Friday, October 25, 2013

Mini-Reviews Round 20: EqD Nightmare Night Contest Edition!

Earlier this week, Equestria Daily posted the five finalists for their Nightmare Night 2013: Spooky Harder event.  I have now read each of them and voted for my favorite, and you should, too!

...Unless you don't have time to wade through 35,000 words this week, or you just aren't interested in reading five Halloween non-holiday-specific spooky-themed fics, or you've stumbled onto this post some distant day in the future, and the vote's been over for weeks, months, or even years.  In any of those cases, allow me to offer my patented brand of mini-reviewership, below the break.

A note before we begin, though: I've done my best not to spoil the endings; suffice to say, there are both uppers and downers in this bunch.  Collectively, I'm referring to the ultimate moment where the fic establishes that it will have a "good" or "bad" ending as "the reveal" for purposes of this post, terminological accuracy be damned..

(stories listed in the order they appear on EqD)

1)  Reading Room #36, by Flashgen

What it is:  Twilight enters a study chamber at the Canterlot Library.  When she tries to leave, she discovers that something doesn't want her to go.

A few thoughts:  The writing quality was a real letdown here, on multiple fronts.  From redundant lists to awkward phrasing to poor dialogue (Twilight sounds distressingly like a generic horror movie victim), there's a lot here that could be cleaned up.  Also, several non-pony-isms, such as where Twilight "thumbed" through her notes, are present.  The contest entries were on a deadline, so it's entirely possible that some or all of these problems would have been addressed had the author had a bit more time, but hey; that's a problem for the author to deal with, not the reader.

As for the plot itself: the "trapped in a room" concept is a classic, for good reason: it plays on claustrophobia, isolation, helplessness, and several other common fears, making it an easy way to put a bit of horror into one's story.  The source of that entrapment is something of a disappointment, though, in that its actions and dialogue are fairly generic (there's that word again), lacking any apparent motivation or communicative elements to elevate it above "cliche malignant super-entity."

Recommendation:  This isn't a terribly frightening story, and the writing does distract somewhat from any buildup of tension, but readers looking for a passable take on a horror standby will probably find this to be unremarkable but serviceable in that regard.

2)  The Lantern, by Cold in Gardez

What it is:  Daring Do and a rival archaeologist must escape from an ancient mausoleum after a trap deposits them deep below the earth, along with the titular artifact which they were both seeking.

A few thoughts:  The author does a great job of utilizing the lantern in a way which is ambiguous in such a way which it inspires dread and mystery, rather than reader annoyance--no small feat, that.  This story also is genuinely touching in places, and has some excellent use of dialogue as a tension breaker at appropriate points in the early going, making sure that the story doesn't crest too quickly.

The epilogue is a minor letdown, however.  While it's not exactly unenjoyable, it does feature a reveal that feels unnecessarily blunt and "this is the moral!" compared to the rest of the fic.  I did also find that the (very occasional) swearing in this fic was poorly placed, in that it suggested heightened tension precisely in places of respite.  Despite that, though, I did feel thoroughly engaged by the characters, and their plight, throughout.

Recommendation:  There's not a lot of horror here, but there's plenty of supernatural tension, and these elements are very well realized.  Readers looking for something to slightly elevate their blood pressure (as opposed to spiking their heart rate) will want to give this a look.

3)  The Face Takers, by shortskirtsandexplosions

What it is:  Applejack tells the CMC a scary story before bed.  Things turn terrifying for Apple Bloom soon thereafter.

A few thoughts:  I must admit, before commenting any further, that the setup above is one that annoys the heck out of me.  I mean, horror stories generally need some sort of setup, and that setup is often a legend or story told in-character, but it bugs me when the story is told for no obvious reason, and then the subsequent revelations appear to be a product of coincidental timing.  It always feels contrived to me.

