I’m going to talk about my collection of short stories: There Are No Doors in Dark Places. It’s part of my trilogy of horror along with Giant Monsters Sing Sad Songs, and What Devours Always Hungers.
Honestly, I’m not sure what I’m doing with this blog. Seriously, angry rants about Covid-19 and black lives matter, or biographical sketches, philosophical questions, thinking out loud as to what I’d do with Doctor Who or Robin, or really obscure reviews, it’s whatever seems to occur to me at the moment.
I’m sure that there are other writers out there with blogs that are just laser focused on the exigencies of writing, or the cutting edges of techno-pop culture, or whatever the hell. There’s blogs full of deep insightful book reviews, sophisticated discussions of the going’s on of the book industry, or a niche about comics.
Me? Who the hell knows?
I just write about… Whatever.
I’m I don’t really have much of anyone reading this stuff. That’s kind of liberating. I write, compulsively. If it was a successful blog, readership and everything, regular followers, I would probably need to be more focused, more narrow. I’d have to get my shit together. But here, I just write whatever.
Some people talk or think in terms of their writing careers.
For me, writing is not so much a career, but more a personality disorder.
So this is kind of an outlet. Anyway…
I keep thinking I should make more of a systematic effort to promote my stuff. So here goes….
I thought I’d write about There Are No Doors in Dark Places.
A lot of these stories were written back when I was a short story machine, just chugging them out one after another. So, you’d think that they’d almost be mechanical. The machine whirrs, an idea goes in, out pops a story.
But it’s more than ideas. Everyone asks ‘where do you get your ideas.’ But a really good story isn’t just an idea, or style. There has to be something alive inside it, some emotion, some obsession, motivation. I don’t think that you can write from a vacuum. You have to feel something. Things have to come from somewhere. There needs to be something, some energy, some fury, some joy, something that pushes the work.
Take Russ Meyer, not the greatest film maker. But the man had obsessions, even compulsions, that give his work a fascinating power that you just don’t see with more technically proficient film maker. Or for instance, Dave DeCoteau, he’s a crappy B-movie film maker, just grinds them out, and you can feel his lack of interest. But he’s also gay, and he’s always got a scene in his movies of young men in tighty whiteys, and those scenes are where his movies come alive. There’s a lot to be said for technique, but technique without passion is sterile. Whereas passion without technique is a train wreck, but it’s still a compelling train wreck. Arguably, you want both, technique and passion (not train wrecks).
For that reason, I find some ‘literary’ literature to be very unaffecting. Not all of it, but a fair amount. Some middle aged University professor has an affair with one of his students? I’m just cold. Some middle class yobos living suffocating lives? Meh. Not much passion. I guess I’m not really the audience.
I’d rather read about a pregnant teenager, struggling with bad options in life. That’s passion
Horror is not well respected, but it’s more honest than a lot of literature. Real horror is about vulnerability. It’s about the places where we don’t feel safe, where we aren’t safe. There’s something very real about that, even when we dress it up in metaphor. And really, good horror, effective horror, is about the things we can’t face directly. So we dress it up in a rubber suit, and dance around, as it stumbles after us. Horror is a metaphorical literature that is about coping with what we can’t face. Or at least, good horror is.
The stories in There Are No Doors… keep coming back to themes of vulnerability, or of the vulnerability of helplessness. The protagonist in Lanie is a pregnant teenager, alone and on welfare, trapped in a shitty life with no opportunities. The heroine of Neck Row Man Sea, is further down the road, she’s a single mother with a screaming infant, in a crap apartment, with no prospects, so lonely that even a cat is a luxury.
The protagonist in Allison is another pregnant woman, but paralysed and trapped in her own body. Body horror, the sense that you aren’t safe in your own skin, are the themes of Changing Faces and Fighting the Beast.
For all the characters in these stories, the safety and sanity of the world breaks down. Normality ends. And suddenly, although the world hasn’t really changed, it’s no longer safe or sane, it’s dangerous and hungry and ready to consume.
The truth is that the world isn’t safe for us. We all have this illusion that we are. Maybe it’s a necessary illusion.
And I think for certain classes, middle and upper middle and upper classes, it’s true or kind of true. Once you’re at a certain income level, your problems aren’t really problems, they’re challenges. You don’t worry where the next meal is coming from, or if you can make the rent or you’ll be out on the street, you don’t worry about affording boots for the winter, or clothes for your children. It goes deeper. You aren’t as worried about someone coughing on you and ending in the hospital You’re not as close to the knife edges of violence. The fears at that level are status and fulfilment and lofty ambitions. Being farther up the hierarchy of needs, your concerns are less visceral.
