I grew up on Stephen King. I adored escaping to the world of boogeymen and monsters. Stephen King was the master of the shadow lands to me, supreme ruler over the world of suspense and fear that intrigued my innocent young brain. Nothing could eclipse those moments, alone on Saturday mornings when the rest of the family was still in bed, when I would sit in the kitchen, wrapped in layers of blankets with the heat of the tiny kitchen wood stove keeping me from freezing, my nose buried deep in a King book so thick that it took both of my young hands to hold it open. When my toast popped up, I would jump out of my skin, so lost in the words this man used to describe terrifying events and creatures that I would forget that I had put bread in the toaster only minutes before.
I loved the horror genre. It was fun to be scared by my imagination. I lived in a real world full of caring parents and a nurturing environment, so a blob of goo floating in a lake, eating teens through the slats of a raft was the ultimate in heart-pounding horror for me. An alien race using humans for fuel brought excited chills of fear. A nuclear plant spawning over-sized, blood-thirsty insects teetered on the edge of my Cold War-age mental reality, taking me to the brink of terror that it could actually happen.
I didn’t know then that the real horrors in life would turn out to be non-fiction. Boogeymen and monsters are real. They fill websites and news channels. The human capacity to inflict horror upon other humans far eclipses the extent of any writer’s imagination. A sentient car with a thirst for blood pales in comparison to the murderous, torturous headlines that tell what we are doing to each other in our own world, every moment of every day.
I prefer to hide from the darkness. I make the sun shine in my world. The entire back wall of my house is windows. The sun streams in from one side to the other, all day long, and the moon glows in at night. No curtains exist on that side of the house. I leave no tools against the light. I know that the shadow is there, but I choose to see what I want to see, rather than what threatens to engulf me in the morning news.
When the shadows menace, when the dark parts of human nature start to infringe on my carefully constructed reality, I have many resources at hand to stave off the threat. Board games with my child, cooking a new recipe, Anne of Green Gables, good wine and chocolate often light my life. Drinks and karaoke with friends, websites full of cute kittens and brain science articles explaining how we create our own reality are my vanguard. There are myriad shields against the dark.
However, I have dark characters to write. I need to delve into a place where I know that the tentacles of the shadow lands will melt through my skin and sear down to my heart, wrapping around my guts with zombie-like mindlessness. I’ve been there before, to a place where I embraced the dark side of humanity as reality and let slip the light. I was lucky enough to only stop by. Too many people, like these characters I’m about to write, set up permanent residence in very dark places. Sometimes, I can feel the long fingers dragging at my soul, trying to pull me back.
I can write the characters like myself, the ones who, no matter how they got there, were able to get out. The ones who choose the darkness, the real-life monsters that dwell amongst us, are my challenge. These bad guys live in a world as stubbornly dark as mine is light, and they revel in it. I can’t pave the path into their world with chocolate and wine. I can’t hide behind board games and friends. I will wrap my blankets around me and curl up next to the fireplace, but I need to face the darkness, raw and naked, and take what comes flying up at me from the depths. I can already feel the tendrils reaching out to lure me down. I know I can let them sink in only so far before I must wrench myself free and force my way back to grasp the light again. The delicious thrill of digging into the murky darkness terrifies me, but not as much as the fear of not being able to find my way back. Hansel and Gretel left a trail of crumbs. I will be certain to pop a slice of bread in the toaster, set on dark.