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Nonfiction

The H Word: Formative Frights

Weird Fiction Writers on What Scared Them as Kids

I like to ask people about their childhood fears because I was a fearful child.

At five, I avoided the TV room for a week after glimpsing something with a face like gobs of wet clay groping its way up a staircase. Only years and nightmares later did I learn this was Martin Landau’s entirely sympathetic mutant in the Outer Limits episode “The Man Who Was Never Born.”

When I was nine, I was freaked out by faces more awful than Landau’s lumpy one.

Created in pen and ink rather than latex, they lacked lips and at least one eye, and their tattered flesh looked like my grandfather’s beef jerky.

By then I loved the classic Universal horrors and avidly read Famous Monsters of Filmland. But beside it on the Rexall rack lurked Creepy, Eerie and their cruder but grislier imitator Weird. I didn’t want to pick up each new issue and thumb through it, knowing I’d see a face to keep me awake that night. I didn’t want to, but always did.

Fortunately, I never saw any faces like that in real life. Nine-year-old Edith wasn’t so lucky.

She loved mummies, or at least her neatly-wrapped friends under glass in the British museum. Traveling with her mother and sister through France in 1867, she insisted on seeing the ones in a Bordeaux crypt. Before leading the women and girl into the vault, the guide explained that these were natural mummies, preserved (more or less) by “the peculiar earth of the churchyard where they were buried.”

“’Round three sides of the room ran a railing, and behind it—standing against the wall, with a ghastly look of life in death—were about two hundred skeletons. Not white clean skeletons, hung on wires, like the ones you see at the doctor’s, but skeletons with the flesh hardened on their bones, with their long dry hair hanging on each side of their brown faces, where the skin in drying had drawn itself back from their gleaming teeth and empty eye-sockets. Skeletons draped in mouldering shreds of shrouds and grave-clothes, their lean fingers still clothed with dry skin, seemed to reach out towards me. There they stood, men, women, and children, knee-deep in loose bones collected from the other vaults of the church, and heaped round them. On the wall near the door I saw the dried body of a little child hung up by its hair.”

The future E. Nesbit included this gruesome anecdote in her otherwise charming memoir “‘My School-Days,” serialized in Girl’s Own Paper in 1896-1897. As anyone who’s read “Man-Size in Marble” knows, the Fabian and feminist whom biographer Julia Briggs called “the first modern writer for children” also wrote terrific weird fiction for adults.

The tradition of writers describing what frightened them as children is almost as old as that of telling stories while taking shelter from a plague. I’ve written several articles on this theme over the years, beginning with “My First Fright” in Gothic.net in 1999. For that, Neil Gaiman told me about being taken to Madame Tussauds (no apostrophe) Chamber of Horrors as a child, expecting to see his old pals Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster. Instead he encountered “horrid, dull people who had, mostly, killed their parents or children or spouses, and sold the bodies ‘to anatomy’ for pennies, or shillings.”

And the terrifically hardboiled neo-noir novelist Christa Faust, then known for short horror fiction, told me about being traumatized by an early viewing of A Hard Day’s Night.

“It started off with scenes of these crushing hordes of young girls whipping themselves up into a frenzied, voodoo-like trance, shaking, eyes rolling up into their heads and screaming as if possessed. Then they smashed through some kind of barrier and went running madly after the fleeing musicians. The whole time I was watching, all I could think of was what might happen if they were caught. They would be torn apart, eaten alive, kissed and kissed and kissed until they were dead. To this day that kind of ravenous, unhinged fan behavior—especially when it involves large crowds—really creeps me out.”

Twenty-one years after my first article about first frights, I’m still fascinated by these reports from childhood. Who doesn’t wonder what made a horror writer write horror? I’ve reached out to ten established and upcoming authors, many of them Nightmare contributors, to find out.

Let’s start with this dazzling mini-essay by Lambda finalist Sonya Taaffe, who has appeared twice in Lightspeed and whose “Tea with the Earl of Twilight” is forthcoming in Nightmare. She also officially named Vanth, moon of the trans-Neptunian object 90482 Orcus.

