Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Candyman

Have you ever seen something that you believed only you could see? Something that should have been seen by others, but somehow was not?

In the fall of 1992 I was thirteen-years-old, feeling increasingly ostracized at school, and feeling homesick away from school. The cause of my homesickness helped keep my pain in perspective, though. Hurricane Andrew had slammed into the Florida coast in August. In September, my mother and one of my brothers, both in the Air Force at the time, had been called down to help with the relief and rebuilding of the demolished Homestead Air Force Base. Living along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with the specter of hurricane season hovering every August–a specter darkened and magnified by the local mythology of Hurricane Camille–my sympathies were with the people of Florida.

My father was already stationed overseas at the time so there weren’t many options for where I could stay. All of my other relatives lived in Texas and my mother was only supposed to be gone for a month or two. One of my mother’s friends–a married woman with three kids–volunteered to keep me for the time being.

The family I stayed with through September and October was pleasant. They took me to church with them, brought me along to a couple of family functions, and I somehow ended up joining them on an awkward hospital visit to see one of their elderly family members. They treated me well, but I was a slightly odd kid, often stuck in my own head, a bit sickly, shy–when I wasn’t feeling clumsily talkative–and prone to occasional, unconscious obnoxiousness. I shared a bedroom with the son, who was two or three years older than me and a player on football team of the small Catholic School we attended. I was on the JV team at the time, but to call me a “player” would be generous. We had little in common. I had even less in common with the two other kids, sisters, one about three-years-old, the other maybe twelve. I don’t think I could have been anything more than an intrusion to any of them, and I was aware of it, but didn’t know how to minimize it. Gradually, I started asking if I could just stay home instead of joining them when they went to the son’s games or went to dinner with relatives, and they would let me.

I had no friends at school at this time, just a circle of kids who kept me around for easy jokes at my expense, which I accepted. A year prior things had been different, and many of these same kids had seemed to regard me well, so a part of me figured I could flip back to being “cool” again if I just rode out this wave of unpopularity. My best friend went to a different school and lived down the street from my house in Ocean Springs, but my mother’s friend who’d taken me in lived too far away from me to visit my friend, being on the other side of the Biloxi Bay Bridge. I wouldn’t say that this was a difficult stage of my young life, just a very strange one.

All of this left me even more mentally vulnerable to bizarre, intense or terrifying sights and stories than I already was. So when the night came that I first saw an ad for an upcoming film about a hook-handed nightmare who haunts a housing tenement, my mind was all too eager to pass my imagination along like a relay baton and let Candyman sprint away with it.

I can’t remember the specifics, what night of the week it was, why I was alone that evening, or what show I was watching when I saw the ad. I know the weekend was looming, so it was either a Thursday or Friday, and I want to say I was watching Martin, which debuted that year and was the popular show among the group of kids I orbited. More than any of that, I vividly remember the queasy, visceral sense of being drawn toward and into the television as I watched the commercial, like I was part of some new rule of physics: an object that wishes to retreat must come forth. I remember being mesmerized and frightened by the dreamlike scene of Virginia Madsen crawling out of the open-mouthed mural. The quick glimpse of the hook hand. The suddenness of a man crashing backwards through a window. And, right from the jump, the damned mirror summoning.

I think I will always feel a unique, almost nostalgic dread at the thought the summoning a spirit by saying its name while staring into a mirror. When I was a first-grader, having been in Mississippi for barely a year, a classmate of mine told me that Bloody Mary lived in a dilapidated two-story house a few blocks from my own, right behind the neighborhood Hardee’s. Being a gullible six-year-old, I believed him. I’ll save the details of my obsession with Bloody Mary for a later Confessions entry, but she was the first bogeyman to plague me. Well before I turned thirteen I had outgrown that particular obsession, but the Candyman commercial resurrected that first critical fear.

I remember sleeping poorly that first night, seeing the painting of the Candyman’s face in a feverish, disjointed dream. But what happened the next day at school, simple as it was, made the fear more personal and affecting.

Again, the kids I hung out with at school weren’t my friends and weren’t above ridiculing me, and every so often shoving me around. But they weren’t cruel. In hindsight, it was a simple matter of convenience and lack of imagination. People in general, and adolescents in particular, love an easy target, and there I was, a tall, lanky, underachieving, socially inept, brainy black kid living in the Deep South who “talked white.” At the time, fitting in simply wasn’t an option for me. Still, I spoke with them as though we were friendly, even though  anything I said or did might open me up to a flood of jokes. So I asked the people I knew at school if any of them had seen the commercial for a cool, creepy-looking horror flick called Candyman last night. They all said they hadn’t seen it.

This was peculiar. Again, I can’t remember what I was watching when I was introduced to Candyman on the small screen, but I know it was something reasonably popular. Something that at least a few other people must have been watching as well. How had I been the only person to see it? Well, everyone else had just been doing something else during the commercial breaks, of course. Or hadn’t paid any attention to it. Or hadn’t been impacted by it the way I had, so they’d forgotten about it. But you couldn’t have convinced my thirteen-year-old self this. Nor could you have convinced me that it was some sort of small-scale prank. Their answers were too nonchalant, and such a ruse, though simple, would have required more spontaneous imagination than I thought any of these kids possessed. A lie is a story, after all.

I tried to shrug it off, and by the end of the day, the cloud of dread from the Candyman movie that only I could confirm existed had dissipated. But I found myself alone in my host’s house again that evening, in this place where I didn’t think I belonged, and again I saw it on the television.

Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman…

Candyman-poster

I called my best friend. The person I felt I could trust. I called under the pretense of just wanting to chat because we hadn’t spoken to each other in a while, hadn’t seen each other in a longer while. But really I wanted to know if he had seen it. I asked. He said it sounded cool, but no, he hadn’t seen it. I was unreasonably incredulous–“Really? It’s come on two nights in a row.”–but he couldn’t tell me anything other than the truth. He hadn’t seen it. Only I had.

