There is so much horror in the world, it spurs me to write.
There’s a scene in the excellent 1979, made-for-TV film of Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper and Stephen King!) where the newly vampire-ized Danny Glick floats on billows of corny rock-video fog outside the second-story bedroom window of Mark Petrie. Danny Glick’s eyes glow and he’s dressed in his funeral suit. He scratches at the window.
“Let me in,” Danny tells his friend. “It’s all right.”
Danny is smiling. Mark is crying.
Everyone knows that Mark doesn’t let Danny in because of the preternatural knowledge of monster lore and ritual that King regularly ascribes to children.
I saw this TV movie when I was nine.
I did not sleep for three nights.
All the lights in my room were on.
Sure, I am not the only person Stephen King or Tobe Hooper has scared. But I think of this scene and why it is horrible.
I write horror because everything scares me.
Not how you think. In the books I enjoy reading, particularly horror and dark fiction, I sense a deep and abiding sadness. Joyce Carol Oates. John Cheever. Dan Chaon. Jim Shepard. The Handmaid’s Tale. The Lovely Bones. The Turn of the Screw. Lullaby. Prose such as, “All my life, I have been a stranger to myself.” “You forget the things you want to remember and remember the things you want to forget.” “Murder will out.” “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” Fiction about sorrow, isolation, shame, and regret.
I was too young to understand my feelings about this scene from Salem’s Lot. Mark Petrie was right to cry. His friend was dead and his memory tainted. Danny had been taken from Mark in both senses. We’re not wrong to feel the chill of child exploitation and the pantomime of sexual seduction here—Danny’s corrupt, lascivious smile, the fixed hungry stare, his parted lips. The ugly, violent world had come to scratch at Mark’s window.
I often quote a teacher and friend for one of the few times he was wrong. He himself was quoting John Updike who said something like, most fiction should be written toward the middle because that’s where most people live.
Near Christmas, a young man murders twenty six-year-olds corralled in a school. The principal puts her body in the path of the bullets. There are enough bullets for everyone. A wealthy young philanthropist on her way home from a charity event pulls off the highway late at night. At the rest stop, a male employee of the fast-food restaurant follows her into the ladies’ room and stabs her to death. They struggle for six minutes. There is blood on the walls of the restroom. A young schoolteacher in a small town in the mountains is lured to a house and murdered by a couple. The husband told his wife that he wanted to “get a woman.” The man used to plow snow from the victim’s driveway. A demagogue conscripts and starves his own people so that the national average height and weight has measurably decreased in his lifetime. Soldiers cut the breasts from women so their infants cannot suckle. As Al Jourgensen says, “This is the world. It’s not working.”
I feel like an outsider in both the horror and literary fiction circles I move in. I have been fortunate enough to study at well-regarded writing programs. But the quiet stories my peers turned in about intergenerational disappointment didn’t appease my terrible and persistent dread.
I think of the girl my wife knew growing up who was abducted by a neighbor. He connected her to a car battery. He buried her body under the floor of his garage. The pithy literary fiction story about privileged eccentrics struggling to forge human connections seems, in its solipsism, almost profane in the face of such calamity.
And too often, when chatting with horror writers, I watch their faces fall when they mention authors and see my blank expression. I don’t read a lot of horror because the splatter or bitter humor or weird-for-weirdness’s-sake just seems boring, without a sense of the real people on whom the misery is visited. Pulling wings off a fly does little to describe our own suffering.
I write horror because I have drank too much and done things that even now make me hot with shame. I write horror because I am slow to confrontation, perhaps too slow, and I have a temper that scares me. I write horror because I am about to have a baby daughter whom I already love and because I am lucky in my marriage and because I have a big, handsome dog who is a fine example of her breed and to see her looking back at me in fall sunlight makes my heart lurch a little.
I write horror because I have things I am afraid to lose yet I know they will all be taken from me.“Let me in,” the ugly, violent world says. “It’s all right.