When I first decided the horror genre was for me, (about twelve years ago now, believe it or not), I wrote some stories which were “okay” but were very bound by genre clichés (many of these are featured in my first short story collection, Things Slip Through). Monsters, werewolves, wendigos, women in white, haunted houses, evil doctors, Mothman knock-offs, a few campy vampire stories which thankfully never saw the light of day (one of them, embarrassingly enough, titled “Blood Diner”), serial killers, people who go mad and do terrible things, and some “okay” Lovecraftian pastiches.
In fact, the very first short story I sold —“Way Station”—was to the first edition of The Midnight Diner, which had been subtitled Cthulhu VS. Jesus. My story, as you may have guessed, featured the Great Unspeakable Itself, in all Its tentacle-lashing glory, in a title fight against a strange little boy with glowing blue eyes (who may or may not’ve been Jesus) for the soul of a (you guessed it) bitter, disillusioned, drunken, washed up author by the name of Gavin Patchett, who would go on to become one of the external narrators of my linked collection, Things Slip Through.
Several years before TST, I was commissioned to write an installment in Shroud Publishing’s unfortunately short-lived pulp/horror/dark fantasy “Hiram Grange” novella series, Hiram Grange and the Chosen One. At that time, my Hiram title was actually the most original thing I’d ever written. Ironically enough, having to write within the boundaries of a series “bible” enabled me to write a decent, fast-paced story featuring Lovecraftian (again) beasties made of maggots, a half-mad ne’er-do-well who was the only man who could save the world, (as long as he could stay sober long enough to do so) and faeries, of all things. Queen Mab in particular. It was my first solo publication, and it was decently reviewed. I’m still very proud of my turn with Hiram, and am sorry his saga hasn’t continued.
However, as much as I liked my Hiram installment, and even though I was receiving a few solicitations to write short stories for semi-pro collections, and had also (again) utilized some Lovecraftian pastiche to write the decently original short story “The Water God of Clarke Street” for Shroud’s Abominations anthology, I was still searching for my voice. Something that would define a “Kevin Lucia” story. In fact, I’d even heard an editor or two mention at conventions that I had “something” which made my stories stand out; that if they picked my story out of a pile of stories with no names, they’d be able to identify mine on the first try. I, however, had no idea what this “something” was, nor did I know how I could channel it better.
I got my first hint in an email conversation with mentor and Borderlands instructor Mort Castle, asking him what he honestly thought of my Hiram Grange novella (which had been written during my back-to-back stint at Borderlands Press Writers Bootcamp). At the time, his response wasn’t exactly what I’d been hoping for….but in retrospect, I owe much (if not all) of what little success I’ve enjoyed to his insightful words, which went something like this:
“You definitely handled all the action scenes well, (in Hiram Grange) and it’s well-paced, and moves along at a good clip. Your story still needs some work, however. It’s not bad, at all. It’s just that, the great stories, the ones which last, come from those late-night conversations we have with ourselves.” (emphasis mine)
I was a bit disappointed at first (I think, deep down, all writers just want their mentors’ praise), but the last bit burrowed into my mind and stayed there. I discovered in them the seed of what I thought might make my stories at least a little original, to me, anyway: those late-night conversations we have with ourselves. In other words….
With life, parenting, our work, our parents, our spouses, our children—especially if you’re the parent of a special needs child.
Our fears, about all those things. If you’re a Christian like me, what that means regarding your faith, your questions and doubts about said faith, your fears of failing to live up to it, my standing in the face of something much bigger and larger than me, and what it means to claim the title Christian, when so many Christians these days excel at saying and doing the worst things.
That only scratched the surface. When I turned my gaze inward and found all these conflicts and fears ripe for the channeling, I began looking at the world around me. I mean really looked. I realized what I saw out on the street, in stores, at the gas station, paying my late utility bill, in hospitals, at used furniture stores, in the classroom, at food banks, at churches, created even more questions. Maybe the stories I started thinking about and started writing then weren’t totally original, but something original was coming from my grappling with these questions, because they were my questions, and my responses to them.
