As I’ve written this series, I’ve found it necessary to achieve a tenuous balance in my recommendations and recountings of the horror which has impacted me as a reader and writer. I’ve bounced a lot between the descriptions “fun and fast-paced” and “literate and full of substance.” The truth of the matter (as I’ve come to discover it) is this: good fiction and, even more importantly, a good reading diet, shouldn’t ever cater to one end of the spectrum exclusively. Stories should move us emotionally, they should make us ponder the world around us, our existence, and life in general. They should say something about the human condition.
Several months ago I referenced a future column about Charles Grant’s Shadows and Tom Monteleone’s Borderlands anthologies, and that feature is coming, I assure you. However, this column tends to wander around a bit—much like my reading tastes, and my short attention span (ask any student or former student)—and this month, I’d like to talk about Robert Dunbar’s The Pines.
When I first conceived of this column, my intent was to focus on authors and how their body of work influenced me during a specific period in my development. After several columns, I realized that while maybe an author’s entire body of work didn’t necessarily impact me, one or two of their novels had—hence my previous column about Don’t Take Away the Light, by J. N. Williamson, and The Reach by Nate Kenyon and The Pines, by Robert Dunbar (subjects of future columns).
For the most part, the authors featured in these columns have impacted my development and growth as a writer primarily through their work. Ronald Malfi impacted me as a person, first, before I delved into his work. Looking at his career path, getting to know him as a person first has impacted me just as much as his work has.
Today marks the release of my second short story collection, Things You Need, from Crystal Lake Publishing, also the latest installment in the ongoing story of my fictional Adirondack town, Clifton Heights, which owes its existence in large part to not only Charles L. Grant’s fictional town, Oxrun Station, but even more so to the anthology series he edited, The Chronicles of Greystone Bay.
The aim of this column is to spotlight authors who have been instrumental in my development as a writer. Some of the writers I’ve covered have been legends in the field who are no longer with us; others more contemporary writers who are still very active and influential. I’m revealing them along a semi-chronological path of when I discovered them, not necessarily their publication dates. Today’s installment features a contemporary writer whose first novel had a huge impact on me, as does her continuing work: Mary SanGiovanni.
Wednesday, June 6th, 2012.
First period, 10th Grade Honors English. Roughly 9 a.m.
That’s when I heard the news.
Even today, as I write this, I feel a chill. Looking back, it was not only a surreal and an unbelievable experience…it also offered a moment of affirmation for me as a teacher that hasn’t been rivaled, since.
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.
For the most part, this column travels in semi-chronological order, chronicling the writers I’ve discovered the last few years who’ve had an impact on me as a writer. I will, however, occasionally stray from this chronological path, simply because, well, I feel like it. This is one of those cases, as we discuss writer Paul F. Olson.
I see the sentiment expressed in horror circles often: “I read and write horror, but I don’t often read anything which actually scares me.” Of course, the word to consider here is “scare.” I have this discussion with my English classes every year when we read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. They always ask, as I’m handing out Jackson’s seminal haunted house novel, “Will this be scary?” I always answer, “Let’s talk about that word and what it means.” We discuss the differences between the adrenaline-based reaction they refer to as “scary”—what they experience while watching a horror movie in the theaters—and the nature of “horror” and being “horrified.”
I can’t remember where I read it—one of his blog posts, or in one of his now out-of-print blog collections—but Brian Keene once recounted the story of how he and some fellow writers, early in their career, visited a used bookstore while at a convention (maybe World Horror; I can’t remember). Excited at their own writing futures, while browsing the stacks, looking for their favorite classic authors, they discovered, with a rising sense of unease, a number of authors they had never heard of before. Writers who had at least ascended to paperback fame (of a kind) only to descend once again beneath the waters of obscurity, with barely a ripple.
I first encountered Al Sarrantonio the same way others most likely did; in his Orangefield Cycle, which regales the tale of the strange Pumpkin Capitol of Orangefield, New York, through the novels Halloweenland, Hallows Eve, Horrorween and the novellas The Pumpkin Boy and Hornets. In Orangefield, strange things happen around Halloween. People die mysteriously, create suicide pacts, conduct pagan rituals, and see strange things from other worlds. Like the mythical Pumpkin Boy, a robot with a pumpkin for a head. Or Samhain himself, trying to take advantage of Halloween’s thin dimensional walls in his repeated attempts to sneak into our world as the advance scout of an unholy army lead by something far worse.
Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.
This sentiment haunts me. It has since I first heard it quoted by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. The quote in its entirety, by Henry David Thoreau, is even more chilling:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.
The implications make me shiver. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Most of us are gripped by worry, anxiety, fear, and a crippling helplessness. But it’s repressed deeply inside; quiet, restrained, shackled, bringing us to the brink of madness without ever quite plunging us over the edge. And in the end, we go to the grave with the song still in us, never able to express what we wanted to—needed to—while shuffling through this numbing thing called “life.”