Interviews, Portents and Intimations

Due to a busy week I haven’t yet been able update this blog since the interview with Dan O’Brien. I’m happy to say the interview went very well. Dan has a knack for asking good questions and guiding the conversation so that it minimizes going off on tangled tangents (prone to them as I am (grin)).

Something I liked a great deal about our chat was the chance to discuss setting and a story’s sense of place. We talked about how Slash of Crimson ended up being set in Portland, Maine, a city I haven’t lived in for many years, and a little about the significance of that. I also enjoyed the parts of the conversation that focused on a writer’s craft, talking about narrative forms, and, as Dan is a writer himself, the detail which we were able to get into during our half-hour.

So for those of you who didn’t get a chance to listen, here is the link to the archive once more: Friday, July 13, 2012 Interview with Dan O’Brien

In the next few weeks I’ll be heading off to Maine, and look forward to updating the blog again from there. But I will also be gearing up for finishing the next book in the Crimes of Heaven and Hell series, which takes place in New York City. More specifically, a significant amount of the action occurs in the borough of Brooklyn.

There will be quite a few fun things coming up in August in September, including book reviews, a journey to H.P. Lovecraft’s Brooklyn apartment building, as well as a reading at Shade Bar with writer and Thuglit Zine editor Todd Robinson.

Keep reading, and heave oars for the starlit abyss!

On Whether it’s Appropriate for a Ten-year-old to Watch The Shining and Whether Horror Fans are Crazy

In anticipation of my interview I thought I’d share a bit of biography. This particular anecdote came out of some conversations I’ve had since Slash of Crimson was published, about whether people who write horror are in some way crazy (or disturbed, or subconsciously violent).

My answer is an emphatic no. I tend to agree for the most part with the stock answer offered by writers and enthusiasts in the industry, which is that horror fiction is about survival and sympathy. It’s about seeing if one can endure the worst and make it out, and about understanding both victims’ and victimizers’ motives.

But this concept is best demonstrated through an example.

And so, here’s how it went down:

One day when I was ten years old I walked into the living room and there was the woman who rents the room upstairs sitting on the couch reading a book. The book had a silver cover with the outline of a little boy’s head but no face. The year was 1980 and the book was Stephen King’s The Shining. The woman was laughing hysterically and saying things like, “No wait, no you gotta hear this,” and proceeding to read passages aloud.

She was from New York and renting a room from us in our big old albatross of a four bedroom colonial on Pine Street in Bangor Maine. I lived there with my mother, who was recently divorced from my father, who I only visited a few days a week. The rest of the time me and the other latch-key rug rats hung around after school looking for fun or trouble or both.

And so for a few weeks our boarder took to reading us choice excerpts from the novel by the dude who lived just across town. Scenes with the wasps in the hose, REDRUM, and of course Room 217 made an impression. I can’t remember if it was my friend Ed or Aaron who basically wanted to just come over and make my hot babysitter read us The Shining again.

“Hey, she’s not my babysitter, she’s our boarder. I’m ten, remember?”

It was a confusing time for our family—my mother was trying to hang on to the house, an overwhelmed city girl with no hope in a hardware store. On top of it she was making very little money in various childcare and semi-social work jobs (no license or anything) and going through the aforementioned divorce.

Thus, when she was busy with these things and I could get my hands on it, I started reading The Shining myself. I remember reading about 200 pages of it and feeling completely enthralled. Shortly after I learned there was going to be a movie and begged my mother to take me to it. It was Rated R so I couldn’t get in myself without a little more hoodlumism than I dared.

She refused at first. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Take a 10 year old to see an R rated movie that had as part of its stated intent the goal of frightening and disturbing its audience?

