The word TOP 10 written in vintage metal letterpress type on a soft backlit background.
My first column (is that what I’m doing here? writing columns?) for the Horror Tree was my list of 10 mythical creatures that I felt were just ripe for using by some wonderfully talented author (https://horrortree.com/top-10-mythical-creatures-that-deserve-their-own-books-or-films/). Now, I don’t know how many people actually bothered to read that column, but some must have because I received a DM over on the Twitter thing suggesting two other creatures for a second list, should I be so inclined.
Wonderful, I thought… except they were not mythological creatures. These were cryptids.
What the…? was the response I received.
Now, I am sure hard-core readers of the paranormal will know the difference. A Cryptid is something that could conceivably exist, based on terrestrial science (such as it is used here). So, an extraterrestrial is not a cryptid, a dragon is not a cryptid, but a bigfoot is a cryptid. One other thing is that evidence of its existence should have been seen, but not everything claimed to have been seen is a cryptid (mothman is an example of this). Cryptids could be creatures out of place, creatures out of time, or creatures that evolution had a field day with.
Does that make sense? Too bad if it doesn’t, I guess, because that’s another essay for another time (and I have indeed written just such an essay about what makes a cryptid a cryptid… sad, I know).
So, this list is about those lesser known cryptids. No lake monsters, no bigfoot-style apemen (even if the Australian Yowie is little known), and no prehistoric creatures. Still, 10 animals for your reading pleasure. Maybe one of these beasts could make an appearance in some-one’s fine work!
- Ahool (also known as Athol)
What is it? A large bat, found primarily on Java (the Indonesian island). Its wingspan is about twelve feet or so and it has a flat face, more like a monkey than a bat. Its cry gives it its name and it is said to feed primarily on fish.
Story concept? Come on, this is essentially a winged monkey. Up the ante and make it decide that feasting on humans is a good idea. And it is huge. Imagine a cloud of these attacking a cruise liner or something like that.
- Artrellia (also known as Papuan Dragon)
What is it? Essentially, an enormous monitor lizard found in Papua New Guinea, up to 30 feet in length and with a venomous bite (which it appears many monitors, including the Komodo dragon, do possess). It attacks by climbing trees and dropping onto prey, which its weight crushes, and it then eats.
Story concept? It was first recorded in the 1930s, and was still being noted in the 1980s. In World War Two, two soldiers were reported as having been eaten by an Artrellia. Set your story back then. Think Predator with killer lizards in a Papua New Guinea jungle in 1944.
- Dobhar-chú (also known as Dobarcu or Doyarchu)
What is it? While a part of Irish folklore, there are cryptozoologists who consider it real – a crocodile-sized dog with the head of an otter, flippers instead of legs and a vicious streak. Sightings have persisted into the twenty-first century.
Story concept? A standard monster tale, set in a remote part of Ireland, with these animals attacking the group of teenagers. Different monsters always make the old tropes better.
What is it? Known from corpses washed up in Gambia, the most notable being in 1983. Four and a half metres long, four flippers, tapered short tail, dolphin like head with more teeth than any dolphin, and nostrils on the end of the snout. It seemed to confirm long-told stories of sea crocodiles in the area.
Story concept? Sea crocodiles? Come on, this writes itself. A whole bask of these things attacking shipping, coastal towns, whatever, and you can’t kill all of them, wipe out an entire species… can you?
What is it? Reported as recently as 2011, this is a winged possum with horns and protruding fangs, possibly omnivorous, found in the Catlins in the south of New Zealand’s South Island.
Story concept? Killer possums? A part of the world not completely explored, with very little human habitation? This thing writes itself!
What is it? Found in many countries in southern Africa, this swamp-dwelling creature is a bipedal lizard that shows human traits, including weapon usage.
Story concept? This is a real-live lizard-man, living in the swamps of southern Africa! Not a dinosaur remnant, but a highly evolved reptile. How advanced is their civilisation? How long have they been there? Do they pre-date humans? How much of human history was influenced by them? Did humans drive them into the swamps? The possibilities are endless.