Melodramatic, I know. Foolish, too. Of course other people had seen it, just not anyone that I knew or had spoken to. But by then the obvious answer rang false to me. This thing had found me on my island and latched onto me. It knew I couldn’t turn to anyone. It knew that it could silence me, because silence would be the only way I could obtain a semblance of refuge. If I stopped asking other people about it, then I wouldn’t have to hear again that I was the only one who had seen it. Who could see it.

For the next few days I avoided the television, afraid the commercial would come on while I was accompanied in the room, and the person with me wouldn’t acknowledge it, and then it would be undeniable. I tried not to look directly at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. In the dark, in the space between waking and dreaming, I saw chaos, hooks, and a painted, hungry face with its mouth wide and eyes indifferent. Flat eyes that exemplified the attitude expressed in the film’s opening quote, which I thankfully hadn’t heard Tony Todd say yet, otherwise I might have melted down completely.

They will say that I have shed innocent blood. What’s blood for, if not for shedding?

My mother’s friend, who’d volunteered to take care of me, worried about me. I wasn’t sleeping. I was quieter than usual. I was making myself sick as the weather chilled and asthma hugged my lungs. And I couldn’t tell her what troubled me. It would sound absurd to her and do me no good.

Were this a work of fiction, I suppose it wouldn’t end so anticlimactically, but well, it is what it is, so brace yourself. Days went by and I thankfully managed to avoid seeing another Candyman spot on television. Then one day at school, in the midst of the standard morning routine, someone mentioned to me that they finally saw the commercial for the horror flick I had asked about, and that I was right, it did look pretty cool. Soon enough, Candyman became one of the hot topics for October among my classmates. The more people spoke of him, the less terrifying he became. He wasn’t my own demon anymore. He belonged to everyone, and I couldn’t have been happier to share him.

A few years later, when I finally saw the movie and could admire it for the classic it is, I noted the irony that, in the film, Candyman draws his power from the collective belief and whispers of the community. He is brought to life because his name is on the lips and minds of so many.

In my experience with the character, he could never be more real than he was when I first encountered him and believed he was unknown to anyone else.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: ‘Shudders’

I think I’m still too young to be using phrases like, ‘They don’t make them like they used to.” Given that I don’t have kids of my own and don’t read current horror anthologies that are geared toward kids, I really have no clue if they do or don’t actually make any more anthologies like Shudders (edited by Ross R. Olney). But from what I gather from the people I know who do I have kids, I’m guessing that much of what pre-teens are given to read these days isn’t half as grim as some of the stuff I picked up from the school library when I was in third grade.

So let’s see… I must have been about eight-years-old when I picked up Shudders. I remember thinking the cover looked cool–a spookier version of the covers to Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books of the era–and then flipping to the table of contents and seeing that it contained “The Monkey’s Paw.” Not that I wouldn’t have picked it up anyway. By that time I was in the habit of devouring anything in the library that was remotely related to ghosts, monsters, madmen and things lurking in the shadows. But I point out “The Monkey’s Paw” because I think its presence in the anthology set me up to expect a certain style of horror fiction. I hadn’t read the original “Monkey’s Paw” short story by then, but I knew of the story via retellings around campfires. So with that, I opened the book thinking that I knew what I was getting into.

And then I was greeted by the opening story, “Sweets to the Sweet” by Robert Bloch. If the author’s name isn’t familiar to you, he’s the gentleman who wrote Psycho. While that ended up being the signature work of his career, thanks in no small part to Hitchcock’s film adaptation, Bloch is a legendary and prolific author of horror and crime fiction. At the time, in fact, I didn’t know who Bloch was, or that he had anything to do with Psycho (again, I was 8, cut me a break). So my introduction to a master of the genre–and, to my recollection, to the world of “grown up” horror literature–came completely by surprise.

Robert-Bloch
Robert Bloch

“Sweets to the Sweet” features a grisly, abrupt ending that is still one of the best examples of implied violence and gore I’ve ever read. It’s a textbook case of leaving it up to the reader’s imagination, except you’re not left to imagine what happened–that much is plain–but what it looks like. And unless you have the world’s tamest, blandest imagination possible, it can’t help but to be spectacularly gruesome. Years later,  in the anthology My Favorite Horror Story, Stephen King would introduce “Sweets to the Sweet” by saying that it had “one of the most chilling snap endings I had ever read.” And it really does happen in a snap, so fast that you could mistake it for a twist, or perhaps a punchline, when really it’s a well-earned, expertly set-up knockout blow.

The ending to “Sweets” is disturbing, clever, vicious and brilliant. It’s one of the things that really made me think, “one day I’d like to write something like that, and make other people feel whatever it is I’m feeling right now.” But even before that “snap ending,” the story has proven disturbing. It raises a simple “chicken or the egg” type of question regarding evil that it doesn’t get anywhere near answering. That’s for the best. It’s an unanswered philosophical question that enhances the tale’s impact.

I remember revisiting “Sweets to the Sweet” several times immediately after reading it. At the time I told myself I was simply captivated by my new favorite short story ever, but looking back on it, I wonder if I was just scared to read the next story. If Bloch’s story was any indication, I was way out of my weight class here.

So it makes sense that I then skipped ahead to “The Monkey’s Paw.” Again, it was a story I was familiar with, even if I had never actually read it. In the campfire re-tellings I can recall, in fact, it was less horror story than morality tale with the general themes of “Be careful what you wish for” and “Don’t be greedy.” Obviously that does the story a tremendous disservice, but I’m willing to guess that much of the blame for that interpretation was the fault of the listener, not the storytellers. When you’re six-or-seven years old and listening to a story about a magical, wish-granting monkey hand, it’s pretty easy to turn the thing into one of Aesop’s fables.

