11 August 2011

Why I Write Horror Part 1: Dad

When I worked on my guest post, "Why I Write Horror," at Wicked & Tricksy a while back, I cheated. I wrote about one reason why I dig the dark stuff, but in fact there's a whole grab bag of tidbits from my personal history that contributed to making me the horror writer I am today. Here's one.

My dad is a great storyteller. Although he was a construction inspector by trade before he retired, his real gift lies in converting the daring exploits and bizarre interludes of his youth into sheer entertainment. On a regular basis when we were growing up, Dad would have me and my brother howling with laughter until we couldn't breathe and we thought we would expire.

In terms of sheer craft, I admire Dad immensely. He has a knack for building intrigue and using detail to peak interest as effectively as any seasoned novelist. I aspire to be able to set 'em up and knock 'em down as well as my dad.

But the real value in growing up hearing his stories for me lay in the persistent (or I should maybe say, pernicious) thread that ran through all of his tales. Everywhere in his stories are hints of threat, glimpses of the edge of reason or the neat boundary described by the law.

There's the casual violence: a story about a math teacher who banged a kid's head against the chalk board for talking in class. The high school gym instructor who dealt with insolent students by making them put on the gloves and go a couple of rounds in the ring with him.

There's the adult stuff. For a while, dad's family lived with his grandfather, my great-grandfather. Great-granddad was, by all accounts, an interesting fellow. He sold booze out of his home at a time when it was only available if you bought it from a bar. For hardcore alcoholics, this was a difficult time, since you couldn't get rid of your morning shakes until the bars opened later in the day.

When my dad was still a schoolkid and all this was going on, his bedroom was at the front of the house on the ground floor. Some mornings, the local butcher would come and knock on the window to wake my dad up. Dad would go to the kitchen, pour the guy his morning drink, take his money, and fix himself a bowl of cereal. While Dad ate his cornflakes, the butcher would talk to him about history.

"He really knew a lot," Dad always says.

And then there are the stories about the fighting cocks. Great-granddad raised them. Dad has a lot of stories about these animals: about Great-granddad tossing a rooster in the air repeatedly to exercise him and strengthen his legs so he would be strong in a fight. About the razor-sharp steel spikes the owners would attach to the roosters' legs that would turn any match into a fight to the death. "Saturday night's loser was Sunday night's dinner," Dad says. Dad tells a great story about driving with his dad and granddad over the border into the U.S. on their way down to Buffalo for a fight. "It was my job to keep the roosters quiet in the back seat of the car when we crossed the border," Dad tells us. "You had to keep the cover over them and not let in any light, or they would start making noise."

For me, raised in a small town where nothing untoward ever seemed to happen, Dad's stories spoke to a wider reality, where almost anything was possible, and life served up equal helpings of badness and wonder. Dad is one reason why I write horror.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

My dad never had any good stories. He just liked to farm and it was boring, muddy, and pretty much the biggest waste of time that I can think of. That in itself is a horror story. Oh...and living in small town America and being reminded that everyone in our family is mediocre and I'll be mediocre too. He really does say that stuff.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Having grown up in a small town, I think I understand a bit about the special horrors available there, especially for those who are not mediocre. My sympathies. For what it's worth, I think you're great.

Luanne G. Smith said...

Makes you wonder if there is a story-telling gene. Or is it nature vs nurture?

Elizabeth Twist said...

I'm adopted, so I would have to go with nurture!

Deborah Walker said...

I can see where the influence, for looking under the surface of things comes from, Elizabeth.

Some people are natural born story tellers/raconteurs, it's a gift.

And your Grandaddy sounds like quite a character.

Deborah Walker said...

Michael -- I don't think you could be mediocre if you tried. Keep on proving your Dad wrong.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Right Deborah, it was interesting, growing up in a very Leave-It-To-Beaver sort of home, alongside these *really interesting* stories about how things could be very different.

Chris Kelworth said...

Our families influence our creative sides in all kinds of ways, don't they? I'm sure I write science fiction and fantasy partly because my parents read it so much, and read Narnia and John White when I was little.

Adina West said...

Wow, what fuel for fiction your father's life offered! From the stories I've heard, people seemed so much more colourful back then...