But that's a common element in lots of horror stories, not just SS&E's present offering.  In any case, this is by far the most gruesome story in the set, and if you're looking for something nauseating, this is it.  Unfortunately, that seems to be the big draw here--I wouldn't go so far as to call this story "torture porn," but once you get past the dubious appeal of body horror which is the hallmark of this fic, you're left with a long, oddly soliloquy-ish story by Applejack, the extended body horror (I really need to find a good synonym for that phrase) bit, and a short and (to me) unsatisfying reveal.

Recommendation:  For those who enjoy more visceral takes on scary stories, this has the (maybe metaphorical) blood and guts you crave.  I'd say that that's a rather specific taste, though, and readers not interested in body horror will probably be less taken in with this one.  And of course, those put off by SS&E's loquacious style will find that it's on full display here, in all it's metaphor-laden glory.

4)  More Than You Know, by Obselesence

What it is:  Princess Celestia takes a young Twilight Sparkle for a walk in the castle's garden.

A few thoughts:  This story uses third-person, present-tense narration--an unusual choice, but one well-chosen here, as it lends the story a slightly surreal, present-yet-distant quality which works well with the story being told.  As for that story, it's absolutely terrifying, yet easy to see working within the confines of Equestria.  And crucially, it's more frightening the more one thinks about it; this ultimately reads like an extended morality play, but the frightening rationality behind it is remarkably effective.

Recommendation:  Although the reveal is unlikely to surprise, this has some excellent psychological horror elements, and does a great job putting a sinister take on the nature of Equestria which still seems to plausibly fit within the setting.  So... I recommend it to people who like those things.

5)  Red, if at all Possible, by ChaoticHarmony

What it is:  Octavia is a vampire: a creature of the night, a cold-blooded murderer... and a target.

A few thoughts:  As with Reading Room #36, I found the writing quality here to be an impediment to enjoyment--though not to the same degree, it must be said.  The most common issue is missing commas (regrettably regular in their occurrence), but there's also a lot of redundancy here, both in wording and in story detail.

As someone who's always been most partial to the "demonic possessive forces" school of vampire-lore, I was pleased to see that the author didn't fill Octavia with angst and instead elected for a more traditional interpretation of one of horror's most-reinvented creatures.  Indeed, Octavia's characterization was a high point of the story.  Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the other major characters, who are unconvincing (for the canon one) and poorly realized (for the OC).  The story also makes some odd (and frankly, unnecessary) choices with its timeskips, which breaks up the tension and makes the ending feel more abrupt than it need have been.  And as for that ending... the story ends on a definite note, but doesn't seem to carry much of a moral.  I personally didn't find that problematic, but it's definitely atypical for a story in this genre to be neither open-ended nor to carry a clear message (or often, both).

Recommendation:  About the only thing really worth recommending here is Octavia's characterization as a Stoker-esque vampire--and to be fair, ChaoticHarmony does do a great job with that.  Still, readers looking for more will probably be left unimpressed.


  1. I was gonna marathon all of these on my day off Tuesday, but only made it through #'s 2 & 4 before succumbing to the flu. I haven't found time to read anymore since, but I'll try to squeeze in Face Takers before I doze off tonight if at all possible (trying to get over dehydration at the moment, which is making staying up harder than usual). Got another day off Saturday, so hopefully I can finish the rest then

    More Than You Know was incredible! I'm sure it's gonna be my #1 pick, considering I added it to my 5-star list. It felt pretty good to see EqD spotlight it shortly after, as though I had "picked correctly". The Lantern was also very good. Based on your reviews here, I imagine it'll be my #2, though I'm hoping the others surprise me. I have a good feeling about #3

    1. Just finished #5 and it was much better than I'd expected based on your review. I was bothered more by the typos than missing commas, and those weren't any worse than what I've seen in stories you've rated four or even five stars. I'd love to read a more developed and cleaned up version of this fic

  2. I'll always remember Flashgen for A FLEet|ng LIght |n thE DArknEsS. I haven't read Reading Room #36, but FLEet|ng LIght is probably my favourite horror story on Fimfiction. It was vague as all hell (I'd dare even say it felt incomplete, and the author did indeed change the story's tag to incomplete recently), but the atmosphere it built was brilliantly done, and it does some clever things with its formatting too.