And of course—as is the purpose of this column, sharing these discoveries with you —around that time I began searching out different kinds of writers and different kinds of stories to feed me. I’ve written about some of them already—Charles L. Grant, Al Sarrantonio, Alan Peter Ryan, T. M. Wright, Gary Braunbeck, F. Paul Olsen—and I’ve several more I’m going to discuss, writers such as Ramsey Campbell, James Herbert, Manley Wade Wellman, Robert Aickman, the Best Horror anthologies edited by Karl Edward Wagner, Grant’s Shadows anthologies, Stuart David Schiff’s Whispers anthologies, Thomas Tessier, T. E. D. Klein, Mary Sangiovanni, Ronald Malfi, T. L. Hines, and many others.
Which brings me (in a roundabout way) to the subject of this column. Now, this installment of “Revelations” is going to be a bit different from previous installments. As mentioned, I’ve been talking about the authors I discovered at a very pivotal time in my development as a writer. After discovering these authors, I ran right out and bought everything I could by them. In this case, however…I’m only going to talk about one novel, and one short story: J.N. Williamson’s Don’t Take Away the Light and his short story “Privacy Rights.” I discovered both at a very pivotal time, and even upon a recent re-read, found them as impactful as they were then.
My attention was first drawn to Williamson through Gary Braunbeck’s marvelous memoir on writing horror, To Each their Darkness, in which he references Williamson as a dear friend, mentor, and early influence. This was during the first stretch of my fevered hunt for different writers, in a fevered hunt for my own voice, so I went right out and bought several of Williamson’s novels at our local (and sadly, now closed), used bookstore. I found, to my great surprise….
I really didn’t like them.
Now, I’m not going to bash the work of J. N. Williamson, by any means. But, as I said, this column is going to be a bit different than others. Though I know Williamson looms large as a bit of legend (and from what I understand, he was a wonderful man who wouldn’t hesitate to help younger writers) my initial response to several of his novels—Ghost and The Ritual, in particular—was resoundingly lukewarm. Even after I read Don’t Take Away the Light and discovered “Privacy Rights” in Whispers VI, edited by Stuart David Schiff, and tried again with the novels Premonition, Brotherkind, The Black School, The Longest Night and, more recently, his short story collection Frights of Fancy, (which inexplicably doesn’t feature “Privacy Rights”) I couldn’t work up the same enthusiasm as I’d felt for Don’t Take Away the Light and “Privacy Rights.”
I’m not sure why Don’t Take Away the Light and “Privacy Rights” is so much more powerful (for me, anyway) than Williamson’s other work. Perhaps, for both these stories, he allowed something more personal to come out. In any case—though neither story is without flaw—both these stories feature something I couldn’t find in his other work, a something which spoke to a me on a deep, fundamental level.
Emotion. Both these stories are powered by deep, pounding, throbbing emotion. Heart on the sleeve emotion. Maybe a little too much emotion, maybe cliched emotion, even. But even so, the story of “Privacy Rights”—about an abandoned mother, wracked with guilt, trapped in a hell of her own making—and Don’t Take Away the Light pulses with a genuine, personal kind of emotion that reached out and smacked Then-Me alongside the head and said, Maybe this is what your horror should be about. Maybe this is it, right here.
A bit about the flaws of Don’t Take Away the Light and “Privacy Rights,” especially for any younger readers who may choose to seek them out. I’m afraid both stories would fail the Bechdel Test, or any other standard measuring political correctness or gender-stereotyping, miserably. Both the mother in “Privacy Rights” and Evie in Don’t Take Away the Light are very clearly written by a man, and they are clear embodiment of shrill, hysterical 1950’s caricatures of repressed stay-at-home womanhood. Evie is a born man-hater (a cut-out feminazi), who of course browbeats her husband daily, reveres yet subconsciously hates her drunken, womanizing dead father, and eventually even believes her son to be inferior to her, because he’s nothing but a man-in-training. I especially noticed this in my recent re-read.
Also, Evie’s husband Niles is weak, passive-aggressive, and portrayed in a contradicting light which, unfortunately, is very dated. On the one hand, he’s devoted to his son and caters to his domineering wife’s every whim, willing to support her dreams, even willing to leave a low-paying but reliable job as a paint mixer for the risk of a sales job which seems to promise more money, but of course, when the chance comes for him to bumble headlong into an affair with a buxom blond (the secretary at the new job, and also an understanding, affectionate young woman suffering from a recent divorce), he almost does so with very little provocation, simply because she offers a sympathetic ear to his woes about Evie, and is nice to him.