What is it? Seen in the Republic of the Congo and other sites in western Africa, this is an enormous eagle, with a wingspan of four metres or more (to give context, the largest known eagle wingspan is 2.5 metres, Stellar’s sea eagle, but a wedge-tailed eagle in Australia was measured at 2.8 metres), that is known for eating monkeys. Its claws and talons are comparable in size to a man’s arm and hand.
Story concept? A legitimate huge bird, known for eating monkeys. What if, due to man’s interference, they run out of monkeys? And humans are just there? Who would believe (to paraphrase Lindy Chamberlain), “An eagle stole my baby!”?
- Peel Street Monster
What is it? In the 1930s, in Wolverhampton, England, this creature appeared, attacking and biting children – a four foot long rat. Extremely aggressive, the people kicked it to death. But where there’s one…
Story Concept? Four foot long rats living in populated areas of England. Think about that. Not the rats in the walls of Lovecraft or the creatures in any of James Herbert’s vermin-themed books, but real large rats in large cities attacking people in broad daylight. To tell the truth, the idea of this gives me the willies. And I live in Australia where 90% of the wildlife actively tries to kill you.
What is it? First seen in the 1920s off the coast of South Africa, two whales were fighting this thing. It’s the size of a whale, covered in white fur and with a long, flexible trunk. Its carcass was subsequently washed up on the shore, measuring 47 feet in length. 10 years later, a smaller one was washed up on the Alaskan coast.
Story concept? What is it? How many are out there? Is it good or bad or just an animal? Should it be hunted or studied? So many story arcs open up with this strange, unknown sea creature.
What is it? Known to Westerners as the giant shrieking centipede. About a foot long, pale green, living in Sumatra and with a very painful, venomous bite. But it also makes a loud call or shriek, sounding somewhat like a cat in distress. It has been reported all the way into the twenty-first century.
Story concept? There are not many arthropod cryptids, so having one that could be poisonous, living on a jungle-covered island could surely open up for some-one to have fun with. Next to nothing is known about them. How many offspring do they have? How often do they breed? What are their predators? If you took one away from Sumatra and its predators, how soon before they overtook a city? As a writer – go for it!
So, there you have it. 10 creatures that cryptozoologists legitimately believe could well be living out there in the wide world, and which could be perfect for a creature feature story, screenplay, film or whatever other form of art you want to go for. All of them have some great possibilities for narrative; it’s up to the creators to take the ball and run with it.
The word TOP 10 written in vintage metal letterpress type on a soft backlit background.
As part of a writing discussion group, I recently did a brief summary of what a psychopath and a sociopath actually are. (Why me? Long story, but it involves some studied I did in one of my university degrees…) Anyway, these two character types often appear in horrors and thrillers (even if the details are usually completely misguided) and seem to be the dominant psychological tropes that occur. Sure, there are some others – amnesia, kleptomania, various phobias, megalomania (especially in the mad doctor vein) – but there are so many more that could surely make a great basis for a horror story.
Now, before I start, I do not consider the autism spectrum disorders as psychological. They are a part of neurodiversity. The same can be said of Downs Syndrome. And, as far as I am concerned, those who identify with any aspects of the LGBTI+ (LGBTIQQAA) community do not deserve to be placed here either. I’m also going to try to steer away from things that lend themselves a little too much to pornography.
This is not going to be a list of phobias and philias, either, though some will appear. These are psychological devices I think could be well utilised in good horror or thriller stories. And, as is the nature of these columns, here are 10 if them I think are seriously worth considering.
1) Déjà vu
What? The strange feeling that what you are going through now you’ve already been through before. It’s not amnesia, as you remember it, but it is the feeling you are reliving a part of your life.
Possibilities: What if the déjà vu was real and the MC had experienced it before? What if s/he was being set up to think they had experienced it before? Yes, you could go into full Groundhog Day territory (great film, by the way), but what if it was more subtle than that? The same people on the same corners? Same words being spoken? But enough changes you know you’re not reliving the same day over and over. Some intriguing possibilities here.
What? The delusion that one is actually a non-human animal.
