Natural Horror

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If you want inspiration for your next horror monster, I seriously would suggest watching a nature documentary.

It can be good fun to marathon a bunch of horror movies to really connect with the genre and submerge yourself in it, I recently did so with the entirety of the Paranormal Activity movies. However, the danger there is you are only really seeing what has already been done, not ideal if you are wanting a fresh take.

Go on Netflix, on YouTube, whatever, there is no shortage of nature documentaries which are great inspiration. Ones that focus on the deadliest animal or on predators are especially for this purpose.

If you see something grisly and story worthy, then what do you do?

Generally, if you are writing horror, there are two options I would say, 1) apply those principles to a monster; or 2) make the creature prey on humans.

 

  • Apply the principles to a monster

A wasp that paralyses its prey, drags it into a shallow grave and then lays eggs in the still living host? That’s nightmarish and great fodder for a horror story.

Using this method, you take what the animal does and apply it to your monster. Let’s say I had an idea for a monster terrorizing a small town but I wasn’t too sure on how I can make it different. I know it is a tall, vicious slab of muscle but apart from some generalities about how it looks, I am not sure how to make this a unique monster to keep my readers on the edge of their seat. I could use that idea, I make the monster abduct unfortunate victims, drag them off to its lair and then carry out the same process as the wasp.

There is the black widow spider that devours its prey, not hard to imagine that principal applied to a femme fatale style demon. Once she mates with a suitable target, she can tear their head clean off.

In these various examples, you already have an idea for a monster but aren’t too sure how to separate it from the crowd. Take an activity or tactic the animals use and apply it to that very monster and you will be left with a nightmarish result.

 

  • Make the creature prey on humans

This is a bit simpler and can be very effective. Let’s say you have no idea what you want your next monster to be, total blank slate. We all get like that sometimes, when the ideas won’t flow.

Why not take one of the gruesome creatures you see in the documentary and make it able to prey on humans?

For example, in North Sea Nightmare, the monster is really a jellyfish big enough to devour people. To refer back to my previous example, why not use a monstrous human sized wasp that kidnaps people to be hosts for the brood.

If army ants stripping their prey to the bone in a matter of seconds creeps you out, then make the ants start devouring humans.

Find a creature that makes your skin crawl then make it focus on humans instead of what its natural prey is. The creature wouldn’t really be a threat to people? Then make it bigger or more lethal.

 

There are plenty of sources of inspiration for your next horror story, I would suggest a nature documentary.

Crime and Horror- related but distinct

Scream is a horror film. I don’t really think that is up for serious debate, it was marketed as a horror film, follows the beats of a horror film, was directed by a horror director and frequently makes top horror movie lists.

The description of it though could easily be a crime thriller, imagine seeing this on the back of a box:

A masked killer, the police on his trail, an investigative journalist who thinks a man may have been convicted for a wrong crime. The clock is ticking to find out who is behind the Woodsboro killings.

On the other hand, The Godfather is a crime film- despite the fact horrific things happen in it.

Mass murder.

Horse mutilation.

One scene is almost Saw worthy, a mobster has a blade smashed through his hand and is strangled from behind.

A newly wed bride is obliterated in a car bomb attack.

There seems to be this line between these two genres I wanted to discuss. They are related, brushing against each other but distinct.

Here are a few points that I think generally separates them:

  • Crime is underpinned by logic

Even if it is twisted logic, crime films and novels tend to have an undercurrent of reality. You can work out what is happening even if the detective is one step ahead of you, often the central plot is being carried out for a particular reason. In L.A. Noire, all the murders are to conceal a property scam. In The Godfather, mafia families are struggling for control.

Horror is free of logic. It can embrace it but it doesn’t need to. A murdered paedophile called Freddy is killing teens in their dreams. Okay, you don’t think twice and enjoy the ride, getting scared and nauseated in equal measure.

Scream is set in the real world but liberties are taken, we don’t question in Scream 2 how a nerdy college film major brutally murders two trained and armed FBI agents because he put on a rubbery Halloween mask and got a knife out the kitchen. We can suspend our disbelief because it doesn’t really matter in horror.

