Over the span of my thus far short writing career, I’ve been fortunate to experience several moments of clarity; moments which have changed me as a writer and a person. One of them came in the form of my first actual critique from an editor, regarding the first short story I ever submitted. The critique stung with its stark, unflinching truthfulness, but it forced me to face my writing weaknesses head on, and showed me the immeasurable value of honest feedback. It set the tone for how I approach editorial critique, to this day.
Another came my first year of Borderlands Press Writers Bootcamp. I can’t put the experience into words, quite honestly. Spending the weekend learning the craft from F. Paul Wilson, Tom Monteleone, Gary Braunbeck, Mort Castle, Elizabeth Massie, Douglas Winter and Ginjer Buchanan? Everything I thought I knew got turned on its head; and even more amazingly, I discovered that everything they said we needed to do right…I could accomplish, if I wanted it bad enough. If you’ve never attended Borderlands Press Writers Bootcamp (or even heard of it, for that matter), or have been on the fence about attending, wait no longer. Get on that, yesterday.
Then comes a night I’ll never forget. Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011. Having experienced firsthand F. Paul Wilson and Tom Monteleone’s brilliance at Borderlands, I invited them to my high school (where I teach) to provide a similar Borderlands experience for my Creative Writing students. The first night of their stay, Paul called me on my cell phone, and said:
Paul: “Hey, Kevin. Whatcha doin’? Anything important?”
Me: “Uhm, nope. Not really.”
It should be noted that, this being F. Paul Wilson, calling MY cell, the house could’ve been burning down around me and my answer would’ve been the same.
Paul: “We’re over at friend’s house, and he’s got this awesome basement. I can’t even explain. You’ve got to come see this.”
Me: “Sure! I’ll be right over!” Again, even if the house was burning down…well, you get the idea.
Turned out their “friend’s” house was only a block away from the school where I taught. And I’m can’t remember what I thought Paul wanted me to see, but I do know it ended up frying almost every circuit in my brain. First of all, their friend? Who lived in Binghamton, and has lived in Binghamton, this whole time?
Stuart David Schiff.
Former owner, editor and publisher of Whispers Magazine, and the Whispers anthologies. And his basement?
A Smithsonian of The Weird. Seriously. Any description I could offer would ultimately fall short. Think a winding, mini-labyrinth lined with crammed bookshelves, framed prints of Golden Age Sci-Fi and Pulp art, a life-sized paper maché tiger straight from London, and a captain’s chair from a Romulan Warship.
And that’s only scratching the surface.
What followed was a night I’ll always remember. Tom, Paul and Stuart waxed nostalgic about genre history, conventions they’d attended, writers they knew and wished they didn’t know; and they each reminisced on their careers, their inspirations, what drove them, their favorite writers, until about midnight. At least, that’s when I left, and I only tapped out because I had to teach the next morning. If I’d had nothing to get up for, I would’ve stayed several hours longer, so long as they’d have me.
The amazing thing was Tom worrying they were boring me with “ancient history,” which couldn’t have been further from the truth. The glazed look in my eyes wasn’t boredom. It was my brain exploding as an entirely different world opened up before me. See, I was a pretty common case: inspired by Stephen King and Peter Straub, I’d decided in my late twenties I wanted to write horror. Problem was, the only other author I’d read outside those two admittedly solid cornerstones was Dean Koontz, and as much as I loved his work, much of it wasn’t really horror.
Ramsey Campbell. Charles L. Grant. T. M. Wright. Alan Peter Ryan. Thomas Tessier. Manley Wade Wellman. Robert Aikman. Al Sarrantonio. James Herbert. Chelsea-Quinn Yarbo. Karl Edward Wagner. Dennis Etchison. Fritz Leiber. Robert E. Howard. All only names to me. I knew nothing of their work or of their importance to the genre.
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to mythologize or idolize the past. At the same time I began my journey of discovery, I was also eagerly consuming more contemporary voices in Gary A. Braunbeck, Mary SanGiovanni, Ronald Malfi, Rio Youers, Norman Partridge, Norman Prentiss, Nate Kenyon, Tim Lebbon, Brian Keene, and many others. All amazing writers; all varied in their approach to horror.
Even so, I maintain something crucial was missing in my horror makeup, my background, for lack of better word. I came to horror late in the game. Stephen King converted me. And there’s nothing wrong with that. His influence remains strong, and I’m completely okay with this.
But the first time I read a surreal T. M. Wright novel, (The Place) something popped in my brain. When I ventured into Charles L. Grant’s haunted town of Oxrun Station for the first time (The Grave), something hummed along my nerves. Gaping doors to undiscovered lands creaked open when I read Ramsey Campbell, Robert Aikman, Manley Wade Wellman and Dennis Etchison for the first time. Joy sprung in me when I discovered Paul F. Olson’s work in The Best of the Horror Show. Reading the Whispers, Shadows, Masques, Borderlands collections for the first time—along with Karl Edward Wagner’s run of Year’s Best Horror—was like a treasure hunt, promising gems in new authors and their wares.
I was never the same. Used bookstores became goldmines. I literally started planning our vacations around locations of used bookstores. The summer of 2011, I decided I’d not read nearly enough Ray Bradbury or short stories in general, so I proceeded to read 198 Ray Bradbury short stories in one summer, along with my first forays into the Whispers anthologies, which I bought on Amazon (much to my wife’s and our checking account’s chagrin) the night I met Stuart David Schiff. With the exception of the contemporary authors who especially moved me—SanGiovanni, Malfi, Youers, Prentiss, Partridge and Braunbeck—I eschewed all others for these, because something was missing. I didn’t know who those other authors were, and I was possessed with a need to address the gap, post-haste.
I’ve changed as a writer because of this “schooling.” I can’t tell you how, exactly, or in what specific ways. All I know is, over the course of these years—2011 to 2013—I published very little, wrote very much, and read even more. And slowly, stories began mapping themselves better in my head (does that even make sense?). Because I encountered stories, tropes and ideas which had already been written better than I could ever hope to, I pushed myself to find my own, personal, internal space in which to create stories.
It changed me.
It made me who am I today, and I would like to share that with all of you. Seasoned veterans may read these ensuing columns, nod and smile, kindly and knowingly bemused at my enthusiasm, because I’ll be discussing writers they’ve known and loved for years. They’ll be thinking: Well, it’s about time, kiddo.
What I’m hoping for, however, is to encourage young writers like I was five years ago to explore the horror genre’s past. Not idolize it, or endlessly regurgitate it in imitative pastiches. But explore all the rich, varied voices which should not be forgotten. Many of them have found second life in ebook form. Many have not, however, and it saddens me to think they might be lost forever.
Will you come along with me? I can’t promise I’ll recommend authors you’ll all fall in love with, like I did. I can only share the discoveries I made, discoveries which have helped shape me into the writer I am today. Our first visit?
Oxrun Station. A small fictional town in Connecticut; a strange little town with something just a bit off about it, created by one of the finest wordsmiths I’ve ever encountered, (because you don’t just read his work, you encounter it) the late master of quiet horror, Charles L. Grant himself. Come with me, then. Take my hand.
Don’t be afraid. That’s just a shadow on the wall, or the wind, scattering crisp autumn leaves along the sidewalk behind us.
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance Magazine. His column Horror 101 is featured in Lamplight Magazine. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, followed by Devourer of Souls in June 2014 and Through A Mirror, Darkly, in June 2015. His novella Mystery Road is forthcoming in limited edition hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications, and he’s currently working on his first novel.