From time to time folks will ask me why I write horror. I seem very nice, they say, so the fact that such ghastly things would spring forth from my imagination perplexes them. This doesn’t explain everything…but it’s a start.
“Boys and girls of every age
Wouldn’t you like to see something strange?”
I never had a chance. Or a choice.
When I was about two-years-old, my family (such as it was) moved to a tiny house on the edge of a tiny town. The house (such as it was) resembled a pair of dilapidated shanties connected by a makeshift breezeway. There was a basement of sorts, complete with a dank odor and a slanted floor that funneled toward a hole full of black water. Because I was such a brave youth, my nightmares concerning that brackish pit only haunted me infrequently (roughly six nights a week).
On one side of the house lay an ancient, sprawling graveyard; on the other side lived our only neighbors—a woman rumored to be insane and a man I rarely saw. A hoary, lightless forest lurked at the rim of our backyard, and my only recollection of the road in front of our house is the way a speeding car murdered my dog the day before I began kindergarten. To top it off, though I had an awesome mother and a very affectionate cat, my biological father (until the divorce occurred when I was four) enforced a no-talking rule in the house that tended to have a disadvantageous effect on my morale. After the divorce there came a seemingly endless assortment of peeping toms (my mom was young and pretty) and drunken, uninvited suitors. Many were the nights when I’d glance out my bedroom window and discover a leering, whiskered face hoping to catch a glimpse of my mother.
Hearing all of these facts, you might think I had an unpleasant childhood.
Actually, it was perfect.
Because I was alone so often, I had a great deal of time to explore. This exploration was partially physical—I loved to wander through the graveyard and often dared myself to venture into the forest—but to an even greater degree, the exploration was psychological. I wondered about the bodies buried underfoot. I wondered about the lives they’d led, the deeds they’d done, and the manner in which their time on earth had ended. Sometimes I wondered what would happen if the ground under my sneakers would suddenly…shift. Or how terrifying it would be if a fleshless finger caressed my ankle.
My imagination couldn’t have found more fertile ground than those dreary woods and that decaying graveyard. And never were those places more evocative than on October 31st.
My most vivid Halloween memories—other than the Halloweens I’ve shared with my wife and young children—took place amongst the tombstones and the looming sycamores enshrouding my childhood home. When I was nine-years-old, a couple friends and I dared each other to enter the graveyard at dusk. We were yearning for a unique Halloween thrill, and though we weren’t pursued by shambling zombies or attacked by a machete-wielding maniac, we did eventually find ourselves in an alarmingly lonesome corner of the cemetery.
Two things happened in that deepening twilight (which had transformed from a brilliant orange to the hue of coagulating blood) that would later find their way into my books. The first event occurred when we peered into the woods and happened to spot the weed-strewn remains of an old house. The structure had evidently burned down decades before and was now a scorched, gaping scar in the earth. Within the cinderblock walls of the basement I discerned blackened boards, charred roof shingles, and what looked eerily like a little girl’s white dress. This summer I included those details in my work-in-progress, a novel I hope to have done in a few months.
The other sight that transfixed me that evening was a huge, black, ornately carved headstone that had been half-swallowed by the encroaching forest. By this time it was nearly full dark, and my friends were antsy to return to my house. For most of the evening I had been the jumpiest member of our trio, my imagination and the sepulchral setting collaborating to send me into a perpetual state of breathless terror. But when my gaze happened upon that solitary black marker, all my childish worries faded away. I speculated about who was buried there. I wondered what the person had done to incur such wrath, for on the gravestone were spray-painted several obscenities (“Burn in hell” being the least offensive), and in several places someone had apparently assaulted the stone with a hammer and chisel.
That large black gravestone became one of the central images in my novel HOUSE OF SKIN. Paul Carver, my protagonist, wanders into a similar forest graveyard and becomes entranced by the ornate patterns and the terrible desecrations of a similar gravestone. Paul edges closer and lays a hand on the cold marker. And then…someone speaks to him.
Halloween can breathe life into us as well as reminding us of death. It can also give inspiration to a child who has seen too many terrors at too young an age.
That nine-year-old is still inside me. He helped me write HOUSE OF SKIN.
And he wants you to lay your hand on that cold gravestone too.