The story proper is considerably grislier than I expected it to be. The beauty of this classic is that it doesn’t need any meaning attached to it. W. W. Jacobs wrote a fantastic, creepy story in which one innocent, frankly modest wish goes awry. Mister White says outright that he doesn’t know what to wish for because he already has all he wants. Happy wife. Healthy, grown son–Herbert–who’s happy to sit down with the old man and beat him in chess (“the only [child] left to us” White would grimly comment later).  All White asks for is two-hundred pounds; enough to “clear the house.”

When news comes of Herbert’s death due to industrial accident (“caught in the machinery,” *brrr*) and the two-hundred pounds is offered by his employer “in consideration,” it leaves his elderly parents in a condition of misery so profound they practically become the living dead. They spend days in a stupefied despair, hardly speaking to each other, until Mrs. White is spontaneously struck by the idea to use the paw to wish for her son’s resurrection, days after his mutilated corpse has been buried in the graveyard…

The_Monkey's_Paw

Similar to “Sweets,” “The Monkey’s Paw” keeps all of the gory details off-page, but they remain vivid in the reader’s imagination. You can picture the lumbering wreck of a human being that’s on the other side of the White’s door, knocking and expecting to be let inside, even with Jacobs only giving us a hint of what Herbert’s condition must be. The final handful of paragraphs–a race between the mother trying to let her son inside, and the father trying to find the paw so he can wish the thing that used to be his son away from the house–is a master class in tension and mounting dread. You know what Herbert’s living corpse must look like, but it’s scarier for you to still remain a bit unsure, to wonder whether or not the characters–and by proxy, you as the reader–will get a clear, direct look at Herbert’s undead form. Sometimes shielding your eyes from the horror is more frightening than looking directly at it, and Jacobs is aware of this. “The Monkey’s Paw” ends with the a moment that can make you sigh in relief for the same reason that one of its characters screams in mourning.

The story moves fast enough for some of the other frightening elements to be lost. But I was always struck by two things that are mentioned well before the fantastic climax. For one, the man who cursed the paw to grant wishes did so to deliberately prove that people cannot escape their fates. It is, in effect, a cruel trap, specifically designed to manipulate even a humble wish–such as one for enough money to pay off a home–into the catalyst for a brutal, fatal tragedy. All just to make a lousy point. How screwed up is that? And not long after we find this out, we learn that the first man to possess the paw ended up wishing for death. What the hell could have resulted from his first two wishes to push him to that point? We never come close to knowing, and we’re perhaps better off not knowing.

Shudders-Book-Cover2After reading “The Monkey’s Paw” in  Shudders it was clear to me that this was a more potent dose of horror than I was used to. But I couldn’t stop. The anthology includes a couple of other stories that remain favorites: H. R. Wakefield’s “Used Car” is another straightforward, no frills supernatural story, with some nice noir touches surrounding its haunting; “The Waxwork” by A. M. Burrage perhaps has one too many twists, but given the apparent direction of the story based on its title and setting, you can understand why the author would want to outwit savvier readers. Regardless of what you think of the ending, it has some of the coldest, creepiest lines spoken by a killer that I’ve ever read: “The world is divided between collectors and non-collectors…[t]he collectors collect anything, according to their individual tastes, from money to cigarette cards, from moths to matchbooks. I collect throats.”

Shudders made for one hell of an introduction to the assorted flavors of horror. From the Lovecraftian (“Second Night Out”) to the whimsical-yet-grim (“The Inexperienced Ghost” by H. G. Wells) to the pleasant-yet-macabre (“Floral Tribute”–Bloch once again), and still more. As much as I love everything else I’ve written about thus far in my little “Fear Junkie” series, Shudders might have been the most important book I’ve ever read. Reading it at the age I did was akin to skipping from straight grade school level scares up to a collegiate level lesson in proper Horror.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Simon’s Soul by Stanley Shaprio

Simon's Soul Cover1It took a while for me to realize that the things that scared me most were products of my imagination. That’s not to say I’ve never been scared by a movie or a book, obviously. But much of what’s really stuck with me through the years were products largely or sometimes solely of my mind. I forget exactly how young I was when I started praying for nightmare-free sleep before going to bed, but it should have been apparent to me then. And if not then, it should have been apparent around the time I first became aware of a relatively obscure novel titled Simon’s Soul.

I can’t pinpoint the exact year for this little story, but I know it was no earlier than the summer of 1988, because June of ’88 is when the original Metal Gear video game was released in North America for the NES, and that’s the game I was playing when I first heard about Simon’s Soul. Accounting for the probability that my folks didn’t buy me a new game immediately after it came out, I can narrow the time frame down to being before the summer of 1990, because that’s when the movie Flatliners hit theaters; the relevance of this factoid will become apparent shortly. For the moment, let’s say that the following took place in the summer of 1989, which would put me at 9-years-old.

I was in the living room, sitting on the floor in front of the television, glued to the game, but aware of my mother and her friends behind me, sitting on the sofa and chairs, talking about things that didn’t really interest me. I figure my mom thought I was too focused on the game to pick up on anything she said; a reasonable presumption. I’m not exactly sure why my ears perked up when she started giving her friends a quick, enthusiastic summary of Stanley Shapiro’s novel.

