Saturday, October 5, 2013

BOO! The shocking, surprising, scary power of language

At the end of last month’s post I sent out the challenge for my October invitational: “I want you to send me a story that shows the power of language to shock, surprise, and scare. Don’t be timid! Take chances!” Well, I got some shocking, surprising, and scary stories; but they didn’t all demonstrate the shocking, surprising, scary power of language.
Ah well. A good story is a good story, and I’m pleased to present them here. Also below you’ll find a few words by me about shocking language and a short but unsettling snippet of my forthcoming book, Hooperman.
And of course at the end of this post is my challenge for the November invitational post.
Onward with the guest writers and their scary stories!


by Phyllis Povell

Leaves all over the lawn like a patchwork quilt. “Don’t worry Ms. J. I’ll bag them for you.” Snow covering my car and driveway shoveled by Jason, too. Since I became a widow, he hasn’t let a holiday pass without remembering me; chocolate on Valentine’s Day, Easter bunnies wrapped in foil, flowers from his garden to celebrate spring.
“You are the sweetest most sensitive young man I know, Jason.”
“Thanks, but I love the cookies you bake.”
Are those police cars I hear next door? Peering outside, I ask, “What happened?”
“Jason’s been arrested for shooting up the school.”


by Jill Evans

“I’m a certified iMacholic,” Zoe said as she tapped on her iPad.
 Jan sipped her hot chocolate. “What does that mean?”
“iPad, iMac, iPhone, iPod.”
“Grapevine says you found a new guy and you’re dating.”
Zoe barely glanced up. “I dumped him.”
“I’m shocked and surprised. Why?”
“Let’s just say he wasn’t my type. Don’t get me wrong. He was smart, funny, and handsome. We were really attracted to each other.”
Jan put down her cup and tried to get Zoe’s attention. “So what’s the problem?”
Zoe stopped tapping and looked up. “He’s a Microsoft fan. End of story.”


by Christine Viscuso

“Oh, it’s you, Harry. Great Vampire costume. Just in time for Halloween.…
   …Why are you pushing me into the chair? Is your tooth bothering you again? Is that why you’re not talking?…
     …You’re smothering me with your cape. You’d think the costume rental store would clean it. It smells like a damp, dank cemetery.…
        …I’m getting chills from the feel of your lips against my neck.....Oh.… That’s the sexiest hickey you’ve ever given me in forty years of marriage. I feel completely drained.…
            …Look at me, Harry. I want to kiss you. Wait.…
                  “You’re not my Harry!”


by Pat Shevlin

Even as terror gripped her heart, his words still ringing in her head, Nora dismissed Eric’s morning greeting as frivolous, responding with a peck on the cheek as she handed him a cup of coffee.
Why did he have to go there?
Maintaining safe emotional distance in her relationships with men was fallout of love gone criminal. Being desirous enough to be in this position was something she had avoided successfully—until this morning.
The simple phrase “I love you” conjured up so much more than shared intimacy.
How long could she bar the door to her heart?


by Jerry Giammatteo

We worked with Gina for months. She was nice, but skittish.
She was terrified of mice. We’d crumple paper and roll it in front of her as she walked. She’d scream and we’d laugh.
I was the chief culprit. She started watching me to be sure I was always in sight.
We were working in a warehouse. I saw my chance. “I’m getting coffee,” I announced, but instead hid behind an aisle of boxes.
My boss, in on the scheme, asked her to help find something. She approached my aisle. I jumped out.
“YOU!” I yelled.
Gina screamed.


by Lynn DiGiacomo

It’s one a.m. The phone rings.
“This is the Piermont Police.” Pause. “Do you own a ‘78 Chevette?”
I am upright. Tense.
“It has been in an accident. The driver fled the scene. You need to come immediately.” CLICK. Silence.
Alert, mobilized, I dress and am out the door.
My teenage son has the car. He is hurt and left for help. Or has struck and killed a pedestrian and panicked. Or an accident, people strewn across the road, and they can’t identify him.
On the drive I see him running. Running?
He is okay, but what has he done?



