I’m staring at the blank page with a feeling of exasperated terror, hoping that if I want it hard enough, a Stephen King-tier horror story will just magically materialise onto the page. Sadly, it never does.
I’m having an identity crisis, because I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. When people at parties ask me what I do for a living, I always tell them “Oh, I’m a writer.” It slips off my tongue so easily, like it’s wearing skis.
Next time I’m at a party, I think I’ll introduce myself as an astronaut. Cause it seems, these days, I successfully write about as often as I make it into outer space. If you’re gonna lie, why not lie big, right?
The story, after all, is simple enough. It’s about a group of friends who go camping, and encounter a shapeshifting monster in a nearby porta-potty. Pared-down, colloquial, the kind of thing that easily panders to people nostalgic for the internet horror stories of old.
It only needs to be a couple thousand words, after all, but I’m staring at this blank page on my word processor with the little “Zero” mocking me by sitting there next to the words ‘Word Count.’
It’s my fifteenth tweet of the day.
I drink my coffee quickly so I can go pee and have an excuse to step away from the computer. While I’m gone, I grab a snack, eat it, and grab another snack. Then grab another coffee so I’ll have another excuse to leave my desk again later when I’m inevitably feeling overwhelmed.
When I get back, I watch a YouTube video about ten of the scariest short horror stories. I message a friend, and we discuss the stories I have planned, and how great they’re going to be. This all somehow feels like writing, and yet, the page remains blank. I can’t seem to just will the words onto it without the horrific ordeal of moving my fingers against the keyboard.
After minutes turn into hours, I’ve written three different introductions, fine-tuned them each to perfection, and deleted them in shame. This feels like I’m making a good start, so I decide to call it a day and go binge a TV show on Netflix.
I tell myself, after all, that if you want to be a great writer, input is just as important as output - though the most salient difference is that nobody has ever paid me for input.
Before selecting my Netflix series of choice, I spend a little longer on Twitter, liking a series of tweets posted by the numerous working writers I follow. Part of me feels that if I somehow remain in these peoples’ orbits, I’ll just become a successful writer by proxy.
“How’s that working out for you?” says a voice behind my ear, replying to a thought I never voiced aloud.
Naturally, I scream with a pitch that could shatter glass and practically fling my laptop across the room in shock.
I’m up on my feet like a spooked cat, and turn to see the person who’d almost made me ruin one of my favourite pairs of pants.
“Who the fuck are you and how did you get into my house?” I ask.
There’s a woman sitting on the arm of the couch I’ve just sprung from. She’s wearing a long, black velvet dress that matches her beehive hairdo. The bottom of the dress, as well as her long, drooping sleeves, are stylistically tattered. Bone-white skin and obsidian make-up, with cheekbones that could open a tuna can.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say she was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
“To answer your first question, I’m a muse, a goddess of inspiration,” she says, casually observing her long, black talons. “To answer your second question, I’m here because you want me here.”
“I most certainly do not. Get the hell out of here!”
“You want to write the story, don’t you? A horror story, if I’m not mistaken?”
I silently nod along, mesmerised by this whole situation.
“There are plenty of muses out there. Music, painting - recently we employed a couple that specialise in SEO and game design - but me? I do horror stories,” she says, her voice deep, dark, and silky. “Make me a coffee and we’ll talk about it, ‘Kay?”
So there I am, sitting at my dining room table across from the Muse of Horror Stories, who’s drinking my coffee and eating my last Danish.
“What do I call you?” I ask.
“Up to you,” she says, eating the last bite of Danish and wiping her mouth. “Pick an interesting name, though. Something catchy, iconic.”
I search my caffeine-and-fear-scattered memory banks for interesting names, and find:
“Desdemona. How about Desdemona?”
Her black lips curl into a smile, and she winks at me.
“Perfect. I like that you’ve got ‘demon’ in there, that’s fun, and there’s the contraction - Mona. How about you call me Mona? Mono or bisyllabic is easier to remember.”
She’s really taking her time finishing that coffee.
“I’m taking my time for a reason, buddy,” she says. “This part is important.”
