-action feature, her first since Gravity, that in no way was an easy sell: a political comedy set in Bulgaria released not only when our nation’s presidential campaigns were up and running but also during Halloween weekend, of all weekends. This was… Our Brand is Crisis.

Based on a highly regarded documentary released in 2005, Our Brand is Crisis floated around Hollywood for years. At one point George Clooney was going to star in the project, but then his participation fell through, and the project stalled for awhile. After Gravity, Sandra was looking for something that excited her, something challenging, and after reading a lot of screenplays with female protagonists, she and her team started digging through unproduced screenplays with male protagonists. Who’s to say the gender couldn’t be flipped, after all? When she came upon Our Brand is Crisis, she connected to the main character and the story-line, and apparently it didn’t take too much effort to change the protagonist to a female.

In the film she plays Jane, a political consultant who’s been out of the arena for awhile, enjoying a quiet life when she’s summoned to return to politics by helping re-elect a controversial president in Bolivia. She reluctantly takes the job, only to learn that her rival consultant of old, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, in a delightfully malicious performance) has joined the other team. The political candidates fight head to head while Jane tries to find herself again, particularly in what she truly wants to be fighting for in the years to come. The film blends comedy with drama and features a stellar supporting cast including Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Kazan, and Reynaldo Pacheco, in a terrific turn.

Our Brand is Crisis came and went like no other Sandra Bullock movie in recent history. It wasn’t a massive flop, given that it only cost about 28 million to make, but it still only made 7 million at the nationwide box office, about the amount Gravity made in a few hours on its opening day. This film’s downfall was a matter of timing, to be sure, and also the many mixed reviews, which rightfully point out that the story itself isn’t as compelling as it could be, the mix of comedy and drama is never quite successful, and the film never comes together as it should. It takes a while to get going, the ending feels rushed, and there’s never the sense that anything truly big is at stake in the story.

Having said that, I still believe Our Brand is Crisis is an underrated film, one that probably would have fared better earlier in the year, far away from the Halloween holiday, as well as the political season that was free for everyone to watch from home every day, so why go pay money to see a political film in the theater? But although the film is good, not great, and certainly worthy of many of its criticisms, the one element of the film that saddens me when I think back on this movie is the widespread ignoring Sandra’s rich and commanding performance, easily one of the three best she’s ever delivered in her long career. Although the movie isn’t one of her greatest, her performance I would rank right alongside The Blind Side and Gravity.

One thing that obviously rubbed off on her after making Gravity was taking more risks as a performer and allowing herself to inhabit characters that are deeply flawed, not always likable, filled with rage and anger. Jane is a lost soul throughout a lot of the movie, apathetic toward the political system in the film’s first third, committed to her job and her goal in the second third, and finding heartbreak and new roads to walk in the final third. She has great moments in the film where she simply sits and reflects, and also terrific moments where she commands a room like she rarely has in a movie before or since.

Sandra often joked about her 2009 flop All About Steve that one day it would be considered a cult classic, that audiences just weren’t ready for it that year and that maybe a few years later it would be better regarded. I’m almost one-hundred-percent certain that All About Steve will never be liked, by pretty much anyone, this year, or next year, or in another two decades, because it truly is an awful film. But a mammoth flop like Our Brand is Crisis, which, yes, made less money than All About Steve, is too solid of a film, with way too good of a Sandra performance, to be ignored forever, and here’s hoping, maybe not anytime soon, but down the road, that more reverence will be given to the film and that more people will get a chance to see it.

Best Scene: Sandra yells at her political candidate in an auditorium about him being nothing more than a puppet.

Best Line: “That’s the world, that’s politics. That’s how it works. It starts out with big promises and ends up with jackshit happening. But like the man said: ‘If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.’”

Fun Facts

Sandra’s only live-action film between 2013’s Gravity and 2018’s Ocean’s 8.

At the beginning of the film, a still black-and-white image from Sandra’s 1995 thriller The Net can be seen.

On the final day of shooting, Sandra had an ice cream truck brought to the set.

Her previous live-action film Gravity made more than 700 million at the worldwide box office. Our Brand is Crisis made 7 million total.

The only acting nomination received for the film was for Reynaldo Pacheco for Best Supporting Actor, from the Imagen Foundation Awards.

