Blank

You get up in the morning and grab a coffee. Maybe you read what’s happening out in the world for a bit while you wait for your brain to catch up with your body. If you’re the type of person who eats breakfast, you’ll probably have something to eat. School-age kids will need their lunches packed and maybe a ride if the weather’s bad. Then the morning rush is over and you are alone with your thoughts and ready to start work for the day.

Maybe that isn’t your routine at all, but this is how most of my days start. Regardless of how you work, eventually you go to the place where you feel comfortable writing and sit down at the keyboard. With a flick of the mouse you start up your word processing program and sit back while it loads. This is it, the moment you must face as a writer whenever you start a new project: the dreaded blank page.

I don’t know about other writers, but the fear of the blank page never really goes away for me. I hate sitting down in front of an empty screen with the cursor blinking stupidly up in the corner, taunting me (“Hey buddy, what are you going to write today, huh? HUH?”). I know it’s not my computer screen’s fault, but sometimes I want to put my fist through its blank cyclopean eye. Sure, I’ve drawn up an outline and kicked around potential plot threads in my head for days, but all that empty real estate staring back at me is unnerving in the extreme.

Before my fingers even touch the keys I’m wondering if the creative muse that drives me has dried up at last. Maybe I only have a certain amount of words in me and once that barrier is reached and breached, that’s it. Pack up your shit and get a real job. What writer hasn’t thought this at one time or another?

I look at the clock and see that fifteen minutes have passed and I haven’t wrote a damn thing yet. The temptation to start editing other existing projects or fiddle with my website begins to take hold. Editing and fiddling is always easier for me. The content is already there, it just needs tweaking. That’s much more enjoyable than conjuring up an entirely new project from scratch. But no, I’m supposed to write in the morning. Editing is to be done later on, when the hard work of being creative for the day is over with. If I don’t make myself write today, maybe I won’t write tomorrow either, or the next day.

I feel slightly panicky at the notion, because it seems like it would be such an easy trap to fall into. There’s no one here to make me do it. No boss is standing over my shoulder asking for those TPS reports by the weekend (“I’m gonna get you to go ahead and come in on Saturday. That’d be great…yeah”). There’s no overachieving coworkers around to make me feel bad for my own lack of output. It’s just me, my computer, and a whole lot of white pixels.

Ah, but now there’s a bit of motivation: stop writing and the dream of working for myself will die. I’ll end up back in the world of being told what to do for a living by some guy who only cares about making shareholders happy. I’ve been there; I don’t want to go back. That’s why I abandoned the 9 to 5 grind and took up writing full time. I’m not doing this to become famous or rich. I loathe the idea of fame. I’m doing it because I love writing and it’s what I burn with desire to be successful at. That’s why I make myself write 2,000+ words each day and edit for a few hours afterwards. That’s why I have dozens of stories out there for consideration and dozens more in various states of completion.

So I lay down a sentence. Then another. And another. Soon I have a paragraph. Then two. Before I know it the page is filled with them. Within a few hours I have ten pages of double spaced, twelve point Times New Roman written. Sure, some of it’s probably crap. No, scratch that. Some of it is crap and will be revised or changed entirely later on after it’s had some time to gestate. That’s not the point, though. The point is that I did it. I looked that blank-faced beast in the eye, did battle with it, and emerged victorious once more.

Tomorrow I’ll do it again, but at least the work is underway. I’ve got something to build on. That feels good, but only for as long as the current project lasts. If it’s a novel, I’ll be busy for months. If it’s a novella, weeks. If it’s a short story, within a few days I’ll be back to square one again. The fear is always there, waiting in the wings. I suppose it always will be in one form or another. But if I was the kind to let fear stop me from doing something, I would’ve never taken up writing in the first place.

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A few Halloweens ago my wife and I decided to let our son go out trick or treating on his own for the first time. To be sure, he wasn’t going alone—he’d arranged to go with a few of his friends—but at the end of October on the Canadian prairies it gets dark by six o’clock. With a certain amount of trepidation, I watched him step out the door in his gladiator costume and disappear into the night with his friends. This was new territory for us as parents.

It’s hard to know sometimes where the line is between being too overprotective and not protective enough. Some of his friends were allowed to roam the town at night on their own before they were even in their teens. Others seemed to be under constant lock and key. Neither approach is ideal in my opinion.

The most liberal-minded parents tend to say that kids these days are mature for their age and know a lot more about life earlier on, but knowledge doesn’t equal wisdom. Wisdom comes with time and experience—it isn’t innate. No one is born wise. You grow wise, if you’re lucky (some never do). I firmly believe that children must be guided toward wisdom and you can make that path as broad or narrow as you like. At the opposite end of the child-rearing spectrum are the helicopter parents who constantly hover around their children, softening every sharp corner in an attempt to keep them safe from all possible harm. The sentiment is noble, but the results down the road are often less than ideal. How’s a person supposed to function in the world when they leave home if they were never allowed to navigate any of it on their own beforehand?

