As horror fans, we all have that book, movie, comic book, etc. that served as our entry point to the genre. For me, it’d have to be Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the Young Adult book series written by Alvin Schwartz and boasting nightmarish illustrations by Stephen Gammell. There was something about those books that left a huge imprint (scar?) on me as a child and helped spark a lifelong interest in the macabre.
I often wonder how other horror writers first became interested in the genre. Was it after watching the IT miniseries or reading dad’s old Tales From The Crypt comics? “My First Fright” is a new interview series where we look at one work that provided horror authors with that initial spark.
Kealan Patrick Burke is a Bram Stoker Award-winning author from Ireland. He is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and collections, including The Turtle Boy, Kin, and Sour Candy.
(Interview conducted by John Brhel)
CEMETERY DANCE ONLINE: What was your “first fright”? Describe it briefly for those of us not familiar with the work.
KEALAN PATRICK BURKE: I think the very first time I remember being frightened by a book was when I read “The Tell-Tale Heart” in the abridged-for-YA edition of Tales of Mystery and Terror by Edgar Allan Poe. It was a small book, softcover, with a picture of a pale blue manse being cracked down the side by red lightning. And while I was more engaged than unnerved by the stories, it was the crosshatch illustrations that tweaked me, particularly one of the ones for “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which showed an old man contorted in terror upon his bed, one gnarled hand trying to shield his enormous eagle eye from the streams of light being cast upon him by the man in the doorway.
How old were you when you first discovered Tales of Mystery and Terror?
I think I was probably about six or seven.
How did you come upon Tales of Mystery and Terror?
We were dirt poor when I was kid, but my mother believed it critical that I read as much as possible. So every Thursday on her grocery run she bought me a book, even though we could scarcely afford it. It was after one of these trips that I found myself in possession of Tales of Mystery and Terror. Other books she procured for me in the series of abridged YA classics were Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Robin Hood.
Why did the book make an impact on you? What was it that struck a chord in you?
The stories themselves ignited my imagination, but would not by themselves have been enough to serve as the answer to your question (though “The Cask of Amontillado” certainly gave me chills). It was the illustrations though—stark black and white, impeccably rendered and detailed, showing the fear and the horror on the old man’s withered face, that one implausibly large eye staring out at his tormentor. Something about that depiction of horror stuck with me—the helplessness, the fear—and resonated so much that it echoes still. I can picture that illustration as if it were yesterday. That eye though….shudder.
How do you feel about your first fright now? Does it still hold up? Is it still scary?
I haven’t seen that illustration in probably three decades, but as mentioned above, I don’t need to. Now, though, it probably wouldn’t jar me as much as it did when I was an impressionable young lad. I certainly appreciate the artistry and the fact that, for a rather cheaply produced book, it was profusely illustrated, and those illustrations—like many YA books from that era—were fantastic and pretty terrifying. The stories, on the other hand, well, those formed the foundation for the house I’m building still.
How did Tales of Mystery and Terror inform your writing? Have you ever touched upon some of its themes in your own work or tried to emulate it in any way?
A lot of the stories I read and the illustrations I was exposed to back in my formative years defined my impression of horror, so yes, I would say it all helped educate me on the idea that horror was a state of mind, a state of being, and that the very comfortable edges of my world were not the only edges there were. And most importantly, it taught me that being scared was not always a negative thing, that it could be used to thrill and to entertain. And as I do that for a living, obviously it had a great impact, one I’m still exploring and trying to understand.
Do you recommend readers check out Tales of Mystery and Terror?
Oh yes, absolutely. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the stories, but I’d advise trying to track down that particular edition, something talking about it here has made me want to do myself!
Anything else you’d like to add about your “first fright”?
Just that that memory of it is a very fond one, not only for the revelatory instance that fear in fiction and the arts existed and that maybe someday I could create things that made people feel a similar way, but also because it reminds me of the excitement of those early Thursdays, waiting for my mother to come home from the store, and the impatient thrill of waiting to see what that week’s book was going to be.