Possibilities: This is when a person honestly thinks they are an animal, not just identifies with an animal or believes they change into one. And it involves real animals, not mythical/mythological ones. How would a person cope if their loved one came to develop Zoanthropy? What would go through the afflicted person’s mind? How would they start to see the world around them? This seems to open itself up to some deep psychological explorations.
What? The compulsive desire to swallow non-food objects. Could be specific objects – dirt is surprisingly common – to anything non-food.
Possibilities: While it is not good to make fun of or victimise those afflicted by psychological issues, a person suffering from this could well be a nice, low-key villain. Or they could add an extreme complication to the hero’s quest to do whatever it is the hero has been set to do in the story. It can lead, obviously, to some pretty severe physiological effects as well. What would a hero have to do to cope if s/he had this issue? While maybe not a driving force, it would definitely add a really interesting layer to a character.
What? When a person exhibits a distinct lack of emotional response towards something that should be considered of considerable importance.
Possibilities: This would be an absolutely fascinating character trait in an MC. The inability to feel strong emotion gives rise to the question: How would they be motivated to do something that was going to change the story/world they lived in? It is not a complete lack of emotion, but that there is a lack of emotion in a crisis. An example might be a person who is annoyed on September 12 because he can’t get to work, the Twin Towers falling having no effect on him. Sometimes it is a response because the magnitude of the event cannot be absorbed; sometimes it is a long-term psychological factor where large life events just do not register. That could be a really different MC.
What? When a person seems to be unusually accident-prone. This is not general clumsiness or being unco-ordinated (as I put my hand up here in embarrassment), but describes people who seem to repeatedly put themselves into situations in which something goes wrong, resulting in injury to themselves or others. Despite the name, it is generally accepted there is no sexual element to it.
Possibilities: A minor character, a really bizarre MC, a henchperson of the villain – this character could appear just about everywhere. It should also be said they do not want to commit suicide, just hurt themselves. Objectives can be looking for sympathy, they feel they deserve pain, proving they are worthless, a need to be saved, whatever. There are so many possibilities in this one.
What? The fear of being seen by others. Not just being spied on, but being seen, full stop.
Possibilities: Scopophobia is a very genuine form of social phobia, one that is apparently increasing as more and more people live their lives entirely online. However, if the victim of a big bad in a horror tale suffered from this, how would they let anyone know of their very real distress? If the antagonist knows this is a person’s fear, then they could constantly go about setting up situations where the person was put into a situation of being seen. Think: webcams in the house, the poor victim getting an email address and discovering their every movement was being broadcast. There would be a heightened sense of terror, compounded by the phobia. Like a modern day take on Audrey Hepburn’s classic turn in Wait Until Dark.
7) Capgras syndrome
What? This severe psychosis is marked by the delusion that ‘doubles’ have replaced persons whom one knows. Not an Invasion Of The Body Snatchers situation where it is real, but the delusion that that is the case.
Possibilities: The person suffering from this could be quite a hindrance to any story. Maybe they could see their own doppelganger and that could just heighten their paranoia. What I would not want to see, however, is for the delusion to be true in the end – everyone really replaced by doubles. I think that would diminish the true horror of Capgras syndrome and make it just another “they’ve come and taken us over” bog-standard sci-fi/horror story.
(There is a related delusion: Mignon delusion. This is a surprisingly common childhood fantasy that one’s ‘real’ parents are famous, illustrious persons who will eventually come to rescue them from their current lives. Unfortunately, some do carry this on into adulthood, with horrible results on Dr Phil.)
8) Histrionic personality disorder
What? This personality disorder is characterised by immaturity, self-centredness, attention-getting, manipulativeness and quite often a vague seductiveness; such persons are overly dramatic, reactive and intense in their interpersonal relationships. (Come on, you know some-one like this…)
Possibilities: Look, characters like this have been a source of fun in 1980s teen comedies (I was a teen in the 1980s… I saw wa-a-ay too many of these films to be healthy), but to transport a person like that into a horror story could be intriguing. In that case, they should not just be the victim everyone is happy to see killed off, but the person being stalked all the way through, with their former behaviours meaning they are not taken seriously or are treated derisively. Writing a person like this so that in the end there is sympathy for them could be a good writing exercise.