  • It is possible to solve the mystery in crime

One of the best things about a good crime mystery is once the big reveal happens, you see how there has been plenty of hints along the way, plenty of opportunities to pick up on it. Then you can put it on again and spot it all, it is what makes them so rewatchable.

Horror on the other hand is less concerned with this. Fear, death, over the top violence or a foreboding atmosphere, that is what matters. There is no way to work out in Scream who is behind the mask, there simply isn’t. No clues, no leads, no real mystery. Ghostface will keep killing people until the gruesome crescendo. It isn’t necessary in a horror movie to work out who the killer is, it doesn’t add or take away from it.

A crime movie that has no investigation or problem solving wouldn’t be very good.

Jason going on a rampage doesn’t need that to be an effective horror film.

  • Death in horror is the main event

In horror, death is often the main event and takes centre stage. Characters die, try to avoid death, the threat deals out death.

Death in the crime genre is usually to get the plot moving, in a great many of them it isn’t especially graphic or gratuitous, indeed it can even happen off screen.

I could show you a death scene from Friday the 13th and show you a death scene from Scarface and you could probably tell what genre they belonged in. Being gunned down in your club is vicious and brutal, but crime. A seven-foot brute tearing your arm off and letting you bleed out in agony is horror.

 

This isn’t an exact science and there are some that straddle genres (Seven being a good example) but as a rough rule of thumb, this is how I tend to separate them.

 

 

 

Funny AND Scary

Before I start, just to say I have a facebook page you should check out:

www.facebook.com/LeeTheWriter/

Striking the right balance between comedy and horror is not an easy thing to do, so most writers and directors will go for one over the other. Either blood curdling and scary (The Aliens from the Alien franchise) or outright silly (think of the straight to DVD Bruce Campbell movies or tongue in cheek modern B-movies). Few will try and take on the centre ground.

It is hard to do right but when it works, it really works. Examples include:

  • Gremlins
  • Eight Legged Freaks
  • Killer Klowns from Outer Space

If you are aiming for this kind of vibe in your horror I think there is one key rule to keep in mind. The monster can be funny, look at the Gremlins going on their rampage through the city, it is like something out of Looney Tunes. Similarly, the Killer Klowns raiding the pharmacy or the spiders in Eight Legged Freaks attacking a stuffed moose head and spitting out the flesh in disgust.

Yes, they can be funny.

But, and this is key, they also need to be a genuine threat. The gremlins are funny but when they attack the mum in the house, there is the very real danger they are going to kill her. Likewise, although the spiders are silly, almost slapstick, when the main characters meet them, you know they could die.

You can laugh at their antics but equally, they are perceived as dangerous.

When this balance fails, you never really consider the enemy a threat. The locusts from Alien Apocalypse seem ridiculous and as if they couldn’t hurt anyone, they barely seem able to move their limbs. Same with some of the more absurd Dr Who monsters, they aren’t threatening.

Another way around it is to make the henchmen ridiculous and silly but the big boss frightening. The minions can have goofball moments but when the big boss shows up, you know heroes can die and the fun is over. In Eight Legged Freaks, you see the silly spiders jumping around when the massive tarantula stomps into view, the tone changes. Look at Labyrinth, the goblin muppets are stupid and not really a threat but when the Goblin King shows up, there is genuine menace.

In your own work, if you want this kind of vibe, remember they can be funny but they must also be a threat.

My Third Book: The Shape in the Sky

The Shape in the Sky Book Cover

Two books published with some decent feedback, onto the third. Horror with a Scottish twist as you all know is my thing so it should come as little surprise it is another horror story. If you are interested as to why, have a read through my blog, almost every second article is praising the horror genre.

I’m still writing my third book, first few chapters ready but not completed the full thing yet- still, I wanted to give you the synopsis.

They do not come in peace

They do not want to be our friends

Rock and roll band Iron Claymore have just launched a massive music festival in the Scottish Highlands. Booze, babes, drugs and colossal egos are part of the package when dealing with them and it doesn’t take long for the band to get up to their usual antics.

The event organisers know that people have been going missing in the Highlands recently but aren’t too concerned.

They should be.

Coming soon!

