What’s behind a story?

I wrote a rather odd little number for Colin Barnes City of Hell Chronicles, Volume one. I thought it might be interesting to use this particular story to share a little of the varied lightning bolts that pulse life into the dead meat of a story, as it’s something I see asked often (though of far better and better known writers than myself). Ideas are strange animals, you see, and how they come together can be even stranger.

When we were given our brief, a pdf outlining the world, the creatures, a little bit of the story, I have to admit my mind was a total blank and I was more than a little perturbed. Insects are really not my thing. Unless I’m watching ‘Them!’ or my very favourite bug movie of all time, the incomparable ‘Phase IV’ directed by Saul Bass I’m not really inspired by them at all. I have never had the urge to write a story about them. Not once.

So, if I’m honest, I didn’t really have a massive interest in writing about giant bugs breeding with humans and/or variously consuming us. Not only that but, contrary to popular opinion and despite my forays into gore and guts, I’m not actually a horror writer. Not by a long shot. Have no desire to be one either. I’ll leave that to writers who love to scare themselves shitless. In other words, I was struggling for an idea like an ant in a sun-warmed splodge of discarded chewing gum. Hopelessly.

After long and disastrous attempts at finding a bug story I felt like writing, breaking some neurons and seriously traumatising a whole heap more in the process, I realised that to produce a story for Colin’s anthology I’d have to come around at this bugger (or bug) from another angle. A tangential one. I was going to have to lasso my frontal lobe and fling it outside the box of insects it was currently trapped within, screaming and spraying vast amounts of Raid.

As luck would have it, at the time I was experiencing this eureka-like surge of self-realisation, I was also surfing twitter, that endless menagerie of thought juice squirted by a teeming horde of hive minds all across the interwebs, full to the brim of fascinating and inspirational titbits. And one of those titbits just happened to thrust itself upon my newly unleashed frontal lobe. A youtube video. This very video in fact:

In this video by the amusingly named RJD2 (which is why the video caught my attention in the first place (I am a geek and that is what we do)), there are some very interesting, and quite scary looking men in masks and trench coats and, at one point, what seems to be a couple of disembodied doors. These images stuck in my mind and gradually, over a period of time and delicate prodding, morphed into the Stock Takers and their Door from Below.

My Stock Takers, I decided, would be a sort of lab-created man/insect hybrid, fast, deadly and without morals or conscience. Monsters such as this would have to be created in a lab from hell… which kinda means you need a lab from hell, of course. Hmmm, what manner of lab would this be (I pondered)? Frankenstein-esque? Dr Jekyll-like? No. Not nearly nasty enough. So I again put my frontal lobe to work.

I’d pretty much decided straight away that of the three cities Colin left us to play with, Hong Kong was to be my playground, now resolutely Chinese once more. It being Chinese, and my being disappointed that I couldn’t use Tokyo as my setting, it did not take long for my mind to throw out ‘Philosophy of a Knife’, the docu-rama detailing the horrors of Unit 731. Run by the Japanese Imperial Army on what was Chinese land, the inhuman biological, chemical and medical human experimentation carried out there could turn the most staunch stomach. Moreover, it was a lab and, what do you know, a lab was precisely what I needed. So into research I dove.

I personally have never been so disturbed in my life than when researching that particular hovel of horrors but, to my own horror, it fit my needs to perfection. Manchuria is miles from Hong Kong to be sure, but if the ants wanted to send a weapon of choice into China, then setting up a new, underground Unit 731 to produce that very weapon from vile and deeply unethical experimentation would not be outside the realms of possibility in a world such as Colin created for the backdrop to the City of Hell Chronicles. Nothing like inspiration, is there?

After that, it was relatively easy. Having wanted to set my story in Tokyo (and sulked about it quite a lot as it happens – which isn’t pretty but whilst we’re being honest etc etc…) and therefore determined to bring some of that flavour into my story, my protagonists had to be a Japcore band (which I adore), and they had to be nucking futs. Their being Japanese meant that, for my inspiration for the feel of my story, I could leap into insane movies like Tetsuo, and some crazy classics like Wild Zero and Burst City. YAY! I basically let my mind go wild, use the driving chaos of Japcore and Asia Extreme to build my Frankenstein’s Stock Taker in a mental version of Unit 731.

And there you have it. The story behind the story. The lightning bolts behind the life of the words. Being inspired by all things Japanese, by the bright lights, neon and chaos of Hong Kong, by weird electro-hip-hop and the nightmarish realities of the very apex of humanity’s inhumanity to man as dealt to helpless individuals experimented upon in Unit 731, my story is a weird little animal to be sure. A jolting, discordant muddle of word images, staccato and frenetic, an unrelenting little juggernaut of oddness wrapped up in gore and I hope you were as unnerved by the reading of it as I was by the writing of it. I don’t think I have ever quite recovered and, no, I still don’t want to be a horror writer.

In fact, having done it, I’m not very eager to go back. I’ll stick to my happy little world of Speculative Fiction, ta. After all… I can go even crazier with my word Frankensteins in that arena, and I don’t have to scare myself stupid to do it.


7 thoughts on “What’s behind a story?

  1. I loved this peek into how your mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know mind works. I adore The Door from Below with all my heart. It’s truly fabulous. You’re one of the most brilliant writers I know. I mean it. You inspire me. 🙂

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