The first film Sandra and George Clooney co-produced together.

The first film Sandra produced (technically, executive produced) since All About Steve. I’ll say it before, and I’ll say it again: with a few exceptions, any project Sandra produces herself is typically doomed at the box office.

Posted in Film

What are the best family Christmas movies?

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Christmas is the best time of the year to sit around a warm fireplace and watch a great Christmas movie classic with your family. There are seemingly fifty great choices or more to put on every holiday season, but these five picks will keep every member of your family happy.

Here are the five best Christmas family movies for the upcoming holiday season…

5. Home Alone (1990)

This modern classic proved to be a sensation during the holiday season of 1990, and while its sequels haven’t held up all these years later, the original stays as fresh, funny, and hugely entertaining as it did nearly thirty years ago. The concept for the film — a young kid getting left home alone at Christmas — is genius, and the cast, which includes Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Catherine O’Hara, and John Candy, is totally winning. You can’t go wrong playing this one.

4. A Christmas Story (1983)

You don’t have to go far to watch A Christmas Story. Just turn on any one of the thirty-seven channels it’s playing on during Christmas Day and witness one of those timeless holiday movies that feels as necessary to fill your day as the presents fill your house and the glazed ham fills your belly. Packed with iconic moments like the rifle presents, the Santa meet-and-greet, and the frozen tongue, this movie makes you want Christmas to last a whole lot longer than just one day a year.

3. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Of all the old black-and-white movies to watch around the holidays, there’s really two musts, the 1938 or 1951 versions of A Christmas Carol. But if you can’t make up your mind which version to choose, just relax and put on Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life instead. Known as the favorite film for both director Capra and star James Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life is a magical film that shows its main character a world in which he never existed. A darker tale, to be sure, but with an uplifting ending that will never fails to satisfy.

2. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

It’s not a perfect movie, but there’s something just so effortless about this late ‘80s comedy, written by the great John Hughes and featuring Chevy Chase in his last great movie before slipping away into oblivion. It was criticized back in the day because the Griswolds don’t actually go on vacation anywhere, but I feel that’s part of the charm of the film, watching Clark try to give his expanded family a worthwhile, meaningful Christmas. He succeeds.

1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Another hundred years will pass, and no Christmas movie will ever come close to the perfection of the twenty-five minutes of the 1966 animated TV classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. This is a lovingly realized, enchantingly drawn animated gem that features the great Boris Karloff as the voice of the Narrator and the Grinch. The score and songs are simply magical, and the ending, which had the potential to be maudlin, marks one of the great lessons for young and old during the holiday season. No Christmas is complete without How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It’s one of the few perfect movies ever made!

Posted in Books

The Oz Books #14: Glinda of Oz

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Well, as they say, everything comes to an end. Glinda of Oz is the fourteenth and final Oz book penned by L. Frank Baum, who passed away soon after the completion of this novel in 1919, and I found the reading of his last work an emotional experience. Emotional because I finally did what I set out to do, which is read all fourteen Oz books back to back, and emotional because these were the last words Baum ever put to paper. I haven’t loved, or even liked, some of these books, so I was wary of the last one being a disappointment; I knew, however, within the first few chapters that this was easily going to be one of the better Oz sequels.

One of the most heartbreaking elements about the book is the opening To Our Readers, which up until this book was always a fun little letter written by Baum about what inspired the newest installment of his series. In Glinda of Oz, it’s a downbeat, impersonal note from The Publishers essentially apologizing about the fact that Baum has passed away and is to write no more. The reading becomes more uplifting and engaging, however, once the words of Chapter One begin. Glinda of Oz is one of Baum’s most fast-paced and entertaining stories, one that gets almost every major character from the previous books his or her own storyline or memorable scene. Unlike some of the books that follow new or minor characters we don’t care about, Glinda of Oz follows Ozma and Dorothy on a perilous journey toward the outskirts of Oz, and Glinda, who gets the title this time out, plays a major part, too, and is never relegated to the sidelines.

As always, Baum’s descriptions are superb and delightful, especially in the way he describes the Flatheads, new villains introduced in this piece. I loved how over fourteen books his imagination never ceased, and there is the feeling when the last page of this one is closed that he probably had another fifty Oz books in him, if he had lived forever. (Of course, many more Oz books were written after this. Ruth Plumly Thompson wrote 19 more, and others wrote an additional ten or more over the years. While I’m sure there is entertainment value to be found in these, my journey in the Oz series stops here.)