***

My other two books are:

North Sea Nightmare

https://www.amazon.co.uk/North-Sea-Nightmare-Lee-Johnston/dp/1520418302/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1492960230&sr=8-1&keywords=north+sea+nightmare

 

Bad Credit

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bad-Credit-Lee-Johnston/dp/152097258X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1492960300&sr=8-1&keywords=bad+credit

 

Author page

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lee-Johnston/e/B01NAOYYKW/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

 

 

 

Banker Blog#6 Why change the currency?

Have you seen the new UK pound coins yet?

New, shiny, a bit more elaborate than the dull old coins, I like them.

It prompted some discussion mostly, to the effect of people complaining changing the coins is a waste of time and money. I would have to disagree, there are three valid reasons why it is necessary to change the notes, coins and more in circulation.

Firstly, the prevention of counterfeiting

I view most of human history as an arms race between the law and criminals. We come up with cheques, criminals learn to forge signatures. We invent currency, criminals counterfeit. We come up with banking online, criminals start hacking. The longer a currency is in circulation, the more fake copies will be made and also the better the copies will be. Counterfeiting is even used in warfare to destabilise an enemy nation’s economy, that is how dangerous it is. We need to play a bit of musical chairs and just when the criminals have perfect counterfeits, we change it.

Secondly, cultural reasons to change currency

A currency says a lot about a nation, who it decides to put on the notes and who it thinks are worthy of praise and attention. As time passes, new and increasingly diverse figures are deemed worthy of the honour of being on currency.

Generally speaking, you want to pick someone who is dead (so they can’t do anything controversial and force you to recall the coins/notes). You also want to stay away from politics because generally every politician may be loved by half the country and despised by the other half. Go for science or art. It can also be a chance to draw attention to lesser known figures. Darwin, Maxwell etc. these are the faces you tend to see.

Thirdly, economic

The composition of coins can change as the economy of a country changes. Back in ye olde days solid gold coins were the norm (these are worth a fortune if you ever dig them out the ground). Then we started mixing them with other metals and the actual objective value of a coin was based purely on the metal it is made of became worth less and less.

If a country finds a cheaper way to make a coin, it will do, since they are mostly symbolic anyway. Look at Canada where they eliminated the penny, it cost more to make than it was worth.

What to take from this blog?

Physical currency changes constantly for security, cultural and economic reasons, it isn’t done on a whim for no reason. There is also a distinct possibility that in a very near future, physical currency will die out completely but that is a blog for another day.

Lee Library #9 Dilbert

I have a bit of a confession to tell you.

Despite being known as a bit of a geek…I don’t like comics. They leave no impression on me, I find the vast majority little more than poorly written scrap books. Needless complicated, inbred storylines where clones, alternate realities, evil twins and god knows what else rub shoulders and expect the reader to keep up. When they try to be serious and gritty it is even worse. I have never clicked with them at all.

When I first saw Dilbert, my gut reaction was, I won’t like this. It is going to be a juvenile waste of time, yet another reason to dislike comics.

But I’ve read four books in a row, downloaded the tv series and the fifth book. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My gut doesn’t know everything clearly.

Dilbert is a white collar worker suffering through idiot managers, dementated HR staff and demotivated co-workers. Dilbert himself is well meaning enough, generally he wants to be left alone to work, but frequently suffers at the hands of the company he works for.

What I love is how well it captures the absurdity of a large corporation, the insane bureaucracy and barely controlled chaos. In my career, I have worked for two of the largest corporations in the world and it really captures the worst aspects of it. Don’t get me wrong, I think a large corporation can work well but it is so easy for it to slip into incompetence, where the organisation is so massive, it becomes an average of the thousands of people working for it, gravitating to a bland centre.

When I am having a rough day, when that cynical part of my heart wants attention, Dilbert is all the more appealing. I guarantee if you have worked at a large corporation, you will recognise the characters in it.

The writer of the comic strip, Scott Adams, has worked in this sort of environment and you can tell because it feels so authentic. This isn’t some Hollywood director writing about an evil company full of cigar chomping villains because that is how he thinks they are (having never actually worked for one). Instead, Dilbert is an accurate depiction of cubicle life.

What to learn from Dilbert about your own art?