But the reality is that we are all vulnerable. You step wrong, you’re in a wheelchair for the rest of your life. Take the wrong turn, your family dies when you get T-boned. Cancer plays no favourites. Our island of stability turns out to be fragile.
I suppose I should talk about the stories.
A Long Walk in the Hard Winter. This is a short horror story, set in the winter out in the country. A couple of guys are snowmobiling. One of them falls behind, his machine conks out, and he has to walk back home alone through the long winter night. Except, there’s something in the night with him.
This is a re-creation of the third story I ever wrote when I was thirteen. The first two got published in the local paper, I suppose they can be found sometime, although I’d rather they didn’t.
This one? Not published. But I this one I wished I’d managed to save down through the years. I think it was genuinely the best of the three. This story, my Dad read, and he took it to the Pulp and Paper Mill with him on the midnight shift, and he read it to his friends and co-workers, everyone liked it. It was a nice little horror story, handwritten on foolscap pages, probably no more than a few pages long.
But my Dad liked it. He didn’t say it. He showed it. Afterwards, there was talk I’d make a journalist. Back home, that was the only trade people could think of that involved writing you’d get paid for.
Over the years, the story was lost. Years later, I sat down and tried to re-create it, to rewrite. The result was a good story, I think, but not quite the same as the original. You can never put your foot in the same river twice.
Lanie is the story of a pregnant teenager and a monster. The monster is just this ‘rubber suited’ thing, it’s an externalization of her terror. What I really loved was writing Lanie herself, the terrors of having to deal with welfare, the cruelty and indifference of the system, the narrow margins left to her, the delicacy of her tentative hopes, and the strength she found.
This story sold to a magazine called Terminal Fright, which back in its time was a very highly respected paying market for horror. The editor, Ken Abner actually phoned me up to buy it.
Wow, I was elated. Someone called me up to buy a story? A personal acceptance by phone! Cool! What a feather in the cap!
Then he mentioned it just happened to be the right size, he needed a X number of words to fill a hole in his issue. Well, that was kind of deflating. It wasn’t that it was a great story, it was just that it was the last minute on the production schedule and it was the right length.
That has actually happened to me a couple of times.
Yeah, whatever. I’m not proud. A sale is a sale, even if it’s filling a hole.
That’s the thing with writing. You’re up, you’re down. There’s much that’s bittersweet. You don’t develop an ego in this business. Or maybe you have to develop one out of self defense.
Still, Lanie is a good short story though, and I’m proud of it. I think it got an honorable mention in Years Best Fantasy and Horror.
Neck Row Man Sea, has always felt like a companion piece to Lanie. Lanie’s a lonely pregnant teen with no options looking forward to a shitty life on welfare. Laurie’s a lonely single mom with no options having a shitty life on welfare. They’re almost the same person, just at different points, with different challenges. For Laurie, trapped in desperation, salvation and doom come in a half remembered phrase she hears somewhere… “Neck Row Man Sea”
I suppose Mister Shepherd would complete the trilogy. The heroine, at first is much more confident and secure. No pregnant/single mom trapped on the road to nowhere by a cold and indifferent world. She’s the master of her domain, except….
Notice that I’m trying not to give away too much plot? I have this hope you’ll buy the book.
Fighting the Beast. Where did that come from? I think it started with a reflection on the Zombie Apocalypse. That’s where all stories come from. Someone says something, you see something, and then you turn it on its head, you look at it from a different angle, and that sets off a chain of free association, and voila! Idea!
The thing with the Zombie apocalypse, is that basically a zombie shows up and civilization collapses. Whoopsy! But would it? Human beings have an amazing ability to cope, and we’ve built a pretty resilient civilization. Zombies show up, and maybe they’d amount to a speed bump at best. We’d run them right over. Hell, all kinds of monsters, we’d just take it in stride. Wouldn’t be happy about it. Probably a lot of strain. But we’d handle it.
So that’s the world of ‘Fighting the Beast.’ It’s the Zombie Apocalypse. Plus the Werewolf apocalypse, the Troll apocalypse, the Vampire apocalypse, etc. etc. And guess what, civilization doesn’t collapse. Buses armour up with turret blisters. The neighborhood watch committee has flamethrowers. There are adjustments and adaptations, but the wheels of progress keep grinding on. Life doesn’t stop. People still live in apartments, watch television, go to jobs, follow sports teams.