While I couldn’t decipher anywhere in the text that Baum knew this was to be his last book, there is one scene in Chapter 14 called Ozma’s Counsellors that puts almost every character we’ve come to meet over fourteen books at a big roundtable, and it is in this chapter that Baum gives the characters their final bows. Everyone from the Tin Woodman, to the Patchwork Girl, to Tik-Tok, to Jack Pumpkinhead. It’s a beautiful chapter that gives the reader one last good-bye to these beloved characters. On the other hand, strangely enough, the book has kind of a non-ending, one that pays more attention to the restoration of the Flathead characters and that doesn’t give any proper closure to the series as a whole. Maybe he had no idea this was it. Either way, I enjoyed this book immensely, and I am sad my journey is over.

Now that I’ve finished, I thought I would rank the Oz series, from worst to best. Here goes…

14. Rinkitink of Oz

13. The Scarecrow of Oz

12. Tik-Tok of Oz

11. The Road to Oz

10. The Patchwork Girl of Oz

9. The Magic of Oz

8. Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

7. Glinda of Oz

6. The Marvelous Land of Oz

5. The Lost Princess of Oz

4. The Emerald City of Oz

3. The Tin Woodman of Oz

2. Ozma of Oz

1. The Wizard of Oz

If you love The Wizard of Oz and want to read more in the series, but don’t want to read every single installment, the sequels that get my highest recommendations are Ozma of Oz, Book 3; The Tin Woodman of Oz, Book 12; and The Emerald City of Oz, Book 6. These are the three that I loved. And what’s great about Baum’s series is that you don’t have to read the sequels in order to understand what’s going on. Dip into any story you want, and it can easily be read as a stand-alone. But if you want true enchantment, try one of those three titles. You won’t be disappointed!

Reading all of Baum’s Oz books has been a wonderful journey, one that I’m very glad to have taken. As a writer myself, I learned from Baum how to write simple, imaginative descriptions for characters and how to keep readers turning the page. Mostly I learned how writing fantasy stories for children is absolutely a worthwhile venture to take on. There’s more to Oz than the 1939 movie, boy do I know that now, and I urge all of you to give one of these many joyous books a try. Long live Oz!

Posted in Writing

What To Do if You Want to Write

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In If You Want to Write, published in 1938, author Brenda Ueland shares her philosophies on writing. One central idea she stresses is the idea that everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say. The book was republished in 1987 by Graywolf Press, and it remains to this day their most popular title. Carl Sandburg, famous poetry and non-fiction author and winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, called this the best book ever written on how to write.

Born in 1891, Ueland published six million words over her long career as a journalist, editor, freelance writer, and teacher of writing. Besides If You Want to Write, she has published one other book, an autobiography entitled Me: A Memoir, in 1939. Since her death, a collection of her writing has been published, as has a biography she wrote about her mother in the 1950s. However, If You Want to Write remains her most famous work.

There are plenty of practical advantages of this text to a writer of any discipline. Make clear that this nor the other book gives any specific how-to writing lessons, but instead offers nuggets of wisdom that all writers should learn from. The most practical pieces of advice: always write from a place of truth, write with abandon and freedom, never write for money or to impress people, take a walk every day to help with ideas, and to take the time every day to just sit and wait for the inspiration.

The primary audience of writers of all kinds — fiction writers, non-fiction writers, memoir writers — while the secondary audience is anyone who creates. She even discusses at one point in the book that she hopes this book would be helpful for all artists, including filmmakers, actors, painters, sculptors, and more. It is one of those rare books that writers can turn to time and time again in their lives when they get stuck, when they feel like they’re doing mediocre work, when they’re not happy with their work. Stress this isn’t a book that shows you how to learn to write better descriptions or characters, or reflects on themes and point of view and how to get an agent. It’s a book of inspiration that writers can breeze through anyone they need a kick in the pants to get better in their writing. And it forces them to always, always, always tell the truth.

Her best nuggets of wisdom: We find things to do besides art all the time. Mothers clean their kids instead of playing the piano. Men go to work in a cubicle all day instead of writing a poem. “It won’t pay.” “People will think it’s silly.” Never, never write if your only goal is one of two things: make money, or impress people. The real writers are those who were told they would never be published again, would never make another cent again, yet would still go on writing.

