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Stories With Spine

Photo (c) Richard Büttner:

Everyone who loves scary stories has favourite elements they can’t get enough of. Some want to drench themselves in blood and gore, others get their kick out of creepy, enclosed spaces. And if you are like me, it is skulls and bones that send a thrill of delight down your spine.

So when I was researching monsters for the next Kalbrandt Institute Archives book, naturally there would be skeletons involved.

Expanding The Horizon

While dead bodies are the classic stuff of horror, our beloved genre of fear and death tends to limit the role of skeletons to atmospheric purposes. An old battlefield littered with bones for effect, that sort of thing. At best, a few grinning skulls in a corner get to warn the Hero (m/f) that the current locale is a Dangerous Place™, but otherwise a dead body is only interesting when it’s fresh. Or still moving.

But bones have so much more potential than that. A dead bag of flesh must have died recently, whereas bones, under the right circumstances, can be millennia old. That time span alone opens a world of possibilities. But it also changes the questions that the audience wants to know the answer to.

When someone is just dead, the audience immediately wants to know ‘how’ and ‘why’. The murder mystery genre thrives on this. But when the corpse is much older than a few days or even a few months, its role and significance is harder to predict. Suddenly, bones can hold clues to a non-murder-related puzzle, trigger a crucial misunderstanding, or bring the story to a whole different level.

“A dead body keeps the story here and now. Dig up some old bones, and they could propel the reader back through time.”

So Many Bones to Pick

Another trick skeletons can do that fresh bodies can’t: bones scatter. Shifting soil, floods, mud slides, scavengers… The older a skeleton, the more likely it got separated long the way. Which begs its own set of questions, like where is the rest of the skeleton? Is that important? And if so, why?

Isolated bones have a certain horror in and of themselves. Instinctively we know they were once part of a living creature, which makes the discovery of a lonely bone all the more gruesome. The people of Flanders know: the fields where the Great War was fought is now farmland. To this day, farmers find human remains – bits and pieces, but never intact skeletons. All of these lonely, shattered bones once belonged to a young man. A soldier who died, was torn apart by explosions, and buried in the mud. If he was lucky, in that order.

Another question that bones trigger but a dead body will never: what is this even? Skulls are rather easy to recognise, but some animal bones look deceptively human, especially when the rest of the skeleton is missing. When the crew working at my father’s construction site found a man-made hole with some bones, we couldn’t tell for sure they weren’t human remains. (They weren’t. Pfew.)

Advanced Jigsaws

Human, animal, old, new, fossilised: bones come in countless varieties of fragmented shards, haphazard heaps, complete skeletons, mass graves, and neatly organised catacombs that hold the remains of hundreds of thousands of people. And that is just the natural versions. Cross over into the realms of paranormal horror, where the mythical monsters live, and the possibilities becomes endless.

In The Resurrectionist, E.B. Hudspeth did a brilliant job weaving a disturbing tale around anatomically-correct hybrid creatures, including drawings of their skeletons and musculature. It’s one of my favourite books, and I wish there were more like it.

So I took particular delight in piecing together a particular bony jigsaw for Eva. Because bones are more than just decoration to add eeriness to a story. They are versatile plot devices with stories of their own. Stories that they can carry themselves, and I believe they should be used in the capacity more often.

What do you think? Have you come across good stories where bones were pivotal to the plot? Tell us about them in the comments!

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