Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Finding My Voice

In my early twenties, I got serious about finding my own voice as an author. Until this point, I’d been a fairly decent writer for my age, consistently representing my schools in various writing competitions and poems published in a couple of anthologies; but my work, I soon realized, was derivative. The vast majority of my short stories were set in the fictional town of Holly Meadow (much like Stephen King did with Castle Rock) and one of the novels I’d written in my teens was basically a Dean R. Koontz clone. I was most pleased with Children of the Damned, a novel I’d written at seventeen which was basically a love story about two kids mixed up with a cult that prohibited any type of true affection, eschewing love and tenderness for wild orgies led by their high priestess. At the time, I felt Children of the Damned was the most original thing I’d written and wanted to continue exploring worlds that were entirely mine.

It wasn’t an easy process. I’d bang out a short story on my trusty typewriter and, still riding high on the euphoria that accompanies a good writing jag, feel that I’d truly nailed it. The manuscript would be placed in a drawer for a week or two to mellow and when I came back to it with a little objective distance my heart sank. I’d see Lovecraft peering through the veil of words or find Ramsey Campbell hiding within the pages. Clive Barker, Graham Masterson, Edgar Allen Poe: all of my favorite authors at the time met me again and again as my frustration levels grew.

By the time I was old enough to legally drink, I knew I’d have to try something drastic. I’d sold my first published short story to a monthly magazine called Twisted Nipples, but the excitement this should have brought was tarnished. It was a standard vampire tale, hints of Poppy Z. Brite blending with Brahm Stoker and Anne Rice. While I liked the story, I wasn’t in love with it.  It had netted me a ten dollar check, sure… but I secretly felt more like a gigolo than an artist.

My solution came to me in a rather roundabout way. I’d spent the day drinking Wild Turkey and staggering through the streets of Charleston with Timmy, a long-haired delinquent and brother of a girl I’d dated in high school for a while. Somehow we’d ended up in the cool shade beneath the Washington Street bridge. Not content with the rock-lined banks, we’d climbed a ladder leading up to a catwalk that maintenance workers used to inspect the underside of the bridge. Half way across we dangled our legs over the edge, sixty feet or so above the murky, emerald waters, and passed the bottle back and forth while traffic rumbled overhead.

“I gotta take a piss.” Timmy announced as he fumbled to his feet. As he unzipped his fly, we heard a boat trolling up the river. I suspect it was a no wake zone because the yellow speedboat was creeping along, just fast enough to keep the current from stealing its forward momentum. Timmy started giggling and had the twinkle in his eyes which usually preceded a bad idea as he glanced at me and said, “Hey man, check this out.”

His sense of timing was impeccable considering how drunk we were at this point. He held his flow until the boat was close enough that we could see the sunglasses of the man behind the wheel; then he voided his bladder in a long ribbon of yellow liquid which rained down upon the unsuspecting boater. I immediately leapt to my feet and started hightailing it out of there, knowing that as soon as the man figured out what had happened the cops would be on their way. Shimmying down the ladder, I called Timmy every dirty name I knew as I berated him for being such a childish ass.

This, of course, didn’t settle well with him. He’d always had an anger management issue and all merriment vanished from his face as he snarled and took off after me. We ended up scuffling on the riverbank, rolling through the dirt and banging off rocks amid mutual curses and grunts. Timmy was far better in a fight than me, but alcohol numbed the force of his punches as I took his blows and landed a few of my own. A wailing siren on Pennsylvania Avenue brought the tussle to an end and we ran along the riverbank, splitting off in separate directions to maximize the chances of getting away.

The next evening I was sore and bruised but ready to write. My old typewriter had been retired in favor of a word processor I’d picked up from a pawn shop. It was the same dimensions as a medium-sized gift box with a slot on the side to accept 3.5 inch floppies. The black screen was protected behind a pane of glass and glowing, green letters appeared as I typed on a keyboard that was tethered to the contraption by what looked suspiciously like the coiled cord of a telephone handset. After several false starts, I pushed the keyboard away and leaned forward on my desk. My left elbow had a particularly nasty scrape that flared with pain as I put weight on it, leading me to wonder exactly why I still associated with Timmy in the first place.

