Ragnar's Saga

The Story Behind the Story

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When the Machines Arrive

Posted by Christopher Hivner on August 21, 2012 at 10:00 PM Comments comments (198)

I love a good apocalyptic story. So many have been written and movies made though that it’s hard to come up with anything original. When I started writing “When the Machines Arrive” I didn’t know that was the direction I was going. I saw in my head people leaving their homes to listen to music borne on the wind, seeming to come from no one fixed place. Underneath the music were subliminal messages sent to control everyone’s behavior.

At first, that was all I had. I wrote it up and eventually had the idea of alien machines over-running Earth destroying everything in their path. My original idea was conceived as a piece of flash fiction, 500-700 words long, but when I was finished it didn’t work for me. I spent a lot of time re-reading, editing, and re-thinking, trying to figure out why the story wasn’t satisfying.

The longer it stayed in my head the clearer I saw the plot and finally realized I hadn’t really told the story properly. I had written something general and descriptive but what it needed were characters to live through the events. I worked out who my two main characters were and started writing again. Ancillary people were created on the fly as I delved into the psychology of what the experience would do to people.

When it came time to describe the machines I used the cover of clouds because of a personal fascination with them and a weird fear I had as a kid of them falling from the sky to crush me. I used to lie in the grass and pick out shapes in the clouds. I also used to imagine these gigantic shapes suddenly falling from the sky, coming straight for me and I had nowhere to run. No idea where that fear came from, but to this day I still look up sometimes to see a giant cotton ball falling towards me.

“When the Machines Arrive” is around 5000 words which at the time I wrote it was one of my longer stories. There was more depth to my characters in this story too. I loved the story when I finished it and still consider it one of my best. It was rejected a few times, the main complaint being that there was no explanation given for what the machines were or where they came from. I thought about trying to explain them but felt it would lessen the impact of the story. I couldn’t see any concoction of mine making it better so I let it stand as a mystery.

It was eventually accepted and printed in a nice small press magazine called Mindmares. And the editor loved that I didn’t try to explain everything.



Fairground Attraction

Posted by Christopher Hivner on January 6, 2012 at 10:10 PM Comments comments (65)

Sometimes its starts with a title.


In the mid-90s there was an alternative band named Fairground Attraction who had a minor hit with a song called “Perfect”. I really liked “Perfect” and bought the band’s CD. One day while listening to it I was reading the liner notes and studying the cover art when I focused on the name of the band. This is a very subjective thing, but I thought Fairground Attraction was a cool name and the longer I thought about it, it struck me it would also be a good title for a story.


I spent the next few days thinking back to all the carnivals and fairs I had been to, to see where it would take me. I eventually focused on the games and the cheap prizes you would win. Stuffed animals were always popular but too trite for a modern horror story unless I could come up with a really weird, never-done-before twist which I couldn’t. A lot of the prizes were just cheap pieces of plastic that you lost 5 minutes after you paid $5 dollars to win them. The one that I focused on is one you don’t see much anymore: the kaleidoscope.


It’s a metal tube with mirrors inside and colored beads or pebbles. When you look into one end of it the beads form a vibrant pattern. Then as you turn the tube in your hand, the patterns and colors change. For such a simple toy I always found them fascinating. I haven’t actually seen one since I was a kid so as I thought about my story I had to remember what it was like to peer through that tube at the shifting vista the pebbles created. Over and over in my mind I saw a new pattern and the colors change from blue to red to green. Then an idea crept in. What if, as you were turning the kaleidoscope, you saw something other than the pebbles, something that frightened you, like a human face?


Since most of the carnies at the fairs I’ve been to were male I made my central character an attractive woman. And no offense to carnies, but that meant mine was the evil one that captures her. But the girl and her carnie were minor partners in the story. The kaleidoscope was the star and I did a lot of re-writes to get the description and mood right when the face first appears inside and the girl’s reaction.


Fairground Attraction is still one of my favorites and first found a home in a zine called The Edge before appearing in my book.


The Myth of the Serpent

Posted by Christopher Hivner on April 5, 2011 at 1:42 PM Comments comments (78)

The construction of The Myth of the Serpent started one day at work when I had gone out for lunch. When I got back I pulled into a parking space and just sat there for a few minutes staring at the sky. I didn’t want to go back to work that day. What I was doing was boring me out of my mind and it was a beautiful spring day; the sky was that perfect blue that you get lost in when you stare at it and all your problems melt away. There were only a few strips of clouds slashing across the sky, but the one right in front of me was long and serpentine. It looked like a giant snake descending on the parking lot, ready to strike.