If you try to write something for money, it will be stiff and stale. If you write something out of love, it will be better. Uses a Renaissance nobleman and Vincent van Gogh as examples of men who wrote out of love and nothing else, and created beautiful works of art. She says, even if you never get your writing published or make a dime, it is still worthy work.

If the ideas aren’t coming, sit at your desk for an hour and free-write. Or look out the window and count the clouds in the sky. Do something simple like that. She suggests the best way to get the inspiration flowing is to take a walk outside every day. A long, carefree walk. Look around you, be in the present. This is when ideas come.

A trouble with writers is an anxiety to be effective, to impress people. This kind of thinking doesn’t get the writer anywhere. She was able as a teacher to break them of this and have them write in a true, remarkable way. Instead of criticizing them, she helped them be more free and bold. To be careless, reckless. To write any way they want. She gives writers courage, not criticism.

Microscopic truthfulness: one needs to tell a story, not write it. It does no good to make your writing sound more intelligent, or snappier, if the characters aren’t alive on the page. She talks of a student who is an okay writer, but her work is so commonplace, filled with little detail and freshness. In her first stories, she tried to sell, to make an impression, and this weakened her writing. Her truthfulness when she examined the servant called forth more empathy in her observation.

Truth in writing is more important than fancy words! Never let “oughts” block you. I ought to be funnier, I ought to be wiser. This will hinder your writing. Don’t write like an advertising writer. If you don’t feel it, don’t write it. Tell the truth about your characters. Did your character really fasten a grip against the armchair until his knuckles turned white? If they didn’t turn white, it’s false! Don’t write it! Remember that I write slowly, but the reader reads fast! The reader constantly wants to know what is going to happen next. Don’t forget this. If what I write bores me, it will bore other people! If you try to prove something to the world, and go after fame and fortune, the writing will read false. Everyone should work on their writing every day. Work and shine eternally. Don’t worry so much about the whole of your novel. Write what comes next.

Lastly, try not to plan so much when writing a book. Write first, then plan later. Again discusses why she hates critics. Says they kill the soul of the writer. She feels sorry for English teachers because they have to nitpick and hate on so much. Instead of love, the hate drowns their own creativity! It is because of the haters and the doubters that we have such timidity when we write. We have to move past it.

Posted in Books, Writing

How to Tell the Difference Between Horror and Thriller

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In 2016 I spent a year writing and revising an action-packed YA book that I queried to literary agents as a horror novel. I received lots of feedback, both good and bad, but the most surprising feedback that entered my e-mail inbox, from two separate agents no doubt, gave me the same advice: I’m incorrectly pitching my novel as horror, when it’s actually a thriller. This advice astounded me, and made me reconsider everything I knew about the genre I love. How could I possibly confuse a genre I thought I understood so well with another?

This got me to thinking how similar the genres actually are, how in many ways they both try to deliver scares and surprises and page-turning suspense to the reader. And so I decided it was time to explore in depth these two genres and study how they are similar and different, what audience expectations there are of the genres, and how I should move forward in exploring the genres in my own writing. I will begin by defining the horror novel and the thriller novel and exploring their histories, and I will next examine two important works in each genre and discuss why each belongs to its specific genre. Ultimately the two genres are incredibly similar, enough so that I would suggest that all horror novels are thrillers in a sense, although not all thrillers are necessarily horror.

In her book, Horror Fiction: An Introduction, Gina Wisker defines horror as “located in both the real and the nightmarish imaginary, and an important ingredient in its success is the ability to entertain, terrify, problematize […] horror is a taste acquired by those with sufficient imagination to see beyond, beneath, and through what we take for granted as normal and familiar” (2). In effect, horror has been popular for so long not just because of its chill factor, and not because it can make a person jump in terror out of his or her seat; it has the ability to touch on the dark elements of our lives in ways no other genre can.