Here is how I remember my mother describing the opening of the story (note that this is not meant as an accurate summary of the book, just a remembrance of someone else’s summation): a group of scientists decide to seek proof of the afterlife. To do so, they set up an experiment to actually kill one of their own, Simon, while hooking him up to a machine that allows him to convey his thoughts and experience back to the others during the process. At first he ventures into death with a sense of wonder and curiosity, but gradually his isolation breeds fear and dread. There’s nothing visible, audible or otherwise identifiable out there beyond death, so far as he can tell, but there is an existence nonetheless. Not quite nothingness, but also not actually anything. He asks his colleagues to bring him back, but they either can’t or, for the sake of science, won’t. Then, finally, he starts to sense something. Wherever Simon is, there’s a place beyond that, and he senses something living on that other-other-side is trying to break through the barrier to make its way to where he is. At that point he’s begging his colleagues to bring him back to life before whatever else is out there gets to him, and does heaven only knows what from there. And then…

Then the subject changed. I have no idea how the conversation got to that point, or how it changed. Maybe my mom cut it off there so as not to spoil the rest for her friends, in case they wanted to read the book. Or maybe a phone call came in and interrupted her. Maybe they all got up to leave for lunch and she continued the story out of earshot. Whatever the reason, she stopped her recap of the novel there, and though I was terrified to know what was going to happen next, I was more terrified to never find out. Leaving off there, with Simon stuck in that strange limbo, with some unknown thing trying to get at him from some place deeper in the hereafter, did one hell of a number on me.

Isolation is a key component to horror–something that didn’t really dawn on me until it was pointed out by my outstanding 11th & 12th grade English teacher, Mister Comer. Fear can make you feel pretty lonely. Many other emotions are more apt to be communal experiences. Happiness, anger, even grief. But fear–horror–even when it’s experienced in the midst of other people is still a very private emotion. Other emotions more easily lend themselves to empathy, I think. We can have a ceremony such as a funeral where everyone can gather to mourn and express their sadness. There are parties thrown for celebratory occassions, so everyone can get together to smile, dance and laugh. You can even have rallies built around anger, where everyone can unite around how fed up they are, and how they’re not going to stand for it anymore. But for someone else to truly understand and feel how horrified another person is, they have to be horrified themselves, which means each individual is very much dealing with their own shit. You don’t have rallies, parties or ceremonies where everyone gets together to share their fear. I mention all of this because I can’t think of anything more frightening and lonely than being stuck on the other side of death with no one else around, no sights to be seen, no sounds to be heard, and no way to get back from the void.

Simon's Soul CoverAgain, I was about 9 or 10 years old when my mom accidentally dropped the Simon’s Soul synopsis on me, so I wasn’t giving deep thought to the loneliness of horror at that point. I just knew there was something about this fragment of a story that scared the hell out of me. Scared me so much, in fact, that I couldn’t play that damn Metal Gear game for several weeks afterward. In my mind, the game’s (otherwise charmingly goofy / “spy themed”) music was associated with what I knew of Simon’s Soul; a man’s spirit locked in the stark crawlspace between our world and an antagonistic afterlife. When the movie Flatliners hit theaters in 1990, I remember telling my friends that there was a book out there that had covered similar ground, but I couldn’t get any of them to understand how creepy it genuinely was. Again, I was alone with my fear on this.

Cut to a little more than a decade later, and I would still think of Simon’s Soul on occasion, much more so out of curiosity by that point. I had just gotten comfortable with the idea of buying anything via the internet, and lo and behold, I soon discovered someone selling a used, hardback copy of the book online. Naturally, I decided to get it for my mom as for one of her birthday presents. It arrived and I couldn’t even wait for the actual occasion to give it to her. She appreciated the gesture and placed the book on the shelf, but it soon occurred to me that the book hadn’t been occupying space in her mind the way it had in mine. Not even close. For her it was just something she’d once read and recommended to friends. Besides that, she was by then a grandmother, and as it is with many people as they age and get a few grand-kids under their belt, her tastes in fiction had softened.  Dark, relentless stories centered around a despairing, trapped soul didn’t much appeal anymore to the woman who had just started taking semi-annual road trips to Disney World with the family’s latest additions.

In a (very selfish) way, this was a win for me. I realized pretty soon that she wasn’t in any hurry at all to revisit the book. I didn’t have to wait for her to finish it, or even get started on it, before I could borrow it and plow through it. So I did. And…

…Well, in fairness, there was almost no way Simon’s Soul could have lived up to what I’d mentally prepared myself to venture into. The opening chapters of the book came pretty close to it, however, taking me through the journey into the dark hereafter that I’d so dreaded as a youngster. Thing is, I’d unreasonably presumed that this particular scene was what the entire book would focus on. So when it moved beyond that and into an increasingly imaginative and bizarre self-contained mythology involving demons amok, possession and an afterlife where Hell and Heaven exist, but souls don’t always end up where you think they should, for reasons not quite within the range of human understanding, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. It’s still one hell of an intriguing, engaging horror novel, and it doesn’t pull punches. On first read it kind of reminded me of some of the Dean Koontz novels I’d read; how the story can end in a place so far afield from where it began you want to flip back to the first chapter to be sure you aren’t mis-remembering how the story started, but Shapiro’s story is ultimately darker than any of the handful of books I’ve read by Koontz.

In the end, I don’t know if I can fully recommend Simon’s Soul the novel. But the memory of it had an indelible impact on the kid with the near-masochistic fascination with the macabre and horrific.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Stephen King’s ‘Night Shift’

Stephen King Night Shift book cover

Stephen King’s first collection of short horror stories might still be his best. Then again, I might be a bit biased, since Night Shift is the first Stephen King book that I read. As a young horror fan I was, of course, already familiar with King’s work through film and television adaptations of his stories. I considered myself a fan of his, but at twelve-years-old I hadn’t actually read any of his books yet.

My folks had a copy of Night Shift sitting on the bookshelf . I had never looked twice at that book until the summer before I entered Junior High. I’m not sure why I had avoided it until then. Given that I was already exceptionally susceptible to nightmares, it’s likely that I feared that reading stories coming straight from King’s brain–as opposed to stories delivered from page to screen by some other party–would be more harrowing than I was ready to endure. That summer, I decided to take the dive.

