In part 1 of this interview, horror novelist Jonathan Maberry discusses how his training in the martial arts informs his writing. Below he focuses more specifically on writing fight scenes in horror fiction using his Pine Deep Trilogy as a case study.
Can you discuss all this about fights and fight scenes in terms of writing horror stories?
Jonathan Maberry: Horror stories, no matter how fantastical, are distortions of the real world. A vampire hunter squaring off against a hungry bloodsucker is not all that dissimilar to a small woman trying to defeat an enraged and muscular male rapist. The differences in size, the presence of violent intentions, the certainty of a committed aggression by a more powerful enemy define the situation. We have to start with what we know of the combatants and then build the most logical possible scene around that.
What do we know about the vampire? If we take the standard pop culture view, then the vampire is immortal, it is considerably stronger than a human being, it’s faster than a human, it can withstand virtually any ordinary injury, it doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t bleed in any useful way, and it’s very hard to kill. Its weaknesses are few, but they are there: the vampire fears holy objects, can’t abide sunlight, is repulsed by garlic, and will die if beheaded, set ablaze or pierced through the heart with wood.
In good horror stories the vampire hunter comes prepared to this encounter as often as possible. Hammer, stake, garlic, cross. Maybe a torch and an axe. The tension of the scene will generally be built around a series of attempts to do things the right way and then the introduction of complications that spoil the easy fix, and finally a desperate struggle against seemingly impossible odds. All good in theory, but also potentially very trite.
Yes, a really smart vampire hunter would show up an hour after dawn with a bulldozer and knock down the castle walls; or indulge in some creative arson; or if they want to do it in a more hands-on fashion they’d eat a pound of garlic, smear garlic oil all over themselves, sew crosses onto every square inch of their clothing, and show up with sixty or seventy very close friends all of whom have axes, stakes and torches. But that would make for a very short vampire tale. So, to build a scene in which tension and suspense are allowed to develop, the vampire hunter encounters a series of unfortunate incidents that prevent him from getting to the vampire’s lair until sunset. Damn it. Now it’s a race against time (and that’s always a good thing). Maybe the vampire has captured a loved one who will die if not rescued right away. More tension. When the vampire hunter opens the coffin…the vampire isn’t there.
Crap. Turns out the vampire doesn’t sleep in a coffin and uses the traditional folklore as a dodge to fool would be vampire hunters. Now the vampire hunter is face to face with a monster that is, as we’ve established, stronger and faster and damn hard to kill. As dire as the situation has become it’s not game over. This is when we get to the good stuff. This is when we have to solve problems by looking at the combatants and then build a scene in which the hero wins because he does something possible. It can be weird, daring, even unlikely, but it has to be possible…and it can never be a cheat. No deus ex machina in the form of a pointy piece of furniture onto which the vampire trips and falls.
Will you talk about this in terms of your own novels?
Jonathan Maberry: When writing my Pine Deep Trilogy –Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song and Bad Moon Rising (Pinnacle Books, 2006, ’07 and ’08) I wanted to create a story in which real people without superpowers encountered vampires. I knew from the beginning that I wanted the fight scenes to reflect my own views and experiences as a long time practitioner of jujutsu and teacher of self-defense. And I wanted the encounters with the vampires to be frightening and exciting.
In the first novel, Ghost Road Blues, the first major fight scene is between two humans. One is an ex-cop named Malcolm Crow, who is short, thin and unimposing; but he has a number of years invested in the martial arts. The other character is Karl Ruger, a psychotic killer known for his ruthlessness and violence. If this was the kind of thing people could bet on, the hot money would be on Ruger because he’s bigger, stronger, and batshit crazy. On the other hand, Ruger also believes that his winning is a foregone conclusion.
When Crow first encounters Ruger, the killer is strangling Crow’s girlfriend Val, on the lawn outside of her farmhouse. It’s dark and a storm is tearing apart the heavens. Ruger uses Val as a shield to get close enough to sucker Crow, but Crow slips the sucker punch. The ensuing fight includes some of the nastiest stuff two people can do to one another. Crow wins the fight, but just barely.
The tension in the scene begins when Crow realizes that he’s up against a legendary psychopath. The immediate threat to Val dials up his personal stake; otherwise he might have retreated to safe distance and called for help. She has to be saved right now. The slow burn to the sucker-punch builds into the potential for Crow, or his girlfriend, or both of them, to be killed. It’s an ensemble cast, which means no one is entirely safe.
The tension is tweaked when the sucker-punch fails and Crow turns the table on Ruger. Then it’s turned back around when Ruger proves to be far tougher than anyone Crow has ever fought. On the other hand Ruger’s overconfidence creates a fragment of opportunity for Crow, and he rides that to a victory.