In his masterful 1981 non-fiction book about the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King says, “novels dealing with horror always do their work on two levels. On top is the ‘gross-out’ level […] the gross-out can be done with varying degrees of artistic finesse, but it’s always there. But on another, more potent level, the work of horror really is a dance — a moving, rhythmic search. And what it’s looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level” (17–18). King is saying that horror can often just be the gross-out, the jump scare, the monster behind the curtain who yells “Boo!” But he is also describing what I love best about horror, that it can go deeper and probe the dark parts of human nature that is so often left off the page in other kinds of fiction.

What I’ve always loved about horror is the way it can creep under my skin and make me question my own morality in the face of death or evil. The best horror writing should make me question myself. As King says, “Why do you want to make up horrible things when there is so much real horror in the world? The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones. With the endless inventiveness of humankind, we grasp the very elements which are so divisive and destructive and try to turn them into tools to dismantle themselves” (26). In essence he is saying that horror is helpful, and that facing fictional fears from the comfort of my own home allows me to work through inner demons that may not be able to come out in any other way.

Horror novels have taken many shapes over the years, always evolving to both audience’s tastes and the changing landscapes of the real world. Thought to be the first real horror novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was published back in 1764, where “Gothic’s representations of extreme circumstances of terror, oppression, and persecution, darkness and obscurity of setting, and innocence betrayed are considered to begin” (Lloyd-Smith 3). Much of the famous early works of horror deliver jolts and scares that are more intellectual to readers than what most will find in novels of the horror genre today, but many of the same themes hold true today. This early Gothic period focused on subjects like taboos, sexuality, violence, injustice, and social fears and anxieties, and these elements have appeared in horror fiction throughout the centuries.

Consider the most famous horror novel released in the 1800s: Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s novel is about one of the ultimate taboos — creating a living, breathing human being from the body parts of dead people — and seeing the horrifying consequences in its sad, explicit detail, touching on “deeper psychology” and “complex motivations in characters divided against themselves” (Lloyd-Smith 134). This classic novel continues to be highly regarded and studied in the modern era because it touches on dangers and ideas that remain frightening to this day.

Of course horror evolved considerably over the decades, particularly in the twentieth century. One of the granddaddies of the genre that became the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie is the 1959 Robert Bloch novel, Psycho, about a motel owner who dresses up as his mother and murders innocent women who stay at his establishment. This classic book is an example of non-supernatural horror, a story set completely in reality that is terrifying for the reader because it talks of despicable human actions that could potentially happen to him or her. As opposed to the safer supernatural horror, which allows readers to “control the horrors […] evoke your vampire out of the grave, and at the end drive a stake through his heart and pull him back, [a] way of handling evil,” the readers are thrust into a situation that offers no safe escape (Schweitzer 16).

As Terry Heller says in his book The Delights of Terror, “though most people will never be trapped in a belfry or in a contracting prison cell, many will find themselves in analogous situations: traffic accidents, muggings, fires and diseases. […] We seek out such stories [as Psycho] to explore the psychological extremes that arise from physical danger” (29). This is not to say that supernatural horror novels don’t provide this kind of mental exercise from readers; Stephen King’s The Shining is a prime example of a work that shines a light on both fantasy horror and realistic horror, giving readers a chance to feel control over the outlandish situations of the narrative, while at the same time dig deep within themselves to approach their fears over true physical and psychological crises.

As this overview of the horror genre proves, people have always loved to be terrified — but they’ve also always loved to be thrilled. The thriller genre has been around as long as or potentially even longer than the horror novel, and although the two genres share similar traits, the thriller is different in many ways. A thriller goes beyond trying to scare the reader and trying to fill the reader with dread; it relies entirely on suspense every step of the way. In his book Writing the Thriller, author T. Macdonald Skillman says, “Suspense is emotional. It’s surprise and confusion and fear and anticipation. And suspense is danger. Immediate danger. It’s worrying about what’s going to happen, not about the action taking place at that moment. […] [Therefore] a true [thriller novel] is a book about characters who find themselves trapped in a series of increasingly frightening incidents that force them to take extraordinary steps to survive” (7). What Skillman is saying here is that while there may be frightening moments the same way there would be in a horror novel, the thriller is more interested in filling the reader with anticipation toward the state of the main characters and the increasingly complex plot.

