Where Did That Come From?
In horror writing circles, an axiom exists that one’s stories are stronger if they actually horrify the writer.
I’ve written scenes with my face half turned away from my computer screen, horrified by the words appearing there…
And if you write enough stories, you start to see patterns. You see recurring themes and images.
In my own writing, I’ve noted a recurring theme of “children in peril”. And it freaks me out.
Now, I really have no idea where this comes from, but it definitely finds its way into a lot of my stories. A lot of them.
I wasn’t an abused kid. My family was loving and somewhat normal.
But there was this one experience, back in, oh, I’d say 1972 or thereabouts…
A Salem Story
I want to tell you a story about Salem, Massachusetts – my hometown.
The Salem Theater on Essex Street would let anyone in with 50 cents to see the Saturday afternoon matinee double feature. Yes, they were usually horror movies.
I was a regular. I was big for my age. And many times the ticket taker would conveniently look the other way, tear my ticket in half and wave me through.
My parents thought I was safe at the library or at a friend’s house. But I was at the Salem Theater watching “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” or “The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant” or “Dracula A.D. 1972” or (moment of silence, please) “Attack of the Mushroom People”.
Those days the world was all Watergate and Vietnam. Horrors that beset adults.
Being eleven years old, the thing that made me want to shit my pants was the thought of the giant ants from “Them!” clacking their way down Lafayette street cutting people I knew in half in their enormous pincers. Such were the times.
That was all about to change.
One Saturday in late fall, I’d gone to the movies with a friend to see “Night of the Living Dead”. I was so horrified by the sight of things that used to be people fighting over intestines, gnawing on ulnas and generally cannibalizing every living human that got in their way. My lifelong fascination with zombies, in print and on the big screen, dates back to this day.
But that’s not what I want to tell you about.
Fully satisfied with the afternoon’s horror renderings, my friend and I left the theater in near dark. I remember the light bulbs around the edge of the marquis were twinkling. The YMCA across the street seemed closed. No lights.
We walked down Crombie Street, heading for Riley Plaza and the train tracks.
Back in 1972, the Salem stop for the commuter trains from Boston (the “Budliners) was under Riley Plaza.
I was a little late and needed to hurry and get home. So I decided to go down through the train station and walk down the tracks that ran parallel to Canal Street.
My friend and I parted ways at the stairs leading down to the station.
“Good movie, huh?” he said.
“Yeah. The part where they pulled that guy’s intestines out was wicked cool,” I said, I think with a little too much bravado.
“Well, see you at school,” he said and headed off up Washington Street.
Me. I looked down the stairs leading to the train platform. It was too dark for me to see the bottom. A wind heavy with diesel fumes and a chemical smell from the leather factory blew up into my face.
Suddenly, heading down into the dark, alone, didn’t seem like the best plan. But, inexplicably, I took the first few steps down toward whatever awaited me down there in the gloom.
Looking back on this, forty years later, I’m amazed that I still recall so many seemingly insignificant details: the increasing smell of urine as I descended; the feeling of leaving everything safe and OK as the sound of Riley Plaza traffic receded behind and above me; the one piece of Bazooka Bubblegum I held tightly in my left front pants pocket, like some talisman to keep me safe.
I got to the bottom of the stairs and stepped down onto the platform. The traffic above was muffled to the point where I felt impossibly isolated, like I’d entered another reality. One that existed next to, or even within, my own world.
The darkness around me was complete. I raised my eyebrows to open them as much as I possibly could. There was a vague bluish-purple zone way up in front of me that I assumed was the end of the tunnel. And freedom from the terror that was now rising past my sternum and lodging itself directly at the base of my throat.
That’s when I heard it.
A rustling just behind me. Something down low, near the ground. I froze.
My heart was aching, it was pounding so hard. I couldn’t see anything.
Then something grabbed the bottom of my left pant leg.
And tugged at it.
I was so horrified at what was happening to me, I’d failed to register that the Budliner was nearing the entrance to the tunnel. It’s bright, Cyclops light progressively filling the tunnel with a cone of light.
When the train’s light was nearly upon me, I somehow summoned the courage to turn around and see what was tugging at my leg.
I jerked my around quickly, like snatching a Band Aid off a scab. And then I screamed.
Here is what I saw:
Three zombies staggering toward me. Ripped clothing, dripping eyes, teeth shattered.
A fourth lay on the ground with a fistful of my pant leg in his hand. The scene all the more horrifying because of the train’s garishly bright light.
I knew then that zombies were real and I was going to be eaten. I would watch as they ripped open my belly and removed my intestines.
Without thinking, I kicked my leg free and ran screaming down the platform. And I didn’t stop running until the cramp in my side felt like a hot poker being twisted in my guts. I ran a mile, nearly to the A&P on Canal Street.
I never told anyone about it. I’d calmed down enough by the time I got home. The familiar surroundings and the smell of dinner brought me back to this world. The world I knew.
But ever since that day, I knew there was a world of horror that could rear up right out of the ordinary everyday world. A horror you never suspected was there.
Of course, looking back as a fifty-year-old man, I know that the zombies in the train station were just some homeless guys. Probably drunks, who knows?
So, is that why I like to write horror stories? Is that why “kids in peril” show up in my fiction? I don’t know.
I find it’s best not to look too closely at that stuff.
The writing is the thing.
I’m currently writing a collection of short stories (horror stories, of course) all based in Salem. I think this experience of mine will end up in one of them. I’m planning on putting in some personal essays on fiction, horror, and writing as we go along. But I’ll still publish stories here, just want to mix things up a little. Hope some of my Salem readers recognized some of the landmarks in the piece above. Thanks everyone for continuing to show up to read some of my scribblings!
Image by Frederic Dupont