The nominees for this year’s Bram Stoker Award for Short Fiction blew me away. Serpent hair? Yes, please. Ancient cults? Thank you! Man-eating sheep? Don’t mind if I do. I had the terribly good fortune of reading all this year’s nominees in one sitting, which was the equivalent of consuming one of the most bonkers anthologies ever collected.
I loved every moment of it.
And I noticed all the stories had an eerie connection. The authors were implementing a tactic in their writing that elevated the tension so effectively that I found myself going back over and over. I wanted to experience the full force of these authors’ talents. I wanted to bathe in the tension before the inevitable you-know-what hits the fan as each story progresses.
I’m talking about foreshadowing.
Sometimes, foreshadowing can be explicit, like in Carol Gyzander’s “The Yellow Crown,” where we — and our main character — are told (warned?) that not all is as it seems in the curious residence on Bleecker Street:
The woman opened the door further and gestured for her to come in. “Ah yes. How do you do, Betty. I’m Evelyn Palmer. I run the house here, at least all the support side. Madam is, of course, in charge of the establishment.” A small smile played about her lips. “As you shall soon understand. Come in, come on in.”
Here, one of the characters coyly teases the idea that something is about to change, causing the reader to tense up (this is horror, after all) before anything strange even happens.
Sometimes, foreshadowing occurs in a series of moments. Take Anna Taborska’s “Two Shakes of a Dead Lamb’s Tail,” for example. The main character notices sheep on the way to a remote cabin with her husband and in-laws … it isn’t long before she finds herself alone and wandering the grounds only to find evidence of something more sinister:
“Two small, slightly curved horns and the gaping hole of what I guessed might have been the top of the animal’s windpipe pointed up at the cold heavens …”
Lee Murray’s “Permanent Damage” is more subtle, but once you get to the incredible snake-filled climax, the first few pages are filled with imagery designed to put the reader’s subconscious in a slithering, serpentine mood:
“How about we do a spiral perm, like this?” the stylist suggested. “Lovely soft curls falling over your shoulders. Lots of volume. I think that will give you the romantic look you’re going for.”
Not quite, you poor, ignorant stylist!
These stories all use foreshadowing in a different way, but it can also take on a more lingering form as well. Cindy O’Quinn’s “A Gathering on the Mountain” lets us into the head of the narrator, whose impressions of a traveling healer set the stage for an absolutely wild twist at the end of the story, one so fantastic that I don’t want to give any of it away.
Last, but certainly not least, is Kyla Lee Ward’s “A Whisper in the Death Pit.” I have a soft spot for stories that feel like “found footage”. In this case, it’s the diary of a researcher investigating a strange religious site that suffered a horrific fate. Ward writes so well that the first few pages feel like authentic academic writing, adding a sense of reality to the history of the “Death Pit.” The main character is emotionally detached from the frightening history of the archeological site, creating a sense of dread as the locals decry her investigation. Soon, it becomes clear that she should have heeded their warnings …
Foreshadowing works in different ways, and when done poorly it simply reveals too much too soon. But when an author expertly uses it, the audience feels a sense of dread that builds to the climax. In other words, foreshadowing can inject a sense of horror into the audience’s bones well before anything horrific has even happened! Kudos to these nominees.
The Pathway to Foreshadowing
This is a writing activity designed to help you harness the power of foreshadowing. We’re going to keep it a little simple to start, but you’ll have an opportunity to really enhance the details as you plot this bad boy out. We’re gonna go with a Jekyll and Hyde theme for this one …
Step One: You need character. Make them middle-aged because, as I’ve begun to learn the hard way, being middle-aged is already a horror in and of itself.
Step Two: You need a dish. What I mean, specifically, is you need something for your character to eat or drink. Go online and find a recipe for something delicious. Something unique and strange would help a lot.
Step Three: Your dish needs a history. Add some unique flavor and spices to the dish. Come up with a history of its creation. Make the history rich and mysterious. This recipe for pie was handed down by the Warren clan, said to heal an ailed spirit. Or use a drink instead. This concoction was drunk by Beauregard Smith before defending Gettysburg. He took twenty bullets that day and survived. There’s only one thing to remember for this: the dish or drink must be enticing enough that your main character will consume it. But there must also be some downside to consuming it as well. Maybe some horrible fate has befallen its creators. Maybe ol’ Beauregard coughed up lead bullets the rest of his life.
Step Four: Your character needs to consume it. And then bad things need to start happening. They should get progressively worse as the story moves forward. End it with either the character finding a way to survive, or failing to do so.
Here’s how we build the dread: Somehow, early on in the story, you have to bring up the history of the dish or drink. This will be your opportunity to foreshadow the horror that will come later. It can be a moment (maybe, when mixing the ingredients, it gives off a foul smell) or it can be in dialogue (maybe someone gives your character a warning). If you’re feeling really adventurous, try to make your story a diary that gives your character early opportunities to dismiss any ominous moments that suggest this might not be the best idea.
Ready? Good. Now write it and scare the hell out of us!
Ken Brosky is the author of The Beyond, a horror novel available through Timber Ghost Press. His work has been published in Grotesque and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, among others. He’s currently working on a screenplay and a new novel.