When Ghosts Inspired Me (A Trip Through Death’s Realm)

Hi, all (those uncountable “all”) – Been awhile.  Actually, it’s been never.  Didn’t I tell you I don’t blog very well?  Whatever.  In any event, this post is part of an overall “tour” by the authors comprising the anthology Death’s Realm, published by Grey Matter Press–good folks, good taste, good overall body smells.  If you want to see where the tour has been and where it’s going, go here

– – –

I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but “To Touch the Dead” comes from the reality of a dead man.  More broadly, my writing “style”–as I see it–comes from two dead men.

Let’s start broadly, move inward.  This will probably jump around, backtrack, circling itself like a Ouroboros, but it will all come out all right in the end.  Trust me.

Has a fiction writer ever lied to you?

– – –

Like any born post-Watergate (probably post-Carter, actually), my introduction to speculative fiction–beyond children’s lit, which is almost exclusively dark and creepy and awesome (I’m lookin’ at you, Madeleine L’Engle)–was through Stephen King.  This is the great divide, actually.  You get a group of horror lit fans together–hell, horror movie fans–and the majority will say it was Stephen King who they cut their teeth on.  If they’re in there mid-30s or younger, anyway.  Baby Boomers…they didn’t need a king.  (Side note: this will probably be the only positive thing I will ever say about Baby Boomers, but that’s another topic.)

Because of this, King was a doorway to other writers, other storytellers.  Yes, we read Poe in school, but it was King who showed us Lovecraft.  And Barker.  And James Herbert.  And Ramsey Campbell.  And Bradbury, Finney, Ellison, Wilson, Leiber, etc, etc, etc.  Etc.

Depending on your own particular style, you went off from there. Found your own literary hutches.  Developed your own literary gang.  Each member of that gang had a role.  One gave you the most fucked-up things you could imagine.  One gave you the comforts of home (often, this role was taken by Stephen King).  One gave you laughter.

But one was always the leader, the writer who unified all the individual pieces that formed your individual tastes.

The leader of my gang is Richard Matheson.

I struggle to determine what Matheson was most known for.  His Twilight Zone episodes (“Terror at 20,000 ft” among them)?  His film Duel, a Made-for-TV movie back during a time when Made-for-TV meant something (and also introduced audiences to a filmmaker named Steven Spielberg)?  His novels–Hell House, The Incredible Shrinking Man, I Am Legend (all of which were themselves adapted to film, the last one the most troubling of them all), amongst dozens of others, until his death in 2013?

The fact of the matter is that any one of those things could be at the top of Matheson’s CV.  He was a giant who walked like a man.  A thinker talking about salesman, factory workers, fathers, and instigators.  I’m sure he had his faults–no artist is perfect–but when it came to the work, man…does it even matter?

Going back to King.  King, in 1981, wrote a nonfiction piece called Danse Macabre that served as an examination of horror during the period of 1950 to 1980.  It wasn’t perfect or full–even King admits so–but in it, he dedicated one hundred pages to novels, dissected each one.  To any neophyte to the genre, this was a treasure trove (and that list of novels at the end of the book?  Jesus), and amongst discussions of James Herbert, Anne Rivers Siddons, was a piece on Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. 

Paul Michael Anderson, aged 14, meet Richard Matheson, aged…whatever he was in 1997.

What called to me about Matheson was that, while King was known for couching the ordinary with the extraordinary, Matheson started that concept.  I’m probably not speaking literally (there’s nothing new under the sun; the person you think came up with something was himself/herself inspired by someone previously), but does it matter?  Matheson, to me, couched the jejune with the absolutely bonkers so seamlessly that it’s hard, in the moment of reading, not to believe in what you’re reading.  C’mon–a factory worker being the last human on Earth against an army of vampires?  I have a first edition (at least I think it’s a first edition–it’s hardcover with a copyright of 1954 and the original dustjacket) of I Am Legend and, once a year, I read that book.  It reminds me.

It reminds me of what it takes to make a reader believe.

But we’ll come back to Matheson, one of two dead men who I owe a career–or, if nothing so large, at least a style–to.

– – –

Let’s talk about Eddie Little.

King, as well as giving us Generation X/Millennial kids a road map of horror fiction, also spoke highly of good crime writing.  Jim Thompson. Elmore Leonard.  Shane Stevens.

