5 Things That Scare Me

It’s time to walk into the shadows and confront this topic, especially with Halloween around the corner when all things spooky shall be unleashed upon us. Besides, Iseult Murphy dared confront her five worst fears, why can’t I? What are the five things that scare me?

1. Torture: If a character is being chained up to something and mercilessly whipped, burned, crushed, whatever it may be, I very well may shudder and cover my eyes. One who is being tortured is in ultimate despair. Long moments of agony followed by death; how can it get worse than that? My deep-seated horror for torture started when I was an eleven year old kid. The history channel depicted the torture rack during a show focused on torture devices of the Medieval period. Seeing that poor guy gasp and moan as his bones cracked and blood oozed from his wrists stunned me. Worst of all, I couldn’t find the remote; it had fallen behind the couch, so I had to watch the full thing. Nothing horrifies me more…

2. … except for maybe demonic possession. Just hearing the word makes me feel sullied. I experienced the demonically possessed monster for the first time as a teenager, watching the classic horror film The Exorcist. For a week after seeing that movie, I continually imagined Regan in her possessed form hobbling over to my bedside to stare down at me with that craggy, glowering face, growling obscenities and well…pea soup anyone? (Sidenote: wouldn’t that be a great Halloween Party gimmick? A Lifesize Possessed Regan headpiece set up before a delicious bowl of pea soup for party goers to dish up from. Get it? It looks like she vomited into the bowl. I guess you’re not as monstrous as me).

3. Dark Mysterious Caves: Lovecraft once said our greatest fear is the fear of the unknown, and nothing represents that better than a dark, mysterious cave. Anything could be in there. How about an enormous snake that will crush your bones and swallow you whole? Flesh eating bacterias, swarms of rats, and the list could go on. Your greatest fears are represented by the dark, mysterious cave. I shiver at all the terrible possibilities.

4. Spiders. Eek! Yes, you did just hear me shriek. Just this moment at mentioning their name it feels they’re clambering all over me. All those beady eyes, eight long legs. Some of them grow to the size of frigging hairy dinner plates. And some of them…if they bite you…I think I’ll avoid talking about it.

5. Witches. This is a topic that used to not scare me at all. Maybe it’s because every gal I went to school or worked with dressed up all cute with the pointed hat and dark eyeliner during Halloween, and it all just seemed so commonplace. Then I saw the 2015 movie The Witch. So much of the creepy factor was the atmospherics of the movie, all that unknown forest surrounding them, and gradually, the evil influence slips into that family like a dangerous snake sneaking in on a small nest of eggs. The eeriest part for me was the ending of the movie. All of those women chanting some alien language as they float in the air above the fire. Is Thomasin truly liberated in this initiation with the other witches, or is she just trapping herself into worse captivity? It was the strange mixture of pleasure and rueful pain wincing on Thomasin’s face at the end of the movie that made me ask this question, and this was also what gave me the deepest chill. She was in possession, not liberated. Witches are just another captive of the evil one. Disturbing indeed.

Now, do you wish to walk into the stirring shadows with me. Take my hand. What scares you?

Graffitied Soul

Image by Nate Bell

One day I was rummaging through some old folders filled with long forgotten free verse poems I wrote back in high school. Much of the experience was nostalgic. I could remember the very place I wrote some of them all those years ago: the doorway to the faculty lounge and the round table by the trophy case. I could vaguely remember the emotions motivating each piece, most of it teenage angst of feeling like a misunderstood mutant. Nothing was salvageable from the folders, nothing except a title: Graffitied Soul.

I was on the phone with my brother at the time, a man who is a singer/songwriter. I was reminiscing with him about the old days of my youth, reading him a passage or two from these old stack of poems, and usually we got a good laugh from it. Sometimes we cringed. Then I picked up one with that title: Graffitied Soul, and my brother said, “I think you might have something there.”

The original words to this poem were absolutely dejecting. Not that I’m totally against darker themes; I am a horror writer after all, but this one just seemed destined to be something else. The story is always the boss; I merely give it a place to grow. One morose passage declared, “I’m a disease. Burn me alive.” My brother and I bounced around ideas, hoping to update it, to find new meaning out of the intriguing title. Below I will share with you what I came up with. The plan is to utilize the words for a song one day.