The image of a ponderous serpent coming out of the sky stayed with me so I began formulating what I could do with it in the context of a short story. If you read enough of my work you’ll notice a prevailing theme of characters searching for something in there life. This was never a conscious conceit on my part but it gives you a clue into my own psyche as pieces of a writer’s own thoughts and desires show up in everything we write, even when we don’t notice it ourselves. The human mind is sneaky that way.


To take the idea of a life-altering search even further, I have used in previous stories or poems the existence of a creature or process that would allow you to wipe the slate clean, to wash away everything bad in your life and start anew. We have all done things we wish we could change. If only someone would finally invent that time machine where we could go back and re-live that fateful moment when stupidity took over our minds and bodies and we screwed everything up.


In The Myth of the Serpent, my giant snake is a creature you can call and it will come to cleanse your flesh of all the grime that life leaves behind so you can begin to live again sans the burden of your past mistakes. The lesson in the end, though, is that the serpent can give you a second chance, but it’s up to you what you make of it and if you’re the same screwed-up mess inside, it won’t matter how you feel on the outside.


With the basic plot conceived I needed to devise how my main character was going to “call” the Serpent. I have a keen interest in medieval and dark-age history, especially the Vikings. I have a set of runes, the alphabet that the Northmen used to predict their future and inscribe messages on tribute stones. I picked out the one that represents “rebirth” and had my character use it to signal the Serpent of Heaven that he needed help.


Because I was using a symbol from an ancient European religion I decided to make my character from that area. I chose to make him German only because I had taken German language classes in high school and still remembered a few words and some about conjugation so I could integrate actual German words and sentences into the story for added realism. Bertolt’s personality had to be depressed or at least disaffected. To provide the proper psychology Bertolt grew in my mind to nearly 7 feet tall with an absentee father whom he resented. All these factors groomed him to live a quiet, unfulfilling life, repressing his anger, and when something happens to his mother, the only person he has a relationship with, he knows he needs to start over.


I really enjoyed writing The Myth of the Serpent; Bertolt is one of my favorite characters. I sent it out to a few publications without success so its debut was in my book The Spaces between Your Screams. Most of the rejections I got were form letters, no opinion on the story given. There was one editor though who commented that the reason it was rejected was that his associate editor, who was an expert on Norse/Germanic mythology, was unfamiliar with the myth of the serpent. This just made me shake my head. One of the definitions of “fiction” from dictionary.com:


something feigned, invented, or imagined; a made-up story


You’d think someone who called themselves an “editor” would know the definition of “fiction”.




The Silence

Posted by Christopher Hivner on January 9, 2011 at 10:30 PM Comments comments (79)

Getting a haircut is a pretty innocuous chore for most people but I’ve never enjoyed them so I would wait until my head was over-run like ivy climbing an oak tree. When I had squirrels nesting on my head, then I would get a haircut. I used to go to a place at the local mall. Sometimes they could take you right away, but if they were busy you had to sign in and wait. The last time I went I waited 45 minutes with no call of my name so I left to get on with my life. But in that lost time I wrote “The Silence” in my head.


Outside of the salon there was a 20 foot circle of tile with four benches, one at each side of the area. The benches faced each other. I sat on the one that looked out into the mall. After several minutes a college-age young man who had just signed in at the salon sat on the bench to my right. Another few minutes passed and a woman who was waiting for her mother sat down on the bench directly across from me.

I’m an introvert so I don’t start up conversations with strangers too often. The college kid seemed hung over and the mother looked quite sad and tired. We sat within ten feet of each other for at least 20 minutes but never spoke. It was some of the most awkward moments I’ve ever experienced.


In my head I conjured up the silence as an entity. It stretched between us like a bubble, trapping us inside. I imagined the pressure building on our minds and bodies as the bubble expanded and cut us off from the world. As I sat there I watched shoppers walking past us and it was curious that no one made eye contact. It was as if no one could see us while we sat with in the tile circle. I deliberately stared at a few people but they wouldn’t glance over. In the story, this became a way to display the characters' mounting fear. As they felt life being squeezed from their lungs and sanity from their minds they begged for help from people who couldn’t see them.