As parents, my wife and I have always tried to find a balance between these two extremes. We make him aware of the pitfalls out there, but we don’t shield him from them entirely. As he’s grown older we’ve made incremental adjustments to the extent of his personal freedoms, slowly playing out the invisible rope that binds him to us. We’ve never thrown caution to the wind though. No preteen son of mine was going to rove about town after dark. I know kids, since I was one of them once (many moons ago). I know what some of them get up to when their parents aren’t watching. I also noticed that some of the kids who were allowed to run free from an early age weren’t necessarily better adjusted.

But by this particular Halloween our son was a teenager, although just barely so. I couldn’t think of a good reason to hold him back, except for my own fears and worries. So I watched as his friends and he were swallowed up by the darkness while they strolled down the street in their costumes. I felt uneasy, and a big part of me wanted to put a stop to it. My imagination tends to go to dark places when I don’t reign it in, and a highlight reel of horrible scenarios began playing out in my mind as I stood there. I imagined some creep in a van grabbing him and taking him out to the woods to do unspeakable things to him. I thought about him eating candies injected with poison and collapsing in the street as his friends stood over him with confused looks on their faces. I thought about what it would feel like if he didn’t show up at home by the time we’d agreed on. Would he answer his phone if I called or would a prerecorded voice say he was out of the service area? How long would I wait before leaping into our car and going out to look for him? Fifteen minutes? Thirty? An hour?

I needn’t have worried. Though he was to be home by eight-thirty at the latest, he walked through the door with his candy sack bulging just after eight. Relief washed over me like a cool wave on a sweltering day and all of those bad thoughts I was thinking were flushed away. Our son knew his boundaries, and though I was sure he’d test them in the years to come, I slowly began to reconcile the fact that this was all part of growing up.

That night as we laid in bed, my wife asked me if we should start allowing him to go out at night with his friends more often now. After some back and forth we both agreed that it would depend on where he was going and who he was going with. It would also depend on him. If he continued to respect and obey our rules, we’d give him more slack. If he didn’t, we’d have to take a step back and figure it out. Nothing is ever totally cut and dried when it comes to kids and parenting.

Now that he’s older still, we don’t worry so much about perverts and predators anymore. He’s big enough now that our fears of those things have lessened, though I realize that I’ll probably never feel entirely comfortable with the idea of him being out there by himself—not even when he’s an adult, which isn’t too far off. Another part of me knows that soon some of his friends will be starting to experiment with drinking, drugs, and other things. He’s even told me that a couple of his classmates already have. So now we have new things to worry about and new admonishments and warnings to impart. I hope he takes them to heart. I’m optimistic that he’ll have the sense to never get into a vehicle with someone who’s been drinking or decide to pop those pills the older guy at the party is handing out. We’ve warned him about such things, but much will depend on him now.

When I think about my own rocky road to adulthood and all the dumb shit I did, I cringe and hope that he has more sense than I did. I also finally understand what my own parents struggled with as they raised me and my brothers all those years ago. The old adage is true: once a parent, always a parent.  You never stop worrying about them. If we’ve done our job right, someday he’ll be in the same boat as us and the cycle will begin again.

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Horror isn’t always easy to quantify, but most of us know what it feels like to be horrified in one manner or another. Whether it’s the way we reacted as children the first time we saw a dead baby bird, with its translucent skin and bulbous, unformed eyes, or later on as adults after witnessing some gruesome accident, most of us know horror when we see it. It can also be far more mundane in nature. It can be conjured while roaming the darkened halls of abandoned buildings, especially old mental asylums and hospitals. And who hasn’t felt a shiver up their spine when walking through the woods on a moonless night?

Horror can be elicited through our other senses as well. It doesn’t necessarily have to be visual to scare us. It can be triggered by something as simple as a weird sound in the night or a strange smell on the breeze. If you bit into a piece of unidentifiable meat and it was suggested that the taste you were savoring was actually derived from human sources would you not feel overwhelming disgust and horror (unless you’re a practicing cannibal, of course)?

We can even feel it when reading about the natural world around us. With our big brains we can extrapolate an abundance of horrific notions from the different ways that life thrives on our planet. Consider the life cycle of parasitic wasps, who lay their young in the paralyzed bodies of their victims for them to feed on.  We can imagine what it would be like if those tiny horrors were scaled up in size. I don’t know about you, but the thought of giant parasitic wasps, the size of humans, flying around and impregnating people with their voracious young gives me the creeps all day long. How about those ants in the sweltering jungles near the equator who are susceptible to a fungus that takes over their minds and forces them to attach themselves to the underside of leaves? After a few days they die and a strange protuberance thrusts through their skulls, forming a bulb from which fruiting bodies are released to drift away on the breeze and propagate new colonies of fungus elsewhere. What if something like that could happen to us?

Then there’s all the phobias and social anxieties we suffer from. Germs, contamination, threats of violence, and superstitions can leave us cowering in the corner. No matter how immune you think you are, everyone has a flaw in their mental armour and you can bet that there’s something out there just waiting to exploit yours. When it happens you’ll wonder how you got this far in the first place.