In his book Thrillers, author Jerry Palmer says, “In the thriller, suspense derives from the adoption of a single perspective that is associated first and foremost with a [hero]. This is what differentiates thriller suspense from other forms” (61). Unlike horror, which is often written in third person and utilizes multiple points of view and can even be told from the point-of-view of the villain, thrillers generally put readers up close with the hero for every suspenseful step of the narrative. They can often be more generic than horror in a way because they offer more predictability, the journey with a central protagonist who the reader often knows will defeat the villain and live to see another day.

The thriller novel is in many ways much more broad than the horror novel, and this in return allows for the thriller to spread across to many more subgenres, including action, spy, and more. Believed to be the first true thriller is Homer’s The Odyssey, with a story of great excitement about a man trying to find his way home. A thriller needs great tension throughout, as Skillman says, “every scene [in a thriller needs to] generate both conflict and tension at some level” (43). There needs to be thrills, there needs to be suspense, but a thriller doesn’t necessarily have to terrify the way a horror novel does. Great thriller novels provide suspense and constant excitement, not necessarily terror.

One of the most famous thrillers of the twentieth century is John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, which became the equally compelling Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tale of a man wrongfully accused of a crime and on the run lends itself to tremendous excitement from beginning to end, particularly in regards to the pacing. Skillman says, “The pacing demands of a [thriller] are less forgiving [than other novels]. Readers who pick up a thriller expect to be kidnapped by fear and action and dragged along on a wild ride. They’re looking for a breakneck journey that rarely slows down long enough to explore dead ends or enjoy a plate of fried chicken served up with a side of flirtation” (138). Readers of thrillers expect to flip through the pages ferociously, while readers of horror expect more fear and dread on the page and not necessarily this kind of breakneck speed to the narrative. Lastly, thrillers can exist in specific subgenres that horror wouldn’t necessarily be found in. The James Bond novels by Ian Fleming fit in the spy thriller subgenre; Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity is also a well-known spy thriller. Other subgenres include the legal thriller, the military thriller, the medical thriller, and lots more.

In the last few months I have studied a novel that I believe to be strictly horror, and a novel that I believe works solely as a thriller. To start with horror, let’s examine Joe Hill’s 2013 novel, NOS4A2. This book tells the story of a child abductor who harbors children in a creepy place called Christmasland and the girl who managed to escape him who grows up to be a strong woman ready to take him down. It features a few specific elements that make this a strict horror novel. First, this is a supernatural novel, one that includes an entire alternate world that the protagonist finds herself stuck inside for a huge chunk of the narrative. Generally thrillers are set in the world as we know and understand it, while horror often features ghouls and goblins and takes the main characters to unknown places. Second, Hill uses the normally celebratory aspect of the Christmas holiday season as a source of fear and dread throughout the book, turning the reader’s warm and nostalgic feelings for the holiday into a menacing kind of terror. Hill writes, “He leaned over the stool, both hands on its edge, and took a long, trembling breath — and smelled the Christmassy odor of gingerbread again. He almost flinched, the fragrance was so strong and clear” (273). The smell of gingerbread often fills one with pleasure, and the maniacal villain of NOS4A2 knows it, making it one of his prime weapons to seduce children to their doom.

Hill also goes for the gross-out from time to time in a way an author of a thriller would rarely approach in his writing, specific gory details that feel only appropriate for a horror novel: “Mr. Manx had changed. He was missing his left ear — it was tatters of flesh, little crimson strings swinging against his cheek. […] A great flap of loose red skin hung from his brow. His eyes were gone, and where they had been were buzzing red holes — not bloody sockets but craters containing live coals” (415). Notice how this description of Mr. Manx’s grisly new appearance goes on and on, Hill delighting in the disgust of his imagery. Even if Mr. Manx were a human being who had some kind of a trauma occur to his face, the thriller writer would not take a paragraph to describe every aspect of his horrid face — he would keep the narrative chugging along to keep the reader flipping through the pages.

An author of horror is allowed to take his time, setting up scenes of terror and repulsion in a way that doesn’t necessarily have to be moments of non-stop action; of course, horror often does have non-stop action, with scenes of great tension and suspense, and NOS4A2 features many terrific moments that could exist under the thriller model, like this one: “She began to push herself up once more, and Charlie Manx came down with his silver hammer again and hit her in the back, and she heard her spine break with a sound like someone stepping on a cheap toy: a brittle, plasticky crunch. The blunt force drove the wind out of her and slammed her back to her stomach” (351). This tense scene still provides one or two minor descriptions that may aim for shock value more than one would find in a standard thriller, but Hill’s prose still offer the kind of suspense that carries over to both popular genres.

