“One Cool Way to Get Yourself Out There” By Tom Leveen
“The day Joe Pipkin was born all the Orange Crush and Nehi soda bottles in the world fizzed over…”~ Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree
This is one of those sentences I wish I’d written. It says it all, so effortlessly and completely. We know in an instant the kind of boy Bradbury is talking about. For as purple as Bradbury got once in awhile, his poetic take on language was not easily matched by any other author, then or now.
While Bradbury was known to the outside world principally as a science fiction writer—most folks probably know his name from reading Fahrenheit 451 in high school—those of us who enjoy his entire catalog know he had penchant for horror and the macabre as well. His Kaleidoscope, about a group of astronauts trapped in their spacesuits while hurtling to certain doom in all directions of the cosmos, still gives me a little nausea when I think about it. And of course no discussion of Bradbury’s horror would be complete without a dissection—ahem!—of The Jar.
Another Bradbury horror short that lands exceptionally well is The Halloween Game. About a man who loathes his wife and the child she bore him, The Halloween Game is Bradbury at his best, a master at subtle, gnawing horror and the snap ending that likely elicits an audible laugh-groan from first-time readers as the meaning of it sinks in. And, as typical for Bradbury, there’s not a drop of actual gore to be found. In his introduction to Skeleton Crew, Stephen King calls short stories “a quick kiss in the dark,” and he’s dead-to-rights on that observation in the case of most, if not all, of Bradbury’s shorter work.
My question for you fellow horror writers: How does yours stack up? Here’s why I ask:
While many of us are familiar with Bradbury’s adaptations to radio, it’s somewhat lesser known, even to hard core fans, that he adapted several works for the stage. I had the strange but pleasant fortune to play both Fire Chief Beatty and Guy Montag on stage in 451 (and about 15 years apart). (As an aside for fans, the play does not follow the book in lockstep, and the end the same as the book—check it out sometime.)
Theatre, short fiction, and Halloween . . . if the words “marketing opportunity” don’t leap to mind, follow me here. They will.
So let’s say you’re a horror short story writer, or perhaps a novelist with some horror shorts lying around somewhere; maybe they were published once on free websites or even paid magazines. The question is, do you own the rights still?
If so, consider putting together an evening of short (the shorter the better) reading performances at your local bookstore, or independent theatre, or high school drama department, or church basement . . . any space you can get for free that will seat at least 30 people and maybe no more than 70 or so. Grab some author friends and some talented actor buddies (or high school and college students who are beholden to you…), and give a performance near Halloween night.
I’ve held literature performances like this many times over the years. The most recent we called “Lit Out Loud” and held at the venerable Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. Now, granted, I came to being an author with 22 years of theatre background to call on. I’d produced similar performances in my own arts venue, and had a stable of actors I could call on to make the night more than just a “reading.”
A reading is not what you want. In fact, I often counsel authors to never give book readings unless they are really, really good at it. Better to get actual stage actors who have trained in what’s called “the oral interpretation of literature,” e.g., performing prose in an entertaining way.
Indie bookstores and even some B&N’s will be happy to work with you on an event like this, because everyone wins. It doesn’t really cost them anything but the space for a couple of hours, but if you (and your author friends who are up for doing this) have published novels, it’s a great way to move some units. At my most recent Lit Out Loud experience, we were selling hardcovers of my newest horror novel, Hellworld. And we did pretty good on that front. I was happy, the audience had a good time, and the bookstore got to ring up some sales. Win-win-win!
What about reading some Stephen King or Tom Leveen? In a word: Don’t. I cannot and will not advise you to perform other people’s published work. That’s a sticky legal issue, and I am not a lawyer, so please do your own homework and research on that topic. While doing that research, keep an eye out for public domain works by checking sources like Project Gutenberg. Adding a good spooky poem to the mix of short stories—Edgar Allan Poe, anyone?—can help diversify the show.
