“The Owner’s Guide to Home Repair, Page 238: What to Do About Water Odor” has an interesting structure and style, in that it’s written in second person, present tense and in the form of an instructional manual. Which came to you first—the structure or the story? Was it a challenge to write?
I’m not a germophobe, but I’ve always had a distrust of tap water. There’s just something unsettling about the way it works—how it flows from a mysterious source we never see, bubbling through dark underground pipes, deposited in our sinks and tubs by intricate systems that we don’t understand beyond the deceptively simple twist of a faucet knob. And yet we make ourselves utterly vulnerable to it. We drink it from tall glasses, and let it soak our clothes and our dishes, and bare our skin to it in the shower. It’s part of us, and when it’s dirty, we’re repulsed on a deep, primal level; living in the real world, we’ll never have to face down a werewolf or a vampire—but we all know the horror of encountering brown-tainted water in a gas station restroom or, God forbid, our own homes.
The idea for “Owner’s Guide” came from a memory I had of foul-smelling water in an apartment I once rented. Pipes were eventually replaced and the odor went away, but I’ll never forget that creepy-crawly, vaguely sinister feeling of violation and how much it bothered me. Not just the fact that this key element of my hygiene was somehow rotten, but the big unanswered question behind it all: why did the water smell? Even now, I’m not really sure I want to know the truth. Instead I wrote “Owner’s Guide” to solve that mystery in its own way.
Originally, I began to write the story from a traditional third person point of view. But as I researched possible (realistic) causes for the odor, I found myself consulting an actual homeowner’s guide with a chapter title that I later used for the story. It struck me that the dry, impartial text of the guide would be an interesting contrast with the actual horror of my protagonist’s situation. And so I decided to try something a little crazy—a story told through a set of instructions.
From there, the story was fun to write . . . but tricky. I gave myself a rule that every sentence had to be an instruction, had to begin with a verb. That was potentially limiting in terms of sentence variety, and so I had to play around to keep the structure from becoming tedious to the reader, spinning it in different ways to avoid monotony. My goal was to write the story in a way that once it got rolling, you’d actually forget the structure and just enjoy the narrative.
This story is reminiscent of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” in that both characters seem haunted by crushing guilt and suffer a slow descent into madness as a result. Are you a fan of Poe or of gothic horror in general?
Now that you mention it, Edgar Allan Poe was my first encounter with horror fiction. As a young boy, I owned the Illustrated Classic Edition Tales of Mystery and Terror, a so-called “young reader’s book” with pictures every other page. One illustration in particular scared me so much that I’d cover half the book with my hand each time I reread the story, and even now I can see it in my permanently damaged imagination. It was the old man awake in fright—peering into the darkness with his hideous “vulture eye” as he hears the sound of his murderer creeping toward the bed. So although I never consciously planned a thematic overlap between “Telltale Heart” and “Owner’s Guide,” I guess it’s not surprising. That old man is still watching everything I do.
You’ve written a lot about zombies, including your first novel. What interests you about zombies?
Thirty years ago I cowered at my first zombie movie, Return of the Living Dead, and since then zombies have been my monster of choice. I think the horror works on levels both visceral and psychological. Just the thought of being engulfed by a mob of rotting cannibals tearing open my guts is enough to quicken my pulse, as if my fight-or-flight response is on standby and ready to go. Evolution has made me afraid of being eaten. And at the same time, zombie horror also upsets our higher emotions. Those shambling corpses are our wives and husbands and friends and family—and yet to them, we’re nothing more than meat. It’s the ultimate in unrequited love, that fear we all have. How do we handle that imbalance or face that rejection? And do we dare switch roles, imagine ourselves as the zombie—dehumanized, empty, unable to think or feel or recognize our loved ones? I tried to explore some of that in my novel The Return Man.
Anything you’re working on now that you’d like to share with our readers?
For the moment I’ve set aside zombies and ghosts, and I’m currently at work on my next novel, a young adult murder mystery entitled The Whisper Tape. Hopefully you (or a young adult you know) will be able to enjoy it soon. Until then, thanks for reading “Owner’s Guide,” and thank you to Nightmare Magazine for giving me this opportunity to share my unhealthy thoughts.
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