Monday, September 19, 2011

I'm Not Afraid. You Will Be. You Wuss.

OK, so we're off and literally running with my half-marathon training (19 miles logged this week), and I'm elbow deep into the guts of a new manuscript. High times at The Corner.

Anyway, lately I've been thinking about what drives my best writing (understanding that 'best' is a relative term). What is the primordial ooze from which pours out my best work? And after many years of puzzling over this, I think I know the answer, not only to that question, but to the question as to why I write at all.

Answer: fear and anger.

Writing has always helped me deal with the things that piss me off or worry me (and if you've spent more than say 60 seconds with me, you're aware that there are a lot of things that piss me off and worry me), and the more I draw from my fear and anger, the better the output. Yes. Anger and fear are my best word fertilizers.

I have more to say on that topic, but until I can work a good blog post on it, I'll share with you a good story about fear, taken from one of the creepiest moments of my own life.

Years ago, my parents were out of town for a summer, and while they were gone, I was tasked with looking after their old house. Every few weeks, I'd drive up there, pay the bills, cut the grass, drink their booze, that sort of thing (totally kidding about the booze part -- the only alcohol in that place is a dusty can of Budweiser, canned in the year 1568).

Anyway, at the time, they were living in a standard middle-class neighborhood, a mishmash of police officers, mechanics, factory workers, and retirees. It wasn't a dangerous neighborhood by any means, but we did live right on the corner of a very busy artery, and so there were always weird people walking by or waiting for the bus just on the other side of our yard. Probably why my mom was always so worried about someone trying to kidnap us. We had a pretty large side yard; it gave us about a 100-foot cushion from the house to the property line, which itself was lined by thick boxwoods.

So one night, during one of these sojourns to the homestead, I was getting ready for bed and decided to peek out the kitchen window at the back of our house, which looked southeast toward this busy artery. Why I chose to do this on this particular night, I have no idea. There, under the yellow wash of streetlight, I spotted a rather manic and disheveled-looking man walking west. He was the kind of guy you conjure up and store in the old "What the Guy Who Will Murder Me and Use My Skin to Make a Dress Will Look Like" file.

His route would take him directly past our side yard and toward this artery's intersection with another of the city's major thoroughfares about a couple miles down the road. He was a middle-aged guy, thickly built, wearing a flannel shirt (in high summer, mind you). My mental alarm bells, which are already ringing by default, were howling, and so I zipped back through the kitchen and south to our darkened family room, which overlooked the aforementioned side yard, and where my Friendly Neighborhood Serial Killer would be passing by within a few seconds (assuming he wasn't climbing in the kitchen window by then).

There I was, crouched at the window in the darkened family room, peeking behind the blinds, willing him to continue west, away from my house and back through the portal to whichever hellish dimension from whence he came. I picked him up a few seconds later, moseying along. He came under another streetlight, the last one he'd pass before he crossed our street, and I started to relax. Suddenly, he stopped dead, awash in the harsh glow of the light. He turned his head. And looked right at me. I still remember making eye contact with him, his wild-eyed look burned on my brain like a brand. While we were locked in our little staredown, I kept telling myself that he couldn't have seen me, that the house was dark, and I would have been invisible from the street. On the other hand, if that were true, Professor Kazzie, why the eff had he stopped? And why were we making Michael-Myers-like eye contact? I crouched there frozen, waiting for him to do whatever it was he was going to do.

After what seemed like an hour, he started moving again, passing by the bus stop, past the large magnolia tree at the southwest corner of the yard. As he crossed behind our magnolia tree, he disappeared into the darkness, which was to be expected, given the gaps in the reach of the lights. But he should have re-appeared under the next streetlight, just west of my street, within 30 seconds or so. He didn't. I waited and waited, not breathing, not blinking, rooted to the spot. And still nothing. He had vanished. Gone. I felt like John Lithgow's character in the gremlin-on-the-wing vignette in the Twilight Zone movie (I really don't like to fly, so I'm not kidding when I say that's the scariest thing I've ever seen on film).

That was when I realized I'd be up for the rest of the night. I turned on every light in the house. I made a pot of strong coffee. I played Nintendo Ice Hockey for a couple of hours. I watched a movie. I played more Ice Hockey. Around 6, dawn started to break over our neighborhood, and when it was light enough, I went outside and conducted a massive search of the property (locking the house tight before I set foot outside, of course). Nothing. I finally crawled into bed and got a few hours of restless sleep.

The incident still gives me the heebie-jeebies, nearly two decades later.

What about you? Any good real-life tales of horror?


  1. In high school each Christmas I was in a production of A Christmas Carol at a local historic home (Aaron Burr was married there! Whoopee!). Supposedly haunted by one of the two sisters who'd lived there recluse-style in the late 1800's. On the final night, we were putting the costume and prop boxes away in the incredibly creepy,dark, and not-yet-renovated upstairs. At the moment I turned to see the dim light from the streetlamp outdoors fall on a 100-year old dressmaker's dummy, my friend decided to pay homage to Psycho by tapping my shoulder from behind and screeching, "Kill her, Norman!" I headed down the stairs at a dead run, falling down the last half of them and badly bruising my foot in the process, all the while making this weird screaming/keening noise.

    However, NOTHING compares to the feeling of losing sight of your child in public place. Scariest. Feeling. Period.

  2. Oh, I didn't disappear that night, David.

    I just decided I wasn't hungry after all.

    See you tomorrow.

  3. One time, I tried to write a book. Then, I tried to edit it.

    The End.

  4. Paul -- don't you give up now. I'll send my new friend Anonymous after you.

    And as for you, Anonymous, welcome. I've been waiting for you. After all these years. This is going to be like Highlander.

  5. And Liney -- yes, I'd agree few things induce panic like losing sight of your kid. I lost one behind a parked car at a festival. He was never more than 15 feet away from me, but I couldn't see him. thought my head was gonna explode.