9) Omnipotence of thought
What? This is the belief that one’s wishes, hopes or thoughts can affect external reality. It is actually common as a developmental stage of childhood, where it is referred to as ‘magical thinking’.
Possibilities: Unlike Capgras syndrome, this is one where the intriguing thing might be “what if it was real?” A person could well think it was happening, be slowly talked around that it wasn’t – and this is tough because they will deny proof that says they are wrong; it’s a part of the psychological implications of the disorder – but then people realise that maybe s/he is affecting the world around them by their thoughts alone. Subtle creepy terror is imminent.
10) Parataxic distortion
What? This is when a person has a distorted view of reality brought about by inferring a causal relationship between events that are actually independent.
Possibility: Actually, we’re seeing this all the time in the real world.
Writers, try challenging yourself. Give your characters something beyond the normal psychological issues we see and read all the friggin’ time. Some of these might be a little different, and give your work that difference that could make it stand out. And the characters these lead to could well become unique and saleable. In my opinion (caveat!), of course.
One Pirate Skull with a Red Eye and a Patch
The legalities of copyright law are dangerous, strange, fraught with danger, confusing and have an element of danger about them. They differ from country to country and have been made a mockery of by the Disney Corporation who have decided they want to own everything everywhere and do not care about anything not Disney until they own that, too.
See, originally, copyright was limited. People were encouraged to take the characters and extend their adventures, and after only a few years, they could. But with the process of re-sales and seeing some classic writers die poor, things were made a little more favourable to them. Now things are made favourable to the evil Mouse. However, there are some things even Disney does not own.
See, there is still a thing called Public Domain. Old characters can still be used in some cases. Now, of course, there are some that are logical – anything from mythology, from religion, from folklore (like Robin Hood or King Arthur and all those entail), and anything Shakespeare. Just don’t copy the way things have been done by others (if original) and you’ll be fine. Even fairy-tales are fine (just don’t use anything developed by Disney for their properties; if Disney stole it from the Brothers Grimm, then it’s fair claim). And some others have been used often – Jekyll & Hyde, Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Invisible Man. All of these are Public Domain.
So, here is a list of some little known or maybe forgotten Public Domain characters that could be used for stories by today’s writers!
Now, going off-track (again) for a second. Fan-fiction is not what this is about. I am in two minds about Fanfic – I can see how it can help authors develop their craft in the early stages of learning, or just having fun; however, part of being a writer is developing characters and settings and doing the work involved there. I will leave that there, as I copped some serious abuse on the NaNoWriMo forum when I dared say I felt Fanfic was maybe not the best writing. And, to be honest, I have not read any Fanfic that improves the original. You might have. Your call.
1) Rip Van Winkle
Who? Washington Irving’s sleeper who wakes up and finds that the world has changed.
And? Use it again, have him wake up now. Standard fish out of water tale, sure, but could be a great basis for looking at how the modern world really does suck in so many ways… and also how things have improved. Using RVW automatically gives the reader a point of reference.
2) Dr Moreau
Who? HG Wells’ beast-man creating doctor, on an island somewhere.
And? With modern technology, DNA splicing, cloning, all that jazz, surely an update of Dr Moreau is just crying out to be written. And ignore the films – in the book the beast-men overthrow Moreau half-way through and then their so-called civilisation degenerates into anarchy and chaos, showing their animals sides. That’s the bit ignored and forgotten, and could really be played with, I think.
3) Robinson Crusoe
Who? Defoe’s island marooned sailor who somehow survives with a racially disturbing stereotype.
And? Ignore Friday, and put Crusoe anywhere else and you could have an interesting look at how modern man copes in the world. Robinson Crusoe On Mars did this; Castaway was arguably a version as well. But that does not mean it could not be used again. Or reversed – an alien marooned on Earth? Yes, E.T. was a role-reversal Robinson Crusoe story.
4) Professor Challenger
Who? Doyle’s hot-headed, fearless scientist-explorer (quite different to his Sherlock Holmes), who first appeared in The Lost World.
And? Professor Challenger was such a more relatable character than Holmes. Everyone must have met some-one like Challenger, driven by ego, doing crazy things, but somehow always coming out okay. Imagine him as a space explorer, or deep-sea diver. He is perfect for a ready-made explorer.
