I lived a good chunk of my childhood on a small, rural road. All of the homes had families and were fairly well-kempt, so my siblings and my best buddy who lived next door didn’t really have a typical “haunted house” to be afraid of; but that didn’t keep us from concocting weird stories about the surrounding property. That creepy orchard up the hill? A kid my mom used to babysit for convinced us that he had seen a severed hand from World War II hanging from a tree up there (yep, from that famous WWII battle fought in Upstate New York, of course). Then there was the turnaround where I swear I saw a UFO land one night (okay, maybe that was just a dream). When you’re a kid, your imagination runs wild, and seemingly innocuous places can transform into terrifying locales. Jonathan Janz can relate—he read a story back in seventh grade that touched on just that idea, a story that stuck with him and put him on a path to creating strange stories of his own.
Jonathan Janz is the author of more than a dozen novels and numerous short stories. His work has been championed by authors like Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Ketchum, and Brian Keene; he has also been lauded by Publishers Weekly, the Library Journal, and the School Library Journal. His novel Children of the Dark was chosen by Booklist as a “Top Ten Horror Book of the Year.” His latest book, The Siren and the Specter, a ghost story set on Virginia’s Rappahannock River, will be released in September by Flame Tree Press. His entire backlist will also be available through Flame Tree, and he’s hoping to have two or three new novels coming in 2019.
(Interview conducted by John Brhel)
CEMETERY DANCE: What is your “first fright”?
JONATHAN JANZ: August Derleth’s “The Lonesome Place.”
I’m not familiar with that story. Can you give a short, spoiler-free summary?
It’s a short story I read in some anthology when I was in seventh grade. I remember being at the library after school and waiting on my grandpa to pick me up. I scanned the titles of books and saw one that looked creepy. I was NOT a reader—had never read a book at that point, and probably hadn’t read a story I picked out on my own. I liked the title “The Lonesome Place,” so I decided to give it a shot.
The basic plot is a young man in a small town has to pass by this eerie little spot on his way home from school. I believe it’s a vacant lot near some abandoned building. But it’s shadowy, and it fills him with dread. He does everything he can to avoid it, but the geography of his little town makes it almost impossible to avoid. He thinks of excuses when his mom asks for items from the store, but to his chagrin, she always seems to ask for these items around dinner time. So, he has to pass by the lonesome place twice as the dusk deepens. He imagines that he sees and hears things as he runs by the place. I believe he and his friends have even heard stories about it. But his imagination absolutely goes haywire every time he ventures near the spot. Not to give the story away, but ultimately, he learns that there might something very real lurking there.
That sounds like a perfect story for a seventh grader, because that seems like the type of stuff you do around that age, make stories out of strange places.
Yes. It was. Making it even more perfect was the type of day it was. Very rainy, very dark. I was the only kid in the library, and I think my grandpa was late that day (he rarely was). The feeling the story gave me was half-terrifying, half-delicious. I reveled in my discomfort, but I also hated it. I kept whirling and checking behind me, sure that something—the something from “The Lonesome Place”—was creeping up behind me.
Did you take the book home?
You know…I think I might have. I definitely remember going back through the story and lingering on the scariest parts. Those might have been my first nascent moments as a storyteller (on the page); prior to that, I had always wanted to make movies and tell scary stories through a visual medium. But what stunned me was that although the tale was just comprised of words, it WAS a visual medium. I saw it all so vividly. I experienced it like I would have experienced a movie, only this was much more personal and almost unsettlingly intimate.
You know, I think in this case it was that the love of all things macabre was always just “in” me. I think back to early childhood, and one of the tales I remember vividly is “Shivers” from the Arnold Lobel Frog and Toad series. There were about twenty of those stories, all of them fantastic, but it was the scariest one that really stuck with me.
Later on, my mom—whom I suspect is one of the primary culprits here—would watch shows like The Twilight Zone and In Search Of…, and these shows also spoke to me in a way other genres didn’t. I’ve always loved all types of stories—funny, adventurous, sweet, action-packed, moving—but for some reason, the scary ones reached down inside me and stirred me in a way the others couldn’t replicate.
A few other examples of these early chills were recordings of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Charles Dickens’ “The Signal-Man,” as well as a marionette performance of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” These stories were wildly disturbing yet paradoxically comforting. I guess knowing that others were fascinated by scary things validated my own ubiquitous fears.
As someone who has now written numerous stories of that ilk, do you find “The Lonesome Place” compelling years later? Does it hold up? Is it still “scary”?
Great question. I haven’t looked at that tale for maybe six or seven years, but when I did revisit it, I remember enjoying it again and understanding why it impacted me. I think it does hold up, although objectively most horror writers would consider it a little too straightforward to be deemed a classic. But because I was inexperienced and quite susceptible to the story’s spell at that age, it really walloped me. So yes, it holds up, but I can clearly see the man above the stage pulling the strings to create the desired effect.
Would you say that the way Derleth told the story influenced your own writing in any way? Have you gone on to use any of the techniques employed in “The Lonesome Place” in your own stories?
Absolutely. I think that formative moment still echoes in some of my shorter fiction. Obviously, there are all kinds of short stories, but one type I always love (when done well) is the kind with a real payoff or a shattering ending. Sometimes it’s a twist, sometimes it’s what the reader expects but dreads. The seed that Derleth planted, I suspect, led me to appreciate many of the tales in King’s Night Shift, the best tales of Richard Matheson, and the short stories of Roald Dahl. And the doozy of an ending featured in “The Lonesome Place” probably impacted my stuff too. “The Clearing of Travis Coble” and “Old Order,” for instance, feature awfully dark and twisty (and twisted) endings.
You’re a man after my own heart. I love Night Shift, and Matheson and Dahl are some of my favorite short story writers.
They’re amazing, aren’t they? Stories like “Strawberry Spring” and “I Am the Doorway” still blow my doors off. So do Matheson’s “Button, Button,” “Prey,” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” as do Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter,” “Man from the South,” and so many others.
Did you go on to read any more Derleth?
I think I’ve read a few more Derleth tales, and while he’s not my absolute favorite, it seems like there were a couple others I enjoyed. Something about a red-haired child maybe? I’ll have to go look through his titles…
Do you have any memories of scary places in your own hometown that remind you of the mill in “The Lonesome Place”? Did you envision any similar place when you read the story?
Oh, my goodness, yes. This is probably why I was so affected by the tale. I grew up on the edge of town, sort of in the country, with my mom and my cat. We had a tiny house next to a graveyard. Behind us was a deep, dark woods. On the other side was an insane woman whose husband shot himself when, I believe, I was home (though I don’t remember hearing the gunshot). I was ALWAYS afraid when I was little, and the lonesome places surrounding me had a lot to do with that.
Geez. You sure you’re not a protagonist in some horror movie?
Hah! No, but Will Burgess, the protagonist from my Children of the Dark novels, is basically me. His house, his personality, just about all of it.
Do you have anything else you’d like to add about “The Lonesome Place” or how it impacted you?
I’d say that it opened my eyes to what written fiction could accomplish. I didn’t read my first novel until the summer between eighth grade and my freshman year, but when I did it was The Tommyknockers by Stephen King. But without “The Lonesome Place,” I likely never would have picked up that novel (and it was that novel that made me a reader, a horror writer, and an English teacher).