Monday, October 24, 2016

So, Clowns


Since this is the month for all things scary, I decided to write about something I have been scared of nearly all my life. This rates right up there with wax figures, maybe even higher. Clowns.

Just for the heck of it, I looked up a history on clowns and I guess white-face clown makeup began with a gentleman named Joseph Grimaldi. Clown humor is based on slapstick or physical antics, along with ridiculous or foolish reactions to situations.

I have never in my life found clowns to be funny.

When I was about three or four, my parents took our family to a circus. I have a dim recollection of crowds of people, and of the packed-in seating. I remember that we were placed in the front section, and that is crucial. Because most of what I remember is that we were close enough for interaction, and at some point a clown came up and got in my face.

I'm sure that is not what this poor man was trying to do. Undoubtedly, he saw a little kid and decided to try playing with her to make her laugh. So he got close and began making faces at me, probably going for a belly laugh or at least a good-natured giggle.

What he got instead was a flat-out shriek. I think that may be the only time in my life that I ever really screamed. And I mean scream. I could sense his dismay at my reaction, but since his face was completely covered with thick greasepaint make-up, a ridiculous nose, and painted on mouth and eyebrows, he certainly couldn't convey that to me. I was getting dismay messages mixed with a happy-face expression and that made no sense at all to my little four-year-old brain.

Also, his face didn't fricking move. No movement whatsoever through all that cosmetic layering. The only things that did move were his eyes. His eyes were totally alive, but his face -and although I was pretty young at the time, I did understand this-  was totally dead. No movement. No expression except for clown-face. Nothing. I don't remember if he tried talking to me. I wouldn't have heard him anyway.

Ever since then, I have had an automatic reaction of both fear and revulsion when it comes to clowns. I don't like seeing them in circuses or parades. I don't think I would enjoy their performances in rodeos. And I know for sure I would never own clown art. (There is a place up north in my beloved Door County that advertises clown paintings: SERIOUSLY????)

So I know why I fear clowns. The news stories of clowns beckoning to children, inviting them to come into the woods, brings up a hunting instinct in me I never knew I had. When it was announced that John Gacy used to dress up as a clown, I couldn't help thinking that of course he did. And then, no surprise, Stephen King unleashed Pennywise on the world and that was that.

One good thing, I share this fear with a pretty awesome dude:

In the meantime, I'd like to know what about them scares everyone else who shares this fear. Or maybe even the phobia.They're supposed to be funny and playful? Why are they terrifying?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Would You Spend the Night Here?

The idea of spending the night in a haunted house on purpose or on a dare probably dates back centuries. Well, maybe not, but it wouldn't surprise me if it did. Haunted houses and ghosts have long been considered entertainment. Mary Shelley's blockbuster Frankenstein came about when she and several other guests at Lord Byron's estate challenged each other to write the scariest story possible. And that was back in the early nineteenth century.

These days, paranormal investigators spend nights in haunted houses on a regular basis during the course of their hunts for evidence of the spectral. Actively seeking out paranormal evidence as opposed to locking oneself in a bedroom with the covers drawn protectively over one's head is undoubtedly different than the original dares of sleeping in a haunted house. Nevertheless, there are so many reality shows based on overnights in haunted or disturbed surroundings that daring someone to do just that has probably lost some of its original luster and sting.

So I started thinking about that: would I spend the night in a haunted house? Two answers came to mind. First off, if you consider the house where I grew up, I have spent countless nights in a haunted house. Secondly, my answer would probably be "no, thank you." I could say been there, done that, but it's more accurate to say that I'm too much of a chicken to do it. Truly. The idea of running into a ghost terrifies me, even though I write about them, research them, watch shows about them, enjoy stories about them, and even live with a family who have all seen them. No matter how I look at it, ghosts scare the dickens out of me as much as I am fascinated by them.

But a haunted house isn't the only venue on the list of possibilities. Would you spend the night in a cemetery? In the Egyptian Hall of a museum, surrounded by mummies and sarcophogi? How about in a funeral home? Or a morgue (even empty)? Creepy ideas, right? 

