I sat poised before my typewriter, a steaming cup of tea at the ready, caffeinated, motivated...and fresh out of ideas.

The challenge was simple, in concept - tell a story, in four thousand words or less, that would chill the judges of my book club's writing competition to their core. It should have been easy; but as I sat at my desk, ready to produce the short, poignant masterpiece that would procure me a spot in my city's literary magazine, my mind was as blank as the paper that sat in the antique machine before me.

After a moment of frustrated silence, I leaned back in my chair, lacing my fingers behind my head and staring up at the ceiling. When the creative juices dried up and imagination failed, it was time to think analytically.

So.

What makes a good horror story?

I chewed my lip, absentmindedly twisting my swivel chair back and forth as I mulled it over. What does make a good horror story? The problem, I thought, is that horror is a matter of perspective. Every person has their own personal fears, rendering the idea of "scary" entirely relative. A short story about a tunnel cave-in, for example, could send a claustrophobe into a state of panic, while providing another individual with nothing more than a mildly entertaining read. A haunted cellar could terrify someone of a superstitious caliber, but leave a more pragmatic reader feeling dissatisfied; and so forth and so on.

The longer I pondered it, the more I was unwillingly forced to the inevitable conclusion: that it is simply impossible to tailor a single story to fit the private fears of every single person who reads it.

There are, of course, certain horrors to which most people share a common aversion - death, pain, or any occurrence of the supernatural or unknown, for instance - an aversion on which countless authors and screenwriters have been quick to cash in. This collective repulsion is, conversely, the sole reason for the outstanding success of horror films and slasher flicks. People flock to theaters in droves to tantalize themselves with the most ghastly displays that the human mind and CGI can produce, which then begs the question - are they really afraid? These sordid films may incite a fleeting terror in viewers, but when it's over, they go about their lives, largely unaffected by the gruesome sights they witnessed on the screen; and eventually the film will fade into ambiguity, lost in the vast recesses of their subconscious minds.

And there was another problem. When it comes to provoking response in their audience, movie producers have an advantage over writers, by dint of the resources at their disposal. In film making - especially horror films - the story is but a small part, sometimes to the point of being overshadowed by elaborate props and effects, or even a soundtrack. Would those sinister twins at the end of the haunted hallway be half so frightening if there were no high-scaled notes being lightly tapped out on a glockenspiel in the background? I rather doubted it.

Yes, filmmakers have an advantage over we mere writers, who rely solely on our powers of prose to evoke emotion in our readers. I, in my own arrogant way, considered this advantage to be something of a handicap; a head start for the slower child, if you will, in a race that they are destined to lose to the stronger opponent. Perhaps it was this reason, more than any other, that prompted me to discard all the worn-out concepts that had been made and remade till they were threadbare. Disdaining the idea of another ghost in rattling chains or insane genocidal maniac, I turned instead to a more unconventional train of thought.

What made all the greatest horror authors stand out from the rest of the bloodstained crowd? What aspect of their work placed it on a level above the rest? Not the events of the stories themselves, nor the fates that may have befallen the unfortunate characters therein, but the lingering sense of dread that these tales left behind; a sort of chain reaction, as it were. When the reader finishes the last chapter and closes the book, and a shiver slips down their spine; when they look nervously out the window at the failing daylight, and rush to turn on a lamp so they are not sitting in darkness; when they seek out the company of friends or family, because they are too afraid to be alone - that is what makes a story great.

Suddenly, I sat up straight in my chair. I had it. Fear is not contained in words on a page, but in the mind of the person reading them. The story doesn't matter - it is only there as a spark, to ignite the kindling of human imagination. The real weapon is the mind itself; and the horror lies in how easily it is manipulated. People like to think of themselves as strong, individual, and unique, but an ineluctable truth is that we are all susceptible to the influence of others. In the hands of a master manipulator, the human mind becomes as malleable as putty, bending to the will of those with the skill to shape it to their desires.

And what are storytellers, but master manipulators?

We are the ones who, without the aid of effects or music, can arouse intense emotions in people whom we have never met. We can provoke them to rage, render them helpless with uncontrollable mirth, or induce grief so strong they water the pages of our work with tears. We can tear out a persons heart, rally their courage, excite euphoria, or freeze them with terror. We can make them feel anything we want them to feel - all with a few simple words, mere spatters of ink across paper, controlled by our hand and our will.

A few words is all it takes. An idea, planted into someone's brain. A suggestion, subtly woven into the tangled threads of human cognizance. A thought, skillfully inserted into their subconscious without their knowledge, enabling us to pull them to and fro, like an unwitting marionette in the hands of a cunning puppeteer. We are able to shape them - their thoughts, emotions, and sometimes even opinions - into what we want them to be, with nothing more than the power of our words. A little ink, a few keys, a spoken word, and our audience becomes clay in our hands, as much at our mercy as the imagined characters in our tales.

And the best part?

They don't even know it.

...And if they did know? What then?

Well, that would be even better.

The idea would be dismissed at first, no doubt; but it would still be there, fermenting in the back of their minds, until it came to light in all its bitter glory. A sense of nervousness, perhaps, when they reread their favorite book, and recognize how it has helped to shape them as a person. A spasm of uncertain fear, when they pick up a new story, only to discover how easily we toy with them, drawing them into the world we built, and playing with their minds.

A growing sense of panic when they realize the extent of the power we have over them. How easily we enter their inner strongholds, reaching into the minds and hearts of living, breathing people, and leaving our fingerprints on their very soul - marks that will never be scrubbed away, no matter how hard they try.

What chaos, what inner turmoil, what widespread fear would it cause? Not the fleeting terror of a cheap thrill, to be bought and discarded in less than a day, but something far more subtle and sinister; that lingering sense of dread, that would follow them to the grave.

The horror, then, lay not in the fiction, but in the reality. All it needed was a story - a few words, woven together by a master manipulator - the catalyst that would spark a chain reaction.

It would be the greatest horror story ever written.

Eyes gleaming, I sat up straight and began to type.


This is what happens when I try to write a creepy story while dealing with migraine-induced insomnia. Originally I categorized it as horror, simply because I didn't know where else to put it, but now I've moved it here. (As you can see.) Reviews are very much appreciated; flames will be used to boil tea for further caffeination.