A personal journey with Stephen King (even if he doesn’t know it).
I’ve been having a hard time writing recently. Part of it is due to chronic health problems, part of it is due to medication to treat those problems. The bottom line is that, for the first time in my life, I haven’t really produced anything in almost two years. I spent a couple days feeling really depressed about this. Then I decided to DO something. Unfortunately, there aren’t any roadmaps with writing, so I had to figure out for myself what to do.
One piece of writing advice that resonates with me is “write what you want to read.” So I had to think about what I like to read. The sad truth is it has been a long time since I read something I really like and I couldn’t remember any of my favorite reads (that could also be the medicine talking). So I cracked open my Goodreads account, sorted my books by my ratings, and then made a list of my ten favorite books. This is that list (in no order):
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
- Infected by Scott Sigler
- Swan Song by Robert McCammon
- Mr Mercedes by Stephen King
- Harvest by Tess Gerritsen
- Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
- The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
- Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Looking at this list of my favorite books, I can see a few common elements; they’re all dark, sciency, tense and suspenseful, with really bad antagonists, and most have morally ambiguous protagonists (so, the hero isn’t always a knight in shining armor).
I’ve been writing for my whole life. I often think back on the first stories I wrote, when I used to tear pages out of the middles of my school books and make up fan fiction about Indiana Jones. My writing has evolved to darker places now. If you’ve read any of my recent work you’ll know I have tended towards stories of loss. In Her Harlequin Baby, a mother is shocked by her newborn’s birth defect and chooses to humanely end his life, with horrifying consequences for herself. In Khayalami Hospital a young couple explores a haunted hospital and the teenage girl discovers a very personal connection with the ghosts haunting the building. And in Strong Medicine a single mother must try and rescue her daughter from a powerful witch doctor who has kidnapped her.
At this point, I was starting to feel a spark of excitement. I could write, and I was going to write something scary. But what? This is where Stephen King comes in. I remember reading a quote by him somewhere, about different kinds of horror. So I went in search of that quote, and found so much more. Yeah, I’m going to put it all here, so buckle up, we’re going for a ride.
First up, an essay from the forward to a 1978 short story collection, Night Shift:
Let’s talk, you and I. Let’s talk about fear. The house is empty as I write this; a cold February rain is falling outside. It’s night. Sometimes when the wind blows the way it’s blowing now, we lose the power. But for now it’s on, and so let’s talk very honestly about fear. Let’s talk very rationally about moving to the rim of madness…and perhaps over the edge.
… We won’t raise our voices and we won’t scream; we’ll talk rationally, you and I. We’ll talk about the way the good fabric of things sometimes has a way of unraveling with shocking suddenness.
At night, when I go to bed, I still am at pains to be sure that my legs are under the blankets after the lights go out. I’m not a child anymore but… I don’t like to sleep with one leg sticking out. Because if a cool hand ever reached out from under the bed and grasped my ankle, I might scream. Yes, I might scream to wake the dead. That sort of thing doesn’t happen, of course, and we all know that. In the stories that follow you will encounter all manner of night creatures; vampires, demon lovers, a thing that lives in the closet, all sorts of other terrors. None of them are real. The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.
Fear is the emotion that makes us blind. How many things are we afraid of? We’re afraid to turn off the lights when our hands are wet. We’re afraid to stick a knife into the toaster to get the stuck English muffin without unplugging it first. We’re afraid of what the doctor may tell us when the physical exam is over; when the airplane suddenly takes a great unearthly lurch in midair. We’re afraid that the oil may run out, that the good air will run out, the good water, the good life. When the daughter promised to be in by eleven and it’s now quarter past twelve and sleet is spatting against the window like dry sand, we sit and pretend to watch Johnny Carson and look occasionally at the mute telephone and we feel the emotion that makes us blind, the emotion that makes a stealthy ruin of the thinking process.
The infant is a fearless creature only until the first time the mother isn’t there to pop the nipple into his mount when he cries, The Toddler quickly discovers the blunt and painful truths of the slamming door, the hot burner, the fever that goes with the croup or the measles. Children learn fear quickly; they pick it up off the mother or father’s face when the parent comes into the bathroom and sees them with the bottle of pills or safety razor.
Fear makes us blind, and we touch each fear with all the avid curiosity of self-interest, trying to make a whole out of a hundred parts. We sense the shape. Children grasp it easily, forget, and relearn it as adults. The shape is there, and most of us come to realize what it is sooner or later: it is the shape of a body under a sheet. All out fears add to one great fear, all our fears are part of that great fear-an arm, a leg, a finger, an ear. We’re afraid of the body under the sheet. It’s our body. And the great appeal of horror fiction through the ages is that it serves a a rehearsal for our own deaths.
No waking or dreaming in this terminal, but only the voice of the writer, low and rational, talking about the way the good fabric of things sometimes has a way of unraveling with shocking suddenness. He’s telling you that you do want to see the car accident, and yes, he’s right—you do. There’s a dead voice on the phone…something behind the walls of the old house that sounds bigger than a rat…movement at the foot of the cellar stairs. He wants you to see all of those things, and more.
These are some things I feel that the horror story does, but I am firmly convinced that it must tell a tale that holds the reader or the listener spellbound for a little while, lost in a world that never was, never could be. It must be like the wedding guest that stoppeth one of three. All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer’s craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven.
Where I am, it’s still dark and raining. We’ve got a fine night for it. There’s something I want to show you, something I want you to touch. It’s in a room not far from here-in fact, it’s almost as close as the next page.
Shall we go?
I really like that. I want to know more about what Mr King says about fear. Plus, this wasn’t the quote I was looking for. So I gooogled again and I hit on this:
His[King’s] own personal fears in (descending order) are the fear of someone else, others (paranoia), death, insects (especially spiders, flies, beetles), closed in places, rats, snakes, deformity, squishy things, and his number one fear is fear of the dark. “At night, when I go to bed I am still at pains to be sure that my legs are under the blankets, after the lights go out. I’m not a child anymore…I don’t like to sleep with one leg sticking out. Because if a cool hand ever reached out from under the bed and grabbed my ankle, I might scream.
Now this really resonated. I want to write scary stories, but I can’t keep writing about losing my kids. I need to diversify, and another well-worn writing axiom is “write what you know.” Next step, list the things that frighten me. Now this is personal, so no judging, okay? In no particular order, things that scare or gross me out:
- Losing my children
- My teeth crumbling in my mouth
- Losing my teeth
- Groups of people
- Serious illness
- Loss of control of my body & life
- Trucks on the highway
- Wild predators, especially lions.
- Teeth in the wrong place.
- Clusters of holes.
I finally did find that King quote I was looking for, on Goodreads of course.
The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…
All together this has been a very interesting exercise for me. I’ve got a much clearer picture of the kinds of stories I want to tell you. Keep that seat belt fastened.