So I haven't written anything since high school, but I got this idea for a scary story last summer. I've posted it around a couple places (Reddit, Facebook) but was looking to get some more in depth criticism and this seemed like a good place to get it. Curious to see which (if any) elements of the story work and if there's any issues you guys can spot, especially with the climax which I'm still not sure about.
Synopsis: A guy gets sidetracked during a wildlife survey. Finds something weird in the woods.
Last summer I had a job as a wildlife technician in the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota. I and another technician would hike through remote areas looking for raptor nests, hoping to map them out and set up buffers to protect them from loggers. Our main species of interest was the northern goshawk, but we’d look for Cooper’s hawks, sharp shinned hawks, red-tails, and broad-wings as well.
One day Lindsey and I went out to an area on the eastern end of our district, which was about a 90 minute drive from the office. The two goshawk nests that used to be there were long gone, but according to our crew leader there was still some good habitat that was worth looking at, though it was spread out over a decent chunk of land and it had been at least a couple years since a tech had been through there to look. The road in took us to the top of the hills and while it wasn’t the worst road I had driven on that summer, it certainly wasn’t very friendly. Rocks jutting out of the road bucked the truck back and forth for the last half hour of the drive. When we finally made it to a decent place to park the truck, we decided it was best to just hike the rest of the way.
Along with our water, map, compass and notepad, we also brought a GPS and a bird caller. Since both of these items were a little bulky, we usually had one person in charge of navigating and the other in charge of playing the caller periodically to see if we got any responses from territorial nesting birds, which helped a lot to locate their nests. That day I got navigating duty.
We hiked together along the southern portion of the survey area till we hit a u-shaped ridge in the southwest corner, at which point we decided to split up. This wasn’t usually an issue as long as the person with the GPS stayed in range of hearing the person with the caller, and the large survey area gave us a lot of ground to cover. I decided to hike straight to the top while Lindsey stayed along the slope. I would hike back down the other side and meet her once she got there.
Going up the slope turned out to be fairly long and arduous, and once I got to the top things weren’t much better. The top of the ridge was thick with scrub oak, small pine, and other brushy vegetation. I was barely halfway across when I heard Lindsey on the radio:
“Hey Mike where are you at?”
“I’m still on the top. Have you made it to the other side already?”
“Yeah I’m a bit further ahead. I think I’m a bit northeast of where we aimed to meet. Try heading there. There’s some good habitat here.”
I thought it was weird Lindsey tried to move ahead without me, but I shifted my direction and tried to catch up to her. I hiked northeast until I hit the other side of the ridge, then hiked down to the bottom. Once there I called Lindsey on the radio.
“Hey Lindsey where are you at?”
“Oh darn did I miss you again? I think I might be lost.”
“Okay then, play the caller and I’ll come find you.”
“Sure what call?”
“The one we always do? The goshawk?”
I don’t know why she bothered to ask, since we always use the goshawk call when we need to find each other because it’s the loudest. I took out my compass and in a couple seconds I heard the call. It was 81 degrees northeast. It sounded kinda off in a way I couldn’t place, but more importantly it sounded distant. I could barely make it out.
“How’d you get that far?” I asked over the radio
“I guess I just kinda wandered.”
“Alright stay put I’m heading in your direction.”
After about 30 minutes walking east I realized I was off the paper map of our survey area, which made me more than a little annoyed with Lindsey. If she didn’t know where she was going why didn’t she just stay put and wait for me to find her? Even without a GPS you’d think with a compass she’d have enough sense to keep from wandering off the drat map. Still I tried to make the most of my search by keeping an eye out for nests or raptors. While the habitat wasn’t the best, I could see a raptor building a nest here with both logging and the beetle epidemic destroying most of the really good habitat. Slowly I noticed something while I searched: there weren’t any birds in the area, or any wildlife whatsoever. The familiar chorus of birds, bugs, and other animals had faded away. It was completely silent. I called Lindsey again to check my progress:
“Alright Lindsey, can you play the caller again so I can see how close you are?”