I think, Can you please stop reading my thoughts?
“Sorry, sorry, force of habit.”
“Why is you slowly drinking coffee in my dining room important?”
Mona drains the last of her cup, and sighs.
“This part is the build-up, see? If it’s horror from start to finish, people get exhausted. It’s boring. This gives us a little more time for the anticipation to build, heading for the climax - me showing up, that was the inciting incident. The part before that, where you were discussing your frustrations? That’s character establishment. It’s important to get that in early when you’re a first-person story.”
“It’s a horror short, not a fucking Danielle Steele novel,” I say.
“People want you to get into the action.”
Mona raises a long, clawed finger and wags it at me.
“That’s where you’re wrong. Horror is always better when you care about the characters first. Increases the tension when they’re in peril.”
“Not in my story,” I say. “It’s situational. The characters are blank slates, they’re something the reader can just sort of transpose themselves onto. It’s more immersive that way.”
She leans back and props her legs up on the table, knocking over the empty coffee cup. Her eyes are rolled in an expression I can only describe as ‘pure and ultimate contempt.’
“Must be why it’s been so easy to write, right?” she asks. “Also, I know you’ve got the hapless, tortured artist thing going for you, but you’re really gonna need some additional depth if you want the audience to give a shit about you and your arc.”
“I’m not the fucking character,” I say. “I’m the writer.”
Mona just laughs.
“They all think that, buddy,” she says. “A good enough horror story can change reality. You have any idea how much Jaws fucked over sharks?”
“None of this is helping me.”
“Actually, it is. This all helps set up the thematic through-line that’s gonna tie the rest of the story together. But let me guess, your horror stories don’t have themes, right? They’re all about visceral terror?”
I grit my teeth, and nod.
“You know, having bigger ideas won’t kill you, right?” she asks. “The space in your head isn’t finite. Your brain won’t explode if there’s more than one thing going on in one of your stories. Why not drop in a little romance here, a steamy scene there?”
“I’m having enough trouble just getting the basic premise in order, can’t we worry about themes later?”
“Themes can actually guide plot and character if you—“
“Fuck! Mona, sorry, I get that you’re trying to help me here, but this is all stuff I could read in a Wikihow article. Aren’t you meant to be a goddess?”
“I am a goddess,” she corrects me, tone steely and cold.
“Then can’t you be a little more helpful than reciting Save The Cat at me?”
There’s a pause, as I begin to wonder if I’d said too much, pissed off the goddess of horror, and cursed myself to an eternity of torment in the process. But instead, Mona begins to smile. Her tight, black lips stretch across her face in a Grinch-like grin and she nods.
“That can be arranged,” she says. “You’ve heard the expression ‘write what you know’, right? You write Horror - can you say you ever experienced true horror, or are you just reciting what other people have told you that you should be scared of?”
“Well...The Muse of Horror appeared in my living room twenty minutes ago, that shook me up something fierce.”
Mona laughs again.
“The lovably-sarcastic authorial voice is a plus, when not overused,” she says. “But your concepts need work. I mean, another fucking Goatman story? Really? Is the internet hurting for those?”
I shrink back into my seat, any possible responses shrivelling in my throat. Am I really this much of a hack?
“Not a hack, just a little creatively reserved, and we can fix that,” she says, finishing my thought again. “Sorry for finishing your thought again, by the way, I just realise we passed the 1,500 word mark so we should probably have the first real scare.”
Without warning, the dining table flips out from underneath, and a huge figure rises into the empty space. He must be almost seven feet tall, dressed in blood-caked plaid and a crude burlap mask. The man who’s just appeared under and displaced my table carries an oversized Black & Decker chainsaw that he activates with one effortless yank of the ripcord.
“What in the actual fucking fuck?” I scream.
“Little hackneyed, I know, but it’s a good way to get the creative juices flowing,” she says, tone still calm as ever, and somehow audible over the relentless chugging of the chainsaw. “Oh, and you should probably run, or he’s gonna cut you in half.”
She doesn’t have to tell me twice.
