Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather, the ability to confront it anyway.
Over the month of October, the Long Beach State University Library hosted a spooky short story contest. A total of 22 contestants developed and submitted stories inspired by book covers.
The judges included health sciences librarian Michelle DeMars, English and comparative literature librarian Alexis Pavenick plus children and young adult librarian Cathy Outten.
Beyond just being a contest for writers to demonstrate their creativity, this was a chance to introduce the wider campus to the diverse collections within the library and promote community engagement.
As DeMarrs recalls, the contest “was also to introduce them to some of the other collections, like the mystery collection, the Masback Collection, Critics Choice, things like that.”
Neither writing nor judging were easy tasks.
On the writing side, contestants had the entire library at their disposal. Whether perusing the shelves or browsing the digital catalogs, covers ranged from mysteries, children’s books, nonfiction, or pre-existing horror. From there, writers then had to produce work just within the word limit, all while balancing their other obligations.
From there, writers submitted and anxiously awaited results. While frightening for writers, both DeMars and Outten found submissions delightful to read.
Outten especially appreciated “the twists at the end” and the masterful character development of many submissions, noting that she “really got to know the characters” in such a small word count.
Whether they won or not, DeMars and Outten commended students for their courage and dedication to their craft. They especially appreciate the creativity in turning seemingly harmless covers, such as a fire boat, into a good fright.
“They all had their way of conveying what they felt was a spooky story, and I think the hardest part was having to choose a winner because I really think all the students just did a really good job and I enjoyed every single one of the stories,” DeMars said. “So to me the hardest part was having to apply a score to our rubric that we used.”
The library plans to host additional events, engagement and outreach, with one already in action. Adorned in chalk are two pillars in the lobby, where new questions are frequently cycled in for students to respond to.
Emily Diaz is an English literature major, aiming to switch to English education because of her family’s background in teaching. Her previous writing experience was mainly in journalism — her high school’s yearbook and newspaper.
While creative writing is a new form of stress relief for her, her background has helped her find her own flow and form in creative fiction.
Diaz’s story, “Housekeeping,” centers on a ghostly cat guarding his home.
“I was just looking through the stacks in the school library, specifically the second floor, and I just came across the cover with a cat on it. I really like cats,” Diaz said.
From there, it took off with some inspiration and help from her own three cats, whose behaviors were the basis for the cat in her story.
While Diaz isn’t much of a horror fan, she was undeterred and labored over her story. “As I was revising it,” she said, “I was thinking, what are some words that would have like a better image? Create a better image or what are some things that would help add to the scariness factor?”
Her desire in writing is simply for people to enjoy it.
“I’m not hoping to achieve a specific emotion or anything,” Diaz said.”I just kind of want someone to read it and say, ‘hey, that was a good five minutes or so that I spent reading it’.”
Jaime Salazar is a liberal studies major, aiming to be an elementary school teacher. While he does not have any particular inspirations, he still aims to always improve his writing with the help of his teachers and mentors.
Salazar’s story, “Deadman’s Halloween,” tells the story of a skeleton enjoying his Halloween. In this case, the time of the year was one of his specific inspirations.
He decided to match his cover with his field by browsing the second floor of the library, which is where the education section is.
“The book cover just kind of resonated an idea within me of that, this is what I would possibly want to write about,” he said. “Looking through some of the children’s book covers allowed for me to feel a little bit inspired when writing the story.“
During his revisions, Salazar had to carefully balance a spooky mood in his story with simplicity and the need to keep it PG, ultimately ending up with a work akin to a children’s story.
Ultimately, Salazar seeks to always be improving, whether in creative works or in technical communications. He said, “I have a clear message and I just want to make that easily accessible, first of all, and then illustrate the creativity portion and the ideas that roam within my head.”
Brandon Shane, a San Diego transfer student, is a current creative writing major. His greatest inspirations are Stephen King, for his prolific and consistent success, and Sylvia Plath, for the impact of her every word, line and poem.
Shane finds that he writes largely out of instinct.
“I write in the same way as I breathe,” Shane said. “It is a function which I cannot control as long as I am alive.”
Shane’s story was “Margaret’s Plaything,” inspired by a Stephen King cover and his own father’s prior cancer diagnosis.
It centers on a young girl, Sarah, coping with the loss of her parents, symbolized by an evil monkey. It’s a symbol of “the unintentional things left behind after loss, in the rubble of traumatic events that no one wanted to impart, but exists nonetheless as poltergeists waiting to make themselves known.”
Loss and grief are complicated beasts to tackle and Shane noted that it could well have been extended into a novella. One removal included additional contexts on the two uncles, Clayton and William, and their argument over their sister’s will.
Another cut consisted of the deaths of the parents and their love from beyond the grave, on which Shane remarks, “We still love those who have passed (perhaps even more), and the love of the dead still exists in the memories of the living.”
In writing, Shane hopes to elicit the sense of wonder he had with stories, both as a child and today. For him, literature, read from start to finish, “holds that special essence we all thought it contained as children – where everything exists, and we are there to experience it all.”