Now let’s discuss Scott Smith’s 1993 thriller A Simple Plan and see what Smith does differently. A Simple Plan tells of three men who discover four million dollars in a crashed airplane and do everything in their power to keep the money a secret, resulting in unthinkable tragedy. Let’s start with the suspense aspect, which Skillman discussed in his craft book. Between the opening scene of the men finding the crashed plane and the four million dollars and the scene of Hank causing havoc in a middle-of-nowhere mini-mart, this book offers nearly non-stop suspense, with even the quietest moments filled with constant tension. Smith gets us to love the characters early on and relate to them well, so when they’re put in perilous situations, when any one of them could be captured by the police or killed, we stay on the edge of our seats. Smith’s suspense prose is simple, elegant, never too show-offy. He writes, “I took off my jacket, unbuttoned my shirt, and slid the pistol into my waistband, barrel first, fiddling with it until it felt secure. It was in the center of my belly, sharp and cold against my skin, its grip pointing to the right” (337). Smith works like Alfred Hitchcock in a way, delaying the shocking moments, because he knows, like all the best storytellers, that it’s the anticipation of the gunshot that’s more suspenseful than the gunshot itself.

Unlike Hill, who will often relish the gory details, Smith is more interested in the suspense of a scene the way a thriller writer should be. I think one telling moment is Scott’s description of a dead body early on in the novel: “His eyes had been eaten out by the bird. Their dark sockets stared at me, his head rolling a bit to the right on his neck. The flesh around his eyes had been chewed completely away” (20). Compare this description with the one Hill gives of Mr. Manx. Both feature grisly details and glimpses of gore, but Smith’s is more subtle, more attuned to how an average Joe would describe a dead body he discovered in the snowy woods. Smith never goes for a gross-out moment because he thinks it might scare the reader; any moment of terror, like when two central characters are shot and killed at a farm house, is written as realistic suspense that feels set up and earned, never grisly and exploitative.

Unlike NOS4A2, A Simple Plan is written in first person, so the reader gets a closer look at the main character Hank’s inner musings. Since thrillers more often deal with ordinary people stuck in extraordinary situations, the reader of A Simple Plan gets to follow Hank as he makes one poor decision after another, the reader becoming an accomplice who asks him or herself, “Would I do the same thing if I were Hank?” Smith writes, “I realized that I’d crossed a boundary, done something abhorrent, brutal, something I never would have imagined myself capable of. I’d taken another man’s life” (91). This connection we get to the protagonist offers additional suspense because unlike Mr. Manx in NOS4A2, who we know from the first chapter is a bad man who does terrible things, Hank is someone we can identify with, and so much of the suspense comes from wanting to see him get out of his increasingly desperate situation.

In looking at the histories of the two genres and examining two specific novels, I have come to a few conclusions as to what makes a horror novel different from a thriller novel. My thesis is that all horror novels are thrillers in a sense, while most thrillers are not necessarily horror, and I feel like this statement holds true through the following points…

First, a horror novel is intended to scare and/or disgust a reader by inducing feelings and emotions of terror, while a thriller is meant to excite and entertain a reader through the use of constant tension and suspense. Can a horror novel offer excitement and suspense to a reader from beginning to end? Yes. Although some horror novels can go as slow as they please, other famous works like Jack Ketchum’s horror novel The Girl Next Door features moments that shock and terrify, while at the same time giving non-stop suspense throughout its three hundred pages. A thriller, on the other hand, will not typically cross these boundaries, the writer not so interested in gory details and moments of repulsion as he is in offering endless tension.

Second, many horror novels are set in a supernatural realm, while thrillers are almost always set in the real world and are about ordinary citizens who get trapped in extraordinary circumstances. If one begins reading a suspenseful story and can’t right away decide if it’s horror or thriller, one easy question to ask yourself is if it’s realistic or if it’s speculative. As soon as a vampire or a ghost or a creature from Christmasland shows up, know you’re in horror territory. Having said that, though, not all horror novels are supernatural; Stephen King’s Misery is known far and wide as a work of horror, even though it’s set entirely in the real world. But if there is a supernatural element, know you’re likely in the realm of horror.