Well, here's my line in the sand. Overnighting in a haunted place is one thing. But I absolutely would not be able to spend the night in a wax museum. Of all the everyday places that I find frightening, wax museums, or any place having those lifelike figures, are the absolute no-go for moi. Mannequins don't bother me. But realistic, usually historical figures done up in wax and accurate down to the last detail are another story. In my book, Dead Voices, there is a scene where Cassie takes Michael along to a haunted bed-and-breakfast and he refuses to even set foot in the place, due to what he can see. That's about how I feel when it comes to wax museums.

My family took a road trip to Canada when I was maybe five years old, or so. It was a long drive and while I know we saw Niagara Falls, and took a guided hiking tour and boat tour through some sort of forested canyon with a river running through it, the thing that stuck with me the most was the wax museum we visited. I can't even tell you what city it was in, whether Montreal, Quebec, or Toronto. (Sad, I realize, but I was only five.) At any event, I remember life-size, life-like figures everywhere with eyes that followed your every movement and faces that looked to be on the brink of becoming animated. Maybe even saying something. I think I held one of my parents' hands the entire time.

I didn't think much about that afterward, at least not consciously. But I do remember that when a smaller version of The London Royal Wax Museum opened in Old Town in Chicago, I would detour around it. If someone suggested going there, I would come up with an alternative. I never set foot in the place and I know it is no longer there, which is fine with me.

On the other hand, Jim and I took a trip to the British Isles to celebrate his completion of a long-term job in Texas, and the last stop on the tour we booked was at Warwick Castle. The castle itself is well-preserved and beautifully decorated. It's kind of like a Renaissance Faire, but on steroids. People in periodic clothing abound: women in floor-length dresses and men in jerkins and leggings were everywhere. We were even lucky enough to see the actual firing of the castle's trebuchet. That was fun! But the interior of the castle, at the time we visited, also boasted "living scenes" from the middle ages. "Living scenes" meant that not only did they have a stable, for instance, but they also included a horse and a blacksmith. And much to my dismay, these beings were made of wax. Every entire living scene included wax figures. Worse, they had animated them, so that the horse would turn its head or twitch an ear. The figures of people were breathing, for petesake. And the lighting was a lot dimmer than I would have wanted.

I rushed Jim through the entire exhibit like a whirlwind, never mind that he wanted to stop and read the plaques or displayed descriptions at each scene, or that he might want to check out the detail at every tableau. I was trying to get out before any of those things not only turned its head or blinked but also stepped over the cords that roped off each display and started coming after me. I mean, they were all life-sized and some of them were armed. I didn't want to be around when they came to life. I didn't want Jim stuck in there when that happened, either.

He didn't say anything about how rapidly we took in that one part of the castle, but I did feel compelled to explain myself once we were safely outside in the sunlight. I had actually forgotten how much wax figures bothered me, and now that I've seen them as an adult, the memory has no chance of fading away. If Jim ever wants to go to Madame Tussaud's, he is definitely on his own.

So of all the scary places people might be dared to spend the night, if I wasn't alone you might be able to get me to stay at a museum, or a cemetery. Maybe even a morgue. But a wax museum? Not on your or my life. I don't care what anyone says about them: those places are not safe. And those figures are not just pretend. 

And I knew that even before seeing anything featuring Vincent Price or written by  Rod Serling.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Book I Indeed Did Finish


Some time after I published last week's blog post, I sat down and finished the book, Lisey's Story. It is a hard story: hard to get into, hard to read, and definitely hard to look away from, in the end. It's brilliant. And I will probably never read it again.

Lisey's Story is about a woman who is two years past the death of her beloved husband Scott Landon, an acclaimed, successful, and wealthy author. Note that this book is dedicated to Mr. King's wife, Tabitha. I think this one is autobiographical in certain aspects, and also touches again on the theme of an adoring but absolutely insane fan. I hate to think of what sort of insanity has visited Mr. King's life because of his success.

During the course of this book, we learn that Scott's books are sourced from a real and magical place, a place that he can access and one that he teaches Lisey to find. If the word "magical" gives rise to images of good wizards and unicorns, rainbows and fairies, also keep in mind that this book is written by Stephen King, after all. The magic is there in beauty and lusciously scented flowers and healing waters, but there are also beasts, poison, and at least one huge and deadly monster.

Monsters are a theme throughout this book. Scott comes from a family of them, and this is slowly revealed to the reader as Lisey begins the work of cleaning up her husbands papers and starts to remember, with reluctance, what he has told her about the family that both birthed him and nearly killed him. There is a monster of a fan that tries to end Scott's life. And there is the monster who takes up where that deranged fan left off.

