Friday, August 8, 2014

When We Were Young and the Shadows Were Deep

For the past few weeks, I've been writing a lot of horror, including two short stories which are now finished, and the beginning of a longer story that will be the first of a series heavily influenced by HP Lovecraft. All this horror had me thinking of certain events in my childhood that I think were somewhat responsible for planting the seeds of my interest in gruesome fiction. As more and more of these memories resurfaced, I decided it would make a good subject for a blog. I then thought it might be fun to present two writers' thoughts on the subject, so I invited my friend Wendy Potocki, author of horror novels including Black Adagio and Trillingham to join me. So here we have two essays about things in our childhoods that we suspect played a part in our growing up to be horror writers.

From the Cradle to Writing About Graves
By Aaron Smith

When it comes to writing, one thing I’m very happy about is the fact that I’m able to write in many different genres. I’ve done mysteries, thrillers, urban fantasy, science fiction, and even a western. But I have to admit that one genre affects me in ways that most others don’t. It feels, when working in this particular genre, like I’m digging deep into my mind and pulling up, sometimes easily and other times forcibly, things that have been buried deeply in there for most of my life. That genre is horror. In some ways, horror is easier to write than other types of stories. At its best, it feels natural. But, at other times, it can be difficult, and I can even, when it’s really working, scare myself. Horror is powerful, personal, and satisfying.  
            But where does it begin? How does one acquire the impulse to explore and write about the bizarre, the grotesque, and the terrible? What makes a person, especially one who is essentially nice, quiet, and mostly gentle crave the act of putting into words ideas designed to make readers cringe, squirm, have nightmares, and maybe even get a bit nauseous?
            As I’ve been writing more horror lately, images and memories have been coming to the surface of my mind. I’m seeing bits and pieces of the events, sights, words that I now believe triggered the feelings of awe, wonder, fear, and dread that eventually led to my interest in horror. What have been resurfacing are moments of my childhood.
            Stop! Don’t make assumptions yet! I’m not about to reveal some deep, dark secrets or tell the world that repressed memories of abuse or violence have jumped up and shown themselves. It’s nothing like that.
            For the most part, I had a very happy childhood. I had good parents and grandparents and some fine teachers. I wasn’t a popular kid and didn’t have many close friends, but that was all right, since I was the solitary kind anyway, an introvert who loved to read (which is another thing that made me a writer).
            So, no, there are no traumatic memories to be spoken of in this essay. What I do want to talk about are the ways in which innocent events of childhood can be filtered through the imagination of a child and made into something deeper and perhaps frightening. Those are the things that I believe contributed to my love of the horror genre. You see, as a kid with a vivid imagination grows up, he or she sees and hears things but can’t quite, due to being young and not having sufficient life experience to form a frame of reference, understand them. So the natural process is for that child to fill in the blanks, either knowingly or unaware of the act, and come up with an explanation. Maybe it’s this instinct to struggle for an explanation of what one doesn’t yet understand that inspires some kids, the naturally curious kind, to grow up to be scientists, and others of the same sort but with different inclinations, to become horror writers (did I just hit upon the reason so many horror writers like HP Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, Richard Matheson, and HG Wells incorporated nightmarish versions of scientific progress into their work?).
            Anyway, I was that sort of child: curious, always wondering, and often easily frightened by what I now realize were my own attempts to fill in the blanks in my understanding of the world, its people, and its situations.
            That’s the reason I think I write horror now. It’s also the reason I felt a certain sense of familiarity, like I was visiting a place I’d been before, when I first read the works of such authors as Bram Stoker, JRR Tolkein (not strictly horror, but there was some scary stuff in Middle Earth), and especially HP Lovecraft, who was a master of writing about the world that sits just beyond the edges of our known “reality,” and so really understood how the fill-in-the-blanks mode of the mind can be a wonderfully terrifying thing.
            Here are some examples of what triggered my mind’s flights during childhood and sent me down the road to embracing horror.
            I can blame my grandmother (or thank her, depending on your point of view) for some of it. I think she was the person who introduced me to vampires, which are a type of monster that really fascinated and scared me when I was young, so much so that it was inevitable that I’d eventually write two (so far) novels about them. But what was my first encounter with the blood-drinking undead? I’m pretty sure it was the stories Grandma used to tell me when it was time for bed (I’m not joking! Dracula was her idea of a good subject for a bedtime story, and she also told me about Jack the Ripper; the murders by knife were included, but she left out the fact that the victims were prostitutes). So, thanks to her, I got an idea very early in life that there just might be creatures out there that wanted to bite me and drink my blood!
