Why I Write Horror
These are some of the snapshots I carry with me:
My father coming up to visit me after first being diagnosed with leukemia. The visit was a surprise, and he brought a new computer with him. As he carried it into the house, he said, "This isn't yours, but I'm going to let you use it." Later that afternoon, he told me he was dying. We spent the entire weekend playing with the computer, trying to write crude DOS programs and get it to do what we wanted. It was as close to him as I ever felt.
Carrying my dog Seth into the veterinarian's office and placing her on the cold stainless steel table. Her so well behaved, as always. Me fighting back the tears in front of the doctor. She had been diagnosed with bone cancer and her limp was so dramatic that every step had to be excruciating. I couldn't stay to watch him put to her to sleep. It just hurt too much.
Answering the knock on the door at three-thirty in the morning and stepping outside, where ashes were floating down out of the sky like giant snow flakes. The Fountain Fire, which had started nearby and had burned some 65,000 acres while moving away from the house, had turned back during the night. I remember the acrid smell of smoke in the air. The sense of urgency and danger, mixed with utter silence and an odd, surreal beauty I don't think I'll ever be able to describe. The house, fortunately, was spared.
Standing in my father's hospital room, watching him as each breath gradually grew a little shallower. Some so faint I wasn't sure if he had taken a breath at all. Finding myself counting the seconds after his last breath, time stretching out further and further, and then the realization … the moment's passed. It's over. He's dead. He's never going to take another breath. He's never going to smile again, to laugh. A piece of the foundation of my life has just disappeared.
My mother giving me a copy of Ray Bradbury's The Toynbee Convector for Christmas. It was her last Christmas, and we both knew it would be her last. The smile on her face, because she knew I was a Bradbury fan. I asked her to sign it for me. After she died, I bought another copy for reading. I keep the copy she gave me safely tucked away, where I can pull it out whenever I need and remind myself how lucky I am.
Believing in Santa Claus until I was ten years old. Every Christmas we would go for a long drive through the surrounding neighborhoods on Christmas Eve to see the decorations. When we returned home, there would be a fire in the fireplace and presents under the tree. I like believing in Santa Claus. And the Grinch, too. Oh, and it was my grandparents who put the presents out each year.
My father dropping my sister and I and a friend off at the State movie theater to see a cartoon festival one Saturday morning when I was eight. It ended up being the wrong theater. Instead of cartoons, we watched a movie called Terror From The Year 2000. It was the first movie that ever scared me. For years, I was haunted by visions of a purple woman mysteriously materializing behind me.
Reading Edgar Allen Poe stories at my grandmother's house at night in bed when I was a young boy, and how wonderful they were.
The Book Mobile that came by the house once a week when I was a boy. Looking back on it now, it was a tiny little thing. But it seemed cavernous at the time. I remember the excitement of climbing up the steps, the smell that was somehow ancient and new all at once, the plastic covers, the tall shelves.
My sister sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night as a teenager to go hang out with her biker boyfriend. She got caught. Her bedroom window got nailed shut. She was the bad seed. I was the good son. Of course, as adults, she's far more responsible and level-headed than myself.
My best friend when I was eleven, sneaking into our house while we were away and stealing all my marbles. He left a perfect path of footprints leading directly back to his house. I asked him to return the marbles and he did. We remained friends, but it was never quite the same after that. I had something over him and neither of us like that.
Spending the night alone in the Community Center in preparation for a huge arts and crafts sale the next day. I was there to make sure nothing was stolen during the night. It was cold and dark and eerie. There were Christmas ornaments everywhere. Little gingerbread houses with gum drop roofs. Miniature rocking chairs with Mrs. Santa in place. Ceramic statues of little elves. Reindeer made of wood and felt and pine needles. Nightmarish. Absolutely nightmarish.
Walking down a path in the mountains late at night, following what little moonlight there was, and having someone jump out behind a tree, completely unexpected, and scream. On the outside, I barely flinched. Inside, I thought my legs were going to give out and I couldn't stop my heart from pounding.
Me and three friends being pulled over by cops because they were looking for someone and we apparently fit the bill. The ordered us out of the car, had us put our arms on the vehicle and spread 'em, then frisked us and asked for I.D. It was as guilty as I ever felt for having done nothing.