Here goes nothing:

“There you stand on the evening horizon, looking back on how far you’ve come. Windin’ trails that lead to abandon. Memories forever sewn in the dark.

And that’s your soul. Graffitied Soul.

Raindrops obscure the view outside the window, a view of a world moved on. Hearts broken. Stale grudges. Lay it to the dust. I’ve forgotten you cuz I was staring in the sun.

And that’s your soul. Graffitied Soul.

Like a train moving on to the fading horizon, time once again is on your side. No longer shall you molder in the dust of dried out umbrage. Time is but a mote on an eternal sea.

And that’s your soul. That’s your soul. Graffitied Soul.”

There you have it. It’s still probably doggerel, but it beats the original lyrics that declared “I’m a disease. Burn me alive.” So I’ll take it!

To Plan Or Not To Plan…

A Diagram of Ben Franklin’s Daily Schedule

For many, this question might have an obvious answer, but it is something I have wrestled with for years. Back in my twenties, when I was balancing college classes and a job, I was obsessive about scheduling and planning. I accumulated piles of notebooks filled with planning notes. Each day was organized hour by hour, including the exact time I would brush my teeth and eat breakfast. Life is chaotic; I firmly believed that my daily schedule was like a well-armoured tank charging through the enemy of chaos unscathed.

Well, my plans would remain unscathed for a couple days, but eventually even the most rigid armour can weaken. At some point my schedule would topple over like a flimsy wooden fence. What are the reasons for this weakening?

Some of the reasons were internal: my mood would change; I would grow weary of the constant repetition, feeling a little bit like an animatronic stuck to its programmed course. Some of the reasons were external: someone from work would unexpectedly call me to cover their shift, a friend or family member would unexpectedly stop by for a visit, or a homework assignment would take much longer than expected.

Back then I would become overwhelmed with guilt when my plans fell apart. I would beat myself up. I was lazy! Undisciplined! Or I would become frustrated and panicked about the outside world creeping through the cracks of my best laid plan. The vicious cycle would tear me down more, and sometimes I fell into a hiatus of aimless stupor.

Ten years have passed since those days, and I still believe planning to be invaluable. However, I’ve learned to look at best laid plans as a guideline, not a rigid, unbreakable code. I’ve learned to be flexible, you see?

Why do I find planning invaluable? 1) everyone needs an aim. If you want the day to be productive, if you want to accomplish your goals, whatever they may be, you need to aim at something. When you set a target of accomplishment, this also helps you to identify when you have failed, so you can return to the drawing board and recalculate your goals. 2) having a plan makes you more adaptable. When obstacles get in your way, you still have the target in your sights. Thus, you can make the proper adjustments and still hit your target, despite the turbulence. 3) planning is a launchpad. Planning is motivation to live. If we approach each day in an aimless stupor, all we will do is drift. Aimless drifting will not develop ourselves into who we are meant to be.

To plan or not to plan…that is the question. The answer seems pretty obvious to me: make a plan!

“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower

White Mountains, Wyoming

I recently returned from a backpacking trip in the White Mountains of Wyoming. It was amazing. Last year I went on a trip to the Uintas and summited King’s Peak, the highest point in Utah. The White Mountains are very similar, except they are rockier and the lakes are much bigger. I like how my hiking partner (brother in-law) described it, “The White Mountains are like the Uintas on steroids.” The hiking was a bit longer on this trip, several miles longer overall. We camped at Island Lake and hiked to Titcomb Lake, then did some fishing in the evening and morning. My brother in-law caught a rainbow trout. Golden Trout swim these lakes as well. We learned this from someone’s celebratory cries on the other side of the lake: “Oh, my gosh! It’s a golden!” With so little noise pollution, we could practically hear another person’s conversation from hundreds of feet away. Good times. Thankfully we didn’t end up a bear’s dinner or a missing 411 case.

Curiosity: A Short Work of Narrative Nonfiction

I’d like to share with you a bit of flash creative nonfiction. A clunky term to describe it, but I guess this long, unwieldy title is the technical definition for what I’m presenting–the retelling of a true event in my life using the elements of fiction writing. What I have for you is a memory of how I and some of my hometown friends chose to cope with boredom when we weren’t occupied with some worthier task of wholesome hard work in our Podunk little town. We didn’t have movie theaters or amusement parks. Sure, we had home movies, toys, a playground and video games, but those things got old quickly. Nothing was more entertaining than what the natural environment could provide for us. Looking back on this memory, I feel a little guilty. Our behavior was brutal, but I don’t think malevolence was the motivation behind it. Our motivation was simply childhood curiosity.

