Echoed Cries by Jake Huebsch is a story from Periphery 50. You can find it under the Archives tab or under Story of the Week. The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.
We have all been there, watching a scary movie or reading a horror novel where we shout at the character, “Don’t go in there!” “Don’t open the door!” “Just run away!” More than many other genres, horror struggles to balance character with plot. Many times in order to produce a more frightening story, characters have to act in ways that put them in more danger. The plot demands that characters make certain decisions in order to produce more fear. It can be difficult for authors terrify if characters make rational decisions and call the police or simply run away when a monster or murderer comes for them. The hallmark of great horror stories, however, is when characters are able to make believable decisions and the horror to still come from those actions. How then, can authors balance character and plot in a horror story? Huebsch has some answers his story Echoed Cries.
The first thing that struck me about the story was how tightly bound character motivation and uncovering the Beauvont’s secret are within the narrative. Only the protagonist would have a good reason to be in the Beauvont mansion, and have reason to look critically at the portraits to discover the Beauvont secret. The background of the story does an incredible job of allowing the reader to understand why the protagonist goes to the mansion, stays there even after he realizes something is amiss, and looks critically at the portraits. If the protagonist was a thrill-seeking teen, the deep examination of the portraits, as well as remaining in the mansion, would come off as unsatisfying. The protagonist has a job to do within the mansion. He is staying in the mansion to restore the paintings, so it makes sense that he would be looking at them critically and then staying in the mansion despite his fear. The protagonist’s character is designed in such a way to explain why he stays when others wouldn’t. We aren’t shouting “Get out of the library!” because it makes sense for him to be there, and stay there. Character isn’t overtaken by plot.
There is something to be said about horror stories that isolate characters. We think of The Overlook Hotel from Steven King’s The Shining or the ship ‘Nostromo’ from Ridley Scott’s Alien, or any number of lakeside cabins or country manors a la The Turn of the Screw, Get Out, and so many others. Isolating characters in a terrifying place makes sense for horror, but it is important to note that all of those stories work incredibly hard to set up why characters go to those locales. King goes into great detail about why Jack Torrance wants to be the caretaker of the Overlook, and what spurns the family to live there. Early lines within Alien show the crew’s commercial interests and how heavily money and bonus’ weight on their minds. Character is emphasized in all of these examples before plot.
It becomes frustrating as a reader or viewer when authors have characters go to, or inhabit these frightening places when we would not. It draws readers out of the text because characters that don’t make rational decisions no longer function as characters. They become slaves to plot. Slaves to plot do not demand empathy or sympathy when terrible things happen to them, because they own irrational actions caused their downfall.
The 2017 It film, despite being a good movie, is filled with these poorly motivated actions. When I saw It in theatres, during the movie someone shouted, “Stop following the balloon!”. The frustrated viewer was of course talking about how the ‘Loser’s Club’ consistently puts themselves in avoidable situations where the rest of us wouldn’t. Of course terrible things happen to the kids when they wander into sewers, or abandoned houses.
2017’s It also has an incredibly novel look at character action in the opening scene with Georgie and his lost boat. The now famous scene of Georgie sticking his hand down the sewer is painful to watch. I squirm just thinking about it. No one should ever stick their arm down a sewer, and Georgie knows this. The scene is so terrifying because we watch Georgie get convinced to do something we would never do. It’s genius. Character is at the center of Georgie’s actions. He is a little kid able to be manipulated, and he is worried about his brother’s anger if he loses the boat. We are yelling at the screen for Georgie to make a better decision, not a rational one. That distinction is key.
I was really excited to find Echoed Cries within Periphery 50 because at this time of year, I always itch to watch scary movies and read horror novels. I was even more excited after I saw how well Huebsch set up the story. Horror as a genre balances and incredible amount. Character arcs, pacing, setting, and plot are all just as direly important in horror as they are elsewhere, but on top of all that, the author is trying to frighten the reader. Sometimes that balance can come undone, which means horror authors have to be vigilant to keep character agency at the heart of the story. It is no small feat, which is why Echoed Cries stands out to me.