Lisey, in the mean time is dealing with her own inner demons: grief, loss, pain, rage, and the realization that there is an answering sort of madness in her own family that will match up to that in Scott's. And that madness is both death and salvation.

I had a hard time reading this book. For me, it's unlike anything else I've ever read by Mr. King, and that's saying something, since his works span quite a gamut of extraordinary and paranormal premises. Still, in the end, dang him, he was talented enough and skilled enough to pull me into the story and keep me hanging on until the end. I couldn't look away. But this wasn't a train wreck. This is amazing, gripping writing from one of the biggest talent's of our age. It takes his kind of magic to pull off that sort of trick: keep a reader hooked enough to see the story through. Like Lisey, in the end I had no choice but to reach the inescapable conclusion. If you've read the book, you'll understand when I say that Mr. King sets the reader off on a bool. Does the prize at the end make it worth the  journey? As hard as it is to realize, I would have to say that the answer is "yes." Of course, I'm a fan of Stephen King. Not his Number One fan, but a fan.

Would I recommend this book? Yes. And I'd be interested in hearing from anyone else who has read this and who bought into its spell. I'd love to compare notes.

Would I ever read this again? Probably not.

Will I ever forget it? Never.

Monday, October 3, 2016

That Book You Can't Finish

I grew up with the idea that if I started reading a book, I absolutely needed to finish it. I used to think it was a Catholic grade school thing, but I've run into lots of non-Catholics who have the same, well, neurosis. If I start reading this, I need to finish it. Even if I hate it. Even if I borrowed it from the library and didn't spend any money on it. Even if I probably won't remember it three hours after I finish it. Or worse, even if I'll remember it for the rest of my life because the experience of reading it was so horrible. Anyone else out there have this internal argument going on from time to time? A show of hands?

At the moment, I am almost in the middle of a book by one of my favorite writers, Mr. Stephen King. And I'm struggling with it. I borrowed it from the library, so if I don't finish it, no worries about paying for something that was never used. My husband tried it first but said he was having trouble getting into it, so we swapped books (I had a Longmire book waiting for me) and now he's enjoying himself immensely with Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear, and I'm struggling with a 509-page King novel. 

I was in sixth grade when I ran across the first book I absolutely knew I could NEVER FINISH. And I even tried twice. It's a very popular book that was made into a very popular movie and yet I could never get past the first one-third of it. I tried every trick I already knew to get myself to read it in entirety. I tried it from the beginning twice, as noted. I read the end and tried going backwards to see  how the protagonist got to the point where the story ended. Nope, that was a no-go also. I picked spots randomly in the middle of the book and tried to go both forwards and backwards and that didn't help either. And I guess that's about when I realized I would never finish the dang thing. And, boy, did I feel guilty. I "confessed" to people from time to time that I never read the whole book, and found to my surprise, I think, that no one called me a sinner over the issue. Most of them either said, "Really? I love that book!" or "I never read it.", as well as "I never read it, but I saw the movie." 

And I began to realize that maybe it was okay if I didn't finish that novel. The writer was excellent: her word accuracy and her descriptions were amazing. But none of that was enough to get me past the "I really hate this main character" problem I was having.

Fast forward to where I am now, and I routinely stop reading a book if it's not reaching me. I figure that 1) time is short, and there are a ton of books I want/need to read so I'm not going to battle through one that's never going to work for me, and 2) I apparently am not on the same vibe or wavelength as the author for this to work for me. And actually, being honest with myself about that has helped me when one of my books receives a review where the reader is pretty much saying that: "This book was okay, nothing to write home about" and "Not my cup of tea." (The horrid ones where the reader simply writes how dreadful the work is but doesn't explain why are a separate issue.)

So now I'm looking at this Stephen King book and thinking, will this be the one King novel I never quite finish? It's as well-written as anything he's ever done. Truth be told, I wouldn't be surprised if this one wasn't somewhat autobiographical as well. But there is a strange, discordant vibration to this one with notes that are hitting me just to the left of my own true perfect pitch. And I don't know why that is. I'm certainly curious enough to want to know what's actually going on, and why. But I don't know if the curiosity I have at this point is enough to see it through. And that's weird for me because he's one of my favorite authors. Still, that doesn't mean we'll always agree on everything. For example, I know he writes -or at least used to- to AC/DC and while I write to music, AC/DC isn't on my playlist. More power to both of us, for finding the music that nudges our muses along.