“I can’t remember my oldest childhood fear. I know that I was never afraid of the dark, but I couldn’t fall asleep in a room that was only mostly dark, where you could never quite see what might or might not be there in that half-light with you; I disliked rooms with half-open doors. I was not afraid of ghosts, but I was afraid of bodies. I loved fossils as pieces of time, but the bituminous stained bones that were dredged out of tar pits were unspeakable to me. And I was afraid of masks. Costumes were dress-up, they came on and off, but I knew absolutely that to put on a mask was to become whatever it represented, instantly, irrevocably, and no longer myself. (In first or second grade, I read for the first time about rituals whose human participants assumed the masks of gods in order to be assumed in turn by the gods themselves, and I knew I had been right to be afraid.) My parents, in a compassionate gesture of demystification, bought me a mask-making kit, but I could barely endure to have it in my room, haunted by the image of the blank white mask-mold with its sealed lips and its sightless eyes, a death mask of the never-born. I never made a mask from it. I hid it at the back of my closet. If it wasn’t thrown out when we moved a few years later, it might be at the back of a closet today. I could take it out and look at it, flimsy thin plastic, child-sized. In my memory, it is still the tangible uncanny—imago, larva, the terrifying false face of the dead.”

Gwendolyn Kiste was terrified by something most masks lack. You might think the author of “The Eight People Who Murdered Me (Excerpt from Lucy Westenra’s Diary)” feared bloody fangs or bloodier stakes, but it was as incongruous yet insightful as Christa Faust’s reaction to Beatlemania.

“The song ‘Hungry Eyes’ by Eric Carmen was the stuff my childhood nightmares were made of. These were not your usual eyes, not so far as I was concerned. These were eyes with jagged teeth, eyes that stalked through the cover of night to devour anything—or anyone—in their path. I can still remember being in my booster seat in the backseat of my parents’ car—probably our beloved little red Escort—when the song would come on the radio. That distinctive 80s intro would cut through the air, and I would start wheezing with terror. “Hungry eyes!” I’d scream, as my parents would fumble with the radio dial, desperately trying to turn it to another station.

At the time, they assured me over and over again that the eyes were neither hungry in the way that I thought, nor were these eyes anywhere in our vicinity. However, years later, I learned the song was recorded in Beachwood, Ohio, not much more than an hour’s drive away from where I grew up. Had I only known how local those hungry eyes really were, I might never have slept a wink my whole childhood.”

Kiste’s imagination was scaring her long before she scared readers. But she was not the only kid to frighten herself. Iconic horror master Ramsey Campbell let one memory blossom into a terror worse than what a famous pulp magazine meant to inspire.

“I think the childhood event most crucial to my career was seeing an issue of Weird Tales in a shop window when I was seven years old or so. The cover showed a terrified avian creature (though not, I thought, an actual bird) paralysed by the approach of two monsters with enormous human skulls for heads and minute scuttling skeletal bodies. I craved it, but wasn’t allowed to buy it, and as I approached teenage, I began to collect the magazine. It wasn’t until ten years later that I found the issue I’d been searching for. It’s the November 1952 issue, and the cover shows a vulture possibly alarmed by a couple of skeletons (bit.ly/2JSsk4T). It seems to me that when I originally saw it, my mind wanted something weirder and created it for me. Maybe that principle is the core of my career.”

Gemma Files, whose “Grave Goods” was reprinted in Nightmare’s October 2019 issue, understands that. Her response about a 1979 novel reminded me of how, devoid of context, I was terrified by my childhood interpretation of Martin Landau’s ugly but sensitive Andro.

“This would probably have been around when I was eight, which was when my mother and father separated; it’s not that I wasn’t afraid of things before that—cosmic horror had already entered my life in the shape of a gigantic Byzantine angel from the Toronto Planetarium’s Christmas show, looming over me in duplicate, one for either side of the viewing dome—but after their divorce things got steadily more unstable, especially since my Dad eventually moved back to Australia, which was around the time that I became afraid of essentially everything.

“My worst scares, however, all came out of the fact that imagination is a double-edged tool at best . . . probably single-edged when you’re a kid with a slippery sense of self, at the mercy of undiagnosed neuroatypicality and the weird guilt that children of divorce always carry. When your image of the world is completely solipsistic, how can you ever believe that things as world-shaking as the relationship between two adult humans whose minds and hearts you have absolutely no power over aren’t secretly all your fault? I was already innately attracted to the darker side of things, to stories about magic and folklore, to horror, but my imagination would stomach-punch me any time I sought that stuff out, especially when it was from “adult” sources.