            So now I had some idea about vampires, a frame of reference for when I began to notice them popping up and creeping about in the fiction I was exposed to. And since Grandma’s stories had embedded themselves in my mind and my imagination had gone to work on the concept, any depiction of vampires I came across, no matter how tame it really was, wound up being magnified a thousand times when filtered through my brain. The space vampires episode of the not so great Buck Rodgers TV series starring Gil Gerard scared me silly, as did the mere mention of vampires in an episode of Thundarr the Barbarian, an early 80s animated series. And when I got a tiny glimpse of something vampire-related but didn’t get to see it through to its conclusion, my mind had even more blanks to fill in and really went wild. I recall one afternoon, a calm day when I was home being bored as my mother wandered around the house doing laundry and cleaning. I was sitting in front of the TV while she ironed. She came across Dracula, Prince of Darkness on Channel 5. It’s one of those mid-60s Hammer horror films with Christopher Lee as the count. It sounded interesting. I remember seeing the ivy-covered exterior wall of a castle, a few actors in period costumes, and then nothing. I fell asleep. When I woke up, the TV was off. I asked what had happened to the movie. The only thing my mother, who is a very squeamish person, I later realized, had to say was, “It was horrible!” I never did see the rest of the movie until I was well into adulthood. I love the Hammer movies now, and I see they’re mostly harmless, with very little actual gore compared to what’s come later in horror films, but that one little statement from Mom about how horrible it had been sent my mind racing with images of blood far worse than anything in any movie of the time.
            Perhaps the ultimate vampire-related moment of my childhood was when I convinced myself Dracula was buried only a ten minute drive from my home! In the town of West Paterson, New Jersey (now renamed Woodland Park to avoid association with the neighboring Paterson, which is a city with a bad reputation) is a memorial to residents who served in the first World War (in fact, my great-grandfather’s name is inscribed there). It’s a big stone block with a plaque on the front and a sculpture of an eagle on top. But, driving past it at twilight, I thought it was a grave with a bat perched above it. Therefore, I concluded, it just had to be the burial site of the lord of vampires! Yes, I thought if I had the misfortune to be stranded on that spot around midnight, I’d probably see a pale, long-nailed hand dig its way out of the soil and Dracula would live again and probably prey on the unfortunate kid who happened to be closest.
            That I was scared of vampires at that age makes sense, since they’re such a big part of popular culture that one can’t help hearing about them from time to time. Even had I not been exposed to them so early in life, I’m sure I would have discovered vampires eventually and maybe been just as interested in them. Vampires are designed to frighten people. Why else would so many writers of books, movies, etc. feel compelled to use them as subject matter?
            But I can recall many other things, some of them quite mundane, which put fascinating and frightening ideas in my mind. Those things, probably more than Dracula and his kind did, added up to make me a horror fan and then a horror creator.
            I didn’t read the work of my favorite horror writer, HP Lovecraft, until I was about thirty, but when I finally did, it felt strangely familiar, almost as if my mind worked in the same way as his. If I believed in reincarnation, I might be tempted to come up with some theories about that, but I don’t, so I won’t.
            Lovecraft’s work often had to do with someone traveling into an unfamiliar area, an old town or city with areas, or all of it, in a dilapidated condition, its citizens exhibiting odd or hostile behavior, its streets and houses containing dark secrets. That’s probably why I feel so at home in Lovecraft Country.
            When I was a boy, I loved traveling. I thrived on long rides through unfamiliar regions, staring out the car windows and observing sights I was unused to. My grandparents lived in Paterson, New Jersey, the same city in which I grew up. Paterson is a big city as far as places in New Jersey go. It’s partially urban, with the rest made up of tightly populated suburbs, block after block of homes and businesses. I was used to the city. So, some of my favorite memories are of the times my grandparents would take me up to their little country house on Saturdays. They owned it for years, a small red cabin in the woods of Westbrookville, New York. They visited it maybe two dozen times a year, took the long drive up through the small towns of northern New Jersey, then deep into rural New York State. I went with them a handful of times each year, in all different seasons so that one time it might be the height of summer and another time Grandpa might have to dig out a parking space in the long, unpaved driveway a day or two after a heavy snowfall. I loved that property, with its forest, the brook that babbled its way through, and the feeling of serene separation from the constant background noise of home.
            I felt safe at home. I felt safe “up the country,” as we used to call it. But the stretch of in-between, the journey from Paterson to Westbrookville, was the most interesting part. On those drives, with Grandpa behind the wheel navigating the trip he’d made hundreds of times before, and me in the back of his big Chevy Suburban, trying to see everything there was to see for those two hours on the road, I began to (not quite consciously) ask the question I’ve now come to refer to as, “What Hides Off the Highway?”
            As adults, we get used to the idea that people live differently in different places and that not all towns or cities look the same. We absorb ideas for years by reading, watching, or just living. But kids don’t have the experience to possess such a frame of reference. To them, going to strange new places can be as interesting and feel as alien as it might feel for Captain Kirk and his crew to beam down to planets far, far away from Earth. So, imagine how fascinating it was for me, at a young age, to travel out of the closely populated, tightly built city I was used to and find myself passing through rural roads that wound like snakes through tiny towns where the air smelled like hay and cow manure, where rusty old silos stood guard over pumpkin patches, where one could buy a fishing license at the only local deli, where hints of dilapidation and decrepitude were present everywhere, and where shops, restaurants, and homes often looked like they’d been frozen in time since the 60s or 50s or even since the Depression.