I'll take a few more cracks at the work, but I may not make it all the way to Oz on this one. And that's okay. Fortunately, Stephen King has a ton of books out there and I haven't read all of them. Maybe it's not such a horrible thing if this one slips past me just a little.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Ghosts in a Cemetery

The idea of a haunted cemetery is a cliche.

Cemeteries, by mere concept, are scary places for people who fear running into someone who is dead but somehow still popping up for a visit. (I am excluding zombies and vampires from this, by the way. I don't generally use the term "un-dead" when talking or writing about ghosts, simply because zombies and vampires are still walking around in their own dead bodies, and that's something quite different from the manifestation of a dead person's spirit.) If you are someone who believes that a person--or at least some aspect of a person--survives physical death, then a cemetery could indeed be a scary place. Especially if it's old, or has a lot of mausoleums, or - biggest cliche of all- has tombstones that are tilting or fallen over.

I also associate cemeteries with scary things and I have used them in my own work. Bridgeton Park Cemetery, which is based on a real cemetery or two close to where I live, has been popping up in my work since I wrote Dead of Summer years and years ago. My short story, Hunting Spirits (soon to be made available again!) begins in a cemetery. When I told my webmaster that I wanted my website and matching business cards to be "eerie", he immediately went with a cemetery-based theme.

When I was a little kid, there was a cemetery some miles north of my house that we would pass when we were bringing my non-driving uncle back to his residence after dinner with my family. I was (and still am) a sucker for a car ride, so I usually went along. And when we passed that cemetery, I would squeeze my eyes shut and not look until we were safely past it. I found out years later that the cemetery was actually the site of one of Chicago's most historical hauntings, but I didn't know that when I was a kid. I just thought the place was creepy.

Yet, as I have spent more time researching-, talking and writing about-, meeting people who see-, and collecting-, experiences about ghosts, the more I think that no ghost in his or her right mind would bother haunting a cemetery. The places keep regular hours and close at 5 pm, or 7 pm, or at dark, and a lot of them have locking gates. Why would a ghost hang around someplace where no one was ever going to see him? What would be the point? Better to turn up in someone's mirror at home, or in someone's basement, or even someone's car, don't you think? At least there would be some sort of reaction to that type of a visit.

Fall is approaching and if I turn my head to look out the window, I see the tree branches bending and swaying with a fairly brisk breeze, scattering already-browned leaves all over the grass and turning their branches into the bony, skeletal arms I will see until spring returns long months from now. I've read many times over that fall is when the "veil between two worlds" is the thinnest, when those denizens of the afterlife can more easily cross between their domain and ours. Halloween is a celebration of that. And I'm seeing ads already for holiday decor: witches, black cats, tombstones, and ghosts. These are the days, the times, when my stories make the most sense to me; the days and long nights filled with more than just darkness and autumn moons.  

And although I know that the ghost tour I'm going on at the end of October will more than likely include a cemetery, I think the scariest stuff I'll run into will not include any cemeteries. Meeting a ghost in one's own bedroom is a lot scarier, don't you think?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Looking for Cassie

My good friend and amazing writer, Terri Reid, once told me that when she writes a Mary O' Reilly story, she keeps two pictures close-by, each of which represents how she sees her characters Mary O' Reilly and Bradley Alden in her own mind.

I used to think I was nuts for clipping out a picture of an Avon model (I kid you not) that struck me as Michael Penfield as soon as I saw him. Truly. I was going through an Avon catalog and ran into this amazingly nice-looking young man who took my breath away because my brain started screaming "It's Michael Penfield!!!!!!" I tore the picture out of the catalog and stored it away in one of my writing folders, to be taken out and looked at for inspiration, or to show someone else what Michael looks like in my mind. Since that time, I have collected three or four more copies of the same picture and I am thrilled by that. The more Michael, the better!

And thank you Terri Reid for showing me that I'm not the only one who does this!

HOWEVER, I have no such model for Cassie Valentine. All I know about her is that she is on the shorter side, has long dark hair with a bit of a wave to it, has brown eyes, and she might look a bit like a gypsy. And I don't know anyone, nor have I ever seen anyone, who looks like that. EVER. 

