Dark Pathways: In the Dead of Winter

Dark Pathways

cover of Bleak MidwinterFor those looking for a great collection of horror stories, please for the love of God look no further than Bleak Midwinter: The Darkest Night. Editors Damon Barret and Cassandra L. Thompson just knocked this collection out of the park. It’s fantastic. It’s scary. And the stories are of an exceptional quality. I want to talk up one in particular for this post, because I just re-read it while delayed at the airport and I’m more convinced than ever that I’m in love. There are few things scarier than missing a flight … and this particular story is one of them.

“All Her Little Bones” by R.A. Busby isn’t the only fantastic short story in the collection, but its narrative style tickled me right in the sweet spot. You see, this story takes the form of a series of entries in a journal. The narrator recounts her harrowing tale of hiking off-trail (for a very good reason, mind you) and ending up at a small shelter that appears abandoned. The narrator suffers a number of eerie experiences before coming face-to-face with the ghost of a screaming girl. The narrator attempts to flee, but this place in the woods has a mysterious power over her … a power that seems to transcend time. The narrator cannot escape this shelter, no matter how far she travels. She keeps ending up in the same place.

Things had gotten worse. The canvas had fallen into ancient wrinkles, and it had the look of fabric that wants to give way at the slightest touch. That morning, the corner had been plugged with fir branches, but now that side leaned cock-eyed against a tree that had grown tall in my few hours’ absence. The central crossbeam still held, so I supposed it might stay up a bit longer.

I wept as I crawled in there, I can tell you that much. Wept as I yanked out my bag, my pad, my jacket pillow, and tugged off my boots. That’s when I discovered this. This shelter log in your hands.

Trapped in time. Trapped in the woods. Haunted by a screaming girl. Tormented by something far worse … Dear Reader, I am one hundred percent into this. First off, R.A. Busby does a fantastic job with the first-person narration. It feels complete and unique and real. Second, Busby’s use of the journal format works perfectly for this story (especially given the ending!). I honestly don’t think third-person narration would have worked as well.

Busby also does something that I’ve talked about before but it bears repeating: she knows what she’s talking about. The narrator uses hiking lingo and knows the trails — this makes her more believable and it sucks us right into the story. Busby also does something else that I rarely see: she plays with the lines of text, mimicking the act of a very stressed-out writer frantically jotting down what she’s experiencing!

Dark Pathway: Building a Journal

Journal stories work best in the first-person, obviously. They’re also usually in the past-tense (since the narrator is typically recording events that have already taken place). What makes the journal format interesting is that you can keep the reader hooked … what’s going to happen in the last entry? If you build up the tension well enough, you can have a lot of fun with this genre! Try this simple exercise, which will get you a head start on your next masterpiece.

Step one: Build a character who will be your protagonist. This character has lost everything and is seeking revenge against the monster that took it. Decide now if your protagonist will survive … or die.

Step two: Build a MONSTER. If you’re stuck, use Grendel. He’s a fantastic monster and you can place him in any time you want!

Step three: Draw a map. Pinpoint where the monster is traveling, and how far away your protagonist is. Imagine this is a five-day journey, and on day five your protagonist will face off with the monster. 

Step four: Plot your story. Your story is going to be split up into five journal entries — one entry per day. For each day, your protagonist must overcome a challenge — this can be a chance meeting with another monster, or some inner doubts nagging at your protagonist, or even a wound that’s become infected. Be creative! But test your character. Don’t let them go a day without struggling.

Step five: Write your protagonist’s last entry first. I think this is the most important tip. You need to know the outcome in order to plan the rest. If your character is going to fail, or turn back, or get killed by the monster, you need to figure out the last entry (your character can’t write from beyond the grave, right?!). If they’re going to survive, you need to know how much they lost in the process. Once you know the outcome, the rest will come together so much more easily.

Now get writing!

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.

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