There are horrors. I can tell you stories that would have you crying one moment and/or purchasing a handgun the next. There are real monsters out there, and sometimes I enjoy reading about them: massacres, school shootings, strange murders and criminal plots gone wrong. There are terrors, and I certainly enjoy writing about them, many times even dragging a laugh or two up from my readers’ guts, albeit in purely metaphorical terms: A cavalcade of otherworldly creatures caper through my stories. I’ve not been particularly interested in writing about serial killers or recasting the latest ‘lunatic with a knife’ fables ala the Saw films. Give me a zombie slouching toward its unsuspecting victims, a new take on an old trope: vampires who drink souls instead of blood, say, or African were-tigers in the streets of Chicago…and you’ve got a writer who will ride it out until the bitterest of ends.
Then one day I looked at my entire body of work and realized that I wasn’t writing about monsters: I was writing about myself; My blistering lifelong bouts with depression; my fears about my children’s safety in a world seemingly filled with dangers; my ailing marriage; my fears about my mental health and my ability to maintain it amongst an avalanche of personal and professional worries. All of it had crept into my writing, peopled my stories as villains, dark lords, killer mermaids, driving the action as all good bad guys must. I got a lot of use out of those fears too. There was my Weird Woman period, featuring female characters who drive their lovers to commit horrendous acts in the name of love, only to consume them when they outlive their usefulness. I wrote at least two or three of those. There was my Devoted Father Who Kills His Children phase, wherein a man caught in the throes of catastrophe sacrifices greatly to protect his children, only to harm them when his efforts prove insufficient. I wrote two of those. Each of them, coincidentally, features a Weird Woman character whose spiritual or physical disfigurement plays a key role in the father’s downfall. (Marriage counselors take note). Each story was written during a time of great uncertainty in my marriage amid fears that I would be forced to abandon my children, which for me, is a fate worse indeed, than death.
There was my Absent Father phase, a phase which saw the publication of my second novel, The Revenant Road. The lead character, Obadiah Grudge, harbors an incendiary anger toward his estranged father, only to learn that the father’s abandonment was the result of his need to protect his family from the realities of his life as a monster- hunter. Grudge is forced to accept his father, and even learns to honor his sacrifice. It was made, after all, for his benefit. In real life, my father abandoned me when I was two years old. I haven’t laid eyes on him since 1984. When I was younger, my mother never spoke against him, encouraging us to keep our minds and hearts open. I now have four children, and will never understand the absence that allows a man to abandon his own offspring. I’ve become obsessed with remaining in their lives. You do the math on that one.
There was my I Hate Joe R. Lansdale Phase. (Which is funny, since I love Joe R. Lansdale and consider him a mentor. He always sits top of my list when I’m asked, “Who are your influences?”) But a story he wrote back in the early eighties, Night They Missed the Horror Show, changed my life. It features two high school students who, while on their way to see Night of the Living Dead, encounter a black classmate. The three boys then meet some extraordinarily bad men. Torture and murder soon follow. But the callousness with which the white characters treat the black student so upset me that I wrote a short story in response, Bloodbath at Landsdale Towers. It features a heinously evil drug dealer named Lennox Ravanaugh, who mistreats several white characters with horrific but hilarious brutality. Critics have pretty much reviled it, but it remains a favorite of mine.
There was my I Hate Will Smith phase, begun immediately after watching Independence Day. I was so upset that I wrote an entire novel just to show myself how an alien invasion would really look. It was thirteen- hundred pages long, took seven years to write and sits, unpublished, in my office. (I still think it’s better.) The Revenant Road also came out of the tail end of the I Hate Will Smith phase: I wanted to write a novel where the black protagonist isn’t so cool that he can defeat hugely powerful monsters with a few lines of snappy “urban” jivetalk. I wanted to write a fantasy story where the black guy actually thinks and displays human emotions…just to mix it up a little.
There were other phases, the Superhero phase, where my hero’s vast powers are limited by a secret illness. (Two stories). The Anti-Middle Earth/Medievel European Fantasy Land phase.(Tthree stories. One novel. Unpublished), and the I Hate George W. Bush phase…(One story that features a nation of zombies, world-raping giants, a pope who eats Joan Collins and a giant alien demoness who uses the Washington Monument for an act of double penetration.) Don’t even get me started.
I suppose the sum of all these stories is about my own fears. As you may have gathered, I have many: Fears about the direction of my life, of my country, my marriage, my family…When you write horror fiction, people ask you constantly, “Where do you get this stuff?” I used to shrug and chalk it up to a vivid imagination. Now I’m not so sure. And that makes me afraid.
What’ll it be tonight then? Zombies? Psychic vampires? Sarah Palin? Lately I’ve been wondering about genres, labels; horror writer, fantasy writer, splatterpunk…I’ve been called all three. Meanwhile, I’m a nice guy from the Midwest. I don’t let my kids watch television on schooldays, I eat whole grains and I pay my exorbitant taxes. But I fear, and I suppose my fear makes me angry, and anger and fear and a Midwestern upbringing are usually a perfect recipe for a life spent on the first row of one never-ending AA meeting. But I’m too afraid to really drink, to lose control to that extent. So…I write it out.(Hmmm. Maybe a giant, flying rattlesnake with hydrochloric venom stalking a group of obnoxious contestants on a futuristic game show where the losers actually die.) Satisfied for the moment, I go to bed.
But the biggest question of all occurs to me as I turn out the lights in my office.
What will I write about when I’m no longer afraid?