She was close, and the subtle offness of the call earlier was now quite obvious. This didn’t sound anything like call I had heard a thousand times over the season. Normally the call is a steady, high-pitched KEK-KEK-KEK-KEK. This was deeper and slightly slower, more like KAK KAK KAK KAK.
“Lindsey what’s wrong with the caller? It doesn’t sound right.”
“I don’t know I think the batteries are dying.”
Then I realized I had forgotten to give her the replacement batteries in my backpack when we got out of the truck.
“Crap I’ll give you some fresh ones when we meet up.”
After a couple more minutes, I arrived at the base of another ridge. Set inside it was what appeared to be an old mine, as I got closer I was suddenly struck by a familiar smell. Last year I worked a job trapping and shooting feral pigs. All the pigs we shot were taken to a dump site where local wildlife took care of them. It was the smell of rot, more organic than the preserved dead animals I had seen during my zoology courses in college. I called Lindsey again.
“Hey Lindsey where are you at?”
“Are you by the mine?”
“I’m in there.”
We had both been told plenty about the dangers of going in old mines. They could potentially collapse or be full of dangerous gases. Besides those, I don’t know how she could stand the stench which only seemed to get stronger the closer I got to the entrance. Far stronger than it ever was at the dump site.
“Why are you in there?”
“I thought I saw some bats. Figured it was worth a look.”
“Lindsey we’re not the people that look for bats. Just come outside.”
“I really think you should come in and see.”
I took one more look inside the mine. The light only seemed to reach back about 10-15 feet. Beyond that it was pitch black.
“Yeah no I’ll wait for you out here.”
“Alright I’m coming out.”
The summer heat had done a great job making me sweaty and exhausted so, despite the smell, I went and sat on the closest fallen tree next to the entrance to drink some water and wait for Lindsey to come out. Shortly after I heard her again on the radio.
“Yeah you almost out?”
“Out where? Mike I’m at the truck.”
“When I reached the other side of the ridge I tried to reach you with the caller, but it died and I didn’t have the batteries.”
“Wait what?” Despite suffering from heat exhaustion earlier, I began to feel very cold.
“Sorry but I forgot my radio so had to backtrack to reach you with the truck’s. Can you meet me there?”
“But I thought you were in the mine.”
“Huh? What mine?”
That’s when I heard it. A deep shuffling sound growing closer and closer. A dry cracking noise accompanied each movement and I was again reminded of the dump site. It was the same noise I heard when our truck drove over and snapped the scattered bones left by the coyotes and vultures. That’s when I ran, and after I made it about 40 feet from the entrance I heard something speak in Lindsey’s voice.
I turned back just long enough to see it crouched in the mine, just outside of the light. Its form was somewhat humanoid, but very gaunt. It appeared to have the antlers of a deer, but it was in the dark enough to keep me from making out any detail, except for two pale white eyes that showed clearly out of the mine. Despite the distance I could hear it breathe. It sounded dry and empty, like wind in winter. It didn’t move any further out of the mine, just watched me. As I turned back around to run, it let out a terrible, piercing wail, loud enough that I couldn’t hear myself crashing through the brush trying to get away. Loud enough that my ears didn’t stop ringing till I was halfway back to the truck.
It was late in the day when I finally saw the truck again. I was exhausted, Lindsey was confused, and my attempt to describe what happened didn’t help much with either. The next day I asked my crew leader about it. She went a little pale, and told me:
“I’m sorry, we thought it hibernated until winter. Don’t go near there again.”