The first few issues of Dilbert focused on his home life, like a typical sitcom, and weren’t well received. As the stories shifted more to the workplace, it really took off. Sometimes it can take a bit of time but find that unique view point only you have and bring it to life.

Banker Blog #5 Hostile takeover mahahaha

Even the name sounds sinister, a hostile takeover. What better way to kick off the holiday weekend than one of the most controversial topics in business? There is plenty of sunshine and happiness to go around, lets delve into this for ten minutes.

What is a hostile takeover though? In films it seems to amount to something illegal, some heavies coming round to see you in the night. As always when it comes to the business world, the films get it wrong.

You remember in the last blog we explained how management run a company for the shareholders who own it, vote on major decisions and want increased profits? Keep that in mind when we explore this hypothetical situation.

Lets play some war games where you consider how you would act.

***

You want to buy a rival company that has been standing in your way for too long. This town isn’t big enough for the two of you and it is time to take action.

You approach management and the CEO, explaining you want to buy the company. They are not keen to sell though and tell the shareholders it would be a mistake. Listening to their own management, the shareholders decide not to sell, the company’s best years are still ahead.

Damn! You don’t need this thorn in your side.

If the nice way won’t work, time for a hostile takeover.

You approach individual shareholders, offering them ten times what the stock is worth. They see dollar signs and sell. You do it discreetly, maybe even using intermediaries, by the time management see what is happening, you own 51% of the stock, that’s 51% of the votes.

What happens next is up to you. You can have the company vote to dissolve itself, ending the threat. You can merge it with your business. You can allow it to exist as an independent brand but one you control.

Checkmate, you win.

Now lets flip it!

You are running a company, minding your own business and some insufferable twerp tries to buy it! Grrr. The shareholders are worried and want to know how to defend against these machinations.

  • Urge the stockholders not to sell. This is naive though, everyone has their price, you can’t just wait and hope, so a hardnosed leader like you will take action.
  • Golden parachute- you set the condition that if the company is ever purchased, all the leading executives (like you) by law must get huge pay outs. This makes the idea of taking over your company unappealing.
  • Pacman defence- I love the name of this one. You know when the ghosts are chasing pacman and you get the power ball, they turn blue and then you gobble them up? I think of when Mr Burns discovered that in the Simpsons when introduced to the game, “now the hunter has become the hunted!” This company trying to buy you? You turn around and try and takeover it! Brilliant, you carry out a hostile takeover on the company trying to buy you, approaching their shareholders. An example of the best defence is a good offence.
  • Crown Jewel- this defence means you add a clause of the company is taken over, you need to sell all the valuable assets of the company. So if you are a taxi company, a crown jewel defence would involve the clause in your company constitution that if a rival buys you, the fleet of cars will be automatically sold.

 

There are more nuanced takeover methods, more ways to prevent it but as always, the point of this blog is to give you a fundamental understanding.

Hope that was useful, go enjoy the sun and holiday.

Lee Library#7 The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band

I have been making my way through a list of twenty books to read in your twenties which overall has been fun. There have been a few misses but I am still glad I tried them, new authors, new topics, new ways of telling stories.

About as far removed as you can get from what I would normally read is The Dirt, a book in which the members of Motley Crue recount their insane exploits. I do mean insane, these guys were animals. The reason it was on the list of twenty books was to give perspective that a life of endless partying isn’t a way to live even though the idea of it might be tempting.

The book was like watching a train wreck, I couldn’t tear myself away no matter how bad it got. I was shaking my head, revolted by their antics but I couldn’t stop reading.

At the end of it you feel as strung out and exhausted as the rock stars themselves. They are very matter of fact when discussing drugs, sex, violence, you can really feel how jaded and numb they have become to it all.

I don’t have much interest in music, even less so in rock, and even the music I do like I am generally uninterested in the biographies of the people behind it. I would not be the target audience at all but I did enjoy the book which goes to show it is always good to try something out of your familiar genres or writers.

As for your own writing, even if you think you know the kind of people who will read your work, you could be very wrong.

I will leave you with one of their less extreme tales (read below if you have a strong stomach). Think about that, this is one of the lesser examples.

***

The band were pretty much constantly having sex with women, loyalty in a relationship wasn’t something they really went for. They would see one girl, do it, then go see another right away, doing this for days at a time.