As the psychopathic killer she’s just summoned raises the chainsaw above his head and bellows mad gibberish in preparation for the hunt, I’m already running out into the hallway ahead of him, taking the first turn towards the outside door.
For someone so large, he’s lightning fast. My lead evaporates in an instant and already he’s on my ass. Mona’s voice echoes down the hall, as clear as though she’s standing right next to me.
“In the best horror stories,” her disembodied voice says. “You not only have a developed protagonist with clear goals, you also match the antagonist perfectly to them. A good antagonist challenges the protagonist on their flaws. Now, sometimes it’s a crazed killer.”
The chainsaw-wielding burlap man running mere feet behind me gives another enraged bellow, as though to answer Mona’s role call.
“...Or maybe it’s a monster.”
Suddenly, without even breaking stride, this huge, furry body bulges out of the killer’s plaid and burlap, trading in his giant chainsaw for the flesh-rending claws of a fucking werewolf.
“Or perhaps something a little more psychological.”
I turn another corner - a corner I really can’t remember even being in my house before - and the Killer/Werewolf/WhateverTheFuck disappears behind me. Gone. But I don’t stop running, and turning corners, even though every corner seems to send me back around into the same hallway, again and again and again.
Except now, every framed photo in that hallway is a giant eye, webbed with lightning storms of bloodshot veins, frantically swivelling in its socket. Mona stares at me out of the hallway mirror, and gives a petty little wave.
I run up to it and grab it by its frame, which feels like the equivalent of grabbing her by her shoulders in this situation.
“Mona, okay, I get it,” I say. “I can be more varied in my concepts. You’ve gotta stop this shit right now.”
Mona, once again, just laughs.
“Honey, the concept isn’t the last step! It’s the first. Contrary to what a lot of people like you believe, if you want a concept to actually mean anything, you need to write it.”
“For fuck’s sake, Mona, this is insane!”
“So is wasting your potential!” she barks, voice suddenly taking on an oddly demonic quality. “We’ve got character and premise, that’s a great start. Now, you’ve gotta think up some creative scares. Like this one.”
Suddenly, I notice I’m getting further away from the mirror. I’m moving downwards. Sinking. My feet, and then all too quickly my ankles, feel submerged in something. Something warm and moving.
I look down and see that the entire floor has been replaced with an ocean of writhing maggots. Millions of them, just pulsing and wriggling. Stinking of rot. So many of them all in one place that you can literally hear the squirm.
“Great sensory description there, using four of the five senses, that’ll really squick the audience out,” she says. “Oh, and keep your mouth closed, unless you wanna make it five.”
I’m up to the waist now, and they’re crawling under my shirt, nibbling at me, their wriggling bodies so repulsively kinetic against the bare skin of my torso.
“Okay, okay!” I scream. “What next? What’s the next lesson?”
No reply, just descending a couple inches deeper into the maggot sea.
“Just a little longer,” she replies. “Most writers are too nice to their characters. We want to build a little suspense here - really put you through the wringer.”
I just keep sinking, it seems like it’s maggots all the way down. Soon enough, it swallows up my arms, my upper torso, my shoulders, and I can even feel them wriggling against my neck.
Pointing my chin upwards, trying to keep the rising maggot tide away from the numerous entry points in my face, I let out a final scream.
“You’ve suffered enough,” Mona says. “Next lesson.”
I blink, once, and the maggots are gone. The smell, the sound, the sight, the sensation. Instead, I’m strapped in what looks like a dental chair, arms and legs tied down with heavy belts. I’m in this vast, dark expanse, lit by a single overhead spotlight.
Next to me, there’s a surgical table covered in nightmarish tools: Scalpels, forceps, bone saws (both manual and electric), hammers and prodding tools of various sizes, pliers, and a dildo covered in nasty-looking studs. All rusty.
Mona appears behind me, wearing surgical accessories - mask, hairnet, rubber gloves, apron, etc. - and walks into the light. She’s reading a copy of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.
