FAQ #2: “How Did You First Get Into Horror Fiction?”

Some, but not all, of my early influences.

I get this one a lot. While I can’t say that any one specific book or story set me down my dark fiction path, I can share some early influences.

When I was a kid, we’d spend summers at the shore in New Jersey. During one of our visits, it rained. A lot. My dad, trying to find a way to amuse a bored kid stuck indoors, went to a bookstore at the nearby shopping center and came home with an armload of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. 

Let me tell you something: If the only thing you know about the world of Oz is the Judy Garland movie? Whew. Even that relatively innocent film has some scary aspects, but the books are pure nightmare fuel. Have you ever read the Tin Woodman’s origin story? I wrote some flash fiction based on that here. Spoiler: The Tin Woodman used to be made of flesh…until the day he picked up a cursed axe.

These books are not considered horror, but I don’t see how you can consider the Tin Man having a conversation with his own severed head to be anything but. Body parts do not die in the land of Oz. Which adds yet another level of creepy to the whole story.

Two other early influences that have stayed with me to this day are Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” 

The Lottery” was included in a school textbook mostly comprised of the usual fat-free bran muffin stories that teach students that reading is boring and should be avoided whenever possible. Some editor messed up and put “The Lottery” in there, and I’m so glad they did. I don’t think it was ever part of our lesson plan, but out of curiosity I read it anyhow. 

And then read it again. 

And again. 

The simple, plain-spoken storytelling and the slow-burn plot leading to such a stunning gut punch of an ending? I’d never read anything like it. I didn’t know stories like this were allowed. Without relying on any of horror’s standard trappings like ghosts or monsters, Jackson wrote something utterly terrifying. 

My favorite (?) factoid about “The Lottery” is that after it ran in The New Yorker, Jackson got letters from people who asked her where this ritual took place…so they could go watch it. Now that’s scary. 

My memory of this period is hazy, but I think “The Cask of Amontillado” might have been in the same textbook. 

Weirdly, I have found two different versions of the Poe story online. This one is the one I read, because the jingling bells on Fortunato’s cap were a detail that wormed under my skin, and it’s missing from the other version. (I apologize for the white text on the dark background; I am An Old and this is murder on my eyes.)

My English teacher had a lot of fun teaching this one to a class of sheltered private school girls. She pointed out the joke a bunch of us would have missed: Montresor whipping a trowel out of his cloak and saying “See? I am too a mason. Ha ha!” Given what he was about to do with that trowel, the joke takes on an extra dimension of creepiness. The details as Montresor leads Fortunato to his fate are chilling: dim tunnels, crypts, bones, drippy walls, and Fortunato’s endless cough. But even with the more standard gothic horror trappings, this story has one scary thing in common with “The Lottery:” It could really happen. 

And after reading a biography of Poe, I came to realize that Poe the man was every bit as vengeful and spiteful as Montresor. Indeed, this story apparently began as part of a pissing contest between him and another writer who’d mocked him in a story, information that did not surprise me one bit. And I’m sure he’d have loved to brick a critic or two up into a wall forever.

In fact…who’s to say he didn’t? *Gulp*

Later on, I found a cousin’s battered copy of Dracula, a story I’d heard a lot about but never read. My father, still in the habit of picking up books he thought might interest me, got me several illustrated books about Hammer horror films, movies about Dracula, and the like. Why’d he do that? I don’t know, but it sealed my fate. 

A brief summary: How did I get into horror? Basically, it’s my dad’s fault. 

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