Quick tips for next year (because it is probably too late to put something together for this year; you’ll want to be on bookstore/venue calendars).
~ Use a PA system if possible just to make sure Grandma in the back row can hear.
~ Remember this is a performance, not a reading. If you don’t know the difference, make sure you have some local actors or directors to guide you.
~ Traditionally, you’ll want your actors in all black, but some costume bits can be fun too!
~ Nice stage lighting is a plus, but not a requirement; it does help set a mood, though, if you can keep the audience in the dark or dimmer than the performers on stage.
~ Literature events like this are by nature intimate. You don’t want to go renting an auditorium for this; keep it small.
~ And keep it funny! The more laughs you can get from the night (intentionally, I mean!), the better it will be. Trust me on this one. You have to earn the audience’s attention for your one or two really gory or scary pieces.
~ Know your audience. Who’s coming to the event? Maybe there shouldn’t be so much gore after all. It depends.
~ Since you cleared all the rights before the event (right?) why not consider a live-feed or recording for a later podcast, too? It requires minimal prep and set-up, but offers another marketing avenue that allows you to “set it and forget it.”
~ The more people involved, the more people will show up. That’s the math. Figure every author, actor, or other person involved can bring about five people; some will bring more. Remember to post everywhere you can on social media.
~ But keep the event short! Events like this don’t go over well if they run much more than an hour. Ninety minutes would really be pushing it. Learn from my mistake!
~ And finally, for cryin’ out loud, have fun! Whether you are performing your own work or having an actor do it for you, this is a time to get into the spirit of Halloween. Ham it up and have a great time!
I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences with events like this. Track me down at facebook.com/AuthorTomLeveen and leave a comment!
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Tom Leveen is giving away a hardcover edition of his novel Hellworld. Comment below or email email@example.com with the subject title HH Contest Entry for a chance to win.
BIO: Tom Leveen is the author of nine novels with imprints of Random House, Simon & Schuster, Abrams, and Sky Horse. He has also teamed up with Todd McFarlane writing Spawn, the comic book series, and released two independent books: A how-to guide for writers on the subject of dialogue, and a horror novella based on real events. Currently an early literacy specialist with Phoenix Public Library, Tom has six years of previous library work experience. He also has 22 years of theatre experience as an actor and director, and has been the Artistic Director for two different theatre companies. His first horror novel, Sick, won the Westchester Fiction Award and the Grand Canyon Reader Award. A frequent guest speaker and teacher, Tom has taught, paneled, and/or keynoted for SCBWI, RWA, Desert Nights Rising Stars, Phoenix ComiCon, AzLA, NCTE, TEDx, People of Color Network, Western New Mexico University, Arizona State University, Arizona Reading Association, Kennesaw State University, multiple schools and conferences throughout Germany, AETA, the Los Angeles Teen Book Fest, and many others.
Those We Bury Back
READ AN EXCERPT FROM HELLWORLD BY TOM LEVEEN
There exists a darkness so deep, so profoundly absent any light or hope, it causes dizziness and nausea. In this cave, with no source of light and the bodies of the dead surrounding us, there are already plenty of reasons to experience both.
I think we are in hell.
What have I done?
Charlie’s voice drifts to me through the black. “Abby?”
His breath comes out ragged, as if from between strips of flesh. I shut my eyes against the image. Open them. At least when I blink, I can feel my eyelids moving. That’s something. But there is no difference between open and closed.
“Yeah?” I whisper. The sound goes only as far as my lips. It feels like being in the deep end of a pool, blindfolded, all sensation muffled.
“Selby?” Charlie says, but hesitantly.
Why did he ask for me first, when Selby’s supposed to be his girlfriend? Because I had a better chance of being alive.
No response from Selby.
I listen hard, straining as best I can, trying to ignore the sound of my own heart attempting to fight its way out of my chest. Rocks and pebbles grind into my palms and knees. Finally, to my left, a miniscule whimper needlepricks my ears.