Instead of starting at the beginning, I decided to read the story “The Boogeyman” first. [Insert joke about me thinking the story would be autobiographical here.] It’s a lean, vicious tale that flattened me like a stampede. At that point in my life, I had read my share of “adult” horror stories, but I wasn’t one of these guys who had read the complete works of Lovecraft and Matheson by the time he was ten. The only story I can recall having a bigger impact on me at a younger age was Robert Bloch’s excellent “Sweets to the Sweet,” but while Bloch’s story–with its lovely, gruesome ending–felt clever and sinister, “The Boogeyman” felt earnestly brutal. Almost malicious. It wasn’t the kind of story that wanted to frighten you because it could, or because it was showing off, or because it was trying to make some sort of commentary on society, or because it was reveling in its own shock value. It simply wanted to frighten you because “screw you, you picked up the book; yes you deserve to be afraid, and I hope you never sleep again.”

I’m a grown-ass-man, and I still have trouble sleeping if the closet door in my bedroom is even slightly open. Coincidence? Maybe not.

boogyeman
Ah dammit… I shouldn’t have kept my gun in there.

Reading “The Bogeyman” wasn’t like going from the kiddie-coaster to riding the latest, fastest steel roller coaster. This felt like leaving the state-of-the-art theme park that has thoroughly safety-tested thrill rides to go to a traveling carnival that’s only open at night and full of dilapidated deathtraps operated by part-time madmen.

I decided to press on, choosing “Children of the Corn” next. The logic being, “I’ve already seen the movie; how much scarier can the original story be?” I could have sworn that about midway into the story, I actually read the sentence “This much scarier,” but upon recently re-reading the story I can’t seem to find that sentence anywhere. Suffice to say that King’s original vision is much grimmer than the 1984 film version, which de-emphasizes the “evil inspired by a perverse incarnation of the Old Testament God” overtones and… well… let’s just say that some of the survivors in the film don’t have the same luck in the short story.

Then there are the quieter stories that all but eschew traditional horror commodities. There are no monsters, ancient demon-gods, knife-wielding serial killers or anything of that ilk in “Night Surf” or “The Woman in the Room.” Both stories helped to reinforce my appreciation for restrained, potentially cathartic horror. The word horror, after all, describes a feeling. A sensation.  Horror, as a genre, can be just as effective when focusing on human emotion as when focusing on carnage and the supernatural.

As with just about any anthology–even the very best–there will be some stories that don’t work for some people. “The Lawnmower Man” is still too weird for my personal tastes, so you can imagine how the 12-year-old me was confounded by the utter (but impressively imaginative) aberrance of the storyline. “Strawberry Spring,” conversely, the defanged by its predictability. The premise to “Trucks” is an interesting experiment, and the final line is a brilliant punch to the gut, but ultimately the idea of vehicles gaining sentience en masse and slaughtering / enslaving everyone in sight never scared or entertained me.

But the stories that do work for me more than make up for minor missteps (he typed alliteratively). King brings a macabre touch to the pulp noir story “The Ledge.” “Quitters, Inc.” is an exemplary lesson in mining horror from the mundane. “Battleground” takes an ostensibly silly premise and injects it with the intensity and energy of a Bourne action scene. “The Mangler” makes better use of the “machinery come to life” idea than “Trucks” does, perhaps because it doesn’t overextend itself; instead of a full-fledged laundry press revolution, we just have one demonic mechanical monstrosity amok. How many more do you need? And “I Am the Doorway” is a gruesome, invasion- of-the-body-horrors tale in which a man’s body is gradually transformed into something between a Stargate and a star-window. It’s exactly as grotesque and horrifying as it sounds.

Stephen King Night Shift book cover
A visual aid. Shame they don’t make many paperback covers like this anymore. 

I’m not not sure if early King was necessarily “better” than present day King, but I do think his work was scarier back then. But again, I might also be looking back on those stories through a nostalgia filter. All I know for sure is that the stories in Night Shift– just like those damn Greasers in “Sometimes They Come Back”– have found a way to defy time and continue haunting me long, long after they first terrorized me.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

It still sort of surprises me whenever I find out that any of my peers not only did not read the Scary Stories series in their youth, but had never even heard of it. What the hell were you doing with your childhood? Sleeping well without having to fend off ghastly black-and-white illustrations that waited within the darkness of your dreams? Bah! No fun to be had in that…

Among the many things that the Scary Stories series has offered me is a reminder that personal experience is indeed personal. Based on my relationship with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series I would have believed every American child reared in the 80’s would have at least been aware of these books. I can still remember the first time I saw the magnetically morbid original cover of the first volume, and can likewise remember every kid in my elementary school class being instantly fascinated and appalled all at once. Stephen Gammell’s infamously freaky illustrations made you feel anxious about flipping through the pages.

This is from one of the “humorous” stories. Obviously…

Only a relative handful of my classmates actually bought the books, and I wasn’t one of them. I hadn’t even bothered to ask my parents if I could buy it–I already knew how my folks would react to grim content. So instead I was one of the kids who borrowed the books to read during recess or whenever we had some free time towards the end of the school day. I remember the books staying in remarkable condition despite passing through many hands over the course of multiple school years. I would not say that we held the books with any particular reverence so much as we knew how precious they were to the owners. Accidentally rip part of the page to someone’s forgettable Spider-Man comic (“Aw man, this is the one where Spider-Man appears to have been killed by Magma–a villain and event that will surely remain relevant for years to come!”) and they might be mad at you for a day or two.  Fold the corner of one of the appendix pages of someone’s Scary Stories book and they might not speak to you for a semester.