            It was a land of lifestyles I wasn’t used to seeing (farm life is much different than city existence; just ask Oliver and Lisa Douglas. How many people reading this know what I’m referencing?), a vast stretch of fields, cows, rust, and woods that seemed to stretch on forever. How, I wondered, could such an alien landscape not hold dark secrets? And so I was glad when we passed each turn off the main highway (which itself was much narrower than the highways closer to home) so we wouldn’t encounter any of the beasts or eccentrics that lurked along the side routes. Yes, I loved and feared that feeling, enjoyed those journeys tremendously. So much so that when, years later, I read the work of Lovecraft, I knew exactly where he was coming from. It was the same effect that made movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre seem so dreadfully real, because I’d been down those lonely, foreboding roads myself at an age when the mind is most impressionable. Luckily, the grandparents and I never ran into Leatherface or the cultists of Innsmouth or anything worthy of Mulder and Scully’s attention, but I sure thought it was possible that we might! Now, so many years later, I love to ponder dark, strange places, towns where strangers are unwelcome and in danger, and even how some areas really do seem frozen in a time long since passed in most of the world (there’s a whole section about such a town in my first vampire novel, 100,000 Midnights).
            Those trips into New York State had a serious impact on me. Great memories combined with frightening possibilities spring to mind whenever I think back to those long drives.  
            As I sit here typing, even more memories come to the surface. I think of the mall close to where I lived. That place had its share of sights that made me wonder, made me guess at the nature of things I didn’t yet understand, and even scared me. I remember being there with my parents or grandparents, walking around with them as they shopped, and seeing so many different kinds of people. It was the early 80s and there were punks with their strange hair and makeup, looking like creatures from space to me. There were the heavy metal fans too, and you know what really scared me about them? Iron Maiden T-shirts! As a kid of five or six years old, I had no idea Iron Maiden was a band, and they always had gruesome (maybe not so scary to an adult, but to a child …) images on their shirts and posters. Why, I wondered with my young mind, were these people walking around with such horrific pictures decorating their clothes? I shuddered to think what they did when they were away from the public, when those police who patrolled the mall (security guards, not actual cops, I realized later) weren’t there to keep an eye on them? They were just T-shirts, but they made a big impression on me. I suspect, thinking about it now, that the art on those shirts may have inspired my later interest in the gruesome illustrations in horror comics or the fact that I always noticed horror movie posters and wanted to see the films they represented, though I was, in many cases, too young to see them at the times of their release.  
            Although I saw those T-shirts, it wasn’t until years later that I actually heard the music of Iron Maiden. But music did have an ability to make me ponder some rather dark ideas when I was a child. And it wasn’t intentionally scary music like heavy metal that did it (although I did find Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” a bit frightening, especially the part spoken by Vincent Price. Years later, I wouldn’t consider myself a Jackson fan, but I sure as hell love many of Vincent Price’s films). Rather, it was the 60s and 70s soft rock my parents listened to. That was, after all, the majority of the music I was exposed to then. Whatever they had playing on the car radio was what I had no choice but to hear. When I hear those songs now, I understand more of the lyrical content. I get it now, but back then a stray scrap of words could send my mind running down some morbid paths. One example that springs to mind is Don McLean’s masterpiece, “American Pie,” which I now know is a complicated, wonderful poem on the history of rock during its first two decades or so. Back then, though, that tangled mass of lyrics was mostly indecipherable to me, but what jumped out was the chorus’s repeated, “This will be the day that I die.” How scary would that sound to a little kid? Somebody stating out loud the certain knowledge that the end of their life is about to occur!
            And, since we’re on the subject of death (a topic which is, undoubtedly, at the very core of most horror fiction) I’m now thinking about the first few times my life was touched by the grim reaper.
            I was lucky. Nobody I was close to ever died abruptly during my childhood, so I never really felt the shock of death. Two of my grandparents and the only great-grandmother I knew are now gone, but those losses were not especially painful ones. My maternal grandmother and great-grandmother both lived very long, full, mostly healthy lives (87 and 97, respectively), so there was no sorrow at their passing. My grandfather died after a long illness during which that once strong, confident man was reduced to a pain-ridden, fragile shell of what he’d been, so his leaving this life was, in many ways, a relief to me. By the time anyone I knew well died in any way that might be perceived as tragic (at least when I was aware of the cause of death), I was an adult and far better equipped to handle it. However, I do have one strong memory of death from when I was about six or seven. I think what scared me at that point in my life wasn’t so much the idea that someone had died, but the fact that I was given too little information about how it had happened. That being said, I can’t blame my parents in this case, for what they told me was too little, but the whole truth would have been far too much for me to take at that age. 
            I walked into the kitchen one day to find my mother crying. I asked what was wrong. She told me my great-aunt had died (I didn’t know her very well, so I didn’t get upset. I also suspect that I didn’t yet understand the true meaning of death: its permanence, the way it changes the lives of everyone who knew the deceased). Of course, I asked what had happened. My mother told me, simply, that Aunt ___ had been sick for a long time. I let it go at that. Of course, my imagination took over. What was “a long time?” To a kid, that might mean an hour! What was “sick?” To a kid, that might mean a stomach ache or a cold. That was all the explanation I got, so the next time I got “sick” I was terrified, and the longer the illness went on (which was probably a day or two, but that can seem like forever to a child) the more convinced I was that I’d end up dead too!
            As for the true details, the poor woman had long suffered from depression and had committed suicide, which is something I didn’t learn until I was grown up, so now I can understand why my mother’s explanation was so vague.
