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by Gary Thomas

Horror writers use many techniques to heighten the terror in their work. One of my favorites is the bottleneck. As with traffic jams, the bottleneck is that point at which the road narrows, trapping motorists for hours. The same applies to the horror story. A bottleneck is any enclosed area in which potential victims are trapped while the monsters-- be they supernatural horrors or crazed human killers-- prowl around outside. It is one of the oldest formulas but the bottleneck can prove useful to this day.

The device dates back to the first horror novels, the Gothics of the 18th Century. Horace Walpole created a craze with his Castle of Otranto. The basic plot of the Gothic was a beautiful young woman is trapped in a creepy castle with a horny old baron who wants to make her his wife.  For different reasons she can’t flee but has to wait for the young peasant boy (who is the real heir to the castle) to rescue her. As silly as most Gothics read today, they did capitalize on feelings of entrapment, using castles, forests, caves, subterranean tunnels and dungeons as bottlenecks.

But why bother with the limiting the space your story takes place in today? Why not have your horrors run anywhere they like? While this is certainly possible, the modern horror writer can find the smaller space of the bottleneck useful. For one it allows you to focus on a smaller group of characters. Descriptions of large groups of people being killed can be horrible-- such as the Martians in The War of the Worlds feeding off the living blood of captured humans, injecting it directly into their bodies --  it is not often horrifying. For that the reader needs to get to know the characters so that their terror, their deaths, can be felt on a personal level, like in Michael Shea’s “The Autopsy” in which the main characters are a single infected person and the alien cancer affecting him. A good example of the opposite is the sub-genre of the adventure story known as “the disaster story” in which tidal waves, meteors or global warming destroy whole cities. While fun to witness from afar, it is only when the writer focuses on smaller groups within that event that the story can be more than news reporting.

Another benefit of the bottleneck is that it limits the playing field, as in a mystery story. To play by the rules of the mystery, the reader should know all potential suspects and not be ignorant of any clues. The horror story works in a similar way. If the tale takes place at an ice-locked Antarctic base, like John W. Campbell’s classic “Who Goes There?” we don’t have to worry about the victims running from locale to locale, each requiring another description, and tiring the reader’s patience. The same is true of characters. New characters showing up endlessly through the plot only delays the whole point of the story, which is: scare me! We want to realize the stage, then see the actors, and finally follow the story unfold. To have to stop and begin over and over is disruptive and should be done only for very special reasons.

Some bottlenecks allow the characters a chance to hope. If the characters can succeed in stopping the antagonist, be it a person or a virulent plague, then the terrible fate of the world may be forestalled. This has been a major theme in the Alien films. All four films use a bottleneck strategy: a mining-ship, a remote planet, a prison moon and finally a scientific space station. If the characters survive, they might, just might, contain the contagion of the alien life forms. Of course, the writer has the option of the characters succeeding or failing.

Bottlenecks are often tailored to the monster’s advantage. In Jaws the attacker is a shark while the humans are trapped on a sinking boat. In “The Wendigo” by Algernon Blackwood and “Leiningan Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson vast areas of wilderness become bottlenecks through their immensity. Haunted houses afford the baddies secret passages, tunnels and trapdoors. Perhaps the ultimate bottleneck is the clockwork house in the remake of Thirteen Ghosts. Such gimmicks can be too contrived, for mad scientists can’t go around building abattoir in every neighborhood. But the writer who builds the reasoning slowly may succeed in convincing the reader of any fantastic idea. Sometimes simple is best as in Stephen King’s Cujo, where a woman and her baby are trapped in a car by a rabid dog.

The writer is free to put the bottleneck to any purpose they choose, though it is the struggle within the plot that will attract the reader’s lasting attention. Hitchcock stuck several people together in Lifeboat. The sea story is not remarkable but the study of those characters under stress is engaging. Another cinematic bottleneck classic is the original Night of the Living Dead in which a handful of people are trapped in an old farmhouse. While the zombies surround the house, those barricaded inside go through a crucible of sorts, each reacting according to his or her nature. The brave are brave, while the weak are confronted with their weakness. Ultimately everyone gets eaten whether weak or strong. The story is not so much about zombies eating people as it is about the quality of the characters. It would be more difficult to put the characters through this unveiling purpose outside a bottleneck.

One author who specialized in bottleneck stories was William Hope Hodgson. In “A Tropical Horror”, “From a Tideless Sea”, “The Finding of the Graiken”, “The Derelict”, “A Voice in the Night”, The Boats of Glen Carig, The Ghost Pirates, he has travelers trapped inside ships or on islands in the tangled weeds of the Sargasso Sea. The attackers might be squiggly terrors, man-eating mold, pirate ghosts or giant crabs or squids. He does a similar trick in The House on the Borderland in which a man and his sister trapped inside a house surrounded by pig monsters, and again on the largest scale in The Night Land, in which all of humanity dwells in a huge redoubt, surrounded by an entire world of ab-human horrors. Hodgson’s best tales are always bottleneck stories.

Several authors have succeeded in making the entire universe appear like a bottleneck. The novels of Cornell Woolrich, which set the pattern for film noir, often trap a protagonist in a web of lies that slowly constrict like a noose. The entire world appears to be in opposition, forcing the protagonist to some dark fate. Richard Matheson’s lone remaining human in I, Legend, lives in a world inhabited by vampires. His home is an actual bottleneck but his life in a larger context is one as well. Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier and many of the works of Philip K. Dick have questioned the truth of reality, a kind of existential bottleneck. From these mental prisons there can be little rescue.

 Ultimately it is up to the writer to make this old-fashioned tool work in new and less obvious ways. In my weird Western, “Heller” (The Midnight Posse, 2004) I have an undead gunslinger following his killer, a deputy sheriff named Brett Hope. The Heller moves slowly so he can be easily avoided, but when Hope is unlawfully arrested and put in jail he can only wait for the evil shambler to come to the one-horse town, seeking his revenge. The town becomes a bottleneck in which the hero must not only defeat the undead but a sadistic sheriff and his cronies. The device may not be obvious in the tale, but its effects are there, placing the hero in a tough spot that is hopefully fun to watch him escape from.

 Gary Thomas has been writing horror for over 15 years now. He has released a collection of Cthulhu Mythos short stories with Double Dragon Books called THE BOOK OF THE BLACK SUN. He also has a book with them called HORROR WRITER/HORROR ARTIST. Currently Gary writes non-fiction about horror for BLACK OCTOBER MAGAZINE. He is the owner of a very popular site called THE GHOSTBREAKERS that supports that. Gary's will be releasing a collection of Christmas ghost stories GHOULTIDE GREETINGS. You can visit Gary's site here: http://cyberpulpreaders.tripod.com

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