“It’s important that you don’t just read horror, by the way,” she says, absently. “If you want to be a well-rounded writer, you’ve gotta cross-train. Read a little drama, a little romance, a little paperback thriller. One of the classics.”
She gestures to the book she’s holding, while perusing her selection of torture tools.
“The problem a lot of you guys have is you only read in your own genre, or you only read other internet stories. It stunts you. Limits your potential. When was the last time you picked up a short story collection or something that wasn’t Palahniuk?”
I struggle against the bindings, but none of them budge.
“Let me the fuck out of here, Mona,” I say. “This is...I don’t even know what this is.”
“This is writing, man,” she says, and grabs a pair of rusty pliers from the collection of miscellaneous pain tools.
Mona saunters over to me and grabs a clump of hair at the top of my scalp. She yanks back, sharply, forcing my mouth open.
“Nobody ever said it’d be easy, some days, it’ll feel like pulling teeth,” she says, slowly moving towards my mouth with the pliers. “But you’ve gotta do it anyway. That’s what being a professional is all about. You’ve gotta do the work. You want this shit to be your job, right? Why can’t you treat it like that?”
As best I can with my mouth wide open, I say, “The creative process is a lot more finicky than that!”
Mona’s face crumples up in disgust. Her eyes are bright red, with snake-slit pupils - I feel like I should have mentioned that earlier.
“Yeah, if you wanna do it for a fucking hobby, sure,” she says. “But if you wanna get paid, you’re gonna have to fucking work.”
About an inch away from my two front teeth, she suddenly stops, and walks back over to the torture table.
I let out a sigh of relief and close my mouth when she puts down the pliers, and feel my anxiety spike again as her spindly hand moves over the rest of the tools.
“Torture scenes are always a risk,” she says, eyes still on the tools. “A lot of amateurs, they think they need to throw everything and the kitchen sink at the audience to get a reaction. It betrays a lack of confidence.”
To my horror, she picks up and brandishes the dildo like a baton.
“I imagine you made a note of this, right? Any spiked dildo mentioned in the first act needs to go up someone’s ass by act two - Chekhov’s big, plastic cock,” she says, before breaking into fits of laughter. “It’d definitely make people remember this scene, sure, but it’s too much. It’s distracting. You’re not E.L. James.”
She mercifully puts down the dildo, and picks her book back up, turning to some random page in the middle.
Mona continues reading as she sways—
“Sways? Really? You can just say walk sometimes, you don’t need to spam the thesaurus to write a good story,” she says.
Okay, fine, she walks over to me, still reading.
“Audiences are jaded these days, we’re living in a Post-Roth, Post-French-Extreme world. You think a laundry list of blasé depravity is gonna disturb people? You need to really get creative,” she says, turning a page. “I could use every tool on that table on you—“
“But a good horror writer knows exactly when to pull a punch, keep it nice and simple, and really give the audience something they can feel.”
She takes one of the pages between her thumb and forefinger, and tears it out of the book.
“Not many people know what losing a limb feels like,” she says, pinching each end of the page and moving it down towards my hands. To the space between my fingers. “But everyone knows what this feels like.”
Before I can react, she whips the paper across the soft webbing between my index and middle finger, splitting it with a brutal, burning paper cut. Instinctually, I move my hand, causing the wound to split open further.
I scream so loud that it peters off at the end when I run out of air.
“I bet the audience is really cringing now,” she says, moving to the space between my middle and ring finger. “Let’s try for two.”
With another quick ‘thwip’ of the paper, and the skin opens up. Pain burns. I can’t keep myself from screaming.
When I see the page again, its edges are red.
“Please fucking stop,” I scream. “I can’t take much more of this shit.”
“Neither can the audience,” she says. “I’ve made my point, I’m not a sadist.”
“You could have fucking fooled me, Mona!”
The straps binding my arms and legs in place suddenly slither off, freeing me.
“We’re gonna have a few moments of calm in preparation for the big finale, just so the audience doesn’t get too exhausted,” she says. “Then comes the hard part.”
“That wasn’t the fucking hard part?”
She shakes her head, slowly taking off the surg