I’d read them all, but I found Eddie Little on my own.

2001.  My best friend (and future wife and the big kick-in-the-ass at doing what I do now, but neither of us knew that yet) worked in a shop called Book Country.  She gets an awesome discount and offers to hook me up.  Walking through the rows is like a kid being  given the keys to a toy store.

I pull a paperback from the stacks called Another Day in Paradise.  Never heard of it, nor the writer, but the back copy–a down-and-out kid named Bobby Prine hooks up with big time thieves and, ultimately, gets hooked with the skills and the heroin that flows through the underbelly of this world like a sewer–catches my eye.  It goes on the pile, along with works like The Body Snatchers and Time and Again.

The back copy caught my eye, but the writing, and the unflinching portrayal at self-destruction, floored me. I’d never read anything like this (years later and finally discovering splatterpunk, I’d already be inoculated to the idea of using non-everymen as protagonists).  Here was Matheson’s knack for looking at the ordinary and showing you how raw ordinary could be.  How painful.

ADIP wasn’t the most polished of books–according to rumor, Little’s depictions of crime and addiction were very close to home with him, and he wrote that book while in prison and drying out–but that didn’t matter.  That rawness had me.  This was nerve-endings stuff.  This was violence that went beyond the flesh, but to the mind and heart and soul .

Little would followup ADIP with a much more sophisticated effort, Steel Toes, and then, in 2003, would suffer a heart attack and die before completing his trilogy.  He would leave behind those two novels, a handful of columns in LA Weekly, and an indelible impression.

– – –

I don’t write like either Matheson or Little.  I could ape their style, but it wouldn’t be mine.  But, they taught me how to think.  Prior to Matheson, I thought only fantastically, never couching concepts within a reality readers could buy into.  Prior to Little, I would ape this “real” reality of King and Matheson–people who wrote comfortably about small towns…this by a kid who, at the time, was a total city brat (since then, I’ve spent more time in small towns than cities, but never mind).  Little taught me to show reality–both the physical and the mental/emotional–as honestly as possible, even if it’s clumsy and awkward and hard to look at.

– – –

Back to Matheson.

Richard Matheson passed away in June of 2013 and his death hit me harder than I would’ve imagined.  I know his son, but this was like losing a friend.  I fucking mourned.

Musing on him and his legacy, I thought of how he would be remembered in the years and decades to come.  The books.  The stories.  The scripts.  The films.  Each a piece of him.  Each a signpost of where he was at that moment in his life.

At the time, I was doing an edit on a novel called Bitter, which, in part, had to do with a terrorist bombing of a government building and the aftermath for the survivors (hey, literary agents!).

Because I think of random, trivial things, one day I thought about the cleanup of such an attack, and how it would be done, and what kind of people would do it, what their psychology would be.  Then, of course, I thought about psychics, those who touch personal objects and know a detail about the owner.

Coalescing, mixing, and suddenly I had the core of what became “To Touch the Dead.”  Cleaning up a terrorist attack, where hundreds had died in a few moments of agony and fear, where the last moments of those lost would remain for, seemingly, ever, affixed to the detritus of the possessions they decorated their cubicles or offices with, or even just the stuff they had in their briefcases and purses and cars.  Artifacts.

I wanted to tell the story from two different areas–both from the present day and the far-flung future.  But, how to connect them?

The personal artifacts.

I had my main characters–Gregor and Davis–not just at polar opposites of time (700 years, if I remember correctly), but polar opposites of thought.  Davis is someone who doesn’t believe, doesn’t feel.  Gregor feels too much.  Both are outcasts in their time.

To tie this together, you could say that Davis is my avatar to Eddie Little.  Gregor is Matheson.  (Not really; I didn’t write the story with this frame of mind, but, in retrospect, both characters’ attitudes mirror those I admire in both writers.  As in all cases, your mileage may vary on this when you read the story.)

I don’t believe in ghosts but I don’t know what happens to us upon death and, for the most part, don’t think about it.  As the man once said, you’ll know it when you get there.

But, still, through the art, through the thought, through the sheer existence, ghosts speak to us every day.  Sometimes, we listen.

Given the response to this story, it looks like I need to listen more.

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