“The Silence” is one of my short-and-sweet plot-driven stories. I used the people I sat with as the characters, limning their personalities from my observations of them. I was once asked if I ever used friends and family as characters and I don’t. But I do sometimes use complete strangers.






Lady Emily

Posted by Christopher Hivner on October 21, 2010 at 12:49 AM Comments comments (109)

I got serious about my writing around 1992. The first year or two my horror stories were very plot driven. My characters didn’t have much depth, cardboard cut-outs with a dose of personality. Much like an AC/DC song which is all about the guitar riff, I was all about the idea. I was a plot junkie. My stories were short and sweet, 1500 words average; set up, twist, ending. Splash around some blood, throw entrails over the couch and some bones in the fireplace and I had myself a story.

I don’t remember the exact impetus, but I knew I had to evolve as a writer. My next short story had to have a strong lead character and the plot had to come from the protagonist’s life. I also wanted the lead to be someone the reader could care about because I had written quite a few stories with a completely unlikable protagonist. That’s something you can easily get away with in the horror genre, but I wanted to write about a good person. Ok, it’s a horror story so bad things will happen to her and she will more than likely meet a grisly demise but she’s still a good person.

Emily entered my head after watching a TV show with a female character who tried to do the right thing in every situation, but life continued to kick her around. Her rage would build up and she’d let loose, completely losing control. Emily presented herself to me as that kind of bad-things-happen-to-good-people type of person with the difference being she would do anything not to lose control. I pondered why she would feel this way and envisioned Emily seeing herself as a “lady” and her mother taught her a lady’s behavior must always be perfect. I could feel Emily’s drive to behave in a socially acceptable way and the overwhelming frustration when people treated her badly because of her circumstances.

The other element of Lady Emily is the graphic description of her fugue states. I love descriptive language. Adjectives are my friends: we hang out, watch sports on TV, play poker and come up with new ways to paint a lewd, repulsive picture. I tried to put myself in Emily’s place, to feel what she felt, every time the world tore her down. This helped me conjure up the hellish scenarios she imagined as she wrestled with her anger.

Lady Emily is a sad story. It was hard to write the ending. It was the natural culmination to the story I wanted to tell but Emily didn’t deserve all the bad things that happened to her. Hopefully when you read it, you will feel for her also.

A Little Tongue

Posted by Christopher Hivner on July 25, 2010 at 11:18 PM Comments comments (73)

Story ideas come from many different places: a conversation with a friend, a newspaper article, a song, a historical event. Other times the idea comes out of nowhere, like an invader, a Viking slashing his sword into my brain. Once I have the basic plot in my head, the process can still go different ways. Some stories have to be pieced together, each section baked in a kiln until it’s ready. A section may even have to be broken up and reformed. On rare occasions the entire story appears in my mind fully formed, beginning to end: characters, title, plot. All I have to do is sit down and write it. That was the fortunate case with “A Little Tongue”.


I used to travel to and from work on Indian Rock Dam Road. Right before crossing over some railroad tracks I would pass a small grove of trees. One summer day on my way home, traffic got stopped. I can’t remember why, maybe a garbage truck but more likely road work, a common nuisance in Pennsylvania in the summer. I casually looked to my right, into the copse of trees. My sight fell on a stump in the middle of a dozen maples in full bloom. In one of those unexplainable moments, in my mind’s eye, I saw two men hunched over the stump watching a strange creature peeking out of a hole in the stump. I knew the creature looked like a human tongue and that the story was to be called, “A Little Tongue”.


Traffic started moving again but the images of the story remained for my entire drive home. I pictured the situation starting out as comical to the men: an animal that looked like a tongue, but soon turned deadly as the creature turns out to be more dangerous than it looks. By the time I got home twenty minutes later I knew who the two men were, the progression of the animal’s defense mechanisms, and the ending where we find out there are more than one.


I started writing “A Little Tongue” as soon as I got home that evening. It was one of a few stories that was very easy to produce. With the whole thing playing like a Saturday matinee movie in my head I wrote it in a day or two. Even though bad things happened to the two main characters, I always felt “A Little Tongue” was a playful story which is why I used the double entendre for the title. 