Attempts to gain any further explanation didn’t produce any results, but I followed her advice. Lindsey and I never finished our survey of that area. As time went on I couldn’t help but wonder what it did in the winter, when it possibly wasn’t restricted to the confines of its home in the mine. Maybe that’s why they only hired seasonal technicians like us for the summer.
|# ? Feb 14, 2018 21:21|
|# ? Aug 18, 2018 16:29|
So I suppose after reading this, my biggest question is, what was your intent in writing this? It reads a lot like a creepypasta story, in a "this is a thing that totally happened to me, you guys, I swear" kind of way. If that was what you were going for, then you definitely nailed the tone and voice, but if the intent was to write a story that stands on its own as a piece of fiction, I think that you've missed the mark a bit.
The mock-autobiography horror genre is something of an internet trope at this point, and the supervisor's reveal at the end only served to reinforce the "AND IT WAS ALL TOTALLY REAL AFTER ALL" beat that seems to be present in every one of them. I think because of the format you've chosen, the start of your story is overloaded with unnecessary exposition - you could easily cutout most of the details in the beginning and do nothing to your reader's understanding of your story, while at the same time allowing them to get to the interesting bits faster. And while I see the foreshadowing you were going for in your dialogue, a lot of it feels stilted and unnatural, especially with the added side exposition by your narrator. Having the "offness" of fake-Lindsey be a little more subtle at the beginning will help you build tension slowly, instead of bludgeoning your readers over the head with telegraphing.
I should say, you have some bits that do work well enough; you managed to build some tension at the end, although it all ended up being pretty anticlimactic. It might have been more effective if you left the creature out entirely; leaving things to the reader's imagination, especially if you're not going to explore it any further, is often more unsettling than trying to come up with something scary on its own. The added benefit of this is that it works well with the format you've chosen ("real" ghost story), since you (as the character in your story) don't know yourself what is happening, and have no intention of plumbing the mystery further.
My strong recommendation is that you find some more short horror to read if that's a genre you find yourself interested in. I'm guessing a lot of your prior reading may have been things like creepypastas and r/nosleep, both of which have their place in the world, but are never going to be lauded as great literary works. Definitely keep writing if it's something that you're interested in, and maybe check out the Fiction Advice Thread to get general tips and ideas. If you're feeling brave and just want to get motivated writing, you can also check out Thunderdome, although it is sometimes not for the faint of heart. One way or the other, keep it up, and if you want to do another draft in a reply, I'd be happy to read that as well.
|# ? Feb 18, 2018 07:38|
Thanks! I guess my aim was a closer to a creepypasta than a more traditional horror short story. Possibly something I could tell at a campfire. I think I was worried that the quality of my prose wouldn't hold up outside of this format and I'd be punching above my weight class a bit. The concept was loosely based on a time another tech were talking on the radio and trying to find each other via a bird caller, and initially my idea was to present the story entirely in dialogue between two people over the radio (like a found footage movie but with radio conversations) but I couldn't figure out a way to explain how the transmissions would be obtained by someone else. Still might be worth pursuing if it helps me sidestep what's a bit of a cliche format and setting.
It seems like the three main issues within the story itself are an overlong intro, unsubtle foreshadowing, and the monster reveal. The first one seems like an easy fix. The foreshadowing I'll have to work a little harder on but I think can make it a bit less obvious. The monster reveal I went back and forth on a lot as I was writing it. I felt like not showing it would be considered a cop out, but I'm guessing no reveal is better than a bad one, especially when the ending is so abrupt. I pretty much go from OH poo poo to fine in about two sentences.
Thanks again for the criticism. I'm not sure if I'll try writing another draft to fix some of the issues or take a shot at the other format I mentioned. Either way it's good to know there's still work that can be done on it. Finally, if I did want to read some more short horror fiction, what would be a good place to start?
|# ? Feb 18, 2018 16:27|
That's reasonable. I think that you have some good ideas here, and that with some edits this could definitely be a quality campfire story.
As for where to find short horror fiction, I'll admit I'm not the MOST knowledgeable on the subject, but you could do worse than checking out Flash Fiction Online, which has quite a few horror stories available to read for free online and a reputation for quality. Maybe someone else can chime in with their suggestions.
|# ? Feb 21, 2018 09:07|