“So here I am, dawdling behind my Mom as she waits to check out in the line at the grocery store, and I start reading the back-cover copy of James Herbert’s The Survivor (1976). What first attracted me to it? Probably the china doll-head on the front, deftly broken at the neck, its blue eyes goggling. (I seem to recall a drop of blood at the corner of rosebud lips, but I might be confusing it with Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot—‘the high, sweet laughter of a child . . . and the sucking sounds.’) On the back, it promised a plane crash that killed over 300 people and sparked off a supernatural incursion in a tiny British town: creeping dread, dead faces at the windows, dolls talking to a little girl, murmuring bad things in her ears, moving around on their own. I couldn’t stand to look inside it, but in a way, I didn’t need to. Because what I made up inside my head that night, in the dark of my bedroom, was definitely worse than anything Herbert could have possibly come up with.

(And having read the book since then, I’ve since confirmed that I am very definitely right, on that score.)”

His chapter on James Herbert is a highlight of Grady Hendrix’s hilarious and nostalgic Paperbacks from Hell. But the author, whose novel about a haunted Scandinavian furniture store was selected as an NPR Best Book of 2014 (Horrorstör), shared an entirely serious memory, one that begins with rats, but is far more M.R. James than James Herbert.

“When my family moved to London for a year, I was six and nothing made sense. The private school I attended didn’t have a playground, just an asphalt lot surrounded by barbed wire with a view of a gorge overflowing with rubbish. The handyman’s job was to repair the heat, catch students who went over the fence, and kill rats. He did this with a hammer, then drove a staple through their tails and hung them from his shed door until he reached his quota for the day. Then he’d sling them over the fence into the garbage gorge where, over the next few weeks, they’d melt into the stew of rusted appliances and used nappies.

“The house we rented was a massive, creaking Victorian pile with a photographer boarding in the attic and a hippie living in the basement. They had a library, and way up on a top shelf I found a volume of English folklore. It had a black cover with a stylized gold face embossed on the fake leather cover. Inside, it was loaded with woodcuts and prints with an emphasis on the gruesome: pictures of witches being burned, heretics having their hands bound to the clappers of ringing bells, and howling banshees prowling drafty manor house halls and blasted heaths. Suddenly, everything made sense. When my dad insisted on stuffing us all into our Volkswagen camper and driving us into the cold countryside every weekend to get culture, I could stare out the rain-streaked windows and see the vanished gibbets with their desiccated corpses swinging back and forth over the bleak landscapes now hacked into highway roundabouts, the hollow-eyed ghosts staring out at us from dreary council estate windows, the creaking carts full of witches hauled by emaciated horses past shuttered village shops on their way to Hangman’s Hill. That book taught me that the world made sense, but only if you were looking at it with the correct number of ghosts in your field of view.”

The handsome, lithe and dapper Edward Austin Hall (a friend who’ll be amused by my objectifying him like so many woman writers have been by male ones in the past), reminded me of something from a classic film that also disturbed me as a kid.

“Surely, I cannot be the lone person who found nightmarish Scout’s costumed walk in her . . . what? Pumpkin? Gourd? Vegetal tumor? I first saw To Kill a Mockingbird on television in the 1960s, and the combination of powerlessness and limited vision as she’s attacked while wearing this . . . hideousness . . . mixed horror (What happened to her? [I was young enough to see Scout as transformed, not disguised]), terror (What’s happening to her?), and dread (What will happen to her?) like nothing else I know, even now.”

LC von Hessen’s fiction has appeared in Pickman’s Gallery, Machinations and Mesmerism: Tales Inspired by ETA Hoffmann, and Nox Pareidolia, with more upcoming in Nightscript VI, Vastarien, and Would but Time Await: An Anthology of New England Folk Horror. They gave me another creepy anecdote about a seemingly innocuous thing (perhaps a theme is emerging):

“The first tangible Thing that ever scared me was a ceramic piggy bank of mid-century vintage that someone, probably my mother, had placed on my bedroom shelf as a toddler. The pig sat up on its haunches, inexplicably wearing red-and-white-striped long johns like an off-brand Porky Pig, and was—worst of all—winking in a manner I interpreted as deeply sinister (and which I recall now as being oddly lascivious). The pig heightened my fear of the dark, as I was afraid that it would Get Me when the lights went out: that even if I turned its face to the wall, it would spin around with an evil grin and do something awful to me that I couldn’t even imagine in my two- or three-year-old’s limited experience of the world.

“Three decades later, while going through my old belongings in my parents’ basement prior to their move into a retirement home, I couldn’t find the little pig. I’m inclined to think it escaped.”

While von Hessen’s nightmares came from a winking ceramic pig, Natasha Pavlitsevits was traumatized by one of the darkest works in the Western canon.