My friends and I played amongst the timothy grass behind the school playground. This was grasshopper territory. The air buzzed with their sporadic flight. An ant hill protruded amongst the grass like a sun-dried pimple.

We spent a good amount of time watching the ants go about their busy lives, gathering tiny rocks and twigs. Rows and rows of them marched back and forth like platoons of soldiers. We were fascinated by this strange and wondrous world around our feet, having grown bored of the endless repetitions found on the slides and swing sets of the playground. We wanted to explore this new world, touch it and feel it. The only way to further satiate our curiosity, to gain understanding, was to become a literal influence upon this other world, become a part of it, not just a detached observer.

I collapsed my palm upon a grasshopper and winced at the prickly texture of it’s writhing body beneath my palm, then managed to pick it up by curling my fingers beneath it to gently squeeze it between thumb and forefinger. My group of friends huddled around me to examine the grasshopper now within my grasp. Some of them snickered in amusement. One of them talked about it in amazed fascination, delineating the different parts of the creature. Another expressed disgust and turned away as green goo oozed from between the insect’s wriggling mandibles. I dabbed the leaking substance with my finger and grimaced at the sticky texture. The spiny legs–hopper legs, as many of us kids called them–kicked about frantically, the grasshopper utilizing every defense mechanism available to try to escape.

We decided to raise the stakes. Experimentation was the tool for discovery. What would happen if x, the grasshopper, was combined with y, the ant hill? What would happen with the collision of these two worlds?

I disabled the grasshopper by yanking off the prickly hopper legs. Then I dropped the crippled, trouncing body amongst the ants and watched the ant army converge. The systematic swarm of ants was stunning. Most of us kids watched in awe as we observed brutal nature unfolding before us. A group of six or so ants smothered the grasshopper’s body and dragged it down into their home, where, my young mind imagined they dismantled the grasshopper for consumption, piece by piece, the head, thorax, and abdomen.

A heady mixture of emotions surged throughout me. I was stunned! Enthralled! My stomach also sank with the cold heaviness of mild horror because of what I’d done. However, this was more exciting than any slide or swing set! We rushed the field of timothy grass to play our newly discovered game once more.

Whipple Trail Hike

Nothing better than getting out and enjoying the artistry of our natural world. I get so many terrific ideas for writing projects while out on a hike. Doesn’t the knot on the trunk of the Aspen look like an eye. Surely I can come up with a story from that image.

Horror…Why Did It Have To Be Horror?

Don’t be fooled by the title. I’m a big horror fan. In fact, it’s my mainstay. When a work in progress of mine gains fruition, and I see a horror story emerging, I tend to say to myself, “Horror…why would I have imagined it to be anything else but horror?”

It’s a question horror authors are often asked. What attracts us to pondering those hidden dark corners of the universe? What drives us to explore the baser parts of human nature? Horror writers come up with all kinds of answers to this question.

Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, answered this question with some irreverent humor. He said, “People hear that I’m a horror writer and they think I must be a monster, but actually I have the heart of a small child. I keep it in a jar on my desk.” Enough said. The ghoulish connotation causes the questioner to hesitate about pursuing the question further. Yet the tongue in cheek sarcasm allows for good-natured conversation to continue. Nice deflection. The truth is, writers of horror don’t completely know why they’re attracted to that which goes bump in the night. Does it give us a thrill? Sure. Does it help us understand the darker workings of the human condition and the universe? Maybe, although I wouldn’t say we understand beyond a mere conjectural, academic point, despite all the research we might do on some horrific topic. For many of us, we’ve been courting it since childhood. Horror almost seems to be a built-in part of the original package.

