Today’s guest spot goes to horror author Ben Larken. Ben lives in Fort Worth with his family and is the author of the award-winning books Pit-Stop, The Hollows and Pillar’s Fall. You can visit his website at www.larkenbooks.com.
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What’s your favorite death scene? We all have them. For me, the first one that leaps to mind is the opening attack in An American Werewolf in London. The attack itself happens in a flash. We barely glimpse the monster. But the tension leading up to it makes the experience wonderfully unnerving. There’s that creepy bar called The Slaughtered Lamb, full of townspeople with ominous warnings like “Beware the moon. Keep to the road.” And then that ungodly howl starts honing in on the main characters, so that by the time the attack actually happens the audience is already half-jumping out of their skin.
It’s a brilliant scene, and one I always remember when I’m writing horror. It reminds me that the build up is just as important as the payoff. Setting and atmosphere are crucial. Tension builds with expectation, and a good set of glistening fangs never hurt.
When writing Pillar’s Fall, I knew one particular scene had to have that kind of build-up and (excuse the pun) execution. In the story, Detective Thomas Pillar has been investigating a series of murders and becomes convinced the suspect is a demon hiding inside an innocent boy named Seth. Despite his warnings, the boy is released into a social worker’s care. From there, things go to hell pretty fast.
But not too fast. This was one time as a writer I really enjoyed drawing out the tension.
It begins on the ride to the foster home. Seth needs to stop to go to the bathroom, and social worker Paula obliges by pulling into a gas station, and—not forgetting setting and atmosphere—I made it a seedy rundown station with a bathroom in back where the outside lights don’t work. Seth makes it to the bathroom and gets to do his business. That’s when the fun starts…
Excerpt from Pillar’s Fall
Paula Hook turned the visor light on to get a better look at her watch. Seven minutes had passed. She squinted at the shadows around the store, looking for signs of movement. She thought Seth only needed to pee, but maybe he had bigger business as well. Or maybe he had run into trouble getting the door open. She shivered as another breeze hit her, making the fluorescent beams flicker some more.
Maybe the stress of losing a father had caused him to run. She reached across the passenger seat and got a finger around the door grip. She pulled the passenger door shut and then let her foot off the brake. Time to pull around back and see for sure.
As the car rolled to the side of the store oilcans and dumpsters came into view. Paula noticed something else. The air had changed. The hair on her neck bristled. The visor was still down, so she glanced in the small mirror clinging to it. Her eyes widened as she caught a glimpse of herself. Small strands of hair floated around her head, as if someone had rubbed a balloon against her hair.
“Must be a breaker box around here somewhere,” she whispered, putting her eyes back on the alley. “This whole place feels like a health code violation.”
A light caught her eye as she rounded the last corner. The bathroom door was open and more fluorescent light poured out of it, casting an eerie green glow on some trashcans nearby. Paula shuddered as a rat scurried in between them. She hit a button on her door and the window slid down.
“Seth!” she called. “Are you done yet?”
A shadow moved, making Paula jerk in her chair.
It came from the bathroom, a long thin shadow spilling out into the alleyway. It was there for two seconds and then receded back into the bathroom and disappeared, but that had been long enough. Paula caught sight of something in the shadow. A head. As if someone hiding in the back of the bathroom abruptly decided to pop his head out for a look. Was it Seth?
“Come on, Seth,” she yelled. “We don’t have time for games.”
She waited again, hoping to see the shadow return, and maybe bring a person along with it this time. Nothing came, and as she waited fear circled her thoughts. This was the type of fear Paula discovered the day she found out she had breast cancer. Everything that had come after—the chemo treatments, the shooting pain, the eventual removal surgery—hadn’t been as bad as that first moment, the moment she realized something was out to get her. In that moment she had known how close death could get. In her case it had taken shelter in a small lump under her left breast. Now it was taking shelter somewhere else, in a bathroom behind a broken-down gas station. The lump was now a shadow, and it was waiting, waiting for the right moment to spring.
“Wait,” she whispered to herself, hoping the sound of her voice might calm her down. It didn’t. “What if he didn’t make it to the bathroom in time? What if he wet his pants and now he’s too embarrassed to come out and show me?”
Oh, that has to be it, she thought. It’s always the simplest answer, and it doesn’t get any simpler than that. Paula shook her head and pulled on the door handle. She stepped out of the car, the engine still running.
“It’s okay, Seth,” she said warmly. She walked into the back alley, her heels clicking and echoing. “We can get you some more pants when we get to the cottage.”
The shadow slid past the doorway, but Seth didn’t come out. She was almost there. A few more feet and she’d pop her head inside and reassure an adolescent who had more than his fair share of anxieties today.
Paula tapped on the door with her fingernails. “Hey, Seth?” she said, her voice motherly. “I’m coming in, okay? Please don’t be embarrassed.”
She tilted the door open, her head craning to see inside. Then she frowned. The small restroom was empty. There was no sign of Seth at all. But I saw a shadow. Paula stepped into the room, hoping to see something that belonged to Seth—a comb, a wallet, maybe even a runaway note. She passed over the threshold, scanning the floor, looking for clues. She didn’t see the person glued to the ceiling above her. She didn’t hear a hand slide down the wall and grasp the door. Once she was in the room, she heard a harsh squeaking sound. Paula spun around in time to see the door slam shut. A second later she glanced up, and there he was. It was Seth, or at least something that resembled Seth.
“Holy . . .” The voice died in her throat.
Seth dropped silently to the floor, landing feet first. The first thing Paula noticed was the height. Seth was taller now, by more than a foot. His limbs had stretched somehow. His arms and legs were tent poles. His hands were longer, too. The nails were like razorblades. A web of cobalt veins stretched over his muscles and down his arms, reaching all the way to his fingertips. And his skin. His skin was pale white. He looked like the walking dead.
Her trembling eyes trailed up the boy’s lanky frame to his head. She saw his face. She saw dark holes where eyes belonged. She saw two rows of fangs glistening in the green light. And she saw a foot-long tongue, purple and white with pus, lolling back and forth, grazing his chin.
And then she screamed.
An elongated right arm flung at her, swiping her chest. Paula tried to step back but wasn’t fast enough. A searing pain hit her as blood fanned out in clumps across the concrete block walls. Paula looked down to see her chest sliced open. Pieces of rib were jutting out of her like twigs in a campfire. For one brief moment Paula realized she saw her own heart, beating away inside of her.
Then a protracted left arm swiped her neck, and Paula’s head detached from her body.