Tuesday, May 10, 2016

To thine own self!

Recently, a student told me she'd had a dream about me after reading the first couple of acts of Hamlet. She said the quote, "To thine own self, be true," made her think of me, though she couldn't explain why. I thought about it for some time, and realized she must have been attuned to the fact that I am finally, after years of talking about it, writing horror stories again.

For a long time, I told myself not to write horror stories if I didn't think they'd be scary. I've come to the realization that that's a stupid reason not to try. What frightens some people amuses others, especially in these cynical times. People are so paranoid about things happening in the real world, they don't want to suspend their disbelief long enough to "get into" the world of a horror story. I can't be concerned with that; if you've allowed this shitty, fucked up century to deaden your sense of wonder, what can I say? Sucks to be you.

The very first story I ever wrote was a crime story. That was in the fourth grade. It was called The Tree and it was about a mad scientist who trains a tree to rob banks. It ended in horror, though, as the tree was cut down by law enforcement officials and the mad scientist put to death (I obviously didn't understand the parameters of the death penalty when I was nine years old).

The first time I sat down at a word processor, however, and banged out a thirteen page story (single-spaced, because I didn't learn about double-spacing until I was about twenty-seven years old!), it was a horror story. It was called The Mailbox and it was about a mailbox that wrote letters to its owner telling it to kill certain people. I was in the seventh grade then. I remember writing it late one Friday night and getting high off of freaking myself out.

Over the years, I have tried to recapture that feeling. Maybe it's like crack-cocaine--it only works the first time. Eventually, as a teenager trying to impress girls, I veered off into Kafka and Camus country, trying to sound more intelligent than I actually was (and am). While earning my BA at IU and IUPUI, my peers, who really shouldn't be called peers, convinced me that horror and science fiction were no genres for "serious" writers. Well, I took them seriously for a while. And maybe that was a good thing. I branched out and read Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. Eventually I read Raymond Chandler and then Jim Thompson and found that I enjoyed writing crime stories because, I felt, they required no generic, middle class morality. In a way, the crime fiction I've written over the last ten years is not that different from horror. My characters usually make bad decisions because of the terrifying economic positions this country has put them in.

[And now for a digression]

I'd like to share, for reasons I don't even know, the experience I had at the MFA program at MNSU a few years ago. It was the first class meeting of the first workshop of my first year. I'd been writing for my whole life and was only getting the degree so that I could pay my bills teaching at the college level. I had no idea that I going to get sucked into the cult-like, insecure world of twenty-something / millennial grad students who despise anything they consider different. The first thing the professor did was go around the circle of students and have each of us talk about the most recent book we'd read (or were currently reading). I was right in the middle. On the way to me, I heard the usual grad school favorites--David Foster Wallace, Junot Diaz, etc., I thought nothing of it when I admitted that I was currently reading a collection of Robert Bloch stories because I edited a fiction journal called Pulp Modern and wanted to contact his widow to see if she'd let me reprint one of his stories for the first issue.

Well, not since Village of the Damned or Invasion of the Body Snatchers had I been met with such strong, collective disdain. The professor acted as though I hadn't even mentioned the word 'pulp.' He sort of grunted and moved on to the next student, who raved about the latest AWP meta-tome about boring, middle class suburban bullshit. While I had some friends in the MFA program, for the most part, I felt like an outcast the entire time I was there. I was made to feel old and stupid for reading writers who couldn't be schmoozed at the next AWP butt-kissing contest because the authors I was reading were dead (to many millennials--though not all; my students, for instance, who are mostly working class, do not think this way--anything that happened before five minutes ago is "irrelevant").*

This hostile attitude was made especially clear when I had the audacity to question the greatness of Jennifer Egan. A woman about ten years younger than me cornered me at the school coffee house and berated me for not slobbering all over Ms. Egan's book like a junky. She said, "We're trying to get into this thing," as though, a.) being published were some sort of secret society only a select few are allowed into and b.) my existence as a white male over the age of 12 was somehow impeding the progress of all the younger, more affluent white people in the program. I realized then that MFA had a few letters missing...

I bring all this up because these sorts of things have enabled my shying away from writing what I really want to write, which is horror. The only genre more difficult is comedy, and those who write comedy (that's actually funny, that is, not the toilet humor Hollywood calls comedy) have my total respect. At this point in my life, there's no reason I shouldn't do exactly what I want to do. I am not an intellectual, I do not aspire to win great awards. I just want to write stories that make people feel the way I do when I read a good yarn late at night that compels me, for no rational reason, look twice at any movement in the shadows.

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