“A Little Tongue” was a fun story to write and I hope it’s as much fun for everyone to read.

Of His Kind

Posted by Christopher Hivner on May 9, 2010 at 9:05 PM Comments comments (54)

Sometimes after you’ve watched a disturbing movie, you need to watch a goofy comedy to cleanse your palate. It can work the same way with writing. After finishing a dark, hornet’s nest of a story, I need to write something lighter, even if it’s just a dirty limerick, to get the black thoughts out of my brain.


I discovered it can work in reverse as well. When I wrote Of His Kind I had just written a few stories in a row where the protagonist was a good man. Bad things happened to the character but they remained fundamentally solid human beings. I needed a change. I wanted to write about a real bastard, someone with no redeeming qualities.


So I created Riley Busby in my head. Negligent father, creep of an ex-husband, rotten in every way, I let Riley marinate in my brain for awhile as I decided what to do with him. And he truly was repulsive. Constantly belching and singing filthy songs about bow-legged women. I’d be driving to work and he’d want me to swerve into oncoming traffic to run the other car off the road. I had invited him in and now I needed to get him out.


One of the things I do to help me think when I’m having trouble with a story is to take a drive. There are lots of country roads in the county where I live so traffic is light and the scenery is beautiful. When I wrote Of His Kind, my dog Kayleigh was still alive and her favorite thing in the world was going for a ride in the car. So one day we got in my Cavalier and took off for parts unknown.


One of the things you pass on the side of York County roads in the summer are corn fields in full growth. As we passed by one this day I wondered what it was like inside the field at night when the stalks are over your head. At some point I realized there are probably rats in the field getting a free meal. When I thought of rats I immediately thought of Riley Busby and the images that would become his transformation flooded my head. I always carried a tape recorder with me on these trips so I began writing the story while driving around the back roads of York County with my dog slobbering out the window.


As Riley’s mind deteriorated in the story, I finally got a chance to use a great word I had learned: hagridden (tormented by unreasoning fears). It has a nasty, weary sound to it which I find it very visceral and impactful although it’s not a word you want to use a lot. In fact I believe Of His Kind is the only story I have ever used it in to date.


I was very relieved to get Riley out of my head and onto paper. He was rejected a few times before being accepted by a zine called Dark Starr. Unfortunately it folded before Of His Kind could be published so I chose it to be the lead story of the second half of The Spaces Between Your Screams.

The Sobriety Test

Posted by Christopher Hivner on April 15, 2010 at 1:45 PM Comments comments (52)

The Sobriety Test is the old man of my stories, the first draft was written in 1984. I was only a year out of high school and my horror stories up to then were light on plot, nonexistent in character development and heavy on description scribed to be as disgusting and gut-wrenching as possible. This, as it turns out, is a pretty common starting point for the writer of horror. The Sobriety Test was one of the first stories I wrote where I tried to really get inside the character’s head and realize what made them do what they did.


I didn’t start with a fully formed idea either. All I had was a picture in my head of a man driving and hallucinating that he had run over his boss in a drunken rage. I wrote this scene with a descriptive passage I really liked and created the story from this scrap.


Several years and drafts later The Sobriety Test was a young buck, confident and ready to go out and conquer the world. Or so I thought. I started submitting the story and it began collecting rejections in plain white envelopes. Taking punches as if it were the Bayonne Bleeder, The Sobriety Test crawled back home battered and bruised. Two people helped me clean it up and re-shape it to make it better.


The first was the editor of Redcat Horror Magazine whose name I unfortunately can’t remember. He had rejected plenty of my early stories but was always friendly and explained why he rejected it. I didn’t always agree with his assessment but I did with The Sobriety Test. He showed me that it was unfocused and had some scenes that were like uninvited party guests: they were distracting from the real story. So I did a complete re-write.


Newly gussied up like Aunt Martha going to town on Saturday night, The Sobriety Test was put back out on the market. But the rejections kept coming, flying into my mail box like mosquitoes, sucking the life out of me. The story got compliments but no one wanted to take it home. Then I got another suggestion, this one from my friend Rob, to make the cop in the story a bit more of a hard ass when dealing with Cliff the drunk driver. I didn’t go quite as far as Rob suggested but did give him more of an attitude and consequently increased Cliff’s belligerence which made the story livelier.


