Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Flip Side of Research - Researching Yourself, with JG Faherty

I am delighted to welcome one of my fellow What Waits In The Shadows anthology winners, Bram Stoker Award® nominated horror author, JG Faherty. Today, he is sharing his experience of research - but not the obvious kind. I'll leave it to JG to explain:

 Every one writer – and, I'd venture to say, most readers – know that a good deal of research goes into writing a novel. Even if the novel doesn't take place in a different historical era, or involve complex scientific principles, or have FBI profilers for main characters, there are always facts that need to be included and checked for accuracy. Woe to the writer who has tree vipers in a northern climate or guns with the wrong number of bullets in the clip or automobiles before the combustion engine got invented.

 But these are obvious aspects of research. I want to talk today about a different type of research. Research that looks in instead of out.

 Emotional research.

One of the essences of horror writing – and really, when it comes down to it, any fiction – is having three-dimensional characters who become real to the reader. You want the reader to feel what the characters feel, hurt when they hurt, cry when they're sad, rejoice when everything turns out okay. Part of this is imbuing the character with identifiable traits and placing them in everyday situations, so that when things go bad – and they must! – we are already on board when that ride starts.

It's also essential to have your characters react in ways that are realistic. Too often we read books where the hero is gravely injured, or sees his lover brutally murdered, or drives his car through a crowded mall just to capture a bad guy. And after all this, the hero continues on, forging forward with a relentless dedication to solving the crime or destroying the monster. No time for grief, no time needed to heal, no regret over directly or indirectly causing the deaths of innocent bystanders. This is fine for movies, where action is king and there's no place – or time – for a hero to wrestle with emotions.

When it comes to horror, though, this kind of writing can be the kiss of death.

Just like a lazy writer will fall into the trap of sending a character into a haunted house for no good reason, or checking out that noise in the basement when anyone in their right mind knows it's only going to end badly, so too is it lazy to assume that readers will never notice when a character doesn’t react in a believable fashion.

In my novella Fatal Consequences, I explore the emotions of fear and guilt, and in order to do so I had to put myself in the position where I wanted my hero, Alec Winter. Alec and his family were attacked by a bear while camping. Alec survived by running away. His children were killed and his wife badly injured. Now he's haunted by guilt. And this is where self-research comes into play. Of course, I didn't let a bear attack me, but I did have to imagine myself in Alec's shoes.

You wake up in the night to screams and roars. A bear is attacking. You shout for your family to run. You see the bear tearing your children up.
What do you do? You'd like to think you'd give up your life for your kids, charge the bear, scream at it, throw things at it. Let it maul you so the others can escape.

But would you? Perhaps if you're a trained soldier or woodsman. But the average Joe Accountant spending a weekend in the woods with his family? He might freeze. He might pass out. He might crap his pants and cower behind his wife. Or, like Alec, he might tell the family to run and then take his own advice.

I looked inside myself and the truth was, I didn't know how I'd react. Being faced with a deadly, rampaging animal isn't the same as telling the big guy behind you at the movies to shut up, or stepping in front of your wife when a guy robs you on a dark street, or kicking a vicious dog away when it threatens your kid. When a bear is charging at you, it's like being in the road when a big truck is speeding towards you. Do you jump out of the way, or push your wife to safety? How does your brain react, instinctively or with clarity and heroism, in that split second?

Most of us will never know that kind of fear, and that's a good thing. And because we don't know, we have to imagine it. I had to research my own emotions, see how I'd feel if I was Alec Winter. And in that cold hard light of honesty, I had to admit I might run. Not because I wanted to, not because I'd think "the hell with them I'm outta here," but because sometimes the brain simply shuts down and the body goes into self-preservation mode.

Then there'd be the guilt. Guilt for surviving when my children didn't. Guilt because I'd always be wondering if I could have saved them, or if I'd have just ended up dead next to them. Guilt because everyone thinks I'm a hero for bringing help back for my injured wife. We all know what guilt feels like, but this would be so much worse. Regular guilt multiplied a thousand-fold. Guilt that rises up every time your wife starts to cry, thinking about the children she's lost. Guilt that eats at your guts when your wife thanks you for making sure she lived to celebrate another birthday, to have another child.