But I kept at it, talked about how I wanted to compare it to the book, please, please, please. Dad won’t do it. He just wants to go fishing. Somebody’s gotta do it! I kept at her while she was tired from working at the day program with adults with mental retardation, working as an office assistant at a local school or Big Brother Big Sister program or whatever her job happened to be at the time. The heating bill for a five bedroom house in Bangor Maine wasn’t cheap, hence the tenants, but even so, she was falling behind. And of course, I wasn’t really much help. I did nail a bat by throwing a boot at the ceiling one night, but then it was back to “What are YOU going to do for ME ma? Wait, I know: take me to see The Shining!”

She relented. We drove to Brewer, Maine, Bangor’s ‘sister city’ (any Mainers out their remember those ads trying to promote Brewer tourism? “Come ta Brewah!”). We went to Brewer. We saw Kubrick’s masterpiece starring Jack Nicholson, based on the novel by our local novelist.

I remember being riveted. I remember loving the film from the first scene, the whole cloistered nastiness of it. I did get a little annoyed at the scene corresponding to the ‘Inside Room 217’ chapter. Not because they renumbered the room, but because the dead lady had beige-brown peeling skin instead of purple. I had loved King’s description in the book and it was supposed to be purple damnit! Even in the re-make which is truer to the book (though in my opinion, not as fun of a film as Kubrick’s), I remember her being green.

When the film concluded we drove back from Brewer to Bangor in the banged up Datsun or Renault mom was trying to keep up payments on. I felt fine. The movie was great, gee thanks, everything’s fine.

That night I insisted we keep the bathroom light on and for the first time wondered if my dad had left any tools in the back hall so I could put a lock on the outside of the bathroom door. It wasn’t that the movie was scary, it was just that I really wanted to permanently board-up the bathroom door.

“And, um, mom, by the way, I know I’m ten and stuff, but can I sleep in your room tonight?”

“No, you said you wouldn’t do this.”

“What if I promise not to become Jeffrey Dahmer when I grow up?”


“Oh right, it’s 1980… Look, maybe the movie was a little scarier than I thought…”

I slept in a cold sweat for about two weeks and felt uncomfortable around twins at a school (little did I know I had, in fact, Diane Arbus to thank for that).

In addition to these lovely intimations, I didn’t realize something else was about to change in our life. We were about to lose the house. It was the first of a chain of events that might be called a downward spiral for us. Of course, I’m not looking to tell a story about whether I had it very hard or not hard or what degree in between. I know that I’m quite a lucky person for all the good things I’ve got and even had then—but—to the extent I’ve tasted the grim side, I’d say the four or so years that followed 1980 qualified quite well. Without going into too much detail, we moved into several apartments, become tenants ourselves renting a room with a little extra space in a friend’s house where my room for a short time consisted of a landing-like space next to the top of the stairs. I was also a bit of a sickly kid, and while I didn’t come close to actually dying, had a few nasty 1-2 week hospitalizations.

Sometimes I moved in with the old man who had a steady job and relatively nice accommodations and took you fishing and was usually reasonable in his temperament…

This never lasted, however, for reasons I won’t go into here, and because the conclusion I wish offer concerns itself less with what happened to me biographically than answering the question of whether people interested in horror stories are somehow ‘off’ or ‘disturbed.’

In truth, it wasn’t my mother or the tenant who caused what happened with the movie to happen. It was me, my own interest and persistence in this book despite being too young for it. I gravitated toward that kind of story, and picked it up and read it and made it happen. And I do not believe it was the family trauma that caused this interest. Yes, I think unusual experiences can feed art. But different people engage unusual experiences in different ways. Some people prefer Expressionist paintings and romantic comedies. Some people like pastel colors and sunshine and go for affirmation as a psychological bolster.

And for some of us, the thrill of danger, discovery and darkness nourishes what needs to be nourished. I don’t expect it to be everyone else’s preference, but I do ask audiences at large to see it in its context, to understand that it’s not an irrational or crazy interest, but rather another way in which art can be made useful for the mind.

And so, for those of you still reading and do like to get swept up in the dark, I invite you to give novella Slash of Crimson at try ($2.99 Kindle / $7.99 paperback).