            With time, of course, I understood the difference between a “long time” and a truly long time. I also understood the difference between serious illness of the potentially fatal kind and minor illnesses that seem like horrible ordeals for the brief span they last. Time teaches lessons and time heals wounds, and time is also responsible for giving us history, which is a subject that’s always fascinated me. I enjoy reading about what life was like in the past, whether mere decades ago or centuries or even longer. And it’s not just words on the pages of history books that interest me. It’s also images or objects of the past, or, to take it a step further and combine the two, objects that bear images of the past. In other words, the art of days long ago is always interesting to see, for there we find ideas and thoughts as the people of those times actually considered them. One particular example of old art comes to mind as I explore the memories of my childhood.  
            I’ll never forget the evening I first saw one. On the second floor of the mall (the same mall where I’d first seen those Iron Maiden T-shirts) was a little shop that sold the sort of junk my mother liked to decorate the house with, craft-type stuff and wreaths and baskets and cast iron napkin holders and plaques bearing silly sayings that are supposed to be clever or inspiring.  I was bored out of my mind during one visit to the place when a set of placemats, of all things, caught my attention and wouldn’t let go. Printed on those mats was one of those old-fashioned maps of the world. Continents were represented with some degree of accuracy, though not entirely accurate. But it was the spaces between land masses that captivated me. These were not empty blue oceans, but vast stretches of sea populated in certain spots by sea monsters! I’m sure you’ve seen these maps. The watery sections are punctuated by a giant serpent here, a tentacle monstrosity there, a scattered assortment of things you wouldn’t want suddenly rising up out of churning waves to dwarf your ship (like in the wonderful two-page spread drawn by Michael Zulli in one of the later issues of Neil Gaiman’s brilliant comic book series Sandman). I was fascinated by the idea that massive creatures of the deep, much more menacing than whales, might have once lived. I was too young to see Jaws and probably would have freaked out if I had, even if the great white shark was tame in comparison to the species on the map.
            This interest in sea monsters went even deeper when I first visited one of my favorite places in the world, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Most kids, I suspect, are most impressed by the bones of the tyrannosaurus or the triceratops, but I was entranced by the ocean-dwelling beasts of the prehistoric age, like the menacing Mosasaur with its enormous size, fast swimming speed, and rows of razor-sharp fangs.
            Oh, and I absolutely refused, refused, refused to stand under the huge replica blue whale that hangs from the ceiling of the Hall of Ocean Life. I didn’t care if it had been successfully and safely secured up there for years and years. I was sure it would choose the precise moment of my arrival in its awesome shadow to come down and crush the life out of me!              
            My interest in the things that once stalked, or, I hoped, still stalk the deep wet places of the world increased exponentially after that visit to the museum, but that wasn’t all I got from my trip to that wonderful building.
            The American Museum of Natural History literally and permanently changed my life in ways that are most certainly reflected in my writing now, over thirty years later. Suddenly seeing, in one busy day, hundreds of animal species and dozens of artifacts from long-ago historical periods, learning about how people lived ages before the present, and gaining for the first time a fraction of an understanding of some of the strange ancient superstitions and religious beliefs once held by members of the human race had an enormous impact on my mind. I truly believe that day may have been the instigator of my interests in history, mythology, science, and other subjects, all of which have encouraged me to gather knowledge and conceive ideas that have shown up in my writing, including my fantasy and horror stories. While it’s impossible now to trace all the paths of thought that led me to where I am today, I’d bet a good portion of those roads were first stepped onto on that wonderful day.
            Incidentally, my favorite room in the museum has become, over the course of many visits over the years, the Hall of Northwest Indians. That room probably triggered, more than any other place I’ve been, my fascination with religion, superstition, and the supernatural (not that I believe in any of that, but it’s amazing, inspiring, and not just a little frightening that so many people have in the past and still do today). I was absolutely delighted when I learned years later that one of my favorite authors, world famous expert on mythology, Joseph Campbell, credited that very same room with jumpstarting his interest in the subject.
            That room, with its high ceiling, wooden floors that make footsteps echo, huge totem poles, and grotesque ceremonial masks, has been left mostly as it’s been since Campbell saw it as a child decades before I did. I suspect that if that room is ever remodeled, a segment of my soul will shrivel and die.
            So there you have it. I’ve just talked about a handful of experiences from my childhood that I think had a lot to do with me growing up to be a horror writer. There are other memories too, little moments, sights, and thoughts that made their own contributions to the morbid neighborhoods of my mind. Things like my grandfather’s stories of Europe during World War II. I still have a few of the souvenirs he brought home from the war: the Nazi armband with the bloodstains and bullet hole, and the binoculars he claimed to have taken from a headless German corpse. I also remember that he never ate chicken after the war; a meal they fed the troops made him so sick he couldn’t bear the thought of ever eating that particular kind of bird ever again.
            There were dreams too, certain nighttime movies that played in my head repeatedly during the years I was growing up, like the one about the girl on the beach running from something, begging me to help her hide. I never did find out what had frightened her so, but I’ll never forget the vivid streaks of blood on her white shirt. There were also dreams of the underground tunnels one could crawl into if one dared go through the hole under the lowest shelf of the storage closet in the back of the basement (this idea has a prominent place in the horror story I’m working on right now). If one ventured far enough into those passages, he’d hear chanting and maybe even catch a glimpse of the robed subterranean monks that apparently lived under Paterson. Come to think of it, maybe that’s where a few of my grammar school teachers lived when they weren’t at school. That would explain a lot! 
