I have always loved horror.
This statement is both true and false. When I was very young, I didn’t necessarily like frightening entertainment. I think I was about four when I first encountered skeletons in a funhouse. They were just glow-in-the-dark, orange drawings on a wall, but that was enough to have me squeezing my eyes shut in mortal fear, and clutching my father’s hand for dear life until we were free of that horrible place. I did NOT like that AT ALL. (But now I treasure the memory.) I wasn’t much older when I found one of my mother’s old fairy-tale books in the basement. It had illustrations by Arthur Rackham. I slammed the book shut at the first decapitated giant. I did NOT like that AT ALL. (But now I wish I knew where that book was.)
So in those very early years, I didn’t really want to be scared. But I loved monsters. Dinosaurs and other creatures were all I drew. My very first attempt at writing, when I was six, was about Zaradak, a giant monster I encountered in a French translation of an Adam Strange comic. I still have that comic book, though the unfinished manuscript is long gone. I do, though, still have the second thing I ever wrote. This is another incomplete tale, about another monster: Grendel, as I knew him from DC’s short-lived Beowulf: Dragon Slayer series from 1975.
And the love for horror in entertainment certainly wasn’t long in coming. I bought my first horror movie book – Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies – in Grade 3. Around the same time, I became an avid reader of the Armada Ghost Books, and those collections were my first encounter with writers such as M. R. James (“There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard” would have been the story in question).
The first time I was frightened at the movies was when I curled up into a traumatized ball during the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of Fantasia. That’s my favourite Disney film now, but I would have gladly passed on the demon at t the time. The first time I enjoyed being terrified was when my father took me, at my request, to a screening of Son of Frankenstein (1939). No, it wasn’t on initial release – I’m not THAT old! I was 10 or 11, and the film was part of a festival of the Universal Frankenstein movies being shown at the University of Manitoba (where my father taught then, and I do now). I’m probably one of the youngest people who can claim to have been frightened half to death by Boris Karloff, and I remember that evening with the same kind of vivid, nostalgic delight as I remember a trip to Disneyland (and Universal Studios!) from around the same time. I look back at my first few experiences of cinematic terror – Son of Frankenstein, Quatermass and the Pit (1967), Alien (1979), The Final Conflict (1981) – with all the bittersweet melancholy and love one reserves for a golden age. I wish I could still be frightened like that.
And the same is true for that period, in the early 80s, when I read my first honest-to-Cthulhu horror novels. Stephen King’s The Shining, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, and Ramsey Campbell’s The Parasite are crucial works for me not only because they reduced me to a mess of cold sweats, but because they also inspired me. It was after reading those books (and King’s non-fiction Danse Macabre) that I became bound and determined to write my own.
My first completed attempt at a novel (which I began in Grade 9) was a horror tale. All of my early novel manuscripts are horror fiction. My goal, from the moment I first consciously thought about being a published writer, over 25 years ago (almost 30, now that I think about it), was to be a horror novelist.
Now I am.
The 1990s, when I was coming of age as a writer (and writing my PhD dissertation on – you guessed it – horror fiction and film), were a dark time for the horror field. Bookstores were getting rid of the horror sections altogether. I made a few short story sales, but didn’t have a hope with my novels. After writing my third destined-for-the-trunk manuscript, I decided that I should try my hand at something else, and since I was enjoying the hell out of all the thrillers I was reading, I took a shot at writing one of my own. The result was Crown Fire. Jen Blaylock came into being, and I made my first novel sale. I love writing that character, and still have plans for her, but what I’d like to mention today is that I have always thought of those books as thrillers with the heart of horror stories. So my love of that genre has always found some form of expression.
Today, I am truly celebrating that love. Gethsemane Hall has been out in the UK since February from the good people at Snowbooks, and now the good people at Dundurn unleash it upon the rest of the world. It’s a haunted house tale, and the opening act of a planned multi-novel narrative arc. My fondest wish is that someone out there will read this novel and experience the same joy of terror that the stories I read gave me.
When I hold this book in my hands, I’m holding a dream-made-real, a dream I have had for most of my life.
I cannot tell you how good that feels.