Thievery: Tell Me a Story
On Thursdays, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their work. Here’s one from spook-master Joel Farrelly.
“She started working for the Weiser security firm after leaving the sheriff’s office, where Ellen had spent almost nine years running intake at the local jail. Recent politics had led to an overhaul in the jail’s management and she’d decided to leave as well. The new higher-ups had been making a lot of cutbacks to the number of officers per shift and the irony was that Ellen quit because she no longer felt safe doing her job.
So she took a position with Weiser and her first assignment had been overnight guard duty at a local medical testing facility. It was pretty routine stuff. Ellen spent most of her time seated at a desk, watching camera monitors and listening to the radio. Every two hours, either she or the other guard on duty would walk the facility’s three floors and make sure there weren’t any animal rights activists trying to break in to free all the lab rats or whatever.
One night the other guard, Rodney, came back from walking his rounds looking a bit flustered. He told Ellen that he kept hearing this weird knocking sound up on the third floor, which was mostly off-limits even to security unless they had proper authorization. Otherwise, they were just supposed to do a quick sweep of the circular hallway leading from the elevators to the secure access door and then back.
“You want me to call Jerry and request clearance to check it out?” Ellen asked, reaching for a phone on the security desk.
Rodney shook his head and said, “No. It’s probably nothing. Maybe old pipes; I don’t know. It was weird, though… It sounded like it was following me.””
“I’m not afraid of werewolves or vampires or haunted hotels. I’m afraid of what real human beings do to real human beings.” -Walter Jon Williams
That quote kind of bugs the shit out of me. W. J. Willy seems like a smart man and I can appreciate the sentiment. But it’s a really easy conviction to support when you know for a fact that werewolves and vampires don’t exist. I’ll put it like this:
Imagine you’re standing in the middle of a windowless hallway with an exit on either end. One exit is guarded by some dude and the other by a GODDAMN WEREWOLF! I bet I can guess which exit you would pick. But I digress…
Anyone who wonders whatever happened to short-form horror fiction clearly has no idea how to internet. Thanks to the zeitgeist-fixture Slender Man and the rest of his creepypasta-spawned ilk, we are currently raising an entire generation of children whose boogiemen are the kind of terrifying that blurs the line between fiction and reality.
When I think “quality short-form horror” though, I immediately go to old late-night shows like George Romero’s Tales From the Darkside series, Monsters, and of course the Twilight Zone. Sure, they had their fair share of duds, but they also had just as many truly terrifying segments despite the fact that Ts from the D and Monsters were both on such shoestring budgets that no single episode could require more than two interior sets max to tell the story.
Regardless of the subject matter, every episode had to be written around that one very specific regulation. But it was also their inventive and often-claustrophobic storylines that were precisely what made these shows so great. One episode from the first season of Monsters in particular has stuck with me since childhood:
War has eradicated almost all life on earth, which is now in the midst of a nuclear winter. Two army grunts in a small fallout shelter are seemingly the last people alive on the planet until one day when a woman suddenly appears at the surface entrance to the men’s bunker, pleading to be let in. Well it turns out that the woman is one of several vampires who have discovered the men’s bunker. Permanent night brought upon by the nuclear winter means the vampires can stay out there as long as they want and so they set up camp at the bunker’s entrance, which can only be opened from the inside. The vampires proceed to fuck with the two guys (imitating the voices of their loved ones, scratching at the walls while they are trying to sleep, etc.) until one of the men finally gives in and opens the door.
This minimalist form of horror has always fascinated me. It requires such a streamlined narrative and is so unapologetically dark in its execution. These were the kind of horror stories I wanted to tell and when I landed a monthly gig writing for Thought Catalog, that’s exactly what I attempted to do.
The first article of mine that they published, Memoirs of a Cam-Girl, was a Big Trouble in Little China-inspired satire posing as your typical creepypasta set-up. I tried to make it just the right amount of dirty so that the story would work as both a horror and a comedy. People really seemed to enjoy “Cam-Girl” and eventually Thought Catalog was like, “Yo’ dawg, you should write us a whole bunch’a short stories and we’ll publish ‘em as a book.”
And I was like, “Word?!”
And they were all, “Yeah. Well, you know, like an ebook?”
And I went, “Oh… That’s cool, too.”*
The book is called Tell Me a Story and it’s a collection of 3rd-person horror shorts disguised as a single 1st-person novel. I think my favorite review so far has been: “It was like reading Goosebumps for grownups, and I mean that in the best possible way.”