Third, the POV often gives a clue as to which genre we’re in; horror is often written in third person while thrillers are often written in first person. Third person allows some distance, which allows the author to build on fear and dread, to create a tone that will frighten the reader. First person allows a closer look into the hero’s head, which adds to the suspense because the reader is more greatly invested in his or her central dilemma. Are there horror novels written in first and thrillers written in third? Of course there are, but POV can in many cases be a tip-off to what genre you’re reading. In the end, the genres remain similar, but these three points help shed light on what often makes them different.

Although I have always been more passionate about the horror genre, the thriller genre has also played an important role in both my reading life and my writing life, and I have come to respect both genres as essential in my exploration in authoring works of suspense. Both work on similar and different levels, many of which I’ve explored in this paper, but it’s important to me as I move forward to have a clear understanding of the genres as separate entities and what readers, agents, and publishers will come to expect when I pitch my latest novel as either horror or thriller. Maybe, in the end, I can feel safe with my latest novel being pitched as a horror-thriller since the two genres overlap to such a stunning degree. Consider the relationship between the genres a subversive kind of love story, one fraught with murder and dread and tension, and most especially, suspense.

Works Cited

Heller, Teller. The Delights of Terror: An Aesthetics of the Tale of Terror. University of Illinois Press: Chicago, 1987. Print.

Hill, Joe. NOS4A2. William Morrow and Company: New York, 2013. Print.

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. Everest House: New York, 1981. Print.

Lloyd-Smith, Alan. American Gothic: An Introduction. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc: New York, 2004. Print.

Palmer, Jerry. Thrillers: Genesis and Structure of a Popular Genre. St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1979. Print.

Schweitzer, Darrell. Speaking of Horror: Interviews with Writers of the Supernatural. The Borgo Press: San Bernadino, 1994. Print.

Skillman, T. MacDonald. Writing the Thriller: How to Craft Page-Turning Suspense With Instruction from Best-Selling Authors. Writer’s Digest Books: New York, 2000. Print.

Smith, Scott. A Simple Plan. Knopf: New York, 1993. Print.

Wisker, Gina. Horror Fiction: An Introduction. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc: New York, 2005. Print.

Posted in Food, Recipes

Want to make the tastiest healthy dessert?

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We’ve all been there. It’s late at night, you’re about thirty minutes or an hour away from going to bed, but you want one more little bite to eat to please your sweet tooth.

If you want a quick and delicious dessert that is surprisingly really good for you, break off a piece of 70% organic dark chocolate, and enjoy! But if you want to make a dessert that you won’t regret having eaten the morning after? Here’s an easy, painless recipe that will fill your stomach with a good mix of protein and carbs, as well as pure deliciousness!

Bananas Foster Style is a divine little dessert that is perfect for a late night snack / dessert. You get some fruit, a little protein, and a sweet, sumptuous glaze of maple syrup. You’ll only need four ingredients, as well as a frying pan!

Bananas Foster Style Ingredients

1 Ripe Organic Banana

½ Cup Organic Low Fat Cottage Cheese

2 Tablespoons Organic Grade B 100% Natural Maple Syrup

Splash of Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Start by heating up your frying pan and sprinkling in it a small amount of Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. (You can also use a tiny amount of Organic Butter if you prefer.) Keep the burner at a medium setting.

Next, take your banana and slice it to the end. You should have ten to fifteen slices of banana by the time you’re done. If you’re really hungry, you can use two bananas, but one banana is typically enough.

Spread the slices of banana around the frying pan so each slice has its own section — don’t stack any slices on top of each other. Keep the burner on a medium setting and let the slices of banana sizzle on the pan for one minute.

Next, pour the two tablespoons of maple syrup on top of the banana slices, making sure each slice has a small amount of syrup surrounding it. Let the slices sizzle in the syrup for another minute. Next, each banana slice over and let the other size of each slice sizzle with the syrup in the pan.

Next take a half cup of organic low fat cottage cheese and place it in the center of a small plate. You can heat the cottage cheese in the microwave if you prefer, but it’s not required. Next, brush the banana slices off the pan to the top of the cottage cheese on the plate. Serve immediately.

Voila! A quick, easy healthy dessert option that will please any member of your family.