And—for more fun anecdotes and discussion about horror, tune in to my interview with Dan O’Brien, Friday the 13th at 9:00 p.m. Click here for details.

Link to Dan O’Brien’s Radio Interview and “Sisters Inside Out” Final Installment

Greetings everyone–before we get to the last installment of the “Sisters Inside Out” serial, I wanted to share this great link to the upcoming radio interview provided by host Dan O’Brien.

Here’s the link:

I’m really excited to talk with him about my novella Slash of Crimson and many horror-writing and publishing related topics. Dan has established himself as a vibrant personality in the indie publishing world and I believe this will shape up to be quite a fun interview. Make your summer a little luscious, deep and dark and tune in next Friday the 13th at 9:00 p.m.

And now, the final installment of “Sisters Inside Out”:

Ray and Mrs. Laring gave Jen a ride home that night but they were stupid and called ahead and Mom was waiting with her attorney. Jen sat on the steps while they argued and they called the regular police. All the houses turned red and blue with their lights while Mom sobbed like she was on stage and said, “This child has been through enough!”

* * * *

That night she took away Jen’s math books and locked her door. “I hope she makes you stay dead a whole week!” she shouted.

But on that Mom didn’t understand. She could control the outside but not the inside. She couldn’t make Marsha come out, no matter how bad she wanted her to sing, because if it wasn’t her turn, it wasn’t her turn.

The weeks began to pass without any sign of her sister, and Mom was getting madder and madder that she wasn’t coming out. She made Jen stay home from school the whole time and only once in a while let her downstairs where she saw a lot of the blue pills around, sometimes on the table, sometimes by the bathroom sink.

After a while she gave Jen her math books back not because she wanted to, but because she hoped they would make Marsha come out.

“She comes when she comes,” Jen said. “Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. The first time, it took her a whole year. But I know she’ll come again. Nobody wants to be there.”

Mom looked a little frightened when Jen said that, and even spent a day wrapped in a towel, holding onto her lawyer’s business card. But the next day she was back to her slacks and black lace, back to her long lock-ups and hardly any food.

Then on a day so gray she wasn’t sure if it was morning or afternoon, Jen took out a piece of math paper. She wrote, “I am 9 years old” on it. It was funny, she thought. She wrote another sentence, “I am locked in my room.” It made her giggle, because it was a sentence but you could also look at it like an equation, like you could see all the letters as variables. But what would solve this equation? Jen had always been fair, even though Marsha hadn’t. She had always taken turns with her, even when it meant going someplace bad, she had done it…

Mom brought her a little rice that night and found her on the floor in front of a pile of paper scratched with diagrams and numbers, pictures and plans.  “How dare you,” she said as she slammed and locked the door. “Don’t you know you are mine? You think it’s better out there? You think you’re getting some ideas? You’re a freak and you don’t know how to handle yourself. You have no idea what it’s like trying to survive out there, and neither did your father!” She was hammering her fist on the door as she said this, as if she couldn’t just unlock it and open it. But it was part of her message that there was no way out, no way for Jen to make it without her.

That night Marsha came lurching out of the closet. She looked sunken and skeletony, her eyes bruised deeper into their sockets. It took everything Jen had to throw out her arm and stop her sister in her tracks.

“Wait,” she said. “I have to tell you something.”

Marsha turned around. Jen saw surprise in her face even though her cheek muscles were stretched and flabby, even though her pupils were shattered like smashed pill bugs. “You have something to tell me?”

“I have an offer for you. You think you have it figured out like you always did, like when you used to boss me around, but you don’t. I know what you always wanted. You wanted to get out. You milked mom, but really she bothered you as much as I did. Because you already knew what you wanted to be. You were nine years old and you already wanted to get way away from us.”

Marsha’s crooked corpse swayed and looked at the floor. “I was a little bit special,” she said. “I had some talent.”

“But you also had a temper. You screwed up with how mean you were. And you screwed up trying to kill me and died.”