And what would be the effect of that guilt, year after year? A little bit of ordinary guilt can cause all sorts of problems. Insomnia. Heartburn. Grouchiness. So how would poor Alec be feeling down the road? Ragged from nightmares? Suffering from an ulcer? Always afraid he'll slip up and let his wife know the truth? That kind of stress can put a guy in the hospital. Or on the psychiatrist's couch, in Alec's case.

This is the type of research that needs to be done with every character in every book. If I read a story where a bear attacked a family and the father chased it away by banging pots together, or he leaps on its back and punches it 'til it runs away, I'm thinking, "Yeah, right. Who is this guy, Rambo?" And unless this is a book about a Rambo-type fellow, the writer has already lost me. Just like you're going to lose me when the girl goes into the basement without a flashlight to find out what's making that moaning noise, or a cop follows a perp into a building without calling for backup or putting on his vest, or people stay in the isolated cabin even after seeing that the house down the road is filled with mutant hillbillies. Here are some other things that will make me move on to the next book:

The hero isn't wracked with grief and unable to go to work after his wife is killed. Guess what? That means he never cared about here.

People see a monster – bigfoot, Godzilla, whatever – and instead of running the other way, they chase after it. Sorry, real people are gonna high-tail it out of there.

Characters who never believe what they are seeing with their own eyes. Dumb characters don't make for good stories.

So, in short, if you want your characters to be believable, do some soul-searching. Think about how you would react in a situation, not how a "hero" would react. You'll end up with a flawed hero – which is a good thing – and a story that packs the kind of emotional punch people want to read.

About the Author

JG Faherty is the Bram Stoker Award®- and Thriller Award-nominated author of four novels, seven novellas, and more than 50 short stories. He writes adult and YA horror/sci-fi/fantasy, and his works range from quiet, dark suspense to over-the-top comic gruesomeness. 

His latest novella, FATAL CONSEQUENCES, is available here:

 You can follow him at:

 His novella - Castle By The Sea - is also available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and in the anthology What Waits In The Shadows

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Why You Should Never Give A Gift To A Boggart

Boggarts. Devilish little creatures found in deep, dark woods in parts of the North of England. Their sole rajson d'etre appears to be to frighten, maim and kill humans - whom they call 'forkypeds'.

It seems that while other, more southerly, folk cultures had their 'house elfs' who took care of things, homes and humans, the hardy northern folk were surrounded by much darker forces. Almost every home, it seemed, had its own boggart, out to cause mayhem and serious damage.

So what - or who - is a boggart?

In Northumbria, there is a tradition that helpful spirits such as 'silkies' could turn bad, and when they did, they became boggarts. In Lancashire, boggarts were mostly evil to begin with. They were said to live outdoors, in holes in the ground, lurking there to trip the unwary, or in marshes, where they would suck unfortunate travellers underground. They would abduct children, kill and eat animals, creep into a house at night and place a cold, clammy hand over the sleeping inhabitants, spreading sickness with their touch.

One famous legend tells of the infamous Grizlehurst Boggart who made his first appearance (in print at least) in 1861, when an elderly Lancashire couple related his story. He was they said, buried at a crosroads nearby, under an ash tree, together with a cockerel. Yet, even though he was buried, he still caused much trouble. They said a farmer's wife, known to them, had experienced doors banging in her house one evening. She heard raucous laughter, saw three candles burning with a blue light which illuminated a grotesque figure with cloven hooves and flaming red eyes, as he leaped and danced around. The following morning, she found many tracks of cloven hooves outside her farmhouse.

The couple also maintained that their own horse had been unhitched inexplicably, and their cart overturned, on more than one occasion.

Then there is the infamous boggart of Boggart Hole Clough - yes he even had a place named after him! He lived in a hole outside until one particularly cold winter when he decided to move into a nearby farmhouse. There, he proceeded to cause all kinds of mischief and malicious mayhem.  He snatched the food from the children at table, dashing their bowls to the ground. He would tug curtains, and attack the children while they slept. Eventually, so harassed were the farmer and his family that they decided to move out. Unfortunately, that did no good. Once a boggart has made his home with you, he will travel with you. You're stuck with him for life. When this became clear, the farmer and his family moved back into their old house. Naturally the boggart came too, but for some reason was never so malicious again. 