The books are remembered mostly for the remarkable, inexplicably nightmarish original illustrations, but I hold Alvin Schwartz’s retelling of classic and modern ghost-lore dear as well. These were the first books I had ever encountered that told the reader how to tell the story. Being written specifically for recounting around campfires and at sleepovers gives the tales a fairly unique leanness that adds an invisible layer of perturbation to the stories. In “The Big Toe” we are spared any explanation as to why the boy’s parents would nonchalantly decide to cook and eat the giant toe he violently yanked from some unseen creature in a garden. Is the family that poor and desperate for food? Do they regularly forage for monstrous digits?

“Another big toe in the garden? You’d think it was June already.”

We’re not given so much as a sentence addressing these questions. The father just cuts the toe into thirds, the family dines, and then they do the dishes and go to bed. It’s treated as a perfectly normal evening and the setup to impending horror when it could stand on its own as a disturbing story.

My favorite story in the series, “The Drum,” also makes great (and perhaps more deliberate) use of creepy ambiguity and quiet peculiarity. In it, two young sisters living in a small village happen upon a toy drum owned by a gypsy girl. It’s a hell of a drum with animatronic figurines that emerge from it, and the sisters ask the gypsy girl if they could have it. The gypsy girl promises to give it to them only if they misbehave their asses off, which they immediately agree to do, believing that temporarily transforming into a pair of mini-miscreants won’t lead to any dire consequences.

Instead of disciplining her children, the girls’ mother makes a sorrowful plea for the sisters to behave, while warning that if they continue to misbehave, mother and baby brother will have to leave, and the replacement “new mother” will be a thing with “glass eyes and a wooden tail.” Had my mom told me something like that when I was a kid I would have developed some sort of mannerly superpowers. I would have turned into Behavior Boy.

The drum and even the gypsy girl are essentially MacGuffins as the short story briskly progresses to its inevitable conclusion. And again there are multiple questions that get brushed aside. Why do the girls feel they have to actually misbehave instead of just lying to the gypsy girl about how bad they’ve been at home? Do they believe she can somehow see them when they get home? What is the gypsy girl’s motivation? Sport? Something more nefarious? Why does the mother say she does not want to leave but will have to if the girls continue raising hell? Is some outside force compelling her? And “glass eyes and a wooden tail”? What the hell?

I remember “The Drum” in particular as the story that most haunted me due to its unexplained elements. I’m pretty sure it’s the story that first made me conscious of the value of leaving some questions not only unanswered, but unasked. While most of the people I personally know never read these books–much less gleaned early storytelling lessons from them–the internet, as only it can, provides ample evidence that the books have a wealth of admirers. I’m tempted to make the bold, oddly specific declaration that this is the best and most beloved children’s horror anthology series ever. There really isn’t much more for me to say about it, at least for now, so in closing I’ll just leave you with this “scary-for-no-damn-reason” picture from the tale “Oh Susanna” that has absolutely nothing to do with the story.

Sleep well!

Confessions of a Fear Junkie is a series of reflections on the books, stories, movies, images, and lore that shaped my fascination with the Horror genre.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie – Silent Hill

At the risk of sounding a bit crude, allow me to propose that horror falls within (or roughly around) two general categories: “Oh Crap!” horror, and “What the hell?” horror. The former would be likened to more visceral or “primal” fears, the kind of horror that, when experienced in real life, makes you want to take off running immediately. The latter is more about uneasiness; the nagging sensation that something is wrong. It leaves you puzzled—at least initially—instead of triggering your “fight or flight” response.

Examples:

  • You’re home alone and you hear an angry voice coming from another room and you think, “Oh crap! Somebody broke in, I’ve got to get out of here!”
  • You’re home alone and you hear an odd but unidentifiable noise coming from another room, you wonder, “What the hell was that?” but probably don’t take off running just yet.

Now that I’ve gone through the brief trouble of setting up these two somewhat narrowly defined categories to encapsulate all horror, I’d like to immediately undermine my proposal by stating that the Silent Hill series falls into a third category: “Oh hell, what the crap!” horror.

  • You’re home alone and you hear the unmistakable  sound of your own voice coming from the other room. And you just distinctly heard yourself threatening to kill you. You’re too thoroughly discombobulated to even remember how to form a proper sentence, much less figure out what you should do.
I’d run away, but my mind is too busy eating itself to give my legs instructions…

This is the kind of horror the Silent Hill series has frequently succeeded in delivering since its first installment. People tend to say that Silent Hill is “psychological horror” but that doesn’t quite describe it. There are indeed elements that are designed to worm their way into your brain that would be fine on their own, but most of the psychological horror elements are coupled with brutally effective, tangible horror elements. The air raid siren could be unnerving by itself. That it portends the town’s transformation from the already creepy setting of “foggy, deserted and inescapable town” to “sunless, decaying, rust-infected industrial nightmare” makes it much scarier. If your character’s radio just randomly produced “white noise” it would be alarming. It is, instead, panic-inducing by being an inexact radar that announces the presence of unseen, violently aggressive monsters. How many monsters are waiting / coming for you? What the hell kind of monster is it this time? By the time you find out, you’re already under attack, and almost glad for it since it at least gives you some answers to your questions.

A giant blob of living cancer? *Whew* For a second I thought I’d never find out what wasGAAHHHH!

At the time of the first Silent Hill‘s release, the standard for “survival horror” video gaming had been set by two installments of Resident Evil. While Resident Evil had its share of puzzle-solving and moments where your best (or only) option often was to run, it also put you in control of an armed member of a special task force. Additionally, your primary enemies were zombies who adhered to key archetypical traits of their fictional species (slow-moving and especially susceptible to headshots).  The first enemies you encounter in Silent Hill are knife-wielding monster-children who ambush you after you happen upon an almost unidentifiable corpse crucified to a fence in the “dark world” you ventured into without warning. From there the situations and enemies just get stranger, and instead of an action cop you’re a helpless father whose primary weapons are a kitchen knife and a pipe, because ammo for your handgun is ridiculously scarce and you’re always saving your bullets in case you happen upon a new, even more horrifying creature just ahead.

