The Dying of the Light
By: Jeff Young
October. The light begins to change in September- to become less intense, to lessen in length. But in October you know that the tipping point has past and the road leading to the shortest day slopes down hill. Things start to die. The trees will become bare and the grass will brown. October is a dying time. At the turning of the year we’ll celebrate because we know we’re going to make it. Winter is half over and all it takes is the resolve to survive. In October, we have no surety. We’re free falling. Sometimes it takes a reminder. A moment of frisson, a jolt of fear kicking in the adrenaline. Pushing up the heart rate. Bringing in more oxygen. All of which proves we’re alive. You put your hands up and pull up your feet on the roller coaster because you want that moment of uncertainty. You walk the dark alley because you want to face that fear. You want to pass through the moment and that proves you’re alive. A little terror makes the candle at the heart of you leap up and you hope its flicker will be enough to keep the dying of the light at bay. As a writer, we can hope to jolt our reader out of their complacency with nothing but words. Let’s take a look at what fuels us: at three kinds of terror through the eyes of a writer.
The French have a similar word that they use when describing the nature of wine – terroir. Terroir is how the sum of an area’s surroundings and nature affect the grapes, which then influences flavor of the wine. Every subtle thing can come through to make something unique. The terror of place has a similar nature. There are areas we avoid. The darkened hall with the perpetually flickering light. The spot where it’s always ten degrees colder no matter how warm the weather. The culvert that looks like it might disappear into a hillside. We don’t need something like a bloody history, razor wire or the scent of something decaying – we know innately to avoid this place. The hair on the back of our neck stands up. At the same time our body kicks into defensive mode, running hot into fight or flight. We’re afraid. We’re also sure we’re alive and we damn well want to stay that way. It’s hard as a writer to bring across the feeling we experience when a locale affects us so strongly. It requires subtlety, because if you can explain why you feel the way you do, then it’s not truly the terror of the place that is acting on you. Consider it instinct. Follow through on the description of the action. Be willing to admit to the reader that there may be no obvious reason for the distrust. Find the small elements that gather together that create the flavor of the moment, fuel the unease and instill the desire to flee. Look at absences: lack of sound, scent, and light or oppressive excesses: pressure, overwhelming of the senses, and nausea. If you feel the need to move quickly through the passage in your work, hopefully so will your reader.
Everyday you interact with others- some of us more than others. Do you trust all of them? Should you? Your fellow humans and their unpredictability can be quite terrifying on their own. Our drive to work is a consistent exercise in trust, since we’re all handling a giant weapon at high speed. We believe that the stranger we meet will not only not harm us, but also possibly offer a helping hand in a clinch, just because we’re a fellow human being. That’s a delicate little belief and our news is full of instances that can slowly bit by bit tear it to pieces. So as a writer, it doesn’t take too much to make this work. At the same time, we shouldn’t go for the easy win. Look at what makes someone trustworthy and find the one element you can remove that unravels that reality, but keep all of the others. Also look at your narrator, is your viewpoint character trustworthy? Do they question themselves once they’ve seen what’s difficult to believe? Are they the one who steps over the bounds? Does your incident occur in a vacuum? If there are others, how do they react? It’s a sadly proven fact that sometimes the bystanders will turn a blind eye. If your viewpoint character relates what they’ve seen or experienced to others will they even believe them? The web that ties together as fellow humans can be both tremendously fragile and also incredibly strong. It’s up to you as a writer to decide that factor.
What you can’t see can harm you. We all know that for a fact. We don’t need to be able to explain something that can injure, maim, frighten and unsettle. The monster that affects us the most is the one we can’t understand. Our final element to consider is terror of the unknown. Even in the safety of our own homes in a locked room, the play of shadows or the darkness in the corner contains the unknowable. If we consider others as monsters, they are something we can know, can seek to understand. The older monsters like the wolves just outside the campfire still come in after us. Now they look just like us until the moon is just right. We can consider monsters that are too hideous for us to gaze upon lest we lose our minds or invisible ones that so closely share our own spaces until we bump into them that remain unknown. Writing monsters is somewhat similar to writing aliens. If you, as the writer, create something that is something truly alien, then your human audience will have no real means to relate to it. If you want to write a monster, then you need to find a way for your audience to connect to it. The easiest way to do this is look for motivations. Animals do things for reasons that are similar to our own reactions, so your reader can relate. If something lives in the ocean and attacks ships, why would it do so? Are the ships sailing through its spawning grounds? Does the monster that hides in plain sight use a kind of flocking behavior constantly anticipating our turns to always put it behind us? If your monster kills, why does it do so? The unknowable monster is unknown only to your reader. To truly make it work, you as the writer must understand it. You owe your readers nothing less.
Having said all of the above, we’ve only touched the surface and it’s up to you as the writer to take the reader farther along with you. If you are truly going to write something unsettling, something that makes someone question what they’ve just read and finally jumps their heart rate, you may need to push the borders of the acceptable or of what you feel you are capable of. If you have a hesitation about what you’ve written, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you’ve felt you’ve gone too far, perhaps take that next step. But remember, you’re only the writer. Leave the actual experimentation to the monsters.
About the Author
Jeff Young is a bookseller first and a writer second – although he wouldn’t mind a reversal of fortune.
He received a Writers of the Future award for “Written in Light and is the author of the forthcoming collections Kassandra Leyden Adventures and Diversiforms. He also has contributed to the anthologies: Writers of the Future v.26, By Any Means, Best Laid Plans, Dogs of War, In an Iron Cage, Fantastic Futures 13, Clockwork Chaos, TV Gods, The Society for the Preservation of C.J. Henderson and the forthcoming Gaslight and Grimm launching at Balticon 50 Memorial Day Weekend. Jeff was published in the magazines eSteampunk, Realms, Cemetery Moon, Trail of Indiscretion, Realms Beyond, Carbon14 and Neuronet. He is an editor with Fortress Publishing for their Drunken Comic Book Monkey line as well as the anthology TV Gods.
Jeff has helped run the Watch the Skies SF&F Reading Group of Harrisburg and Camp Hill for more than fifteen years. He also is an instructor for the Step Back in Time class, which prepares children to enjoy all aspects of Renaissance Faires by learning about dress, language, culture, history and more. Finally, Jeff is also the proprietor of the online eBay and Etsy shops- Helm Haven Renaissance Wear, which feature Renaissance and Steampunk costume pieces.
Jeff Young was the featured author in July for the Author’s Gallery.