Some authors have tried to to give a more meaningful answer to the questioners. Stephen King even wrote a near 500-page book on the subject called Danse Macabre. One of the book’s overarching themes seems to say that “imaginary horrors help us deal with the real horrors.” There’s some truth to this. If we understand a fictional story to be a vehicle for exercising our emotions, the horror story allows readers to overcome their anxiety along with the characters they’re reading about. We feel the same relief a main character feels when they escape or destroy the monster. It also allows the reader to confront that which they’re afraid of, allowing for the possibility to learn to cope with said fear. As a child, I was terrified of sharks after seeing the film Jaws. However, a gripping fascination accompanied this fear. I became compulsively driven to learn all I could about sharks. H.P. Lovecraft stated that “…the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” You could say my terror of the ferocious beast in the Steven Spielberg movie compelled me to learn if real sharks were just as seemingly malevolent. The more I learned they were not, the more fascination replaced the feeling of terror. I guess you could say that which was “unknown,” in Lovecraft’s terms, updated to “known,” allowing me a greater control over my fear. A useful emotional exercise. However, not all the fear is gone. A healthy amount of it remains. You won’t ever find me swimming in the ocean. Sometimes real sharks show flashes of the mythic Leviathan’s ferocity.

Richard Laymon, author of The Woods Are Dark, claimed that, “Horror writers are specialists in the worst case scenario.” This is true. The horror writer envisions a situation and asks the question, “How bad can it get?” Then the horror writer puts a set of characters in the bad situation and watches whether they make prudent decisions to overcome the worst case scenario, or bad decisions that cause them to sink deeper into the unfortunate muck. More often than not, we see the latter. The characters in a horror story are commonly more frightening than the monsters. The unworldly monsters serve to reveal the monstrous in the human characters, consider stories like Stephen King’s The Mist.

I personally prefer Robert Bloch’s tongue in cheek boyish irreverence. His answer admits that he doesn’t have an exact answer to why he writes horror, and he doesn’t care. Nothing in Robert Bloch’s answer feels like a stretch. Nothing about it seems to be trying too hard. Nothing about it emanates the pretension of self-importance. He’s comfortable in his own horror writer skin. All of us horror writers should be.

Danse Macabre by Stephen King- Available on Amazon.

Why I Write

It’s fun to find an old book you haven’t seen for a long time. There it is, tucked away in the dusty corner of your bookshelf, hidden away like an old fossil or relic. You pull it out, brush the dust off, and recognition strikes you. You remember the day you bought it, the place you spent reading it, and all the relevant content. It’s a little like meeting an old friend after many years. You can’t help but remenisce nostalgically.

I recently had this experience as I was rummaging through one of my bookshelves. The book that called out to me like that long lost friend was an instructive book called Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs.

I riffled the pages, turned to random sections, and smiled as I read passages highlighted all those years ago. The book had been required reading for a creative nonfiction course I attended at Utah Valley University. I remember this period being very fruitful for my writing. The creative nonfiction lens opened new doorways in my imagination, and motivated useful introspection which developed a greater understanding of character.

One essay particularly moved me. It served as a mission statement. The author of this inspiring manifesto is Terry Tempest Williams. The question she answers in her essay is one I think we authors seldomly think about, although we often intuitively sense the answer: why do we write?

At the beginning of the creative nonfiction course that year, me and my fellow classmates had to ask ourselves the same question. Why do we write? The process of answering the question, of digging deeper into my own motivations as a writer was inspiring, insightful, and anchored me with a stronger sense of orientation. I knew where I had been. Now, where was I going?

Today I will ask myself the same question. Maybe much has changed since the first time I asked this question eight years ago. Perhaps some conclusions have remained the same. Regardless, it’s always good to declare my mission statement, to reorient my course and desired destination.

Why I Write

I write to understand what I’m really thinking. I write to refine my thinking. I write to see the world through a new lens. I write to observe myself through a new lens. I write because a story has possessed me and won’t let go. I write to see where it leads. I write to run down a dream. I write to be entertained. I write to be emotionally moved. I write to inspire. I write to be scared and to scare you. I write for the love of it. I write for the need of it. I write because so badly I want you to understand. I write to express what I believe. I write to express my own beliefs. I write to understand my own beliefs. I write to create order out of a chaotic order. I write to bring life to the page. I write to build worlds. I write to form conclusions. I write to ask questions. I write to wage battle with evil. I write because I want to see good prevail. I write to confront harsh realities. I write to shed light on darkness. I write to seek reconciliation. I write sometimes because there’s simply nothing better to do.

Why do you write?

Writing Creative Nonfiction is available in Amazon.

“Rule one, you have to write. If you don’t write, nothing will happen.”

Neil Gaiman