That’s the setting. But what’s the energy of the story? What makes it alive? Saul, the protagonist, is a werewolf. It’s not fun for him. It’s miserable, it means his body betrays him regularly. He’s not safe inside his own skin, and neither is anyone else. Vulnerability, danger is something we run away from, we don’t want it, we don’t want to think about it. But what if you can’t run from it, what if it’s inside you, and there’s no escape.
The companion story is Changing Faces. This is about a guy who finds himself turning into movie monsters, one day he’s the Mummy, the next day he’s Frankenstein’s monster, the next he’s the Incredible Sun Demon. I’ll confess, it was fun to write, because the premise is so silly. It’s straight out of 1950’s B-movie-ville squared. And it was fun to write the protagonists absolute conviction, his belief that it is really happening to him, in the face of everyone else clearly not buying it, and his continuing rationalization.
But at the same time, there’s an emotional core. Here’s someone who is trapped inside himself, with his body betraying him night after night. He’s helpless and terrified, but he’s stuck, there’s no place to run, no place to hide.
This one never got published formally, which is a shame, because I think it’s a damned good story. Funny story though. I submitted it to On-Spec magazine (as well as a bunch of other places). They didn’t buy it, boo hoo. But years later, I met a woman from the On-Spec editorial board, and she knew my name. She knew it from that story, it had thoroughly creeped her out. It had made such an impression on her that she remembered me and could talk to me about the story years later. She wasn’t able to persuade the rest of the editorial board, which is too bad. But at least I made an impression, reached out and touched someone. So… almost as good as publishing.
Allison is a similar story, although in some ways it has overtones of Neck Row Man Sea and Lanie, in terms of being about women trapped and isolated in an uncaring world with pregnancy or children. She had her whole life ahead of her, until the accident left her paralysed. Now she’s pregnant. Between paralysis and pregnancy, she’s lost control of her body in fundamental always.
I suppose that in their way, Voices and Suicide Generation play with that theme. Voices is actually a bittersweet story about a man and his cancer. The protagonist, Hersh, discovers that his cancer is aware, it talks to him, except it doesn’t understand it’s killing him. In Suicide Generation, a Detective finds that he can’t escape the truth in his mind.
The Wizards of Huckleberry Finn is probably the darkest story. It’s about eight or nine thousand words. I wrote it all in one sitting, very nearly automatic. I remember finishing it, drenched with sweat and dread, and no sense at all of time having passed.
I’d been thinking about ghosts. It struck me that ghosts were usually tied to places or times. But what if a ghost was tied to a person, that wherever the person went, the ghost would eventually show up. I’d been kicking around ideas.
Then one day, my sister called me to talk about my mother’s alcoholism.
I’m not going to play the victim. I don’t think that I really had that much experience of my mother’s alcoholism, or was affected by it all that much. Her alcoholism came on later in life, partially empty nest syndrome and partially the loneliness that comes from life narrowing in later age, the drawing away of friendships, depression, isolation, and the stress of my Dad, who could be a selfish piece of work. She’d had friends who got her into drinking, and as they drifted away, the drinking kept on.
I was there for some of it, but I think that as it progressed I was going to University, and eventually moving on with my life. I didn’t see much of it. Maybe I just didn’t want to see it developing. Maybe there wasn’t anything I could do so I practiced willful blindness.
Or maybe I was selfish, and turned my back, closed my eyes, when I was needed. Maybe I could have made a difference, but chose not to, because that would have required something of me, so instead I pretended not to notice.
I honestly don’t know. Maybe I’ll never know.
Maybe I couldn’t have done anything. Sometimes that’s how it is, alcoholism, cancer, addiction, sometimes you just can’t save people, you can’t make a difference no matter how hard you try. All you can do is watch someone suffer, stand there helplessly as they spiral down and down. Who wants to watch that? Who wants that kind of helplessness?
Wouldn’t you rather just tear your eyes out? Except you can’t. You just live with it.
I think it affected my brother more, but he was only a couple of years younger than me. His life path was different, but he was well along it, so maybe he was all right. He’s never talked about it. We share a practical streak so maybe between us there’s an unspoken agreement that there’s nothing to be done, and so no sense in talking about it. Why talk about things you can’t change?
It affected my sister, I think. Mom’s alcoholism emerged at a formative time, as she was growing up, into her teens, into high school and university. For her she got the full brunt of pain and helplessness and rebellion. Maybe she tried to help. Maybe it shaped her. She turned out okay, probably the best of all of us.
But she called me up that one night, because she had to talk about it. Or maybe she needed me to confront it. Maybe she wanted me to do something, or maybe she just needed to talk, or maybe she was calling me out as a coward. Maybe all of them.