However, some of the girls they were seeing were just as bonkers, they would attack the band members and the other women regularly.

So, after they were done with a girl, they would need to ensure they didn’t smell (or taste…) like another women they would buy a burrito and put their genitals in it. That way they would smell and taste like fast food when they went to meet their next liaison straight after the last one.

Gack, felt like I was throwing up a little writing that!

Banker Blog#4 Share & Share Alike

You know by now my deep-rooted suspicion when a story or article doesn’t feel a need to properly explain what is happening.

“Shareholders furious”

“Management and shareholders clash”

“Shareholders approve banker bonuses”

Little and indeed no time is ever spent giving a quick one liner on what shares mean.

Before we move onto other topics like hostile takeovers, leveraged buy outs and all that, we need to make sure that we know what shares are. If we can nail that foundation, everything else will flow naturally.

What are shares?

If you own a share, you own a bit of a company. A share is a unit of company, it is how you measure how much of the company you own. A company issues 100 shares, you buy 1, you own 1% of that company and have become a shareholder. Even if is only 1%, you are still a shareholder with rights and responsibilities. (Stock and shares are words that can be used fairly interchangeably).

Why buy shares?

If the company makes a profit, you get that. Usually it is in proportion to your shares. In the above example, you own 1% of the company shares, it makes £100 profit, you get £1. The person with 25% of the shares gets £25 etc.

What does a shareholder do?

Shareholders often vote on important company decisions, will appoint directors and a CEO, approve their salaries, show up for the annual general meeting.

If you own a share in The ABC Company, and they are thinking about moving their HQ from London to Berlin, you can bet there would be a shareholder vote on it.

Management versus shareholders

Shareholders own the company, management run the company, and they can clash from time to time.

I always think the best way to understand how these disputes can arise is to put yourself in the shoes of the other side.

You as a shareholder

If you are a shareholder, you are interested in the company making as much money as possible. The company makes a ton of money, your dividend is bigger, happy days.

If your management are harping on about wanting higher salaries, or launching a costly new product range, you are going to be sceptical. They will really need to persuade you. You might be worried your management are showboating, wanting to do all these crazy new schemes to make a name for themselves whereas what the company really needs is to stay the course.

You are interested in your bottom line, you own shares and as long as they keep making you money, you are happy. When they start losing money, no matter what excuse is given (we are launching a new product, we are restructuring, we had a tough year) you get annoyed and consider even selling your shares.

You as a director

You are the leader of a company, martialling the workforce, implementing new strategies. What you want is to have an efficient, strong company because your name is associated with it. You can sometimes chafe with the shareholders. For example, you have seen that there is a huge market for a new product. You want to launch it, creating a team to manage it and make a big splash in the market. Now only will this be good for the company long term, you can implement your plans and see if they work.

It will mean the shareholders won’t get dividends for a year or two- and guess what, they are up in arms about that grrr. You fight with them, they threaten that at the next AGM they won’t be picking you for the director.

Worse yet, given that you wanted a pay rise as well, there is even more hostility!

***

There have been some pretty spectacular fallings out between shareholders and management, especially in the banking sector.

  • During the financial crisis, the government purchased stock and holds a controlling interest in some banks. So the government was a massive shareholder in these companies (as much as 85% in some banks).
  • At the first meeting with the shareholders, the government refused to give them bonuses and wanted their salaries cut.
  • The bankers, who are the management, are furious and say they will resign- this will cause the bank to crash and be worthless.
  • Stand off between the management and shareholders.

 

Activist shareholders

Most shareholders sit back and as long as they are paid their dividends, aren’t overly interested. A rough generalisation but often true.

There are two kinds though of activist shareholder

  • Business minded activist- really go to town on the management and hold them accountable. Even if you had a good year, these folks will be on your case. They watch and count every penny, so if a director had a coffee on the company dime, they will point it out and want an explanation. They want high profits and tight costs.
  • Social minded activist- they are interested in the social parts of a company. So they will often challenge directors on diversity, negative press stories, environmental impact, stance on political issues. Being a shareholder gives them the power to influence the company.

This is a very general introduction to shares but if you read this and understood it, you have a solid foundation for everything else to come.