            Wow! After having written these nearly 5,000 words about possible influences on my desire to write the scary stuff, I feel like I’ve just been catapulted back to my childhood, spun around in the cement mixer of my mind a few thousand times, and spit back to the present! I’ve had enough for now, although I’m sure I’ll remember a few dozen things I’ll wish I’d included. As an adult and a writer, it’s sometimes easy and sometimes difficult to pinpoint the various themes that seem to occur frequently in my stories. Trying to trace those concepts back to their deeply buried roots has been a lot of fun, and a little disturbing at times. I hope you found it interesting. That’s enough about me for now. My characters need my attention.   

If anyone reading this hasn't sampled any of my horror writing, I'm happy to report that my zombie novel, Chicago Fell First, is on sale for Kindle this week, at only 99 cents, so now's your chance!

And now, on to Wendy's part of the blog!

The World Where Children Live 
By Wendy Potocki

When the idea of writing on this subject was first presented to me, I was intrigued. Not so much by what happened to me as to me as a child, but more by what I’d forgotten. Tender perspectives, attitudes, fears and uncertainty had been erased from my thinking patterns and put in some back drawer where dust collected on youthful promise. I’m not sure why that happened since there is something so decidedly charming about the time spent as a youth Put succinctly, it’s magical.
     I suppose the main reason for childhood being a perpetual anything-can-happen high is because children are not miniature adults. Repeat NOT. Never were and never will be—at least not until we hit puberty. Then all that enchantment goes away and we never think we see dragons in the closet again. But until that happens, wee ones live in a universe adults could never comprehend. But like Neverland, we outgrow this domain—and the memories, too. At least I did, and it’s a real shame. So here’s a refresher course in what I went through and chose to forget until that talemeister Aaron Smith rattled my chains.
     The realm I inhabited as a child was a highly-charged affair. In this domain, the ability to imagine was encouraged and flourished to the point of overflowing like an unattended tub. While this dreamlike state was the norm, the use of mental weaponry in conjuring up dangerous ideas caused a few consequences. Just as dreams sometimes morph into nightmares, my undeveloped frontal cortex allowed some pretty strange thoughts to intrude and take over the mundane affair of growing up in a household that was about as exciting as a tennis racket with no strings. But my neurons firing on the toddler setting turned all that around. Hence the food that was served by my loving mom became a source of contention. Instead of ingesting the nutritious offering, I probed one of numerous charred cubes with suspicion while forking it to death in order to learn what it really was. After all, I couldn’t really trust my mother, could I? And whose word did I have that she was even who she claimed to be? For all I knew, she could be an imposter, as phony as the piece of unrecognizable protein that was set before me. And so I speared at it with sharp prongs, watching a slightly pinkish-brown liquid spill out a new set of holes. It was clearly not pork … or chicken. But how about an alien form of life? Could be … could very well be. It’s how the family dog became the official taste tester. I figured if he didn’t sprout another leg or tail by the end of next week, that piece of meat might just be chewed and swallowed by the intended recipient the next time. I’m sure it’s how Gordon Ramsay got his start.
     As spelled out above, my youth was damned by odd stirrings of dramatic non sequiturs. They’d pull me out of reality, putting me on the Road of Tangents faster than my father could yell, “Finish your homework or it’s no TV!” It’s not that I wasn’t trying to learn what the heck prime numbers were, but these bouts with delirium would send me pinging off imaginary walls for hours, days and weeks at a time. The mental obsessions I created would sometimes disappear along with the trolls that once inhabited the backyard, but sometimes they’d morph into my own personal urban legends. Like that house I used to pass on my walk to school every day … the stone one … covered in English ivy.
     Why didn’t anyone else notice how weird it was? How it gave off strange vibes and seemed to watch when someone passed by? How the front lawn was always manicured to perfection, but by who? No one ever came or went. Nor did a child living in it attend our school. That had to tell you something right there because everyone had kids. And I mean, everyone. Then there were the windows. Why were they always dark? It could be explained in the daytime, but how about when my father drove past it at night? See what I mean? Crazy Town, right? I’d press my nose against the backseat window and wait to see if something had changed, but it was always the same. No lights were ever on. It signified to me that no human occupied that territory. A giant red X was mentally spray painted over the entirety of the structure. Satan surely had to be in there somewhere … just waiting to suck out my soul.
The whole affair was enough to start me probing my friends for answers. What was their opinion of the House with Nobody Home? At first, I received blank stares when the topic was raised, but I smart-assedly crossed my arms and dug in. If they thought they could prove me wrong, let ‘em try. “Offer me solid evidence,” I insisted in language probably dumbed down by the lack of a few decades and the ingestion of Twinkies. And Twinkies is its own food group you know. I should since I scarfed down enough to be intimately acquainted. But their dismissive smirks were soon history. I knew they couldn’t prove jack shit so I piled on the evidence.
     “Why are there no holiday decorations? Ever? Like at Christmas?” I continued. I knew I was onto something. Every other father in the neighborhood was up there teetering on ladders and swearing at holiday time. It was where most of us learned our best four-letter words. And just happenstancily, it was right around Octoberfest. In a couple of weeks it would be the big “H”, “A” double “L,” “O” time. Add in weenie, and you had yourself a holiday that would make your teeth ache for it to occur more often. A quick glance around the neighborhood confirmed every other house was already outfitted in tacky orange and black decorations. Witches, black cats and Jack O’ Lanterns abounded, but not on the Nobody Home property. Even the steps were bare. In my mind, it read “Guilty,” and I was ready to throw the switch.