Because he’s an interesting character, was my immediate response to what I’d assumed to be a rhetorical question.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized he really was an interesting character. The events which had played out beneath the bridge would make an excellent scene in a larger work, I thought. There was only one problem: it wasn’t horror.

Something inside me clicked. I’d been struggling for years to find my own distinctive style in a genre I hungrily devoured. I owned more books than furniture; my collection had outgrown my shelves and now climbed the walls in precariously balanced stacks. About ninety percent of these volumes were in the horror genre. A lot were forgettable novels with stock characters and predictable plots.  But there were also some real gems in my collection, works which left me in awe of the men and women who’d created them. I knew I wasn’t purposefully trying to copy their styles, yet I saw it creep into my writing over and over which lead me to suspect it was happening on a subconscious level. These authors represented who I wanted to be and what I wanted to accomplish… it stood to reason that my mind might attempt to emulate them. They were, after all, my heroes.

The conclusion I came to was that to find my own personal style, maybe I should work for a while outside the genre I was most comfortable in. Free from the influence of my idols, I would be forcing myself to stand on my own two feet. I initially thought I’d dabble in science fiction, but then realized I’d be running into the same problem. I’d been introduced to William Gibson in my senior year of high school and the pedestal I placed him upon was even higher than most of the horror authors I admired. I had zero interest in reading fantasy and even less in penning it. And there was no way I was going to write bodice-bursting romances. So what I ended up writing were stories that were genre-free.

One of them involved a dirt poor couple in backwoods West Virginia whose young daughter desperately needed a medical procedure they weren’t able to afford. They’d sold everything of value they possessed and set up collection jars in stores and restaurants but still were nowhere near the amount they needed. With the girl’s health failing rapidly, the couple made the most difficult decision of their lives. They agreed that the wife would voluntarily be sold into white slavery. She traded in her freedom and dignity and her husband traded the only woman he’d ever loved so that their daughter might live.

Another story from this period was Hiram’s Moose and was one of my personal favorites at the time. I’d heard a news story on NPR about moose who (through a freak accident of genetics) had their antlers grow into their skulls instead of out.  It was rare, but it did happen. The part which intrigued me the most was what this did to the animals. The pressure applied upon their brains made them pick a direction and simply start walking. They didn’t sleep, they didn’t stop to eat or drink… they just kept going in a beeline regardless of what got in the way.

Hiram’s Moose was about an old man who’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after his wife of fifty years had passed away. All of his friends were dead, his children never bothered to call or come around, and he spent his days staring blankly at the walls in a silent house, awaiting death.  One day he read an article in the local paper about a moose like the ones I described which had wandered through town and caused an uproar.  His imagination was captured by this massive beast who’d simply walk in a straight line until it dropped over dead. He pulled out a map and ruler and traced the animal’s trajectory with a pencil. Using the paper’s estimate of how quickly the moose walked, he then calculated how many miles the animal would travel and had a ballpark figure of when he would be able to intercept it.

Though the weather was freezing and his arthritis flared painfully, he dusted off his old camping gear and set up the tent on the shore of a lake. There he waited, realizing there would be a margin of error in his calculations. Snow began to fall and he stoked his campfire, forcing himself to stay awake until the moose finally emerged from the dark forest. As it passed, he held his hand out, trailing his fingers over the coarse fur and feeling a ribcage defined by malnutrition. The moose walked into the icy waters of the lake and kept walking until it disappeared beneath the depths with the old man trailing close behind.

My experiment seemed to have worked. The stories I was writing were undeniably mine and for the first time in ages I felt like a real writer. I fully expected to take what I’d learned from this experience and apply it to the horror genre. What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that I was about to enter a period where I wouldn’t write a single line of fiction. And that period would last for nearly fifteen years.

But that’s a story for another time.


  1. This reads like a Bukowski story. Very interesting. We never forget the point of no return; the catharsis which reveals we're able to plunge into the abyss or we shrink away from it, and from ourselves.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, as usual.