Last week the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced that the dreaded Doomsday Clock was moved to a minute closer to midnight. For reasons you can read here, the Doomsday Clock now stands at five minutes to midnight. Midnight being defined as the end to everything. We have been closer of course. In 1953 we only had two minutes left, but humanity managed to pull pack just in the nick of time. (Read the timeline here.) The pronouncements about the Doomsday Clock remind us that, in reality, we don’t need God or zombies or aliens to destroy the world. Or do we?
For a horror/fantasy writer, of course, that sense of imminent doom is what we really want to emphasize. Whether it’s waiting for the clock to strike, the door in the dark hallway to open, or the guillotine blade to fall, it’s really all the same. It’s about setting a scene where something horrific, something beyond the control of the protagonist, is going to happen whether they want it to or not. In the real world (whatever that is) we often lack control over a situation. That lack of control is often accompanied by a feeling of dread―awaiting the final bill for car repairs or a medical procedure, a call after midnight when your child is out on a date, or computing your annual taxes. As an author I want my stories to evoke the dread he or she feels in real life.
How do you do it? Set the scene, a situation from which there is no escape. Build tension by establishing a sense of expectancy, the idea that something has to happen soon and it probably won’t end well. Then make sure that whatever happens lives up to the expectations you’ve set for the story. Nothing is worse than wading through a thousand pages of text that build up to the ultimate conflict, the big bang, only to have the story fizzle out in the end. Your novel or short story should never end with the reader going, “huh?”.
A few months ago I started writing story with the working title of, fittingly enough, “Doomsday”. The story is about two TV news reporters who are assigned to interview someone they assume is just another whacko predicting the end of the world. They want to be with him at midnight to get his reaction when nothing happens. To their horror they discover there is something worse than the end of the world. What follows isn’t really a spoiler, it’s only the beginning.
1 – December 31st
“If you stand over here,” said the old man, “you should be able to see the very first indication of the new dawn.”
The old man hadn’t moved from his chair since the interview began nearly six hours earlier. Now, suddenly, at precisely a minute before midnight, he rose from his rocking chair, animatedly pointing towards the window. Milton Armistadt, his hand shaking, clutched his chair for support to prevent his frail body from buckling under its own weight. Still, he had to see it, the new dawn, and he had to make sure the others saw it.
It wasn’t so much that the seeing of it would make them believe him, their belief didn’t matter because there was no way to stop what was happening, but he wanted to witness their understanding. It was important to him that they understand, that someone on this miserable doomed, damned rock, understand.
Charlie Latimore whispered something that was supposed to be cynically humorous to Jerry Fisher, the cameraman, but his words were anxious, tinged with nervous fear. Whatever Charlie had said, Jerry didn’t get it, not this time. His concentration was fully through the viewfinder of the video camera, his focus, like that of the other two men, on the absolute pervasive darkness beyond the window.
Jerry almost dropped the camera when the ancient clock in the hallway, the one facing the door that might never again allow escape, chimed midnight with a terrific resonance. And before the chime faded, the first plumes of the new dawn appeared against the horizon. The camera was rolling. Charlie wanted, needed, to say something, but he was empty. The plumes, miles away, flew up in high arcs, alighting the sky, threatening to catch it afire, and it might have if not for the sudden torrents of rain. The rain brought floods of water which became bubbling, brewing seas as the earth shook violently and huge fissures widened, emitting a sizzling steamy vision of hell.
Flashes of lightening accented the conflagration, revealing the widening destruction. Houses, trees, and all the other artifacts of existence were askew, torn, and rendered. They all fell like dollhouse accessories caste down violently and trampled by some ill-mannered errant child. They fell, everything fell, but as overwhelming as the scene was, it seemed somehow far away, distant, and removed.
They had been watching the scene unfold looking out through the window, on the same plane as the horror they witnessed. Now their perspective was something other, as if they were somehow above the action, removed from it. And the truth was that they hadn’t even noticed the change, the shift had been so subtle. When they did realize there had been a shift, a change, the terror of not understanding how that might have occurred swept through them.
Them, Charlie and Jerry, but certainly not the old man. The old man was watching with rapt attention, fully aware and accepting of all that was happening. The old man was there and yet… Charlie stared at him, his face bathed in the reflected light of the awful destruction, and tried to grasp what had happened, what was happening.
The truth was that the old man was smiling as the world was ending.
Doomsday, waiting for that ultimate thrill of terror, is something none of us really wants to experience, yet there is something vital about the expectation of it. The idea that at any moment something will happen that could end everything is what pulls horror/fantasy fans out of their mundane lives and puts their psyches in overdrive. And the best thing about it is that when the story ends, when you’re still in the afterglow of that marvelous psychic rush, you’re still alive―and that’s a definite plus.
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