To quote ZZ Top: “With its New York brim and gold tooth displayed”, The Sobriety Test sauntered away from home the epitome of cool. This was its time; someone was going to make it a star.


Or not.


The Sobriety Test was rejected again and again and again. And again. To go along with its record as my oldest story it is also my most rejected, having had the door slammed in its face 21 times. No one ever completely trashed it and many had nice things to say but no one was interested in publishing The Sobriety Test. Not Haunts, 2 A.M., After Hours, Glimpses, Hor-Tasy, Unreality, or Palace Corbie. Redcat said no as did Night Terrors, Twisted Magazine, Musing Magazine, Talebones, Nocturnal Mutterings and Lathered in Crimson. Going Postal wasn’t interested, nor was Vampire Dan’s Story Emporium, Brutarian, Genre Tango, Happy or The Unknown Writer.


After every rejection I would re-read The Sobriety Test trying to find the missing ingredient but it finally seemed right to me, so I would send it back out. Finally, after 7 years of trying, The Sobriety Test was accepted by Bare Bone. Unfortunately Bare Bone didn’t get a chance to publish it before I put my collection together so The Spaces Between Your Screams was the first time the story was printed.


The Sobriety Test is finally at peace with the world that kicked it around.

Taking Jenny Seriously

Posted by Christopher Hivner on March 28, 2010 at 11:24 PM Comments comments (51)

Let’s set the mood before we begin our story. Turn off the lamp and light some candles to bathe yourself in shadows. Your musical accompaniment should be something like Bach’s Toccata in D minor or some doom metal like Beyond Black Void. I’m going to tell you about the first story in my book.


Taking Jenny Seriously is a zinekiller. I didn’t know when I wrote her that her dark spirit would reach out for so many others. Shortly after her creation I started sending Jenny out to get published and it didn’t take long for her to be accepted. Explosive Decompression turned out to be Jenny’s first victim. A few months after receiving my tentative publication date, I received another letter informing me the zine had folded. Jenny was free. I sent her back out into the world and a few months later she was accepted by a zine called Necropolis. I’m not actually sure what Jenny did to this one, as it disappeared without a trace. After my publication date passed with no copy forthcoming I sent several missives over a six month period and received no answers. I asked Jenny but she would only smile.


Stubbornly wanting to see my story in print I sent it back out. Several zines escaped the swinging axe by rejecting Jenny. Oddly the rejections didn’t bother her but then she was accepted again, this time by a zine called . . . The Reaper. Surely this zine would be able to control her. But, alas, Jenny proved stronger than Death itself and The Reaper was gone. I should have stopped for the good of the small press world but damn it, I wanted to see Jenny in print, she deserved it. So I sent her back out. Frightmares was her next suitor. A few months later, she was four for four. Frightmares gave in to her peculiar reverse charm and folded.


I know you now think me a madman to continue sending Jenny back out but I needed to see her in print to prove she wasn’t in control. The fifth acceptance would prove to be Jenny’s kryptonite. She was taken into the rotting bosom of Bare Bone. What followed was an epic struggle of evil forces. Bare Bone wouldn’t fold. Through delays and format changes spanning several years, with Jenny still in their holding cell, it wouldn’t go under.


Finally the day came when I put my collection together. I knew I wanted Jenny to be the first story readers would encounter. Bare Bone had not published her yet so I withdrew her, meaning she was still winning her battle against being published. But that all ended when The Spaces Between Your Screams was published by eTreasures Publishing.


Taking Jenny Seriously had finally been published. I thought that was the end to the frissons of dread she would cause but I was wrong. My friend Deb stages a canine freestyle show every November. I volunteer at the show as scorekeeper. Last year she was nice enough to buy copies of my book to give away as a door prize each day of the show and the winner could bring it to me to be signed. Saturday’s signing passed without incident but Sunday was another story.


I was talking to my brother when the winner walked up and asked if I was the author. I responded yes and then she said, “Something strange just happened. I opened the book to the first story, Taking Jenny Seriously. The character’s name is Jenny Brawley.” She paused, and then said in a hushed voice, “My name is Jenny Brawley.”


While a chill ran through me, I also thought it was pretty cool to see one of my characters come to life before me. For the real Jenny Brawley, well let’s just say she and her husband were a little freaked out.


Jenny has that effect on people.