“Selby, say something,” I whisper.
Another whimper—louder, but only by degrees. “Charlie, she’s here. She’s alive.”
“Okay,” Charlie says. “Okay. I’m going to try to make my way over to you.” “My stomach . . .” Selby moans.
I try to resist a memory of the knife plunging into her. “Don’t move,” I say. “Just don’t move, we’ll come to you.”
Panic whirlpools in my torso, twisting every organ inside me to the south. I discover that teeth really do chatter if you’re scared enough. Mine clack rapidly as icewater replaces the blood in my veins. Selby’s bleeding, we’re all effectively blinded, and we’re trapped in here. Trapped, with what remains of them…
No, I tell myself. No, Abigail. You can’t lose it. Work the problem. You lose it now, in here, and you die.
Death in here would not be a good way to go. Less painful than crucifixion or being drawn and quartered, sure, but the darkness. . . .
Every moment we swim in it, I feel myself getting closer to terror and insanity. Buried alive. We’d likely die from dehydration. That would be the official cause. Not that anyone would ever find us. Dying of thirst will take two or three days. Two or three days to die.
But the darkness.
The hope that somehow, miraculously, we can inch our way in the pitch black to find the cave entrance, the way we came in, and be free…but that hope is the worst part. Outside, we’d still die from lack of water, but we’d die with the sun or stars overhead, and fresh air in our lungs.
But the darkness . . .
“Stay where you are,” Charlie says from some nebulous place in the black. “Keep
talking, I’ll make my way to you.”
“The pit,” I stutter through my quaking teeth. “You’ll fall in.” “I’ll go slow.”
We can’t have been in this chamber of the cave for very long, yet an eternity has passed since we found them.
Them . . . still in here with us . . .
Stop, stop, stop, I tell myself. They’re destroyed, they’re dead, they can’t hurt you.
But they were dead before we got here and that didn’t stop them. They’re still in here with us, still close enough to reach out, grab an ankle, a wrist, a throat . . .
No! Stay calm, Abby. Stay calm. Work the problem. Work the—
“The camera,” I say.
I hear Charlie stop his slow slide across the gravel floor. “Huh?” “Do you have it? Is it working?”
Selby whispers, “I wanna go home.”
I ignore her. I hate to do it, but have to. “The viewfinder. If the camera’s working, open the viewfinder. It’ll be light. Not much, but something.”
Charlie makes a sound in the darkness, like a sigh of realization. I hear more scuffling. “Go slow,” I say.
Time goes blank again. Now that I’ve oriented my ears toward Selby, I can hear her breathing. Shallow, rapid, and very much like my own.
But I haven’t been stabbed in the gut.
“Hang in there, Sells,” I say. Then I realize I’d used Alex’s nickname for her, and hold my breath. Will it push Selby over the edge? Is there an edge for us anymore, after what we’ve seen? What we’ve done?
“Got it,” Charlie says with a relieved, exultant note in his voice. In the underwater muffle of the darkness, I feel more than hear the electronic whine of the camera booting up.
Please, I beg, unaware that perhaps I might actually be praying and not caring if it’s ironic or not. Please just let it work. Just that tiny blue square of light, please, please, without light I will go crazy, I will go insane if I’m not already, because insanity pales in comparison to this all being real.
Gray-blue light appears, no more than ten feet from me; tiny and pathetic in the black, yet offering hope like the sun.
“Thank you,” I say softly, but not to Charlie. The taut skin of his face glows in the light. He’d been so handsome two days ago. Confident and relaxed. Now, fear draws tight lines down his features, distorting his good looks.
Charlie slowly slides to me, pointing the viewfinder at the cave floor to make sure he doesn’t slip into the pit in the center of the cavern. I don’t know how long it takes; maybe a minute, maybe a year. Maybe eternity. When he reaches me, he sets the camera down carefully before surrounding me with his arms. I can feel by the strength and weakness in his embrace that he is as grateful for the contact as I am. Warm, living, human flesh. We bury our heads into one another’s shoulders, trembling.
