Confessions of my Past, Present and Future
Jeffery X Martin
I tend to think a lot of writers my age, which is none of your business, were introduced to the horror genre through the works of Stephen King. My mother allowing me to read The Shining at an early age certainly helped set the path, but it wasn’t until I got my hot little hands on Night Shift that the horror bug really wrapped itself around my cerebral cortex and began to tighten.
King didn’t use high and lofty language. No “sepulchres by the sea” or “Cyclopean eldritch cities of madness and despair.” Sure, I like those things now, especially the madness and despair, but King spoke in words I could understand. When the Boogeyman came shambling out of the closet in King’s story, I got it, and I got it good. Nightmares followed that story, and a couple of the others. I was also touched by his more human than inhuman tales, like The Girl in the Barn, filled with evocative imagery and the wretched stink of regret. It was then I understood that horror was not just all boogedy-boogedy and cheap scares. It was a state of mind, a place in the heart, and to explore it thoroughly, one had to venture into the most frightening place of all: themselves.
As influential as Night Shift was, it still didn’t hold top rank for Scariest Thing I Had Ever Read. That lofty title belonged, and still belongs, to a book my mother and I found in a used book store, decades ago. We kept it in the little trailer my family went to on summer weekends. I think now I kept it there because I couldn’t bear to bring it home. It needed to stay there, not invading my real world, like a darkly shining secret.
That book was Michael McDowell’s paperback masterpiece, The Elementals.
It’s the kind of book you have to work up the courage to read and breathe deeply to get through. It pushed buttons I didn’t know I had, filled with scenes so strong, I found myself looking over my shoulder to make sure there weren’t creatures following me. Just thinking of it now makes me shudder.
The abandoned house by the sea, slowly filling with debris and reeking with mold and mildew. The creatures that live there, black-eyed and slack jawed, sand falling from their distended mouths. It was utterly horrifying. I read it once a year for years until the book was lost or disappeared. Something happened to it.
I have it on my Kindle now, and I have yet to tap it open. It’s not for fear of disappointment. Too many scenes have been burned too deeply into my brain from that book. No, it isn’t being let down that I’m afraid of. It’s going back. It’s re-entering that world. Meeting those monsters again face to face. I want to do it. I truly do. The same way I want to touch a freshly-painted park bench or lay my hand gently against a burner to see if it’s still hot.
Finding a story that can fill you with tear-inducing dread is rare and powerful. You wear it around your memories like a black talisman, a heavy thing that absorbs light. I read both of these books before I was ten years old. I kept pounding them into my head until I could quote paragraphs from them. The only way for me to stop being afraid of those stories was to master them. Yet, even as an adult, those characters, those sequences, those images, still come to me in dreams and make me wish I could wake up.
Maybe I’m haunted.
Maybe I want you to be haunted, too.
Doesn’t make me a bad person.
I went through a period of time where I just didn’t read much. Two marriages that went the way of the dodo, a tendency towards work addiction, a strong love affair with the bottle (well, at least I came away with something) took my attention. I was so busy taking care of things that I wasn’t feeding my brain. This became apparent when I had a small mental breakdown in the parking lot of the soul-sucking corporate job I held at the time. My wife (my third one, the one who has stuck with me, and may the gods remember her name for that) promptly took me home, and I spent three or four days in bed.
What books get you through non-stop crying jags and tiny psychotic breaks with reality? Well, I’m sort of an expert at that, so let me tell you, friends.
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is the perfect book to remind of just where you stand with the Universe, and the answer to that cosmic question is fuck all. Vonnegut presents a religion, Bokononism, based on the fact that all religions are lies, designed to make people feel better about their lives, and their deaths. I was leaning towards suicide a little at that time, like one does, but I opted against it. After all, a death is just a drop in the bucket.
You really want to piss someone off?
Stay alive as long as possible.
