Writing “The Bones That Walk”
“There, Miss Jones, there they are — the bones that walk!”
“I doubt you very much, Smythe. Why, I see nothing more than bare white bone.
Where are the tendons, ligaments, or any other connective tissue? Where, I say!
Why, there’s not so much as a shimmer of ectoplasm connecting THOSE bones.
They float, perhaps — They Do Not Walk.”
Believable Descriptions for Corporeal Undead
The reading public of the 21st century is a visual public, for good or ill, and that can be a difficult thing to overcome when trying to keep descriptions sparse but meaningful. Add in the element of walking dead bodies, whether flesh-bearing or reduced to the essentials of a naked skeleton, and almost invariably there is a hesitation in belief for the written scene.
Further, most editors constantly harp upon “Show, don’t tell” (counter-intuitive for someone who was raised as a Story Teller!) Visualizations that have previously made the transition from paper to screen give us some guidance into methods that do indeed work. Go read a Stephen King novel *prior* to viewing the best corresponding film version sometime. For video treatments I have personally seen, this is especially true for “Silver Bullet,” THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, or the TV mini-series version of THE STAND. (Not to mention IT!)
This vintage movie poster, that of Bram Stoker’s
1922 silent horror movie, “NOSFERATU” –a true
cult classic– was an early influential addition to
the horror genre, and to horror films in particular.
Although it’s only subtly related here, still it conveys
an important part of this article’s theme, that is:
multiple ways of building the image.
Notice the ticket prices. They could make a person weep!]
The following five techniques can be your salvation in speaking of any type of the unliving “damned to walk beyond life”: ghouls, zombies, skeletons, wights, mummified corpses, etc. (All examples shown were created specifically for this article and make deliberate exaggerations …)
1. IMPROVE SPECIFIC DETAIL — Increasing the level of detail to include specifics can increase both verisimilitude and the level of horror. Example for a reanimate skeleton: “My fright and shock deepened as I witnessed the yellowing tendons contract and relax in time with the movement of the starkly gleaming white of the bones, what little powdered muscle remained flaking away with each staggering step.”
2. IMPROVE GENERAL DETAIL — Sometimes, thinking in cinematic “wide-shot” can reduce the dependence on lower detail levels. In the case of a relentlessly pursuing pack of zombie-oids: “As the sledgehammer broke through the concrete outer vault, a cascade of earth erupted from nineteen surrounding graves. Whether some spark ignited the blasts or the coffers were lifted by an unknown arcane power, twenty corpses scrabbled upward and began to converge on Jim and me. In terror, Jim slammed the heavy steel hammer down upon the skull of the nearest — only to see the skull explode in a rain of writhing *things*, and the moving corpse reach out with claw-fingered hands. The entangled hammer was wrenched away by a savage twist of the torso. Beyond thinking, we ran toward the caretaker’s shed.”
3. CONVEY MORBIDITY BY OTHER SENSES — Remember our pack of zombie-oids? What would make them even more horrific, NON-visually: scent, feel, taste, or sound? How about a description of breathing, for lungs without obvious purpose for doing so? “The awful silence shattered behind us as the rotting door collapsed inward. Forty rotting lungs, twenty pairs unbreathing by any normal definition yet thunderous in their exhalations after the lumber rattled into stillness, filled the passage with grave-mold stench.” Involve the sense of feel indirectly, too: “The staggering mass of the unliving slowly pounded closer, and the ground beneath us quivered as if in answer.”
4. IMPROVE DETAIL BY REFERENCE — Evoke images from common culture, drawing upon icons from literary, graphic arts, and other media. Consider the illustration on the box for many current computer games: “The face of the fiend could have as easily been staring out from a screen in a gruesome computer game as in through the porthole glass.”
Consider the classic monster movies as well:
“The vile creatures came complete with the torn, pale flesh of mangled Dracula victims.”
“The white glare of the dead eyes peered out above flesh as green as that of Frankenstein’s monster, who in turn stared out with Karloff’s heavy lids from an antique movie poster on the wall.”
5. MULTI-PUNCH SENSORY UTILIZATION — Combine as many of the other forms as are needed to set your scene and populate it with the unliving. “As damp globs of earth fell from the rotten clothing of the grave wight, the soft splashings as they struck the ground were barely audible above the patter of the light rain. Green-white flesh, where it was visible, stretched tightly above the horrid white of well-bleached bones — giving the eyeless face a visage much like that of Peter Cushing, or perhaps even Vincent Price at his creepiest.”
Any of the above can be applied with too heavy a hand — I warned you the examples are exaggerated! — and become laughably stereotypical, possibly even breaking that mythical “fourth wall” of the stage you build through words. There are certainly some stories where this can be done, and done to great effect, after the reader has become wrapped up in the story-telling.
In other words: always know when to stop!