When an annoying friend tried to explain away the discrepancy by saying the occupants might not know of the holiday, I fired back the definitive defense. “Who doesn’t know about Halloween?” Ha! The argument was as conclusive as a .24 caliber bullet entering her brain. That would teach her. My summation stopped all those that would have latched onto the pathetic excuse and I ended up winning the day. It’s how I initiated all my friends into the charmed circle of those that knew the Nobody Home home was to be avoided at all costs. It meant running by it when walking alone and never, ever ringing the doorbell on October 31st. No telling what might answer. But that wasn’t the end of my terror-filled, halcyon days. There was that clock.
It was merely a present. A trinket given to cheer me up. I’d taken ill and had been moping in bed with nothing to do other than drink orange juice. My mother insisted it cured everything, and I guess she was right because I am still here. Anyway, I was taking the high temperatures and sweats in stride like the good little trooper I was, and so my dad brought home this gift as some sort of reward. It was a clock—one suiting a five-year-old child. It was shaped like a dog, a yellow one. I supposed it was intended to be a stylized cocker spaniel, but it was really hard to tell. All I can say is that it had long black ears, black eyes and a little red tongue that lolled out of its mouth. I was delighted when I first opened the package, but I hadn’t yet discovered that it was cursed.
     It took a few hours for me to realize the full dimensions of the act of kindness. Until then, the dog clock was a Good Housekeeping approved, blue-medal-winning child’s toy. I held it in my hands, laughing at the silly expression and stroking the plastic that was painted to resemble soft fur. Placing it on my pillow, I confided in the perennially happy puppy how sick I was of being sick, and how I couldn’t wait to get outside and play. All the while, the toy remained the safe, inanimate item it purported to be. But around five o’clock, that all changed for the worse when the unimaginable happened. My father came into the room and … PLUGGED IT IN!
     Oh, my God! A nightmare was launched—birthed right in my very own bedroom! With the horrible sound of w-www-ww-u-uu-u-r-rrr-rrrrr, those pit-of-hell eyes began to move. Back and forth they shifted as the tongue swung from side-to-side like a machete in the hand of a psychopath. I was dumbfounded! I listened to that fearsome grinding wishing that a bomb would drop from the sky and blast it out of existence, but did I tell my parents of my fears? Of course not! I took it upon my tiny shoulders to fight this demon anyway I could.  
     Shortly after all the happiness officially ended for me—and we’re talking forever—I was served my supper on a little pink tray, but the irritating noise and fitful jerking motions continued. A diabolical staredown began in earnest. I’d determined that I could not look away, because if I did, that mechanical monster would surely attack. The not looking away made eating difficult, but I could forego one supper. Groping for the juice glass, I tried to figure out what my father had been thinking in purchasing the travesty. Didn’t he know that automatons were programmed to kill children in their sleep? But maybe that was the point. Maybe he wanted me dead.
     That solution to the puzzle hit home as tears filled my unwavering eyes. Could my very own father hate me that much? Sure I squeezed the toothpaste in the middle and left the cap off, but was that enough? The proof was before me, but wait! I was leaving out the fact that my dad was not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. Sure, he earned a good living and allegedly graduated from an Ivy League institution, but as concerns life? Clueless. I mean, my mom would never have bought something lethal and planted it in my room. The unwholesome character analysis pacified my anxiety. Giving my father a pass for being a doofus, the crime he committed was reduced from first-degree, premeditated murder to manslaughter.  Whew!
While the lessening of the charge gladdened the heart beating wildly in my chest, the glaring standoff continued. For three more hours, I warded off the beast set to strike with laser beams that I shot out my eyes, but it couldn’t last forever. The inevitability of bedtime rolled around and, I mean, I couldn’t not sleep, could I? I decided to try. Long after the lights were turned off and I was tucked in, I bravely struggled to keep my eyelids from closing, but even I realized it was a losing battle. Keeping a vigilant watch by means of the light shining beneath the door, I drifted off for a second. The lapse in consciousness made the alarm bells sound. The exigency of the situation demanded action. Throwing the covers back, I crept towards the maniacal, rabid dog, reciting the Lord’s prayer as I went. I oh so carefully lifted the thing from the wall and saw that the tongue was hooked on. It was something I could disable. With a quick tug, the blood-red tongue came off in my hand.
     I rested the clock back down satisfied that it could no longer taste or lick me. Tossing the metal piece into the trash, I’d teach this cur not to mess with me. When I jumped back into bed, I figured out a new strategy for staying alive. Burying myself under the sheets, I figured what the creature couldn’t see, it couldn’t find and destroy. And that’s how I slept … for weeks. When I woke in the morning that horrible whirring noise would be there to greet me along with that malevolent grin sans the tongue. It was within that span of time that I learned the truism that evil never rests.