Boggart Hole Clough - geograph. org.uk
It seems though that not all boggarts start out evil. I've mentioned the Northumbria 'silkies', but another tale - this time from Barcroft Hall, in Cliviger, near Burnley in Lancashire - tells of a boggart who started out as a helpful housekeeper. Very much on the lines of a house elf. The farmer's wife would find all her chores done, laundry washed and ironed, floors swept. The farmer himself was grateful for the help he got bringing in the sheep on a snowy winter evening. He heard the creature's voice, but never saw it. He was determined to rectify that and made a small hole in the ceiling of the room where the boggart performed most of his household tasks. Sure enough, his patience was rewarded by the sight of a small, wizened, barefoot old man who began to sweep the floor.

Barcroft Hall
Surely his feet must be cold against the stone floor. The farmer thought so anyway and decided to make him a pair of tiny clogs and left them out for him. His son saw him pick them up and heard him call out: 

 "New clogs, new wood,
T'hob Thurs will ne'er again do any good!"

From then on, the era of good works was over. The boggart began to hound and hurt his family. The animals got sick, the farmer's prize bull was somehow transported to the farmhouse roof. Household items were smashed indiscriminately. Things got so bad that this family, too, felt forced to flee. But the boggart had other ideas. "Wait there while I fetch me clogs and I'll come with thee."

And this is why you should never give a gift to a boggart - for they cannot harm you unless, and until, you do.

Also, never be tempted to give a boggart a name. If you do, then be prepared for the full force of the boggart's malice to be visited upon you.

In Lancashire and Yorkshire, there are many place names associated with boggarts. In addition to Boggart Hole Clough, you can find Boggart Bridge in Burnley - another Boggart Bridge can be found in Ogden, near Halifax (West Yorkshire). Then there's Bee Hole Boggart. Burnley also boasts Sweet Clough Boggart and Barcroft Boggart. Rochdale has Clegg Hall Boggart, and Matlock boasts Standbark Boggart. Roads on a council estate in Leeds are prefixed with Boggart. In fact the estate itself is called Boggart Hill.

Boggarts answer to only one master.  Owd Hob - the archetypal devil with cloven hoofs, forked tail and horns.

How can you protect yourself from a boggart invasion? The best method is to place a horseshoe over your front door and a pile of salt outside your bedroom.
And just be careful when you're walking over the moors and marshland of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The majestic, bleak beauty of the Pennines hides many mysteries - and there may just be a boggart or two lurking, unseen, ready to pounce...

 NB: Now YOU have a chance to win a copy of What Waits In The Shadows - four Gothic horror novellas in one book, including my Linden Manor - hot off the press. But hurry, competition ends October 12th! Just click this link for free entry : What Waits In The Shadows - Goodreads Giveaway

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Cats and Ghosts - "There Are More Things In Heaven and Earth..."

Moving into my third month in a cat-less home – and a haunted one at that – there’s a wealth of things I miss now Mimi is no longer around to keep me in order. One among many is the (probably) daft notion I had that as long as she didn’t stare off into the distance, her attention caught by something - or someone - I couldn’t see, I was safe from any threat of the supernatural variety.

Mimi - laid-back feline protector(?)
OK, send for the men in white coats and cart me off to the padded cell. It’s a hangover from childhood. When I was a small child I read somewhere that cats have a highly developed sixth sense and know about these things. Moreover, they can see ghosts, and react to them and a host of other paranormal manifestations.

This belief has somehow managed to evade any attempt at logic or maturity brought on by advancing years, and a lingering tiny – yet significant – number of brain cells have clung together in the hope that what I read was true. You see, since the age of six, I have only ever spent a grand total of eight, now going on nine, months without a cat to ‘protect me’ from things that go bump, creak and slither in the night.

A number of dog owners I am acquainted with have a similar belief (so I’m not entirely mad, or, if I am, I’m in good company). A few have told me of scary instances of their dogs gazing transfixed into a dark corner of the room, whimpering sometimes. Or maybe it was the humans who whimpered.

Mimi's relationship with any other dimension was to treat it with casual indifference. If it didn't interefere with her daily routine, why bother? Mind you, she was, without a doubt, the most laid back feline I have ever known. In fact, she was so laid back as to be pretty much horizontal. She fell thirty feet from a window when she was a year old and her reaction was to trot off, unscathed, to sit under a car by the front door, waiting to be rescued. She behaved in similar fashion when she fell through a neighbour’s greenhouse roof. She sat on a shelf among a load of plants and did her best impression of a potted azalea, until I found her. To such a blithe spirit, the sight of a ghost would be more likely to be welcomed by a demand for food and a cuddle rather than a hissy fit.
In our haunted flat, she developed a knack for disappearing completely and then suddenly reappearing. I liked to think that maybe she slipped into another dimension and went off for the day with our resident benign and invisible (to us) spectre. All right – I’m digressing into the realms of fantasy. Probably.