Whatever the cause, the end result is the same: elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, and racing thoughts—all part of the fight-or-flight response we’ve been conditioned to obey over the millennia of our collective existences. We have evolved these mechanisms to protect us from harmful situations, but what happens when the harm we imagine within our minds doesn’t really exist? We can’t escape our thoughts, no matter how ridiculous or preposterous they may seem to others. We fear what we fear.

It begs the question: if our goal in life is to live free of anxiety and distress, then why do we subject ourselves on purpose to horrifying ideas? Why do we like movies and books that scare the bejesus out of us? Maybe it’s a way of reconciling the fears we all have. We can cringe for awhile, but then we come out the other side none the worse for wear and we can laugh to ourselves after it’s over.

There’s so many things we can find to be afraid of too—so many fears to stand up to and conquer as we grow older. Chief among these must be the fear of death itself. What greater unknown will we face in our lives, after all? My biggest fear regarding death is that there’s nothing beyond it, and the thought of ceasing to exist altogether terrifies me more than anything else. I suspect that many others share this fear with me.

Everyone fears death or, more precisely, what may or may not lie beyond death’s door. Anyone who says they aren’t fearful is lying. Until you’re on your death bed it’s easy to act brave and talk big. Just wait until it’s your turn, though. Since no one has ever come back from the great beyond to tell us what lies on the other side, none of us can say with any conviction that it’s anything good. Many of the world’s western religions create motivation to be good by convincing us that we’ll suffer eternal torment from demons in a lake fire if we’re bad. If we’re really good we get to go to heaven, but is that even a good thing? Imagine the horror of being reduced to an invisible, incorporeal thing roaming a foreign plane of existence far removed from all that was once familiar? Eastern religions believe in different kinds of punishment and reward, like those espousing reincarnation and karma. Maybe if you’re cruel and you walk all over people in this life, you’ll come back as a lowly bug that lives out its life in fear of being trampled underfoot at any moment. Kafka knew something about that.

Regardless of what scares you, there’s one thing about horror that is very life affirming. As long as it isn’t happening to us we can observe it and then breathe a sigh of relief when it passes, thankful that we get to live to fight another day. Alas, no one lives forever, and the great unknown is out there, waiting for us with infinite patience and all the time in the world to get to know each one of us personally. Can we ever really be prepared for what it has in store for us?

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When I was a boy I devoured those choose-you-own-adventure series of books. There was a sense that anything could happen when reading them and often my choices led to the main character’s violent and painful death. As I became more familiar with them—and learned which choices led to doom—any lingering sense of danger evaporated. They no longer jolted that part of my brain that loved being creeped out. In my teens I moved on to the likes of Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz. For a long time their stories satisfied my itch for that wonderful sense of dread I craved. When I got older and started reading more widely I learned who their influences were. I discovered the early luminaries of weird fiction such as H. P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, and others. This was my awakening, if you want to call it that.

The sort of horror they wrote was different. It didn’t rely on brutal violence or wild spectacle. Stories like William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland were subtle and established a foreboding sense of dread from their outset through careful establishment of atmosphere, descriptive details, and deliberate pacing.  They were like nothing I’d ever read before. These stories crept up on you and made you feel like shedding your skin and crawling into a dark hole somewhere. Obsessed now, I delved into the newer practitioners of the weird such as Laird Barron, T.E.D. Klein, and Thomas Ligotti. Somewhere along the way I realized that all of these authors have something in common—a profound sense of the uncanny and the ability to flesh it out on the page without resorting to parlour tricks and cheap gore.

Horror for me has never really been about medically visceral descriptions of mayhem and carnage. For those who love wallowing in gore: fill your boots. There’s value in that sort of thing when it’s done well, but it’s not really scary. Shocking, yes. But scary? No. What scares me the most is the unknown. It’s that noise that wakes you from a dead sleep in the middle of the night—probably just the cat, but you can’t be sure as you lie there in the dark. It’s the giddy sensation of imminent danger when you’re walking alone in the woods at night and smell something foul on the wind. It’s the feeling you get when you discover an ominous new lump somewhere on your body. Those things are far scarier than some ragged zombie shambling after you, smacking its cracked lips at the prospect of eating your brains.

The best horror stories unnerve readers because they reproduce those primal feelings as you read them. You are transported to a place where you don’t feel safe or comfortable and there’s no guarantee that anyone will escape the ensuing horror, whatever it may be. Sometimes even just the inference of the uncanny is enough to do the job. H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu is all build-up, and we only get a wink at old Cthulhu himself near the end, but you’re hooked because Lovecraft knew how to wring maximum effect from his use of phrasing and mood building. As his characters are pushed inexorably towards their fates you realize they were doomed from the outset, and maybe the rest of the world along with them. There’s a profound sense of inevitability about the proceeedings. As Jim Morrison once said: “No one here gets out alive.”

As a writer, then, I strive to achieve two things: to honor those who paved the way before me, and to carry on the tradition of crafting stories that wrap around your heart like icy fingers as you read them. I don’t always succeed, but I’m getting better at it with every word I commit to the page. If you read one of my stories and find yourself thinking about the implications of it afterwards, then I’ve done my job right. That’s all I can hope for.