     In the ensuing days, I spent as little time as I could in that room, never turning my back on that skinky little devil. Eyeing it as I reached for my socks, I’d throw it a superior look, trying to show who was boss, but it wasn’t fooled. It knew it was. And so after a month and a half of torment, I took drastic action. Upon arriving home from school, I strode into my room and did what I should have done a long time ago—I pulled the plug.
     While disconnecting it returned to its former state, the damage had been done. I could never really trust it, and so after a couple more days, it got dumped in the back of my closet. Things never returned from being put into that black hole.  I was proven right a short time later by my mother asking whatever happened to that clock my dad had bought me. I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head, giving her that dumb look that mouth-breathing, carbon-based units are famous for. It sufficed to convey that I had no freakin’ idea, but, of course, I did. It was then I learned a second truism which is that not everyone needs to know everything. It’s a paradigm that has come in very handy over the years and one that I still use almost every day. And to think I owe learning that lesson to a clock.
     Now whether these experiences fed into me becoming a writer of horror, I don’t know. It certainly proves that I had  a tankful of  overactive imagination and no brakes. That I will give you. But since I often use stream of consciousness to pen tales, it could be that these experiences are regifted and used to spawn wild tales. Then there’s the aspect of feeling vulnerable. I was excruciatingly aware of this emotion all through those formative years. It’s possible that my feeling weak and at the mercy of circumstances also played a part, but conjecture doesn’t make it true. Of course, I harbor my own personal theory and it comes down to this: It was the ingesting of those Twinkies that did it. I just know it’s because of Twinkies that I’m a writer. 

 Wendy Potocki lives and writes in NYC. If that isn't scary enough, she writes in the genre of horror. She feels creating good horror is an art form. She religiously devotes herself to pursuing it over hill and dale -- and in the crevices of her keyboard.
Named one of the Top Ten "New" Horror Authors by Horror Novel Reviews, she has eight self-published novels. Book trailers for many of her works may be found on her official website listed below. Her latest frightmare is TRILLINGHAM, a book that'll give you chills faster than you can yell, "Help!" She's currently working on THE RECKONING, the third and last installment in her very popular Addune Vampire Trilogy.
In her spare time, she loves to go for long walks, drink Starbucks Apple Chai Lattes, make devotional offerings to her cat named Persephone and be stilled by the grace, beauty and magic of ballet. Her novel BLACK ADAGIO was written in tribute to the passion of dance.


Friday, August 1, 2014


There is only one person in the world who will understand all of this blog post, and that’s all right. I’m writing this by instinct, and I know it’s going to skip around, change from past to present tense a few times, and bounce all over the place. No critics, please. Well, maybe one critic is allowed, if you happen to be the one this is meant for, and you’ll know if you are, because you’ll get it. This is a gift, a recollection, a story, an essay, a poem. Call it what you will, interpret it as you will. I just want to write it, relive it, and share it. 
            A writer walks into a food store. Yes, I know, it sounds like the beginning of a joke … but it’s the furthest thing from a joke it can possibly be.
            This writer just wanted a little extra money, so he went for a walk in the past, taking a part-time job in a little supermarket, just like he had when he was sixteen, two decades earlier. He got something more than a little extra money. He got a magnificent surprise.
            An hour or two into the first day on the job, he walked into the back room and heard it, a shrieking voice erupting at full volume to get its point across. It was shrill and would have been annoying except for the fact that its words got the writer’s full attention instantly.
            He saw her standing there letting poor Louie have it with both barrels as she shouted of the evils of religion, of the power of the church over its poor followers, of the idea that, as Marx had said, “religion is the opiate of the masses.”
            The writer stopped in his tracks. She had his attention, and he agreed with most of what he heard her say. The writer was a shy man, without many friends, and would have never under normal circumstances have told an absolute stranger what his first impression of her was. But he did. He didn’t even hesitate, didn’t think. He blurted out three words: “I like you.
            She didn’t hear him. She was too busy yelling at Louie, but it didn’t matter. She had the writer’s attention and he’d keep an eye (and both ears, as if he had a choice!) on her from then on.
            Suddenly, in a world of cardboard robots, she was neon reality … and the writer’s life changed.
            She became important to him, in a way that rarely happened. They collided, and the collision was a powerful one. He thought of her often, and on those days, a few days a week, when he went to work there, suspense filled his heart. He’d arrive in the morning, wondering what she’d have to say today. In bits and pieces, in a series of what would have looked like minor events to any outside observer, those small exchanges evolved into importance. He looked forward to those mornings, and even, sometimes, dreaded his days off. From nothing, an unexpected friendship exploded, and now, more than a year after the beginning, a string of memories cascades from the writer’s mind to the screen on which he types, and he tries to capture it all.
            He stands outside, behind the store, breaking down a produce load. It is hot outside, the sweltering center of summer’s sizzle. He drips with sweat. She comes out, sits on a stack of empty wooden pallets, plays with her phone, and watches him. He wonders what to say. Words are exchanged, not important words, but they are important in their way. It’s just idle conversation, small talk. But when it’s over and she’s about to walk back into the cooler interior of the store, she says to him, “Now we’ve talked outside work,” as if that somehow, magically, has sealed the friendship.
            That’s how it works. Nothing said is ever meaningless. Even small talk isn’t small. It’s like some outside force, some cosmic puppeteer, has orchestrated the whole thing, written a script or arranged the pieces on a chessboard that nobody else can see. Every word he says, every phrase she utters, means something, evolves the collision further. Talking to her is like falling into a movie.