“Okay,” Charlie breathes. “I have to get Selby.” “I’m coming with you.”
Staying close, we tell Selby to start talking so we can get to her. “Selby, come on,” I urge. “Please, you have to talk so we—” “Hydrogen,” Selby says at last. “Helium. Lithium. Beryllium.”
Charlie and I look at each other, and seem to realize at the same time what she’s reciting: The periodic table of elements, by order of atomic weight. Selby and I are both sixteen, yet she sounds infinitely younger right then. Or maybe I just feel immeasurably older.
We slide toward the sound of her voice. “Boron. Carbon. Nitrogen.” “We’re coming, Sells.”
“Oxygen. Fluorine. Neon.”
“Almost there,” Charlie says. “We’re almost there, keep talking.” “Sodium. Magnesium. Aluminum.”
“I hear you, we’re getting closer.” “Silicon. Phosphorus. Sulfur. . .”
Finally we see her. Selby sits against one of the cavern walls, curled into an upright ball, squeezing her knees to her chest and shivering, both hands pressed against her side. A far cry from the militant teen scientist I’d met two days ago.
Selby reaches out as we near, and the three of us huddle close together. Maybe crying, I don’t know. I hope not. We need to retain the water.
“Wanna go home,” Selby says into our cluster. “I wanna go home.”
“We are,” I say, sounding much more confident than I would have thought possible. “Let’s get to the bags, see what we’ve still got left, and we’ll work our way out of here. Okay?”
I think Selby nods, but can’t tell in the grim, cold light from the viewfinder. “How’s your stomach?” I ask.
“Uh, stabbed, thanks.”
I take her tone as a good sign. “Okay. Do you have your lighter?”
I can still smell cigarette smoke on her clothes from before we entered the cave. How long ago? How long, now?
Selby pulls a small pink cigarette lighter from her hip pocket. She winces as she does it, keeping her other hand pressed against her side where the blade had gone in.
“How much battery in the camera?” I ask Charlie. Now that we’re together and have at least a few square inches light, the urge to run hard and fast from the cavern is overwhelming.
“There’s one bar. So not much.” “We better hurry then. But careful.”
Selby’s lighter and the dim glow from the camera don’t offer much light, and neither will last too long anyway. I don’t honestly think we’ll have sufficient illumination for enough time to navigate our way back out of this godforsaken labyrinth. Yet we can’t rush, either. Rushing might get us killed. We’ve already lost one person on this trip. One, and so many more.
Which brings up a question. “What about…them?”
Charlie and Selby both give me shocked looks. Charlie says, “We can’t…we’re not bringing them out. No.”
“Okay. Just wanted to make sure we agreed on that. Let’s go.” We scoot back the way we had come, toward our equipment bags.
The news isn’t good when we reach them, but could be worse. Some of our stuff fell in the pit when it opened up. Left over in the camera bag, we find two full batteries for the camera, Charlie’s iPhone with about half its life left, and three bottles of water. Since we didn’t have to do much climbing into the cave—we never even needed ropes—this might be enough light and water to get us out. It just might.
It just also might not. If we lose all sources of light between here and the entrance to the cave, we won’t find our way out. We will not. That’s the math.
We’d spent almost eight hours hiking to get this far, to get to where the pit opened up.
We’d had flashlights and headlamps, moving at a careful pace with breaks and food. To find our way out with a viewfinder, a cell phone, and a lighter will take much, much longer.
Not to mention whatever will be waiting for us outside if we even make it.
The three of us stand together, with me helping Selby up. We stare up the steep incline that will take us to the first leg of our escape.
“What if they’re waiting for us?” Selby whispers. “What if those things are just waiting for us to show up?”
“We don’t have any choice,” I say. “We can’t stay here.”
Instinctively, I cast a nervous glance over my shoulder, waiting for the dead to spring back to life.