This time Marsha’s bug eyes went blacker and she glared like the day Jen tore her dress. She threw her hands around Jen’s throat and started to squeeze.

“Go… ahead… kill me. Kill me and you can’t take turns… get it? You can’t take turns without me.”

The corpse stopped and stood twitching and confused.

“So then listen to me. Do me a favor tonight. Help me tonight and I will stay alive. I will get you out of here and you won’t have to do your little freak-show for Mom. I will get you out, sister. It’s what you’ve always wanted, and it’s only fair.”

* * * *

When Jen put on the damsel costume it was for the first time since that Halloween when Daddy took her trick-or-treating. It was kind of snug, but fit better when she cocked her hip like her back was broken. She stopped a moment and let Marsha be her mirror, standing in exactly the same way. The corpse even rubbed her gray, soil-stained skin against hers and made her dirty with her stench.

“Stand here,” she said, putting Jen in front of the door, “and I will call to her.”

And in her sing-song, rot-throated voice she called for Mom, and when the lock began to turn, she went back into the closet.

* * * *

Mom had the stage set up with track lights and music playing. The light was white like the walls, so different from the stage that was in the closet. Soon she would know how different, thought Jen, as she picked up her sister’s guitar.

“Are we going to begin with some singing?” her mother asked. She’d blow-dried her hair and put on a white blouse like Jen hadn’t seen her wear in months. She had clear lipstick on and smelled showered, with lavender lotion rubbed into her tan.

The guitar cracked when it hit her head. When the neck broke, the strings went all awry. Jen beat her and beat her with it because she wasn’t sure she could fight Mom if she was able to stand back up. The world whirled with frets and broken necks. The high strings whined and the low strings groaned and she thought of Daddy and Marsha and how now Jen was the only one left in this world. “But I’m not done with you yet,” she said aloud.

* * * *

The facility was made out of bricks. Ivy climbed the walls and the grounds had an iron sculpture she liked to look at in the afternoon. She still had woods outside her window, but here there were woods on all sides. And there were no highways anywhere, not even the sounds of cars. Once in a while a deer poked its nose out of the trees. That was nice. She liked to look at the living deer.

Her room had a narrow, doorless closet that Marsha had to use. She came loping out at night as she did before, hair stringy and stiff, skin red with shattered veins, eyes a horrible soup of black. The other patients screamed and caterwauled when she walked the hallways at night. The security guards restrained her and the doctors gave her shots.

But they could not stop her, or her meanness. She had become very mean now that she knew that she was screwed.

Because now that Jen was older, she saw her life clearly. She solved her equations and saw that what she had done had been completely fair. The first half of her life Marsha had been the boss. She had lied to her and kept her inside her spell, and Jen had been too sheepish to know how to get out.

But now she went anywhere she wanted through her mathematics, explored through her studies, and it was Marsha whose outside wasn’t LA or TV, but the asylum’s hallways and other patients. And she had better not complain, because if Jen wanted, she could pick up her razor and send her sister back inside the closet for good.

As for Mom, she already was inside for good, and Jen got to see her whenever it was her turn. She led her along the line, weeping her way up to the girl on the stage, shivering her way up to the eagle’s mouth. Each time the ending was the same, no matter how badly Mom begged. Jen only caressed her arms and kissed her mother’s head. “Because of what you did to me and Daddy. Because of what you did to all of us,” she said.

“But it wasn’t just me,” Mom growled. “It was Marsha, it was Marsha, too.”

“And believe me, she’s gotten hers,” said Jen. “Only I am free. They feed me well and I enjoy my math. And sometimes I am visited by the deer.”

Mom scowled at her then and Jen just pushed her forward in line as the bones rained down around them. Someday she too, would have to walk into the eagle’s mouth. But not yet. Because Jen had many years ahead of her. Years of crisp autumns and differential equations. Years of hot tea, deer and swaying trees. And during all of them, she only had to be dead half the time. But her Mom and her sister, they were trapped in their errors for good.