5) Allan Quartermain
Who? Haggard’s precursor to Indiana Jones.
And? I am an unabashed fan of H. Rider Haggard, and I enjoy the Quartermain series (though She is my favourite, a non-Quartermain tale), and think that if some-one wanted to write an Indiana Jones story without all the Fanfic headaches of copyright, then Quartermain is the go-to character to use.
6) Carnacki, The Ghost Finder
Who? Hodgson’s pre-modern technology Ghostbuster, the supernatural answer to Sherlock Holmes.
And? Well, it’s ghost-busting steampunk! He used strange devices to help his investigations and capture the ghosts all before nuclear reactor backpacks. In fact, the whole Ghostbusters franchise could well be said to be an update of Carnacki. But with steam-punk all the rage, why not just take Carnacki and up the inventiveness and go for broke!
Who? A female Tarzan, but brought up by the male witch-doctor who killed her father (or the daughter of dead missionaries brought up by a female witch-doctor; yes, two origin stories).
And? A female Tarzan? Well, technically, Tarzan is also Public Domain, but he’s been done to death, so why not go for the female counterpart, the first female character to have her own comic book. She was so important in the old days of comics and now is all but forgotten. She would be a great character to bring back, examining gender politics though a female without gender politics. (In the same vein, you could also consider Judy of the Jungle…)
8) Kit West
Who? Female comic book cowboy, one of the best horse-women of the West.
And? The world is just crying out for a decent female Western character. So many have failed to hit the mark when they’ve been bothered to be used at all. If they want to bring back the Western and do it in the same way they brought back Ghostbusters, but hopefully with a better script (the film really was not that bad), then why not bring back Kit West?
Who? An English pirate who was renowned for his viciousness and cruelty.
And? So, you want to write a Pirates of the Caribbean Fanfic, but those pesky copyright laws get in the way. Why not take a real live pirate person and make up some adventures for them? He was active from the late 17th to early 18th centuries. But did he really die? There’s your story!
10) Miss Fury
Who? A female superhero, who becomes a killed acrobatic crime-fighter when she wears a magic black panther skin.
And? Superhero films/ books/ comics are all the rage now and look like remaining all the rage in the foreseeable future. Who wouldn’t want to join in? Well, with Miss Fury, you get a gorgeous woman, a superhero and skin-tight clothing all in one. So why not go for it?
[I have had a story published featuring a Public Domain character called Tabu, written for a book called Pulpsploitation. I transferred him through magic from Africa to modern America, made him a professional wrestler and had him fight the Russian mafia. It’s fun!]
There you have it – ten characters from the old days of literature, comics and reality that could well be used in modern stories through the joys that are Public Domain! There are, of course, many more, but these are just some of the ones I have read comics or books concerning, so know a little bit about. There’s lists on the Internet, so go for it.
It’s the Gothic mentality that still permeates horror fiction. The dark castles, the grave-yards, the small country towns, the old churches, the old deserted houses, even the cellars – it’s all there. Always all there. The settings for the standard horror stories.
Look, I’m a reader and a writer, and I understand the sense of isolation that can increase tension and terror, and the darkness is something that makes horror work because the hidden is often more terrifying. There is something to be said for the imagination of the reader/viewer being allowed to have a go. I think that’s why a lot of horror does not translate well from book to screen – what they create visually often does not match what we have created in our own minds. And I’m going off track.
The point I’m trying to make is that we see these settings and we know we need to be ready for jump scares and clichés and the old-fashioned tropes. And that’s fine; it works and the reader knows what to expect. But in my reading, I feel there are some other settings that are not used anywhere near enough and yet could well be used to create a gripping horror story. In my opinion.
Here’s ten I think should be looked at more closely.
Now, what I mean here is a regular school. Stephen King’s recent The Institue (https://www.weekendnotes.com/the-institute-book-review/) is about a special school that is more a concentration camp, but what I am talking about is a real school. The Treehouse Of Horror series from The Simpsons may have reduced this idea to a concept of fun, but I feel there is still great value in a school. And not a deserted school, but an operational school with real people and students and teachers and administration staff and custodial staff and all that goes along with that. There is a myriad of possibilities there. And if you don’t think schools are scary places – ask any kid about that…
(Note: I did sell a ghost story set in a school a few years ago, so this is a possibility.)
