Last night, okay it was around midnight this morning, I learned two things. The first is that my window is desperately in need of curtains. The second is that my cell phone emits enough light to write by. In fact, that’s how today’s blog got started, by the glow of phone light, which was sometimes rivaled by the lightning outside. Last night was a “dark and stormy night,” which led me to think of all things creepy: ghosts, goblins, vampires (not the Twilight kind) and ants. Seriously… have you ever woken up to ants crawling up your legs.
Let’s start at the beginning: “It was a dark and stormy night.” How many stories really start that way? It’s not really creepy and far from descriptive. Was it windy? Rainy? Lightning? It tells the reader nothing. Furthermore, it’s repetitive. It’s night. Unless you live in the land of the midnight sun night is going to be dark, eventually. Stormy. Storm clouds blot out sunlight, often making noon look like twilight. “Dark” is simply not needed in that sentence.
Try this instead: The wind howled in the rafters as rain pelted the window. That was a far more descriptive sentence. Still not really creepy, but it gets the point across, the wind is “howling” and rain is coming down hard. Okay, so you don’t know its night. Yet. There is a whole paragraph just waiting to be filled with details such as the night, maybe add a lightning bolt or two that lights up the room, making the children dive under the covers. And then a whole story comes to light. It doesn’t even have to be this particular sentence; there are several ways to rewrite those lousy words.
I challenge everyone to write a paragraph starting with “It was a dark and stormy night.” It can be a short short, or an introductory paragraph to a longer work. I really despise this phrase, for the reasons stated above and maybe because it can give me the creeps on a dark and stormy night. Here is mine:
It was a dark and stormy night. His soggy boots squelched in the mud as he made his way to the house on the hill. As the wind picked up, he pulled his coat tight. In the far distance he heard a wolf howl and he quickened his pace. Taking shelter on the battered porch he shook the mud from his boots before he knocked. He raised his fist to bang more thoroughly on the door when light suddenly flooded the porch. He blinked at the young girl who answered the door, “Is your father home?”
I had hoped that using this sentence would make me appreciate it more. It didn’t. To me, it draws away from the emerging story. There are an endless number of ways to replace those seven words that using them seems to be a bit of a waste. But it’s still good practice to just keep writing.
During the Halloween season, one popular activity is to visit a haunted house. As a child, some of my earliest and most frightening memories happened in a haunted house at Halloween.
So, let me take you inside a real haunted house. This short story also gives you vocabulary and idioms for describing something scary.
We begin as many scary stories have: It is a dark and stormy night.
You walk alone down a desolate street. The rain has been falling steadily all night and is only getting worse. You are soaked to the bone and need to get out of the rain.
Then you see a house. “Thank heavens!” you say out loud. But at second glance, your relief is chilled by the look of the place.
It's dark. Only a lone street lamp casts a dim, yellow light on the sad features of the house. It looks as if no one has lived here for many years. The windows are broken. An old, ripped curtain blows from a third-story window.
Now, you remember where you are.This house is from your childhood. Neighborhood kids talked of ghosts, from a family long dead, walking through the house at night.
The front yard is tangled with overgrown weeds and vines. A pathway lined with broken stones leads to an old house.
You follow it.
As you walk down the sidewalk, tree branches seem to lean into your path. They grab at your hair and clothes. Spider webs stretched across the branches get caught in your eyes and mouth. As you wipe them away, you hear something behind you.
What is it?! You turn around. Nothing. It was probably just a cat, you tell yourself. Although, you don’t believe it.
Just as you step onto the sagging front porch, the door creaks open. Suddenly, two bony hands push you inside. The door slams shut!
From the shadows, things start to come toward you! You can't see anything, but you can hear them coming closer. You run, but running only takes you farther into the nightmare. Your heart beats wildly. Hoping to hide, you open a door, but a skeleton falls into your face. Screaming, you fight with the bones as they entangle your arms and legs! Finally, you break free and run for your life down a hallway.
For a moment, you think you're safe. Then a deathly white hand reaches out from under a table, grabbing at your ankles! You run faster, this time up a flight of stairs. But a half-human, half-bat creature hangs from the ceiling. It flies toward your neck with blood dripping from its razor-sharp teeth.
As you try to escape, you trip down some stairs and fall into a cold, dark basement. From a small window you look outside and see a crazed man holding an axe. He's looking right at you, laughing.
Fear takes over your whole body, as you run out of the house only to find ...
... a bowl of candy. If you're lucky, maybe a plate of cupcakes, too. You dig your hands into the candy bowl and fill your pockets with sweets. You deserve it. You made it out alive!
That is exactly how I remember the first haunted house my parents took me to. To this day, the thought of it still sends shivers down my spine. And I still love being scared out of my wits!
I’m Anna Matteo
Do you remember a time when you were scared out of your wits? Practice using the words and expressions you heard in this story by describing it in the Comments Section.
Anna Matteo wrote and produced this story for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.
Words in This Story
haunt – v. to visit or inhabit as a ghost
desolate – adj. lacking the people, plants, animals, etc., that make people feel welcome in a place
soaked to the bone – idiomatic expression : to be extremely or completely wet, especially through the clothing
glance – n. a quick look
chill – v. to become cold
weed – n. a plant that tends to grow where not wanted and to prevent the growth of more desirable plants usually by taking up space
vine – n. a plant whose stem requires support and which climbs by tendrils or twining or creeps along the ground
dim – adj. not bright or clear
creak – v. to make a long, high sound : to make a sound like the sound made by an old door when it opens or closes
shadow – n. a dark shape that appears on a surface when someone or something moves between the surface and a source of light
nightmare – n. a frightening dream that usually awakens the sleeper : something (such as an experience, situation, or object) having the monstrous character of a nightmare or producing a feeling of anxiety or terror
skeleton – n. the structure of bones that supports the body of a person or animal
scream – n. a sudden sharp loud cry : v. to voice a sudden sharp loud cry
entangle – v. to wrap or twist together
run for your life – idiomatic expression : to run very fast because you are in danger
razor-sharp – adj. very sharp
sends shivers down my spine – idiomatic expression : to cause an intense feeling of fear, nervousness, exhilaration, or excitement in someone
scared out of my wits – idiomatic expression : suggests one is frightened enough to lose one's mind