And it's not like I'm not looking. I'm always looking. I constantly assess assorted actors and models, including the ones who are not known by name but have been photographed in ads for anything from mascara to tampons. Seriously. Cassie is still out there in the ether, coming to me in fits and starts but never all at once, like her amazingly gorgeous boyfriend. (Incidentally, the model for Michael doesn't have a scar but that's no problem whatsoever. Trust me.)

I know what Nick looks like. I know exactly what Steve looks like. I have a pretty good idea for Eloise. But Cassie, my main protagonist, remains in silhouette form, which is pretty weird. She's probably the main character in the  Bridgeton Park Cemetery Series and somehow remains, well, faceless.

Believe me, I look for my characters incessantly. While I was writing my one and only sword-and-sorcery fantasy (and everyone should be grateful I only tried to write one) I ran into one of my characters at a bar. Well, I didn't run into him. I caught a glimpse of him across the bar while he was taking a break from playing darts and ordering a beer. And like seeing Michael in an Avon catalogue, it made me catch my breath for just a moment. It's a little mind-boggling to see someone you've only pictured in your own head walking around in reality. Jarring, mind-boggling, but at the same time, very nice.

So here's the thing: if any of you have an idea what Cassie actually looks like and can suggest the name of a famous person, or somehow send me a pic to the email at my website, let me know. I'd be curious to see how all of you picture her! (So is Michael...)

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Hooker Lives

Some days ago, I was cleaning out part of my old office and ran across a manuscript for a short story I wrote back in 2009 or maybe 2010. At the time, I was on the board and planning committee for the Love is Murder Mystery Writers/Readers Conference. Also at that time, the Love is Murder event was regularly joined by a group out of Chicago called Twilight Tales.

I had never heard of them before I started doing the conference. By then, it had been over twenty years since I had moved out of the city and they started up long after I left. But I started getting to know the group and I'm very glad I did. Back then, the Twilight Tales group met upstairs in a bar on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, not far from DePaul University. They invited authors to come in and read from their works, sell books, and do signings. They encouraged anyone who came to write and share their work. And they had open mic nights, where audience members could get up and read a story or part of one, whatever they might be working on. The group was called Twilight Tales because the subjects of the stories tended to be based in horror. They could be funny stories, or grotesque, or flat-out disturbing, but every effort was applauded and the setting was friendly and encouraging.

One year, someone in the group asked me how long it took me to write a short story. "How short?" I asked. About two thousand words, I was told. My answer, at that time, was a few hours. And then to my delight, they invited me to participate in one of their theme nights. On a theme night, every writer wrote a story based on the same topic, and then got up and read it. They needed six writers and I was the sixth one they asked. The theme I was handed? None other than The Hooker Lives.

Apparently someone got tired of the hooker in all the movies getting killed off, whether or not she had an inner heart of gold. So they decided that for that one evening, no matter what happened, the hooker was going to live.

The stories that came in were amazing. Hooker vs evil spirit, hooker vs. monster, hooker vs. violent and possessive ex-lover. I decided to do Hooker vs. Serial Killer and had a right good time writing and sharing it. All around, the entire evening was just a lot of fun, a chance to showcase and enjoy each other's creativity.

I guess my point in this blog piece is to tell anyone out there who is thinking about writing but doesn't know where to start, to pick a theme of some kind and then play with it until a story comes through. The Hooker Lives was a lot of fun, but hey, you can come up with any idea that sparks a variety of different ways to tell a story. How about What If That Character In A Horror Story Took Something Other Than a Flashlight? Or how about I Just Got A Voicemail From A Dead Friend, or Murder Mystery On The Holiday Of Your Choice as possibilities?

I'm a sucker for that kind of project because it's so much fun to see where people go when they take a basic idea and run. It's why I jumped at the chance when Donnie Light invited me to write a story for the anthology Lyrical Darkness. He said, "Take a song and write the dark story behind it." The shared stories were so much fun to read.

Anyhow, that's just what's on my writing mind at the moment. Hey, does anyone out there need a writer for a themed anthology?

(Thanks to Tina Jens, Eric Cherry, and Martel Sardina who let me play with them, and in memory of Andrea Dubnick, who was one of the originals.)