You’re alone in your house, which is strung with Christmas lights, even though it isn’t Christmas. Someone you love has been abducted. Everybody is telling you that he’s dead. But you don’t think so. You think he’s some place other, and he’s not safe.
The lights begin to flicker crazily. Something is coming. The outline of a monster without a face is peeling itself out of your wallpaper, reaching for you, trying to get in.
Your first impulse is to run, and you do. You make it as far as your car—you even turn the key in the ignition—but you stop. You have to go back, because even though you’re afraid and outmatched by something crazy-dangerous, you have to go through it to get to the person you love and have lost.
No, this isn’t a scene from your nightmares, but from the Netflix mini-series Stranger Things, and it shows the two most important reasons I injected elements of the fantastic into my novel Useless Bay—both to heighten the fear, and heighten the love that goes with it.
I love getting the creeps. Especially at this time of year, and especially living in the Northwest when the rains come and you finally throw a log on the fireplace and start thinking of things you can do with pumpkin and cinnamon.
Books, movies, binge watching a TV series, I don’t care. As long as there’s something unknown skulking along a dark hallway, and a heroine on edge, oblivious and shut in with it, count me in.
But for me it has to be a good scare, and so many aren’t. It’s not that I don’t love me a zombie apocalypse, or a killer unicorn, for that matter, but sometimes the images get so stale that even the goriest leave us bored.
So what does count as a “good” scare?
Welcome to the borderlands, place in fiction that sits a little to the left of reality. We’re not quite full-blown fantasy writers, but we’re not strict realists, either. We sit somewhere in between. Some call what we do “magic realism.” Some call it “supernatural thrillers.” The labels don’t mean much to me.
What we all agree on, though, is the “realism” part of the magic realism.
If you want to dabble in the fiction of the borderlands (and I encourage you to give it a try—it can be big fun, especially when you’re swilling down a pumpkin spice latte) you first have to ground it in reality.
The real Useless Bay is wonderful place to use as a backdrop for a borderlands story because it abuts the unknown. At every low tide something freshly dead and interesting washes up on the beach. You can poke with the stick. “Ew. But cool! But ew!” You can’t help wondering: What else is lurking in the water out there?
Just offshore, according to every nautical map, lies husk marked, “wreck.” I suppose I could take a diving course and find out for sure what that wreck really looks like, but I’d rather use my imagination, and my imagination tells me that that’s where the troll bides his time, accumulating barnacles and waiting for his prey.
Your fantastic story doesn’t have to take place on a beach. Stranger Things takes place in a cul-de-sac in middle America. But the cul-de-sac backs onto a forest. And in that forest is a secret government facility. And in that facility is a little girl…
All it takes is your imagination to transform your back yard into something menacing. That neighbor guy in the slippers? The one who’s always telling kids to, “Get off my lawn?” What’s he hiding? Describe him. Describe him lawn. Imagine what his basement might look like.
Think about it. Without realizing it, you’re probably already creeping to the other side of the border between the realistic and the magical.
Then there’s the second part of the grounding of the real in magic realism story, the kind I hope I’ve used in Useless Bay, which is the love.
Remember the image from Stranger Things I used at the beginning? The monster without a face peeling itself out of the wallpaper, the mother running at first, then going back to face it because she loves her son Will that much? Think how easy it would be for her to just get in the car and peel out and never come back. No one would blame her. That thing is scary.
But she doesn’t leave.
What a wonderfully fierce love. And that kind of love all over Stranger Things. The son’s friends — Mike, Lucas, and Justin — would also do anything to get Will back. And when everyone in the community bands together, that’s when things start to happen.
Can you have a magic realism story without that kind of love? Of course. You’d still have all the components. The suspense, the monster, the very real setting. There was this thing that creeped me out but we all got away from it without consequences the end.
Yes, it’s fine. You’re welcome to write a story like that. But I think the good ones have an extra layer, and that can be harder to pull off, but it’s that element that makes your magic realism story more rewarding.
It seems easy for me to say, “Just add love,” but it’s not the kind of thing you can plunk down or cast in a roll of the dice, the way the kids in Stranger Things cast “Fireball” in Dungeons and Dragons.
It can take a lot of soaks in the tub on your part, or walks along the lake or through your neighborhood. Because the kind of love that I’m talking about is connected closely with loss.
Because just as Stranger Things starts out with the loss of Will Byers, Useless Bay starts out with the loss of Grant Shepherd.
Think about your own life. Is there someone or something that you’ve loved and lost? It doesn’t have to be a brother or sister, it could be a grandparent, a family pet. An uncle or cousin or best friend who moved away. A friend you’ve gone to summer camp for years, who decided one year that “poof!” Nothing against you, he just doesn’t like horses anymore.
Conjure up that feeling of, “I’m never going to see them again,” and what you’d do if there were a chance that you might.
Maybe they’re not gone forever — maybe they’re just in the borderlands, and now it’s up to you to bring them back. It won’t be easy. You’ll be forever changed if you try.
What would you do?
If you say “anything,” if you say, “yes, I’m ready,” good for you! Pick up your pen.
You’ve just crossed a border.
It’s time to let the adventure unfold.