            Summer continues. They stand out in the parking lot one afternoon, leaning on her car, talking. It’s good. She understands the robotic nature of the others. They’re so predictable. But those two aren’t. They surprise each other. There’s nothing ordinary about the conversation. It’s honest and pushes forcefully but carefully against the barriers the writer usually sets up around his life. He lets her in, and she enters freely.
            Now the Facebook messages fly, and then the texts. Numbers exchanged, bits of dialogue sent digitally now, back and forth like two kids launching paper airplanes full of poetry across the schoolyard. The writer has remembered how to have fun without being able to predict the tides of each day. It’s like a storm in his imagination.
            There’s a special suspense to the texting. He sends, he waits, and he reads the response with delight. Yes, there’s reality to this. He finds himself texting in Portuguese (thank you, Google Translate!). She sends him messages when she’s drunk and he finds it refreshing.
            Autumn arrives and the air grows brisk. The writer loves this time of year. Friendship takes its next step forward. They leave that place and eat together. They talk of books they’d like to write one day. At the scene of the crime, as they jokingly call it later, they stand for three hours that feel like only moments, leaning on a railing and laughing, theorizing about the sexual habits of strangers and how the plot of a hypothetical novel might proceed. There is coffee after that, and two more hours in a car, just talking, questioning the nature of reality and the purpose of the forces of the universe and it is on that night that she says to him one of the best things that’s ever been said: “I could never think you’re a raving lunatic.”
            The next morning, for no obvious reason, a tree in his front yard bursts into flame and is reduced to ashes. It becomes a running joke that the intensity of the previous night’s conversation shot out and made it burn.
            They meet again not long after that, laughing together as they roam the aisles of a large bookstore. He tells her the pseudonym he’d use if he needed one, which is something he’s never told anyone before. The night moves on with a drink, during which they straighten out the truth of exactly what’s going on between them, and they’re fine with the result. Then, another titanic talk in a parked car, during which a certain very old song becomes significant, and the theme of dreams enters the movie.
            They talk of dreams often after that, discovering that the writer understands the dream realms, could be a cartographer of those ethereal realms if he so chose. There are dreams of injured cats and bags of money in Brazil and Russians on Mars (or it might have been Martians in Russia, as directions and shifts of scenery are often indecipherable in dreams).
            She brings out parts of him that had long been dormant. He catches hailstones and smiles while doing so, allows himself to be photographed. She tries to talk him into going to the company Christmas party. He tells her he’s not good at parties. She can’t understand what that means. She tells him to go fuck himself. He braves the party, just to prove his point, and tells her to never do that again; it only works once. He had a terrible time, but it’s all right.
            They sit on her couch one night. He’s slightly drunk and talking, talking, talking about philosophy and possibilities and riddles of the mind. He says something. Months later, he won’t remember what it was, but he won’t forget the result. Whatever he said, she must have liked it. She grabs him, squeals, “Oh my ------------!” (I will not type the nickname here. It’s nobody else’s business.), kisses him on the cheek and hugs him for an eternity. The nickname sticks and he’s okay with it. He likes it. Somehow, it fits because she invented it. 
            There are other evenings and other bottles of wine. The wine is always red and usually cheap. Sometimes there’s food too.
            On one particular night, things go wrong in the writer’s life. She provides a sanctuary for him. She feeds him; they obliterate a bottle of wine. He’s drunk, very drunk. He’s falling apart and she puts him back together. He will be forever grateful for that. He’s usually guarded, aloof. But he trusts her enough to let the walls fall, let the wine do its job. That’s saying a lot. There’s trust there. Yes, he’s grateful. 
            The story goes on and on after that. There’s so much that could be said. The writer’s mind is flooded with memories and emotions as he composes this. But, damn it, Sam, this is a blog post, not a novel, so it can’t go on forever.
            And I haven’t even mentioned the orange icing, the orange apartment, the Egyptian cat, the Moses incident, a very specific ocean, potato leek soup, sitting in the dirt fixing Facebook settings, the three golden balls, or a thousand other details of a very good year in the writer’s life.
            He no longer works that job. He doesn’t see her every other day anymore, or even every month. He misses the mornings when he’d enter the store and wait in anticipation of what she had to say. He remembers outrageous laughter, conversations of intense philosophy, bizarre experiments of the mind, and arguments that were exasperating and exhilarating at the same time.
            Communication hasn’t stopped. It won’t stop. It’s too important, and too much fun. It’s slowed, but that happens. After all, we have lives to live and changes to travel through. There are still bursts of texting, and those are always delightful. There will be another meeting one day soon. It’s inevitable. And the writer will drive to the chosen place wondering what they’ll talk about then. He’ll go there knowing he’ll get the smile, the shriek, the hug. He looks forward to it.
            Until then, there are always the two songs that serve as bookends to the situation. One song is very old and sweetly sings of the subject of dreams. The other is very new and involves a big brown horse and magick, magick, magick!
            At the beginning of this ramble, I said this was a recollection, or a story, or a poem. It’s all those things in one way or another. But what it really is, is something simpler than that. It’s a birthday card. I’ve tried to fill it with truth and gratitude. I hope I got it right. That’s all.