The other book that did the trick for me was Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Not one of his more popular tomes, I realize, but I have an unhealthy fascination with the Watergate era. To me, that’s when America lost her innocence, when we finally realized the government gave no fucks about its citizens and existed only to serve itself. You ask me who killed the world; I will tell you Richard Nixon. The blood still drips from his skeletal hands in his rotting coffin. Nothing has been the same since. We were already a country on the verge. He’s the one who tipped us over the edge, sending us spiralling into a moral abyss that we’ve never climbed out of. If anything, we’re on a rollercoaster, hurtling deeper and deeper into it and blaming each other for the ride.
After I put myself back together, I was able to pull some important lessons from those books. Vonnegut taught me that you can satirize anything, even the worst possible situations. Look for the funny in everything. If you can’t find the funny, find the weird. Thompson taught me the importance of brutality in language. Profanity is helpful, and loads of fun, but the properly chosen adjective gets your point across a lot better. Learn how to describe.
I started writing again. I started getting in touch with people via the internet. I may not have left the house a whole lot, but I didn’t have to. I had friends, I had booze, and I had words. It was a time of great internalization, but I like to think that when I came back out of my shell, I did so with intensity and joy.
I’m old enough to remember the Great Britpop Wars of the mid-Nineties, when bands Blur and Oasis both made aggressive moves to capture the hearts and currencies of music lovers all over the world. I came down firmly on the side of Oasis, finding Blur too sterile and posh for my working-man sensibilities. There’s a line in an Oasis song that goes, “Tomorrow never knows what it doesn’t know too soon.” I don’t know what that means, but I think it has something to do with not being able to predict the future. I think that’s correct, I think, so this Confession is all hope and conjecture, potential spins of the wheel of fortune.
One can’t write horror all the time. Even Stephen King takes time out to pen books about baseball. In the future, I believe I’ll have the market cornered on revisionist history erotica. Sure, Brexit was sexy, but imagine if Phil Collins had been Prime Minister, or maybe some of those numpty-headed mouth-breathers from The Only Way is Essex were in Parliament. That’s hot. Think about the steamy baked-beans John Wayne orgies former President Bush must have had in the Oval Office, late at night, riding Barbara around, using her trademark pearl necklace as reins, calling her “Trigger.” I’d like to write books about that. Who wouldn’t?
I’d like to think that Elders Keep, that creation, that playground, will become something that other authors want to expand and keep going. Make Elders Keep movies. Get that television show going on premium cable. There’s room for all kinds of shit to happen with that little Southern town. I realize I’ve still got some world-building to complete before that’s feasible, but I think it would be a lot of fun. Also: we could really use the royalties.
In the future, Shadow Work Publishing will be a formidable entity in the small press world. All of the authors will become superstars or, at the very least, indie darlings. That’s okay, isn’t it? The guys I work with will shine and become those people others namecheck when they talk about the future of the genre. Indeed, and why not? There’s room for everyone. Let everyone win.
In the future, my son will save rock and roll. And thank fuck, because it needs it.
In the future, my daughter will give us grandchildren, whom we will promptly corrupt by showing them Italian horror films and the joys of refined white sugar. She will thank us later.
In the future, my wife and I spend our days divided between our home in rural Tennessee and our beach home in some Spanish speaking country. The staff brings us drinks and give us hot stone massages. They do not know our real names, nor do they need to. “Yes, Mister X,” they say. “Yes, Miss Cootie,” they say. We sit in comfortable chairs on the beach, holding hands, and watch the moon rise from the sea.
“If this isn’t nice,” I say, “I don’t know what is.”
“You always say that,” my wife says.
I finish my margarita. “I know.”
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Please call me X. Everyone does.
When I was a kid, fourth grade, to be exact, I wrote a horror story for a class assignment. It was so good, they called my mother in to the office for a conference on a day when school was closed for students. The fourth grade teachers and the school principal wanted to have me evaluated by a psychologist. The school staff couldn't figure out why I would want to write a story that was violent or had frightening images. Why wasn't it football, puppies and rainbows?
I wasn't that kind of kid. My mother knew that. And she promptly told those teachers, the principal (and that horrible school secretary, the one who looked like a Raggedy Ann doll, possessed by Pazuzu) and anyone else within earshot to go f**k themselves.
I still write scary stories. It's my job. It's what I do. It's what I've always done.
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