Even so, at a time when I was trying to break free from writing about capering, drooling demons and monsters and blood-thirsty vampires, Williamson’s novel about the tortured and emotionally twisted relationship between a musically-talented but frustrated, domineering, psychic, and emotionally unstable (nay, maybe even full-on insane) young mother and her only son served as a light shining on the same regions Mort Castle’s remark had previously illuminated. Here was the worst, most frightening kind of demon: a possessive, mentally fractured and clever mother who demanded the absolute unconditional love of her only son; a son who loved his Dear with all his heart.
At least…we think he does. Part of the genius of this novel (for me, anyway), is I’m never sure as a reader if Teddy does genuinely love his mother with the kind of mother-worship only a small boy has, and this love has just been twisted and misused over the years…or if, all this time, he’s just convinced himself that he loves his “Dear” and would do anything for her in a subconscious act of self-protection. Regardless, his “love” for Dear is increasingly punctuated throughout the novel by small bursts of resentment, self-aware fear, and even hate.
This, to me, was an astounding revelation. I connected to this novel personally on a deep primal level (and this touches on personal details about my childhood that maybe I’ll share in a book sometime, and that says more about me than I’d like to admit). Though Williamson is a bit clichéd in his portrayal of Teddy and his use of childish slang, the tight-rope of absolute love and respect and fear and terror he walks throughout the novel sang to me a tune rife with desperation, fear, and confusion.
There’s one scene in which Evie—who’s determined her son will only read classic literature and not trash like comic books—destroys a plywood comic book shelf Teddy’s father built for him with her bare hands, literally shredding his comic books before his very eyes. All possible gender-stereotyping aside, this scene acts like a punch right in the kidneys. The first time I read it, I felt short of breath. And even though Niles is a bit clichéd himself, the absolute crushing sense of futility he feels when standing before the destroyed comic book shelf down in his workshop speaks to the soul-wrenching helplessness he feels, an emasculating inability to protect his own son.
These emotional through-lines are what powers this novel, and informed my in-development writing greatly. One of the supernatural angles—that Evie can commune with dead members of her family—is actually far less interesting. The other supernatural angle is a bit creepier, because it’s connected with the emotional through-line. Apparently, Teddy (or, maybe it’s Mommy Dearest), has inherited Evie’s psychic ability, and Teddy’s (or maybe Evie’s) desire to be (or to have) the perfect son gives birth to a tulpa, a thought-form, a being created by intense psychic desires. A New Teddy. A Better Teddy.
This New Teddy is strong. Bold. Clever. Healthy and robust, and he doesn’t even need glasses. He grows at an alarming rate, and even more alarming: he’s incredibly jealous and protective of his Dear (which, again, makes you wonder who is responsible for his creation). In a somewhat ridiculous scene, he strikes out and kills the buxom blonde secretary through her telephone after her and Niles’ near affair. He breaks things around the house, trashing Niles’ tools, as a well as the ceramic animals Dear has always collected for Teddy, even though Teddy has never really liked them (which, in this case, makes him seem protective of Teddy).
He also murders Evie’s alcoholic brother Duane, after Duane almost strikes both Teddy and Evie in a drunken rage. And, we’re left with the parting image of Niles heading to the foyer closet, where the Other Teddy killed Duane, (and is maybe waiting), directed there by Evie as she plays her piano with an odd air of self-satisfaction, as she stares at Teddy while Teddy backs slowly away. Again—who was it who created this perfect Teddy? We’re never left with a clear answer, though I think I know….and that makes it even worse.
Williamson’s prose is mostly solid, and yes, those clichéd characterizations are there…but raw, unfiltered emotion powers this novel. I’m not sure if Douglas Winter could’ve ever imagined his quote “Horror is an emotion” would apply to a J. N. Williamson novel, but I know how profound an impact this novel and short story had on me in my search for a “Kevin Lucia” kind of story. If you’re not warned off by some of the flaws I’ve mentioned, I highly recommend both, which can be found on the second-hand market.
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance. 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.