Take a standard Australian soap opera – Neighbours or Home And Away for example –and you have suburbia in all its dull, tedious, banal boredom. Boring normal people doing boring normal things, just amped up to make it vaguely interesting for people with nothing better to do. However, how hard would it be to tweak that to make it the setting for a good horror story? I don’t mean a done-to-death zombie flick but something more insidious. We’ve seen it a few times – Invasion Of The Body Snatchers for one, Stepford Wives for another – but nowhere near enough. A normal suburb with normal housing (no deserted old house on the hill tropes) surely has great possibilities for horror beyond replacing people.
3) Seats of Power
Some would say that looking at the current crop of world leaders that maybe horror has infiltrated the seats of power in real life, but we read horror to escape, and so we could surely up the ante in these places. Not necessarily those in power – who are, after all, just puppets, if the brilliant BBC series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister are anything to go by (and they are) – but those bureaucrats pulling the strings. The horror could possibly be an all-encompassing “devil in charge” tale to a strange creature using politicians to get access to victims. And, really, who wouldn’t be scared when faced with mind-numbingly brainless politicians zombies slaves to aliens ruling the world?
The nooks and crannies and machinery make a factory the ideal setting for strange goings-on and evil to lurk. We’ve seen it in the beginning/end of The Fly and there’s a scene in one the Hulk movies and the ending of Terminator 2 set in factories, but these are really just scenes. A whole factory with workers and functioning machines could be an ideal setting for a creepy horror film. There is so much darkness, with all those nooks and crannies and hidden places, that this could be a great setting for a swarm of rat-like creatures to run amok. Or people to merge with their machines. Or… look, there are a heap of possibilities. And I’m not going to give away all my ideas…
5) Shopping Malls
Sure, Dawn Of The Dead was set in a shopping mall, but that was a deserted one, post-zombie-apocalypse. For an idea of how a shopping centre could be used in all its glory, see the car chase scene from The Blues Brothers and nod and smile. Now, take away the cars and replace with, say, a werewolf (An American Werewolf In London style of huge animal, not a wolfman) and let the horror and fun begin! You have so many different shops, so many hiding places, so many potential victims, so many other things that could go awry in these places!
(Note: I did sell a story last year about a hungry escalator in a shopping mall, so this is also a definite concept.)
6) High Rise Apartments
We’ve had suburbia, so how about a different sort of living space? The high-prise apartment block, many storeys high and filled with different rooms and different people living in them and different levels… Again, it lends itself so well to a nice open-ended world in just one place. Again, not a deserted one, but one where normal people live and work and play. Rosemary’s Baby was set in a similar place, but there are so many more ideas than just a cabal of Satanists bringing forth the anti-Christ into the world. I’m surprised it hasn’t been used more often, to be honest.
7) Pubs, Hotels, Bars and/or Nightclubs
Drinking establishments. Places where people go to get drunk, to catch up, to unwind and be with like-minded people. Yes, there have been vampire books with nightclub settings (e.g. Robin Baker’s Chasing The Sun) but let’s get away from vampires and look at something a little different. Pubs are a great place to set all sorts of things. FAQ About Time Travel is an awesome sci-fi comedy set in a pub; The World’s End is a great sci-fi apocalyptic comedy. What about real horror, though? Surely, we can find something out there that works because pubs can be quite disturbing places. Think about it – a nightclub which is actually a level of hell where people are forced to dance for eternity… and that’s off the top of my head.
(Note: I have sold a story about a barman that kills certain individuals, so this has selling potential.)