Maybe I needed to hear it, maybe I’d known all along. Even as my voice was calm and measured, my manner thoughtful, as I talked to her, and we discussed it, I remember how much the call hurt,
After the phone call ended, I just sat at the computer feeling swallowed up by blackness and started writing. The whole story came out, the characters, the situations, the description, the arc of darkness. It came from nowhere, I’d played with notions of ghosts. But the story wrote itself. I literally don’t remember writing it, just finishing it with no sense of time.
There’s no happy ending. There was nothing I could actually do.
At that time, I was living in Winnipeg, starting a career as a young lawyer, dedicated to social justice, working sixteen hour days for shit money. I couldn’t afford to travel out east, I was barely keeping afloat. I wasn’t able to just take a few months off. And I didn’t want to relocate back home, I’d worked hard enough to escape.
I did go out after a couple of years, when I could put aside money for travel, me and my girlfriend who would become my wife. We went out a few times. Mom was always happy when I came out. We travelled. I remember my grandmother being thrilled, she said ‘you changed the water, you really changed the water.’ It’s an old Acadian phrase I guess. She meant I’d made such a difference to my mother and the dark place that drove her into drinking.
So maybe I could have saved her. Maybe I could have made that difference, if I’d known what to do, if I’d been brave or strong enough.
But I didn’t.
So that’s that.
Maybe I should have never left.
But I did.
I chose myself over her.
I was selfish. That’s just human.
My father got the worst of it. Perhaps deservedly, because he was probably part of the problem. Or maybe I’m just being harsh on him. He wasn’t a terrible man, just had his good and bad points. I remember him calling distraught a couple of times. Once he called up and forced her to get on the phone and admit she was an alcoholic, I assume that was part of some treatment program. If so, it’s hideously cruel. Or maybe it was him, at wits end, trying to make her confront it. It’s still hideously cruel.
I remember one visit, he showed me this bin full to the top of empty liquor bottles. She drank alone. She was alone a lot. Cab drivers would deliver liquor. She would drink, all alone at home, and she’d hide the bottles all over the house.
Dad would find them, and just stick them in a bin. He seemed so frustrated, but not angry. Just helplessly frustrated, he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t have the tools to come to grips with this, and it baffled him. So he showed me the bin filled with liquor bottles, I suppose because he needed me to know it, he needed someone to know, he didn’t want to be alone with it. I don’t know what he wanted of me in that moment, or if I provided it, which means I probably didn’t.
I think my mother was deeply unhappy in her lifle. She was in and out of treatment, but it never really went away. Maybe if she’d left, went someplace else, did something else, changed her life and became someone new, maybe that would have saved her. Maybe I should have pushed for that.
Or maybe not. I’ve known a fair number of alcoholics. I don’t know that any of them have escaped alcoholism by reinventing themselves. Usually, leaving means the support system crumbles and they go downhill. Mom was at a place in her life where drinking was the answer, and there wasn’t any other answer, or any other place.
I’m not certain of that. I don’t want to be certain. Knowing for sure wouldn’t make it better.
You’ll notice that there are tons of maybe’s in here. That’s how it is. The truth of it is that in these situations, these points of intersection with the ones we love, their faults and flaws, their tragedies, we are denied certainty. It all gets so wrapped up in compexities and ambiguities, we can never ever truly be confident. Instead we live with uncertainty, with never really being sure, never knowing. It is what it is.
In the end, she died of cancer. The day she got the diagnosis she went home and emptied out the laundry closet, left everything on the floor. She smoked three cigarettes in a row. My father watched, uncomprehending, and reported this to me. I suppose she drank after that without caring too much, it wasn’t going to make a difference. The cancer was like wildfire, it took her within the month. I got the call to come home, but by the time I arrived she was unconscious. She was gone a day or so later.
But that night, that one phone call, left me with all this raw pain and darkness, this regret and helplessness, all this dark dark energy. And somehow, I took all that darkness, and poured it into writing, into a story. The actual details of the story have nothing to do with my life, or with my mother, or the regrets and self doubts and recriminations. It’s not biography. But if it’s a good story, and I think it is, it’s because it was filled with the dark intensity, that painful sense of helplessness and horror that came from being on the phone with my sister that night, talking about our mother’s alcoholism.
I used to write a lot of horror. It’s only looking back that I realize how personal so much of it was. The terrors of helplessness, of being on the outside and the edges, the sense that any progress could slip away, the corrosion of the soul, the indifference of the world, that feeling of vulnerability, the sense of not even being safe in your own body.
You dress it up in latex and fangs and monsters. But really, it’s all just the things in the dark we can’t yet bear to look at.