I want to discuss why I write weird stuff, why I feel the need to purposely construct stories that conjure dreadful and unpleasant thoughts in another person’s mind — the kind of thoughts which constantly creep unbidden into my own.
I’ve always wanted to tell stories. I remember when I was seven and hanging out with my sidekick, Mark Benningfield. We were playing GI Joes and there wasn’t an adult in sight, which was nice.
Mark asked me suddenly what I would be when I grew up, and out of the clear blue, I told him a writer. Which is strange, because I don’t think the idea had ever crossed my mind before that. But I’d put it out in the universe, and there was no taking it back.
Mark (God love him) didn’t even bat an eye. I’ll always remember his reaction to what I said, which was no reaction at all. It was no big deal. That made me understand being a writer could be a real thing. And the memory of that moment has stayed with me to this day. It’s a little tarnished now, but I still like to hold it up and look at it every now and then.
THE NEED TO READ
I started writing around nine or ten, but with half-hearted efforts. Then one day my dad made me read an Edgar Rice Burroughs book because our TV was on the fritz and I was crazy from boredom. At first, I hated it. I still had vague dreams of becoming a “big time” writer, but I hadn’t yet learned that I had to become a reader first. So I struggled through that thick entanglement of words as if clawing my way through a briar patch. It was torture…
And all at once, it wasn’t. Before I knew it, I was in the story. I was Tarzan of the Apes, a naked savage leaping from tree limb to tree limb high above the jungle floor. Another golden moment, one which set me on a path. It also wasn’t lost on me that young Tarzan too struggled with the “bugs” (what he called the words and letters in the books he found in his dead parents’ cabin) before finally understanding what they meant. To me there is nothing–I mean nothing — like losing yourself in a good book. Movies don’t come close and even a great song is a distant second.
After that, I read everything I could get my hands on. I wrote short stories like my ass was on fire and finished my first novel at twelve. It wasn’t very good — in fact, it was terrible — but I didn’t know that then and it never occurred to me to care. I was writing purely for the joy of it.
And so began my lifelong love affair with books. They weaned me on authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Arthur C. Clarke, and H.G. Wells. Books cluttered the big white house in Indiana where I grew up. Though I loved so-called literary works (Dickens and Twain, for instance), my main fascination lay in the fantastic and macabre. It obsessed me. Still does.
Later I discovered Robert McCammon, Dean Koontz, F. Paul Wilson, Dan Simmons, Ramsey Campbell, and (God help us one and all) Stephen Edwin King, as well as several others, and the die was cast. Now not only would I be a writer, but I also would be a — gasp! — GENRE WRITER.
FEAR, ANXIETY, AND DEALING WITH THE DEMONS
I’m sure the spark of desire, that pull of the odd, is to some degree there from the start inside most horror/weird fiction writers. Lying in wait, a dark dormant beastie biding its time until it can come out and play. But what actually gives us the material to invent these stories of dread and imbue them with a sense of reality and relatability?
It’s reality itself, of course. Life, that thing that happens to us every day. Our own fears and desires. The events we experience and the scars they sometimes leave. We all have those scars, and if we’re brave enough, we can show them in our stories.
I’ve had people close to me die untimely deaths, some violent. I see the sadness and injustice in the world and sometimes feel like I just can’t look anymore. I’ve made mistakes in my life, some that hurt people I care about, just as others have caused me pain.
These are my scars. They still hurt and they’re painful to look at, but I have to look nonetheless. Because as writers, it’s our job to look at those things. To talk about them. Hash them out. Maybe come to an understanding of sorts. We’ve got to look in those terrible dark places and tell what we see. If we don’t, then we’re not being honest with ourselves or anyone else.
It just so happens I’m naturally drawn to those places. Always have been. It’s where I live much of the time. I feel compelled to go there and then come back to tell you about it. About the strange, frightening things I saw and the peculiar people I came across.
I’m not saying I focus solely on the darker aspects of life. On the contrary. I have great hope, and I believe wholeheartedly in the strength of love.
I also think I have a fairly good sense of humor (most horror writers do). And it’s important that we inject a little wit into our stories every now and then to break the tension and give our readers a rest.
But just remember what Carl Jung said: “I must also have a dark side if I am to be whole.”
It’s that dark side I’m curious about. That’s why I write about it. Because it’s what brought me here, and you should always dance with the one who brung ya.