Good horror stories have grown sparse. Why, in this day and age, have we seen fewer compelling characters and more violence in shows, movies, and books? Since when did survival and sacrifice become so mediocre (I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead)? The answer, I believe, lies in what many screenwriters and authors have neglected: The human element. What can we do to change that?
You can throw in a post-apocalyptic setting. Add some monsters, maybe ones that are actually unique. Build upon themes that revolve around death, anarchy, and hope. But, more than anything, the single most intriguing part of any horror tale is, in my opinion, the way that the characters interact. Just because the end of the world has happened doesn’t mean that the heroes and villains aren’t still haunted by their past, mired in their present doubts, and plagued by their despair about the future.
That’s my single greatest focus with my two post-apocalyptic novels, The Swarm and the Flyer and The Wrath and the Base. I want to make people come alive on the page, not just through their unique survival traits and personality quirks, but in the ways that they learn — or fail to learn — how to integrate their own personal demons with the death and destruction around them. For me, the wasteland setting is a phenomenal Rorschach Test come to life. Every dead body, burnt-down house, and fleeting shadow becomes a character’s own unique projection. I love having this power as a writer — and it also forces me to look at my own lingering ghosts. What experience is more authentic for a creative writer than that?
This is a story about a young gay man named Rayland, who, along with his last living triathlon teammate, Josiah, must fight off sentient cloud-like creatures called the Swarm, long enough to help Josiah reunite with his family. The only problem is, Rayland has a crush on Josiah, who can’t return Rayland’s feelings, even if he may just end up saving Josiah’s family from a group of killers and their deranged leader, who has a new world order in mind.
Without further ado, here’s the second part of chapter 8 of my book, The Swarm and the Flyer. I hope that I can make these characters, places, and themes come alive with vivid and entertaining clarity for you all 🙂
Chapter 8 (Part 2)
An Encounter Beyond Goatman’s Bridge
At the T-intersection of Teasley and Old Alton Road, we come to two rows of cars that are squeezed tightly together. I brake and set my foot down slowly, waiting for my back bike wheel to stop spinning. This is too neat for a pileup. Too deliberate. Four mid-sized Toyota sedans are sandwiched between another four trucks. A single message is scrawled across the side of the blockade in red spray paint: DANGER. TURN BACK.
I look to Josiah, who has his arms propped up on his thighs as he straddles his bike. My eyes trace every letter, then fall to the numerous chains that are strung through each of the bumpers. Thunder sniffs around the cars before raising his leg and taking a whiz on one of the front tires. Neither Josiah or I can manage a smile this time.
“We could try and go the long way,” Josiah croaks after a while. We only have to look both ways down Teasley to know that there’s very little chance that another route will be any easier to get through. This is the most direct road to the Argyle fire station. Maybe the safest, too.
“I say we go on ahead.” I have the revolver in hand and my sights set on the dense tree line beyond the blockade. “It’s, what, three more miles to the fire station?”
“Just about.” Josiah sighs and looks back at the skyline over Guyer High School, where the tops of the football goal posts jut toward the sky like the finger bones of a giant. Torn sheets of newspaper and bits of Styrofoam litter the dead grass in front of the stadium. All this waste, and no one to clean it up…
Josiah looks my way. “Since we’re riding, we should take it slow. I’m worried there might be other people out. People who will take whatever they can get.”
“For sure,” I say, then lower my head. “We can’t be too careful.”
I slip my revolver back into the side pocket of my bag, then tiptoe over the chains linking the car barricade. My shoe slips over one as I almost pitch forward. Josiah is there to offer his hand, his bike now resting against the other side of the blockade. I hold up a couple of fingers to wave him off. To tell him that I don’t need his hand right now to steady myself.
Once we’re clear of the cars, we mount our bikes again and take off, Thunder doing better about trotting alongside me at a decent pace. I let him off his leash to avoid getting us tangled and causing me or Josiah to crash. Thunder’s smart enough to never veer too far away. Not even when the woods begin to huddle closer to the two-lane road.
We pass the entrance to the Old Alton Trail less than half a mile down. The gateway to Goatman’s Bridge. A new wind sings through the dense wall of trees to our left.
“You believe the stories?” I call out to Josiah, who’s already looking out at the rusted steel girders of the bridge. The beams glint a crimson red in the midday sun. A cold sense of lifeless unease washes over me, even before I sprout goosebumps. The river beneath us is barely moving, and it seems to flow one direction for a few seconds, then swirl the other way the next.
“Some of them.” Josiah clears his throat. “It feels creepy running out there on the trails at night. I’ve only done it once. But as far as the KKK hanging that Black farmer…I wouldn’t put it past this place.”
I grunt before we take the sharp hill up Copper Canyon Road, which is not as wide open as the field that opens up to our left. It’s awkward as hell riding with my bag so full of our stuff, but I’ve got no other choice. I take another gulp of air, this time surprised by its relatively pure taste. The smell of fresh Cedar Elm and raw hay bales is so strong that my chest is warmed by the aroma. But it doesn’t quite erase the patchouli and orange hues that I’d picked up from Josiah earlier. Those cling to some inner part of me that I didn’t realize had feeling.
God, Rayland. Focus.
Then I hear them: bird calls from somewhere nearby. Faint chirps that rise and fall, a dialogue by actual living animals. Am I crazy, or do they actually sound like they’re calling out to me and Josiah?
Thunder stops at complete attention once we crest the hilltop, his ears twitching into a forward position. I snap my fingers and whistle at him.
“Now there’s a sound I’ve been missing,” Josiah says with a wispy exhale, holding his hand as a visor over his eyes to study the view of Denton stretching out behind us. I nod and scan the tree line, hoping that the birds might just take flight for us.
“No kidding,” I say with a fresh smile. “It gives me hope.”
“Same here. Hope is sparse now.”
I jerk my hands back down onto my handlebars and almost flop over. Josiah does the same and nearly rides off the side of the road. The voice trails back to a man who steps out from a nearby driveway, his hiking boots crunching on the gravel. Josiah and I whip around, now just a few feet past the stranger, and crane our necks. He’s got on a light waterproof jacket and dark cargo pants. Though his hair’s a bit thin, it’s combed back neatly and faintly slick. If not for his greasy hair, he would’ve passed for a hiker just taking a casual day trip.
During the middle of the day. Alone. With the Swarm somewhere out there in the woods.
Thunder is yapping like crazy at the newcomer, leaping in and out before he races around the dude. The stranger looks down at our dog with slightly amused eyes. I clutch my handlebars until the frame creaks. Shit…my gun’s in my bag.
Then it dawns on me: this guy’s irises are almost pure grey. When he sets them on me, my blood goes cold.
“My name’s Reg Alteo,” he says with open arms. “Sorry if I scared you two.”
Thank you for taking the time to read this excerpt from The Swarm and the Flyer. If you have a few seconds, I would deeply appreciate your thoughts and comments. I’ll be concluding this series in two weeks to take some time to focus on editing and finishing both stories.
Until next Thursday, ladies and gents. Take care!