Vignette: “Worse than Death”

Getting sentenced to death is bad. Reading about your own execution because the St. Louis Post-Dispatch accidentally releases the story on their web site early is worse. After that, you would think that waking up in a pine box three days later would be a nice surprise.

Not so much.

Waking up didn’t surprise me—that’s what always happens when I die. The surprise was being in an actual pine box. I had given my attorney clear instructions and plenty of money to make the arrangements. I should have been in a nice padded casket with several useful hand-tools that were supposed mementos of my supposed earlier career as a carpenter. That was partly an inside joke and a nod to my famous ancestor for starting the whole mess, but mostly it was just practical. You can eventually break out of a casket and dig your way out of a grave with your bare hands if you keep coming back to life every time you suffocate, but I don’t recommend it. You never really get over that kind of thing.

So I had a moment of panic. OK, it was a lot more than a moment. I’ve been around long enough to accumulate a few PTSD triggers. With help and time, I’ve worked through some of them, but this is one that has stuck. You don’t want to know all the details about the next few minutes; let’s just say it got very loud and very messy in that box. I hammered on the boards until my hands bled. I’d have had broken fingers if there was enough room in the box to swing that hard.

About the time I was winding down from sheer exhaustion, the rational part of my brain finally decided to offer up the observation that I was still breathing just fine. That took a few seconds to percolate. I waited until my heart stopped pounding just to be sure before I luxuriated in several long, deep breaths. Then tried to pretend that I wasn’t a complete idiot while I carefully ran my hands over every inch of the box that I could reach.

It took longer than you would think. There was absolutely no light and not much room to move, but eventually I wormed an arm up and found the air-holes drilled in the boards above my head. They were about an inch wide and, with some twisting, I could get a finger through and hook a knuckle on the outside edge. I could barely feel cool air coming in through the holes, so I guessed there were more holes somewhere else. Probably in the end by my feet.

The bad news was that I could feel nice straight seams between the boards on all sides. The whole thing was made of good solid 2x4s, not plywood. There was no flexing or bowing at all, and no hardware on the inside. No nail-heads for me to pick at or screws to twist. And no hinges.

I got the message, and I was scared. Whoever did this knew who I was, and they knew they couldn’t kill me.

They also knew they didn’t have to.

Manuscript “done”

Finishing a manuscript is an exciting time. It’s a huge milestone, right?

You’ve been working on this project for months–maybe years–and finally you get to see the big stack of pages. You heft it and feel the weight. You take it to the dining table and drop it in front of your spouse or your mother and it thumps like someone just dropped a big-city copy of the Yellow Pages (if you still have one of those laying around). Suddenly everyone can see what you’ve been up to all this time, and you’re no longer the crazy guy who lives in a hole. You’ve actually accomplished something! You’re really a writer!

It’s very satisfying.

For about ten minutes.

Because new manuscripts are like new-born babies. Everyone loves to oo and ah over them, but the truth is that they’re stinky little beasts that have a lot of developing to do before they’re ready to go out in public on their own.

You (being the savvy writer that you are) have been doing more than just writing while you’ve been living in your hole. You’ve been learning. You know that giving birth is joyous and well-worth celebrating, but it’s still just the beginning of a long journey. There are lots of milestones still to come. Lots of challenges and rewards.

The picture above is the “completed” manuscript for my current project. It’s going out to beta readers today. I have my own feelings about it, but I look forward to getting the first opinions from others. That feedback will help me decide if this baby is going to boarding school or to a boot camp for troubled youths.

Why supernatural thrillers?

The awesome Rachel Aaron recently said this:

And it got me thinking about why I’m writing supernatural thrillers as opposed to any of the many other kinds (crime thrillers, medical thrillers, legal, military, cozies, etc, etc, etc). I mean, supernatural thrillers are obviously cooler, right? Right?

Well, I think they’re cooler anyway. But why?

I think it’s because different kinds of thrillers exploit different kinds of fear. It’s perfectly reasonable to fear an axe-wielding psycho, or a plague outbreak, or a terrorist with a bomb, or a corrupt senator. In all these cases you know exactly why you’re afraid, because you know exactly what these things could do to you. In some cases, like the corrupt senator or the psycho, you might even have the forbidden thrill of identifying with the bad guy… understanding how they embody that little bit of darkness that you keep properly hidden inside yourself.

Supernatural thrillers aren’t like that. The fear that they exploit is the fear of the unknown. The Things That Go Bump In The Night are out there in the dark… waiting for you. You desperately want to categorize them and give them names and understand the how and why of them, because that would give you comfort and make you feel like you have some kind of control. You could take steps to protect yourself.

But you can’t. The essential fact of the supernatural is… it’s not natural. It doesn’t obey the rules that you know and depend on to keep yourself safe.

Besides exploiting the primitive fear of the unknown, supernatural thrillers can also offer a primitive kind of joy: They can evoke a sense of wonder. So what if the Things That Go Bump In The Night aren’t real? For the time that we’re in the story we can imagine that we’re in a world where they’re as real as we are. Even if they’re scary, it’s exciting to imagine that strange and terrible things are possible.

So that’s my take on it. Supernatural thrillers are the best because fear of the unknown always trumps fear of the known, and because they help us recapture that sense of wonder.