Generally I feel shocking language is overused and exploited to death in our culture and in our society. One of the sad effects of this casual cussing is that the words, which are supposed to be strong (expressing anger, or fear, or threat, for example) are weakened from overuse. So I try to keep language under control in my fiction.
But there are times when honesty compels me to write words I wouldn’t say at a tea party. I don’t write about gangsters, so my characters don’t spout profanity like Joe Pesci in a Scorsese film. But sometimes tempers can reach the boiling point even among peace-loving, law-abiding folks, and let’s face it: people mouth off. Especially in situations involving crime, danger, and death. So there are occasional bombs in some of my dialogue. So far nobody, even in my prim family, has complained.
A special case has come up in my new book, Hooperman—A Bookstore Mystery. There’s a frightening character in the novel named Martin West. He’s the shipping and receiving clerk, and he works all day alone in the shipping room, behind closed doors, where he can’t scare or offend the customers. It’s not just that Martin’s huge, or that he scowls, or that he has a disturbing facial tic. Martin has a special problem, a neurological disorder that makes him insert a certain cussword over and over into everything he says. This disorder, which resembles Tourette Syndrome, makes poor Martin appear aggressive, malicious, and stupid. In fact (okay, this is a bit of a spoiler, but who cares) Martin West is gentle, moral, and highly intelligent. Also, he and his speech impediment are highly important to the mystery, but I won’t tell you why.
Here, I’ll let you meet Martin just as Hoop meets him for the first time. I remind you that Hooperman has a speech disorder of his own…

Hoop knocked.
No answer.
He opened the door and walked into the Shipping and Receiving department, where he saw rough pine shelves loaded with tidy bundles of assorted books and a long Masonite counter neatly arranged with piles of new titles. The far wall was occupied by a thrift-store desk and a dented green filing cabinet. The floor was arranged in rows and columns of unopened cartons, and empty cartons were nested and stacked to the ceiling against the far wall. The room was lit by a flickering fluorescent ceiling fixture and one open window, which allowed a spotlight of sunbeam to shine through a ballet of dust motes.
Then the hulk standing at the counter turned to face Hoop, a twitching snarl on his kisser. He nodded his head, then shook it. “What the horse**** do you want?” he asked. “Can’t you read, in the horse**** pig****? Staff only.”
Martin looked about fifty. He was a few inches taller than Hoop, he outweighed Hoop by at least fifty pounds, his head was shaved bald, his gray beard was a briar patch, he wore oily jeans and a gray tee shirt, and on his feet he wore dirt. “Horse**** pig**** cow****,” he added through the snarl. He nodded, then shook his head again. His face was a dance of twitching creases.
Hoop tended to get politer than he felt, whenever he was confronted with a cross between a grizzly bear and a time bomb. He held out his hand and smiled. “Hoop Juh,juh,dge…ohnson. I’m new on the stuh,tuh,sst…aff.”
Martin nodded and shook Hoop’s hand. His grip was huge but gentle. “What do you want?”

Now, for next month’s invitational post, here’s your challenge. Following up on this month’s topic, for November I want you to send me a story that involves a failure to communicate. Make it comic or make it sad, but show what can happen when communication breaks down.

Here are the rules:

1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month. All writers are welcome.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot, characters, and conflict.
4. The deadline: the first of the month.
5. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to:


  1. I always loved your 99 word challenges!

  2. Great topic, John. I've been accused of having "the mouth of a sailor" so I'm not "allergic" to profanity in life or in novels and I definitely think there are times when it's called for. When a simple "Darn it" just won't do.
    As you wrote, when someone gets angry or frustrated, certain words may pop out of their mouth. The funniest example I can think of is my mother who never uses cuss words. One day, I went to pick her up and, as I sat in my car at the end of her long driveway, I heard the F word clear as day. She was having a problem getting her door to lock and she was irritated. I couldn't believe my ears! I don't think I've ever laughed as much in my life.

    1. Yes, Pat, even mothers can let loose a now and then. FIrst time I heard my mother swear was when she was having trouble parallel parking. "Damnation!" she muttered. I was ten. I recycled that scene more than 50 years later in my novel Elephant Lake.

  3. Good post - and good competition you've set up. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Jim. But I don't consider the 99-word story gimmick a competition. It's more of a collaboration.

  4. This time I know ALL the contributors, John. It's such a great venue you've created for writers. I have three new classes as of this week; I want to share this and your November prompt! Thanks for this, for your comments about using inappropriate language, AND for your latest excerpt.

    1. AS always, I appreciate your support, Eileen.