Silent Hill wasn’t just trying to scare you, it was deliberately trying to screw with your head. As the series went on this trend continued. The game’s most feared and recognized villain, the unfortunately-yet-aptly named Pyramid Head, introduces himself in the second game by standing perfectly still on the other side of a barred wall. He doesn’t move to attack you, doesn’t make a noise, and since you can’t see his face you don’t really know if he’s even awake, much less looking at you. But he does make your aforementioned radio give off its standard “static alert,” lest you get to thinking “maybe he isn’t an evil monster to be terrified of after all.” It isn’t until later encounters that you discover him to be a nigh-invulnerable killing machine who sexually abuses other monsters.

Despite the character’s popularity he doesn’t show up again until the fifth game in the series, where he makes a suitably menacing first appearance.

Later games have suffered (many legitimate) criticisms over gameplay, and the franchise has had  some fan backlash for installments that have changed too much or weren’t innovative enough. The franchise also dumped a poorly plotted, poorly acted (save Sean Bean, God bless that dude) and poorly everything else’d film on the moviegoing populace back in 2006. Nonetheless, even the “misfires” feature some chilling moments. Hell, one of the most maligned titles in the series, Silent Hill 4: The Room, features my favorite premise: A man wakes up one day to find his door inexplicably locked from the inside. And not just ordinarily locked. We’re talking enough chains to make Jacob Marley say it’s a bit excessive…

“Oh hell, what the crap? But I’m out of milk, and I’ve got a hot date tonight, and if I no-show at work one more time I’m fired, and other reasons to go outside.”

His neighbors can’t hear him screaming for help or beating on the door, even when they’re standing in the hallway right on the other side. He can’t open any windows or get anyone to notice him, even trying to use the phone to dial out is futile. It’s somewhat like the Stephen King story 1408 if the evil scary room came to your house. The only way out of his apartment is through a newly formed tunnel in the bathroom which deposits him in random, nightmarish parts of the town of Silent Hill and the surrounding area; full of ghosts and self-immolating cultists and serial killers and whatnot.

Other favorite moments include Silent Hill 3‘s freaky, screaming mannequin room, SH3‘s freaky, bleeding mirror room, SH3‘s freaky, disturbingly humorous haunted mansion and… yeah, pretty much the entirety of SH3. That game alone has earned the series a wealth of good faith that’s far from exhausted.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: The Golden Arm

This is, to my recollection, my earliest encounter with a ghost story, antedating my ongoing, abusive, unhealthy love affair with horror.  It’s not the clearest memory, I was only five-years-old, but it’s less opaque than other memories from that age.

“Who’s got my Golden Arm?!”

My kindergarten teacher’s name was Mrs. Nina (I can’t believe I remember that) and one day she decided to introduce the class to a classic tale about a chimeric spirit. I’m unsure if this was just a weird southern or Mississippi thing or if other parts of the country also had kindergarten teachers relate tales of terror to their classes. Granted, she wasn’t reading us Lovecraft or anything quite so dire and potentially scarring, but some part of me still wonders about the objective of letting us hear this story. For that matter, though, the same could be asked about the purpose of telling ghost stories around a campfire, or even writing the stories I write now as an adult. Ultimately, it’s about the thrill of scaring the audience, no matter what age, with a well-crafted creepy yarn. Telling a scary story for its own sake is never as much fun as telling one that successfully terrifies your audience.

Twenty-plus years later, this story still floats around in the back of my mind, so to Mrs. Nina, wherever you may be good madame, mission accomplished. As for the story itself, here is the briefest of synopses:

A man has a friend who has a prosthetic arm made of solid gold.  Said friend dies and the man decides to disinter his buddy, remove the 24-karat limb from the corpse and sell it.  The dead friend takes offense, crawls out of his grave with his one remaining arm, hunts down his buddy and then…

…he murders Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife?

Well, you could Google “Golden Arm” and find a number of variations to the tale.  Some give you a formal rendition making abundant use of the word “thou”; others give you the chitlin’ circuit interpretation.  Its central characters are alternatively friends, brothers, or man and wife.

In most portrayals the returned friend/brother/wife stalks through the thief’s house, crying out repeatedly, “Who’s Got my Golden Arm?!” until finally they happen upon the terrified thief, cowering in his/her bedroom, and then the ghost screams “You’ve Got it!!!”  That’s where the story abruptly ends, but it’s intimated that some grievous demise awaits the one who stole the arm.   I’m sure that the ghost didn’t rise from the grave just to say “You’ve got it!  And I’m very disappointed.  I’m really reconsidering our relationship. I thought we were closer than this.”

Despite the story’s obvious intent, it wasn’t the vengeful spirit’s return from death that disturbed me most. It was more disturbing to me that someone had a golden arm in the first place.  The surrealistic, abominable image of this character still stands in my mind the same as when I first heard the story and imagined his appearance.  This is a greedy, selfish, maniacal, loathsome person.  One with jaundiced, spoiled eyes and skin the color of the ocean at night.