 

Banker Blog#3 Liquidity

“You’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house…right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then, they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can.”

George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life

 

It’s Sunday, I hope you have your broadsheet financial times folded on the breakfast table, glossy economist sitting nearby and mug of coffee/pint of orange juice ready.

People seem to be enjoying these banker blogs and thanks for the positive feedback. As I said the point is to take what can seem like complicated banking terms and break it into an easily readable paragraph or two. I have a passion for writing but also love the day job in banking, combing the two feels natural.

Having read the first two blogs, you will already have a better grasp of banking than the vast majority of people, now to look at another area.

Liquidity is a common topic when looking at banks but little or no time is spent explaining what it is (thus further fuels my fear that a lot of journalists don’t know what these terms mean and simply echo what they have heard).

What does liquidity mean?

Liquidity is how quickly something can be converted to cash. The money in your wallet has high liquidity, it is already money, you can use it right away. Your clothes, books, games have medium liquidity, you could probably sell them on amazon and get money fairly quickly but it won’t be instant. Your house has low liquidity, it could years to turn it into cash, you would have to contact housing agents, put it up on the market, sell it, conduct the missives etc.

If I need money and have liquidity, it is not an issue. The pipes burst in my flat, plumber charges £100, I have that in my wallet, no problem. If I don’t have that cash, I can sell a few things of medium liquidity and get the cash in decent enough time to pay the plumber. I am in trouble if all my money is in the house and plumber wants paid by the end of the week- no way I can sell the house by then. Low liquidity can be a problem.

How does this impact banking?

People use banks as a safe place to put their money. An incorrect assumption is that money is sitting in a vault somewhere.

Let’s say you put £1000 in the bank. The bank will use that money for various activities. The bank has calculated that you won’t want to withdraw all that money at the same time so it only keeps say £500 in reserve. It does this for everyone, people rolling up to withdraw everything is so rare that they feel comfortable only having half that money in the vault. To sweeten the deal for depositors, a bank pays interest from the money it makes on loans (that’s where your interest comes from, the bank loaning out money).

The bank uses the money to provide loans, mortgages and credit to other people, loaning out the money. These generally have every low liquidity as it can take years for people to pay them off, giving the bank the money back.

So why not have total liquidity?

Some of you might be worried about the idea that banks couldn’t give back all their customers all their money if they had to. Let’s say a bank does just sit with all the money, 100% liquidity, this would actually cause significant problems for society.

  • How can banks stay in business?

So the bank takes £1000 from you and sits with £1000. Well the bank isn’t making any money off that. The bank will even be losing money if they still pay interest. How on earth can they stay in business? Simple answer is they can’t really and so they buckle and close. As horrible as the antics of some bankers were during the 2008 crash, if you want to see extreme corruption, look at countries that only have one, massive, state owned bank.

Some banks can charge fees for holding your money but even these banks need to invest and lend. For a bank to exist purely on account fees, with no lending, these fees would have to be eye wateringly high, unacceptable to most consumers.

  • Goodbye fair loans for the rest of us?

Some brave banks decide to try and stay in business despite the demands for total liquidity. How could they do that in these extreme circumstances? The bank directors will use their own funds, not the depositors, to be used for loans. These handful of loans will either only be given to people who are sure bets (so a massive segment of the population lose access to easy finance like credit cards, loans, overdrafts etc) or alternatively with such extremely high fees and interest, it overrides the risk. Neither is very appealing.

A Bank Run

A Bank Run is when most the banks’ customers walk up and demand their money. As previously explained, the bank doesn’t have this, so they can’t. Like wildfire panic spreads, the banks’ low liquidity becomes a fatal flaw, more people join the queues to withdraw their life savings- which conversely makes the situation even worse. Think Northern Rock here in the UK.

Banks start to demand loans to be paid right away, they start foreclosing on houses where people were in difficulty, they do everything they can to get their hands on cash but it is a death spiral.

A run on a bank is one of the most awful events that can happen in banking, everyone suffers.

What to take away from this blog

Banks take money but it isn’t sitting gathering dust, they do things with it which is necessary to ensure the smooth operation of finance in general, from mortgages to loans to credit cards.