Not out in the water, like Jaws and its sequels, but the actual beach. Sure, the 1980s gave us Blood Beach (a ‘so bad it’s good’ film) but if we take that as a precursor to some more interesting horror concepts (though the idea of a beach that eats people is awesome) then the beach can become a scary place. It might look idyllic, but go to an Australian beach when it’s forty-plus degrees Celsius (104°F) – which is quite common – and tell me that despite the clear blue skies and golden sands and wonderful ocean you don’t feel like you’re dying. Monsters, people, sands – there are so many things we could worry about in an Australian summer. Or a Hawaiian summer. Or a Californian summer…
9) Art Galleries
Museums have been done, although I am yet to see a good one (except maybe some of the Wax Museum films… and Stiller’s Night At The Museum is not a good one), but what about the art gallery? Pictures, sculptures, installations – you name it, there is everything there for a decent horror yarn. Statues that come to life, paintings that trap people, installations that draw people in – these are all tales that have been mentioned in passing or used as part of a greater story, but to bring these aspects out on their own could make a really decent little horror story.
Now, I do not watch pornography – never have doubt I ever will. Just does not do anything for me, I’m afraid. And this means I do not know if any porn horror films set in brothels have been made. However, for a mainstream horror tale, the setting could be ideal. I have seen some horror comics with a tale in a brothel – all involving vampires, I’m afraid – but surely it could be so much more than that? There are endless possibilities in an establishment that exists slightly outside the law, and so could be forced to deal with its horrors in-house. Whatever those horrors may be.
(Note: I have sold a story about a ghost brothel, so this is yet another idea with distinct possibilities.)
Of course, I am the first to admit I have not seen or read everything to do with horror, so there could well be some fine examples set in these places. But for writers looking for somewhere different, looking to avoid the clichés of writing, looking to expand themselves, these ten settings could well lend themselves to all sorts of wonderful tales.
illustration painting of king walking through sea beach next to fantasy castle in background
I read a lot. A real lot. I also write a lot. A real lot. This is because, even before I read On Writing, I tended to live by the dictum that a writer needs to read a lot.
Quiet aside: I know some writers poo-poo this idea. But I have never met a real writer who has not read, and not a good one who has read a lot. A writer who doesn’t read is like a musician who doesn’t listen to music. It makes zero sense. Sorry.
I’d say that is the end of an old man rant, but this is that sort of a column, I’m afraid. Prepare for further rantage!
Anyway, my preferred genres are horror, fantasy, science fiction and humour, to read and write, but I don’t limit myself. However, they are preferred. And that means I read them most of all. Well, fantasy is incredibly popular nowadays, and I have read so much fantasy I sometimes wake up wondering where my pet dragon is and why my armour looks strangely like a dressing gown. And what this means is that I have come across some things that just do not make sense.
I’d like to point out that this covers every level of publication, from self-published writers who don’t believe in spelling or punctuation to stories produced by the big four publishing houses. These mistakes seem to be there all the time.
1) Information Overload
The writer has spent weeks, maybe months, creating this world of theirs in which to set their fantasy story, doing countless hours of research and developing what they consider a fully functioning society. It is a masterwork all its own. And – daggnabbit! – they are going to tell the reader every single aspect they have developed, no matter how irrelevant to the story it is, to prove they’ve world built. The reader does not need it; save it for the sequel. Or just be happy in the knowledge you’ve done the hard yards. But maybe leave it at that, hmm?
2) Food Production
It’s a world. It’s populated, normally by creatures that might as well be called humans. They need to get energy. They need to eat. Now take a look at a map of our world before World War I and see how much of the land was given over to farming – agriculture and stock. Add into that the fishing industries and you can see how vital the food industries are to non-technological worlds. And yet so often in fantasy stories there are either no farms or they are tiny, food production and movement does not seem to come into things and you wonder why the rich minstrels don’t release their own ‘Feed The World’ charity song. Or else they are hunter-gatherers. And how long would an over-populated world last as they hunt everything into extinction and decimate all vegetation for a 1000-mile radius?
3) Clothing And Armour
I have a friend who is also a writer, but her university degree was Medieval society. She did her thesis on clothing of the Medieval era. That seems to be the sort of time stories reflect. Guess what? The general, run-of-the-mill bonded populace did not wear pants. They wore smocks made of cheap linen. Rich people might have worn pants, maybe. Getting clothes made was apparently quite expensive; to cut a hole in a piece of linen was easy. And form-hugging spandex like Robin Hood or Conan the Barbarian – forget it. And armour was really expensive! It took months to make a suit of chain mail. Leather armour or padded armour were the cheap options, but even they cost a lot. Did you know that leather workers had to supply their own urine, relieving themselves on the skins they were preparing? Sorry. Just another clothing aside. And armour was generally made for the owner; putting some-one else’s on was just really challenging. There’s a reason the Vikings wore bear-skin cloaks – it was all they had!