Today I can apply some semblance of logic to the conclusion I’d drawn as a kid. Even setting aside the callousness of getting buried with an appendage that could be donated to your friend, or wife, or charity or something, a golden arm would be terribly heavy and cumbersome. Only a severely troubled mind would dream of grafting such a gaudy, useless artificiality to their body.  In short, you’d have to be crazy to want a golden arm, and not the good, comedic kind of crazy, or the tolerable, fearless-when-it’s-not-necessary kind of crazy, but the seething, malignant kind. That special brand of crazy potent enough to wake the dead.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: The Blair Witch Project

I understand why a lot of people hated The Blair Witch Project. When it was first released over a decade ago I didn’t understand the negativity, but it didn’t take long for me to figure it out. And no, I’m not blaming it on “Hype Backlash,” though that was probably a part of it. Truth is, it’s not a very good film. It was, upon initial viewing, a great experience for me, but when you break down actual movie components like plotting, pacing, and acting, it ranges from serviceable to questionable. I own the DVD and the movie itself has very little replay value. I’ve watched the faux-documentary several times but I’ve only watched the movie itself twice in its entirety.

At the time, my best friend and I were practically obsessed with horror movies. Now, we’re longstanding movie fanatics in general, but our horror geekdom in the late 90’s was rapidly approaching critical mass. Mind you, we were two tall, athletic black dudes who did okay with the ladies and didn’t shop at Hot Topic, so we didn’t fit the any visual stereotype for horror movie nerds.

Nonetheless, we were both enamored with horror movies, at a level that probably should have embarrassed us. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the internet reading up on and discussing horror flicks. This, of course, is how I (along with many others) came to know of The Blair Witch Project several months prior to its wide release. I can’t remember where I first heard mention of it, but more than likely it was through Dark Horizons. I do remember reading quotes from people who had attended advanced screenings. One quote in particular stood out to me: “I feel like I just got punched in the stomach.”

Who wouldn’t want to watch a movie that made you feel like this?

There wasn’t ever a time when I believed it was actually a “true story.” Even back when I was still frequently awed by the sheer world-wideness of the web, my search-fu was strong. Maybe not Bruce Lee strong, but at the very least Bruce Li strong. Some simple web navigation uncovered that the story was entirely fictional–no missing film students, no basis for the legend–and I think that might have actually heightened my appreciation for the well-crafted backstory.

The most enduring element of Blair Witch for me is the “fakelore” at its foundation. I find the idea of the supernatural entertaining and intriguing, and I’m a bit of a history fan, so I’m always drawn to ghostly legends. The story of Elly Kedward is quite convincing for what it is. Her exile from the town, the subsequent disappearances of children and other bizarre, unexplained events come off as a plausible embellishment. Obviously untrue, and yet possessing some small level of verisimilitude. Of course a pale hand didn’t actually reach from out from within Tappy East Creek to pull a little girl named Eileen Treacle underwater, but could there have been an actual drowning that inspired that tale?

… It was a lot scarier in my head…

Well… no… thankfully there wasn’t, but the fact that it’s all entirely made up just makes it all the more impressive to me. I still think that much of the best writing and storytelling done for The Blair Witch Project never actually made it to the big screen.

I had told my friend about this movie and linked him to its internet viral marketing and lo and behold, he caught the Blair Witch bug same as me. Nearly every review we read was not merely positive, but almost cautionary. I’ve always wanted to write a story that inspires a critic to say something along the lines of, “So scary I can’t even recommend it.” That was damn near how the Blair Witch reviews read, at least to me. This movie seemed to exhibit the motif of harmful sensation: it was so terrifying that it was actually causing viewers physical distress! That turned out to be mostly or entirely due to motion sickness brought about by the camera constantly moving around so much it has a U-HAUL rewards card. But at the time not many reviewers explicitly stated this, either because they did not realize the true source of their nausea, or because at the time copping to motion sickness from watching a movie was like admitting to a fear of clowns in the pre-Poltergeist or IT era: AKA “Before it Somehow Became ‘Cool’ to Have a Fear of Clowns.'”

Scary Clown Happy Clown
Scary. Jovial. These words are not synonyms. These pictures are not similar. Calm yourself…

Our anticipation for this film had reached a point where there was essentially no way it could have hoped to live up to expectations. Mind you, this was well before the mainstream movie-going public had heard of the film, and possibly before it had been picked up by Artisan for distribution. We had not been lured to see this thanks to a bombardment of television ads promising a rollicking, fearful theme park ride. We had created more than enough pre-release hype for ourselves. So when my boy scored tickets to an advance screening there was much rejoicing and high-fiving.

When we finally saw the movie, well, as I mentioned, it was a memorable experience despite the fact that at around the midpoint of the film I started to wonder, “So when is thing actually supposed to get scary?” The answer came in the last ten minutes or so of the film when the tortuously slow build up finally leads to something, and I will close this Confessions entry with a few things that remain with me from that first viewing, and from the film’s ending.

1. The woman next to me held my hand during the film’s final few minutes. She was blonde, and I remember thinking she was probably in her mid-30’s or so. Reasonably attractive, I think. And a total stranger. I had never seen her before and if I’ve seen her since I did not recognize her. But right around the time that Heather and Mike made it to the house in the woods, she gripped my hand like she’d fall into an abyss if she let go. For my part, I did not pull away. I also did not say anything about it to her because…

2. No one in my theater spoke after the movie was over. Or if anyone did, it was as “quiet as an ant not even thinking of pissing on cotton” as Gene Hackman said in Heist. It was unspeakably eerie, marching out of that theater surrounded by the ponderous silence. When we reached the theater lobby and there were people talking and enjoying themselves like normal human beings in a movie theater should, it was jarring. Almost offensive. For a moment there we were a procession of the walking dead exiting our own mass funeral. How dare anyone in our vicinity hold a conversation, much less laugh and jest with one another?

3. I was surprised to see it was daylight outside, but couldn’t quite understand why. In hindsight, the damn movie dragged so much in the first three-quarters or so that it feels like it’s taking you several hours to slog through it. But at the time… at the time, the daylight seemed out of place, and worse still illusory. Fragile.

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