Becky, who was an excellent diver, trying a dive off the diving board at summer camp and coming down on her face. For weeks after, she walked around looking something like the Elephant Man, her nose swollen and twisted to one side, huge black-and-blue stripes beneath each eye. I wish I had a camera.
A boy in sixth grade running out into the street to get a baseball and getting clobbered by a car. We all gathered around to watch as he walked in circles, his eyes glassy, repeating over and over, "I just wanted to get the ball. I just wanted to get the ball."
Old Airport Road, where one night two young teenage lovers went barreling down the dead end until they slammed into the embankment and totaled their car. I was ten. My sister was nine. My father heard the sirens. He scooped us up, put us in the car and followed the ambulance to the accident. I remember there were shards of broken glass everywhere. The air was sharp with the smell of oil and gasoline. We watched as the two teenagers were strapped into gurneys and each stuffed into an ambulance. Their faces were a bloody mess. The girl was groaning nonstop. I don't know if they made it or not.
The night I left the front yard when I wasn't supposed to, so I could show a visiting neighbor where my school was. Most particularly, I remember the whipping I got when my father finally tracked us down several hours later.
The first time I ever shoplifted something. I was eight or nine, and I had gone to the store to pick up some bread for my mother. While I was there, I slipped a candy bar into my pocket. Not being terribly proficient at it, I think a bit of the candy bar was sticking out. When I went to the check out counter, the cashier suggested we get some "fresher" bread. I followed him back to the bread shelves, where he casually asked what was in my pocket, and before I knew it, I was in his office and he was calling the police. I don't think he actually called them. I think he was just trying to scare me, which believe me, he did. He ended up giving me a lecture and telling me to have my mother come see him next time we came to the store. I never told my mother. And I hated it every time I had to go anywhere near that store again.
The dogs barking one night, and me blindly following them out into the woods to see what the fuss was all about. We stopped in front of a stand of manzanita, maybe two or three feet away, and suddenly a coyote let out a howl from the other side. The dogs started barking again, and there was some rustling around in the dark. I didn't stay to see what it was all about.
The babysitter, an older woman who cared for us during the day while our parents worked, washing my mouth out with soap. I don't remember what I said, but I do remember that it was the only time I had ever had my mouth washed out with soap.
Taking a walk down the long driveway out to my mail box one afternoon, and finding a cow's heart and intestines dumped in a pool of blood in the middle of the road. Apparently, someone had stolen a local cow during the night and slaughtered it in my driveway, which was hidden just off the main road. Or aliens had visited the area. I guess I'll never know for sure.
Working on the roof of a house with my father and grandfather. This was a new house, the family's "dream house," that would eventually take two full years to build. We were cutting and laying wood shakes. Off to the side, I caught a glimpse of my father climbing down the ladder. I peered over the edge and asked him what was up. "I'm going to the hospital," he said. "I cut my finger off." He hadn't said anything when it had happened. He hadn't yelled or screamed or cried. He had picked up his finger, and climbed down the ladder, fully prepared to drive himself to the hospital. My grandfather ended up doing the driving. I stayed behind and continued working on the roof, absolutely amazed at my father's calm reaction to such a horrifying event. I was fifteen. I still got excited about slivers.
Cutting wood for winter one August afternoon. Pacific Gas & Electric had come through last summer and leveled a number of pines while installing an electrical line into the back of the property. I had taken the chain saw to one of the piles, unaware that nearby a nest of yellow jackets had built a hive in the ground. Apparently, they didn't care much for all the racket. Before I realized what was happening, I found myself under attack. It was a long, long run before the last of the persistent fellows finally gave up the chase. I was fortunate to come away with only five or six stings.
Going up for a rebound while playing basketball when I was in my early twenties and coming down wrong on my foot. I ended up on my back, and when I raised my head to see what had happened, I discovered my right foot pointing the wrong direction. I had dislocated it. On the way to the hospital, I couldn't remember where I lived. Once I got to the emergency room, they had to put me under because they couldn't get my foot back into place and every time they tried, I screamed. Even in my twenties, I couldn't find the composure under adversity of my father.
I carry these snapshots with me wherever I go. Some were taken at the most significant moments of my life. Others were taken for reason I cannot fathom. All I know is they are always with me. Yet each, in its own way, has contributed to my fascination with horror.
I write horror not because I've lived it, but because it charms me, because I see its place in my live and the lives of others around me, and I want to understand it.
This article was posted on March 24, 2005