 Mimi’s predecessor was a semi feral tabby tom called Jennie (long story). He was not the horizontal sort. Jennie was alert to every aberration, sound and visual disturbance. I can recall a number of occasions when he focused on something I could neither see nor hear. 

In one house where we lived, the open plan staircase came in for his particular attention more than once. His ears would prick and he would stare at it. Hard. His hackles raised and he made that ominous growling that cats use to signal that they are thinking seriously about inflicting actual physical harm if the object of their annoyance doesn’t scarper. Quick. On those occasions, I would watch his gaze follow something that seemed to be making its steady way down the stairs. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. Only Jennie.

After a few minutes, he would stop staring, lick his paw and saunter off. The feline equivalent of shrugging his shoulders. I let out the breath I had been holding, picked him up and cuddled him. I would feel much better. Jennie had seen off the threat from… well I haven’t a clue actually.

 A tiny insect perhaps? Invisible to me, but easily observed by an animal with far more acute eyesight? OK, but when was the last time you saw an insect walk down the stairs? And in any case, insects did not raise the hackles on my cat. He just batted them with his paw.

I am not alone. A quick search on the internet brought up dozens of similar results. I have read multiple accounts of cats staring transfixed at spots on walls where the human could see nothing. One eyewitness said they saw the ghost of their dead cat, Penny, and their current cat chased her. There are accounts of cats interacting with ghosts as if they are being stroked by them. And there are scores of stories of cats returning from beyond the grave to visit with their special humans one last time. Even my own sane and pragmatic mother had a similar experience to this.

I particularly like one (possible) 'cat ghost' story I read recently. It all began some years ago in Pennsylvania – at Halloween. A young man was riding his bicycle in a small town north of Pittsburgh. He heard pitiful mewing coming from the side of the road and discovered a little black kitten, clearly lost or abandoned. The man picked up the tiny bundle of fur and took her home, where he introduced her to his resident cat, Biscuit. Needless to say, the older cat was less than pleased to receive a squatter. Months went by and the kitten – now named Cheddar – grew big and healthy. One day, the man decided to take some photos of the two cats together. As Biscuit had never got over his aversion to the kitten, this was a far from easy task. But the man managed to get them in the same room and snapped away, getting his shots of both cats.

He didn’t develop the film straightaway and, about a month later, Cheddar began to scratch and claw at the door, apparently desperate to get out.  She hadn’t done it before, but the man decided it would be cruel to deny her wishes. He let her out, but she never returned.

Some time later, he took the film to be developed. When the photos were returned he got the shock of his life. Despite his certain knowledge of taking pictures of both cats, there was not one shot of Cheddar. Biscuit was there – but always alone. Any shots that should have shown Cheddar did not contain even so much as the tip of her retreating tail. He double checked the negatives, but that proved fruitless as well. No trace was ever found of the little Halloween kitten.

Personally, I see no reason why animals can’t see beyond what we see. It is entirely possible that our evolution has robbed us of our own ability to sense the unknown. A lot of perfectly sane and reputable academics have conjectured that our ancestors many thousands of years ago were attuned to the earth’s magnetic forces in ways we have since lost. Hence their choice of locations for such gargantuan building projects as Stonehenge, Avebury and a host of other stone circles and megalithic monuments. There have been experiments, using highly sophisticated equipment, that reveal some very interesting and curious results.

Even youngsters seem to sense things adults can’t. There are scores of stories of children describing someone they have seen who turns out to be a dead ringer (sorry!) for a long deceased relative. A friend of my mother’s had an unnerving experience recently when a very young granddaughter asked who the sad lady was who had put her arms around her. There was no one there, but the child was adamant and went on to describe her in minute detail.

So do cats see ghosts? Do they sense presences we cannot comprehend? I keep an open mind. And one eye open at all times, just in case…because I no longer have a cat to alert me to these things.

And, let’s face it, Shakespeare could have been right:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

- Hamlet (1.5.167-8)