At the end of the scene both men are battered nearly insensate. The blows given and received have damaged them. They can’t just shake it off. They’re exhausted, hurt, stressed, and worn down.
Then, after Ruger is down, Crow makes the mistake of leaving him to go and check on Val. Ruger is able to recover the gun Crow dropped during the sucker-punch just as cops arrive on the scene. Ruger opens fire and shoots the cop; Crow manages to get the cop’s gun and returns fire. They both fall in a hail of bullets.
The scene’s foundation is the suspense of when these two players will finally encounter each other, and if Crow will get to Val’s farm in time to save her. It’s twisted by the tactics during the fight, and made real by the accuracy of the techniques used by each man. No one does anything absurd –no double spinning Ninja death kicks. No punching a guy ten times in the face without breaking a hand.
Near the end of the book Crow encounters Ruger again. The killer is different now … he’s becoming something supernatural. Crow doesn’t even know he’s in a supernatural story, and the shock he experiences at Ruger’s unnatural speed and strength nearly results in his death. This new version of Ruger is far too strong for him to defeat in unarmed combat. And he doesn’t. Luckily Val comes to the rescue with a handgun from another cop Ruger has brutalized; and Crow grabs the cop’s throwdown piece, and together they pour a lot of lead into Ruger, who goes down.
Even then Crow isn’t sure that the killer is dead.
He’s right to be concerned.
By the second book, Dead Man’s Song, Crow has become convinced that something supernatural is happening, and though he doesn’t encounter Ruger in that book, we see the killer moving behind the scenes, helping to create an army of vampires. Bad times are coming, and the whole story is built on the expectation of what might be coming.
In the final book, Bad Moon Rising, Crow confronts Ruger twice. The first time Ruger tries to lay a trap for Crow, but by now Crow is hip to the fact that the killer is a vampire. Crow escapes that threat by bringing something else to the party: smarts. Since he knows he can’t possibly defeat a vampire mano-a-mano, he slathers himself with garlic and injects garlic oil into the shells in his shotgun. When Ruger sees the effect of the garlic on one of his vampire henchmen, he flees.
In this case the threat the hero faces has increased –as all threats in horror fiction should—and Crow goes to the next level. He uses brains when brawn alone just won’t work. We all know that –at some point—Crow and Ruger are going to have a final smackdown, but with each of them raising the stakes we no longer know exactly what that will look like. The uncertainty amplifies tension and satisfies the need of the reader to be surprised as well as entertained.
In the final battle, Crow and a dwindling handful of his friends, try to stop the army of vampires from resurrecting a far more powerful creature that will, for all intents and purposes, become a vampire god. Crow believes that he’s going to die in this battle. He’s already seen several of his friends fall –including characters who have been key players from the beginning. This, by the way, is a great way of keeping the readers on the edge of their seat: if we create believable characters and present them in situations through which the reader becomes emotionally invested…and then kill them off, we’re serving up tension all the way to the end of the book. In good fiction no one is safe.
When Crow faces Ruger for the last time, Crow has his weapons: a bug-sprayer unit filled with gasoline and a lighter, guns with garlic enhanced bullets, and a samurai sword whose blade is coated with garlic. Through one mischance after another Crow’s weapons are taken away from him. Now that we’ve established that brains can defeat supernatural strength, we need to take that advantage away from the hero. It ultimately comes down to a fight more closely resembling their first encounter. Crow wins because, even now Ruger is confident that his own victory is a foregone conclusion; and because Crow is resourceful and practical.
Real quick – good horror requires…?
Jonathan Maberry: Good horror requires that action be grounded in possibility. It demands that conflict and complications lay the groundwork for tension. And it absolutely needs suspense to be the driving force rather than shock. Readers are smart, experienced, and devoted…and if they are willing to suspend their disbelief long enough for us to tell our tale, then we owe it to them to make the glad they did.
What’s next, writing-wise?
Jonathan Maberry: Wanted Undead or Alive (co-authored by Janice Gable Bashman) was released by Citadel Press in August. That’s a nonfiction book about monster hunters in folklore, pop culture and the real world. I also write comics for Marvel, and issue #5 of DoomWar is out now. In August Marvel released Marvel Universe vs. The Punisher, a 4-issue post-apocalyptic limited series.
In October, Simon & Schuster will release Rot & Ruin, a zombie thriller aimed at the Young Adult market, and featuring two brothers, one of whom is a skilled kenjutsu expert and a zombie hunter.