    It might not scare everybody, but I'd be remiss to not recommend it for anyone looking for a good horror story this Halloween.

    1. I'm glad to hear you (and anyone really) enjoyed it so much, and yes I'm still at work on a follow-up to it. It's unlikely to be ready by Halloween unfortunately.

      As for Reading Room #36, Chris is correct in the assumption that the deadline impacted it (my usual idea to publish rate is a year for 5k words... I'm slow.) I had a few other endings in mind, that I couldn't consider given a late start, and I have a horrible history of being completely unable to vary my sentence structure. I did enjoy writing it, however, and was more than a little shocked to see it make the top 5 of 40 entries.

  3. I had almost the exact same thing to say about that last one. Good characterization wasted with poor execution. Of course, I have yet to actually "say" these things as my reviews aren't going up till the 30th. :B

  4. I pretty much agree on all counts. Sounds like More Than You Know was your favorite, which was a very close #2 for me. I agree that the coda Cold in Gardez added to The Lantern was wholly unnecessary, but it looks like CiG got a few comments criticizing the open ending. Eh. Some people can't handle ambiguousness, I suppose. Except I didn't think it was even all that ambiguous. Oh well.

    It's funny, usually skirts' metaphor-laden writing doesn't put me off that much, but in the case of The Face Takers it just seemed absurd. The metaphors didn't even seem to make sense half the time. Maybe this is true of his other writing and it's just been too long since I've read something of his.

  5. Striking 1 and 5 out based on your review. 3 is discounted by default.

    Will report on 2 and 4 when I've finished my editing.

  6. The Lantern:

    I have absolutely no issue whatsoever with the ambiguity. If anything, I'd rate it as the story's strongest feature. However, only two parts of the story piqued my interest: the relationship between the lamp and the spirits, and the relationship between Daring and Fossil. The rest felt fairly tacked-on and the descriptions were trying way too hard to force a tone that clearly didn't have enough set-up--as if trying to force the story to be horror in order to fit into the competition.

    I mean, it's good writing considering how quickly he wrote it, but I can't let that sway my opinion of a story that ultimately came up empty. The whole thing was too much of a monorail ride to build any sense of tension.

    Hocksford, however, is best pun.

  7. More Than You Know:

    Saw this coming as soon as I read your comments.

    " . . . but the frightening rationality behind it is remarkably effective." --Chris

    Rationalisation, perhaps, but not rationality. No. I pride myself--rightly or wrongly--on my philosophical skills, and the logic presented here is definitely irrational. I see a world scarier than this outside my door every hour of every day, so I can't really find this kind of stuff chilling. I can, however, appreciate the exquisite work that clearly went into building this story, even if I thought the end was far too obvious. Really intelligent rendition of tyrant Celestia, although the 'sun related powers' stuff is always a bit of a turn off for me.

    This is one of those times when I can easily see why a story is good, even if it's not for me. That said, I can't get my head around the rather dry, present-tense prose.

  8. Add one more "yeah, basically what you said" to the pile. I'll admit, I didn't really find any of the stories particularly "creepy", per se, so I focused my judgement on which of the entries were simply high-quality stories. From that, only "More Than You Know" and "The Lantern" stood out, and although I didn't even realize there was an epilogue to the latter until after I'd voted, I gave top billing to CiG's entry. In retrospect, I don't think the epilogue really /hurt/ the story, since it's precisely what an epilogue should be: a small bit of extra content that isn't necessary to the reader's comprehension of the plot, but provides additional closure to anyone who might be looking for it. "More Than You Know" is a great speculative story in itself, but the ending felt like an inevitability fairly early on in the piece. "The Lantern" didn't end in a shocking or surprising way either, but it was achieved with a good deal more subtlety and implicit character development, which to me was enough to give it the edge.