Pavlitsevits, who was born Greece but lives in Sweden, has only one English language publication so far, a short story in Vol.7, issue 3 of Lamplight. But her first novel “Κάπου Αλλού” (Somewhere Else) is another bestseller for Εγκαίνια BELL, the Athens-based publisher that brought Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Joe Hill to Greece. Here’s the mini-memoir of an author who’s creating overseas buzz, and whose work I hope will soon be available in English:

“I dipped my toes in the pool of horror way too young. Scary books and movies were an integral part of my childhood. My first real fright, however, came later, when I was around eleven. I saw Goya’s painting of ‘Saturn devouring his son.’ The violent image imprinted on my mind in a way that nothing had until then, and my blanket was not helping me block the fear out this time. Even when I calmed down the next day, those eyes returned at night. I confessed to my mother and she found a solution, like a mother usually does . . . “Read about it, learn the painting’s history, and it will stop bothering you.” So, I did. To this day, I remember everything about the mythology around Saturn, Goya’s biography, even the techniques used in oil paintings. To this day that painting freaks me out. You never forget your first.”

You also never forget your first Sasquatch. The award-winning John Langan, author of two novels, three collections, and fiction and nonfiction for Nightmare, was terrified by his early television exposure to the Wild Carnivorous Sasquatch.

“One of my most traumatizing childhood memories is of the introduction of the Bigfoot character in the old Six-Million-Dollar Man series. Although the Sasquatch would ultimately be revealed to be a sympathetic character, I never saw that episode. Instead, all I saw was the episode in which Bigfoot was introduced, and in that, he was enormous and terrifying, a giant who tore off Steve Austin’s bionic arm at the climax of the episode. On one side of the house in which I grew up, there were two rows of evergreens planted very close together, which formed a dim space my brother and I called the cave. Our bedroom was at this end of the house, and at night, as I lay in bed, I would hear noises outside our windows and be sure it was the Sasquatch, escaped from the television and roaming about next to the house.”

The final macabre memory is from Nadia Bulkin. While some of her fiction is rooted in her Indonesian heritage, for this article, she evocatively remembers finding childhood horror in an icon of American popular culture:

“When I was about three years old, I saw this Sesame Street skit that involved a talking chair. It was a cartoon armchair with cartoon face, to be clear—probably the most innocuous type of talking chair—but it horrified me so much that I had to hide behind (ironically) the sofa. The only thing I can remember feeling is that it was “wrong.” I’d get the same feeling with mascots too—like they were people that were not people. I’m sure that’s why the unusual movement of ghosts in modern J-horror movies gets to me, too: it looks “wrong.” That’s a very primal fear, by the way, part of the ‘fear of the unnatural’ bucket. I think I read once that it’s meant to protect us from coming into contact with diseased organisms (or maybe predators in disguise?). Years later, my mother told me that I’d had a similar, earlier reaction to a Sesame Street skit that I didn’t even remember—as in, I blocked it out—that one was about a talking hand.”

As with several of the preceding anecdotes, my own earliest-recalled childhood trauma transformed its source. When I watched “The Man Who Was Never Born” on the Outer Limits Season One Blu-Ray, I freeze-framed a better look at Andro’s hands. While lumpy and gnarled, they’re not the huge, pale, doughy catcher’s mitts five-year-old me “saw” before fleeing the room.

For weeks afterwards, I dreamed of the character I thought some lurching, clutching monster. Once, he stood over my bed and reached down with soft pale hands bigger than my face. When I told my mother, whom some neighbor kids thought a witch, about him, she made a lumpy man-shaped cookie with oversized hands and told me to bite off his head. I never dreamed of him again.

Fifty-seven years later, I’m using that in a story.

Ian McDowell

Ian McDowell is the author of the novels Mordred’s Curse and Merlin’s Gift. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Weird Tales, Cemetery Dance and the anthologies Love in Vein, October Dreams 2 and the Science Fiction Book Club’s Best Short Novels 2005. He grew up in Fayetteville, NC, and currently lives in Greensboro, NC. In February of 2020, he won first prize in investigative journalism at the North Carolina Press Association Awards for his coverage of the case of Marcus Deon Smith, an African-American man fatally hogtied by the Greensboro police during the 2018 NC Folk Festival. That same month, his Alphabestiary: 26 Poems and Drawings for Easily Alarmed Children and the Adults Who Like to Alarm Them, was published by AM INK.