4) Money v Bartering
I blame Dungeons And Dragons for this, with their copper, silver, gold, etc. coins. That was for ease of game play. But in real life, bartering was the most common means of paying for goods or services. Sure, rich people might have coins – in general, they had serfs do everything for them anyway – but the general populace would struggle. Bartering was far more common amongst the people, but you just do not read about it. And that brings us to…
5) Rich v Poor
In most fantasy worlds, it seems like nothing for the poor born child to go off and seek adventure and fortune and become wonderful and great. But the poor were generally bonded into servitude. The owner of the land would not be overly pleased to find a person capable of working had just hopped it. In fact, I would guess he would be rather miffed and might take it out on said adventurer’s family. A lot. Oh, and the poor could not read. There was no reason to. And that little nerd who sat down hidden under his fur bedclothes reading some long-forgotten tome: No way. Not even the village “wise-men” could read. It was all oral tradition stuff. And don’t get me started on schools…
6) Magic Limitations
You have a fantasy world. There is magic in this world. How powerful is it? Why can it kill an enemy on page four but not even disable the bad guy’s henchmen on page 172? (I hope the author in question reads this… she’ll know…) The world of Harry Potter does this. There are inconsistencies in the potency of the magic. This is something Dungeons And Dragons (the old versions, anyway) does well – the limitations are spelt out quite clearly. Maybe writers should do their own Tome of Spells? And then Harry Potter himself can ride a broomstick and summon a griffon, but can’t fix his poor eyesight? And that leads to…
7) Overuse Of Magic
Your world has magic. Awesome! It’s everywhere! Awe… shit. This does two things. First, it takes away the mystique of magic. Second, it makes magic no more than their pseudo-science. If everyone has access to magic, then magic is just another part of the world and it does mean everyone should have access to it. And learn it. And study it. But, as I said in Rich v Poor above, the poor don’t have access to reading or learning. Unless the world is a lot like ours. And that has only come about because of democracies becoming powerful. In any other form of government, the powerful and those in charge would not allow the poor to have learning. And they especially would not like magic to be so readily available. It’s a matter of keeping power.
Religion was actually the central focus of a lot of pre-Industrial society. Even kings and other rulers bowed to the whims of their deities. (Some exceptions, of course, but even Genghis Khan worshipped his father.) And yet in fantasy, religion is given short shrift. There should be feast days and temple days and, for the poor at least, compulsory worship days. I have read some books where they claim their worlds are atheistic, but it does not make sense. Even in our world, the rules that became adapted into the Old Testament were created by a Babylonian god-king. Now, look, I am an atheist, but even my fantasy world is based on a strong religious base. It’s just there, okay?
9) Distances Travelled
Your hero has set out on foot. He has to get to the Castle of Ne’yagh within the week. Virtually unencumbered, and assuming he has had some training, he could walk, maybe 25 miles a day, and keep this up for eight days. That’s 200 miles. Where I live, if you left from the capital, that won’t even get you out of the state! Okay, give them a horse. Carrying a person, a fit horse could go as far as 50 miles a day, with a rest day every so often. Now, horses are worth a lot and so you wouldn’t want to ride one to death; just stealing one is going to get you executed. So, in 8 days (with one day of rest) that’s 350 miles. You’ve just left my state. Going four hundred leagues on a non-magical horse in a week is… stupid. Impossible! I mean impossible.
Writers, you do know that it’s okay to write a stand-alone book, don’t you? And not book one in a trilogy, that is the first in a trilogy of trilogies? I blame Wheel Of Time and Game Of Thrones for this. Even Harry Potter was seven books long! Standalone books are quite okay! Really!
So, some pet peeves from reading way too much fantasy and getting way too frustrated by make-believe things created by other people.