Note: This essay – edited here – originally appeared as a guest blog post on the website of author Stacey Longo.
No Such Thing as a Comfort Zone
“So,” says She Who Must Be Obeyed–aka SWMBO or, for ease of reading, Swumbo–otherwise known as the Fearless Leader of our writers’ group. “I’m putting out an anthology of scary stories by Connecticut authors in October.” In addition to being a writer, she is also a small press publisher. “I’m lining up several authors, living and dead.”
You’d have to know her to appreciate my momentary frisson, and the fleeting image that whips through my head of her in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York, dragging Mark Twain from his grave by one leg.
“I want two stories from each of you.” Focused on her laptop, she speaks to the air.
“Okay,” says Dan. He probably has a tattered Navy sea bag in his attic packed with so many stories that all he needs to do is dust off a couple and submit them.
“Okay,” says Terry, although it’s beyond me how she finds time to write with the work schedule she keeps.
“Okay,” says John, with only a slight outbreak of perspiration along his brow. He has so many irons in the fire that I’m pretty certain he doesn’t sleep more than an hour a night.
“Um …” says I.
Swumbo’s right eyebrow twitches, although her gaze never wavers from the computer screen. “Yes?” The frost in that single word warns, “Be careful where you tread, bitch.” It’s enough to make Sauron reconsider invading Middle Earth.
“Well,” I say, being the sort of fool who presses on where angels fear to go, “I don’t know if I’ll have time. I’m in the middle of revisions on the elephant book and need to make that my priority.”
I’m not weaseling and she knows it, but neither is she buying it. The eyebrow climbs a fraction higher. I can almost hear it creak.
“I can try.” Now I’m dithering. Swumbo has that effect on people. “I just can’t promise, and I don’t … really … write … horror.” This is true.
Swumbo doesn’t give a rat’s toches. Slowly, like a leviathan stirring in its primordial ooze, she lifts her head and fixes me with a gimlet eye.
I wilt. “I guess I could rework an old piece.”
“Fuck you,” she says without rancor. For Swumbo, this is a term of endearment. “Just do it.”
Horror writing scares me. Yeah, I know … duh. What I really mean is that it intimidates me. The writing of horror requires, I believe, a gentle hand on the tiller. I don’t go in for the slash-and-burn, splash blood on the walls variety, but give me subtlety and I’m hooked. One example that comes immediately to mind is Stephen King’s The Shining. I tried to lay that book aside when the terror became immense, and failed spectacularly. I couldn’t not read it. That stinking story kept me up all night … and several nights afterward.
If I was going to write two stories for Swumbo, they needed to be my best work. Otherwise, I’d no business being in the craft. And if you aren’t a writer willing to challenge yourself, said a little voice at the back of my mind, why bother?
One of the thing I like best about being a writer is the opportunity to push boundaries–mine as well as those of other people–and conquer new territory. And here I was quailing at the thought of trying my hand at horror? Shame on me!
Somewhere, somewhen, I’d read that Stephen King conjures up the things that scare him when considering subjects to write about. I thought about vacant houses … dolls … clowns (well, we all know that one has been done up tight with a pretty bow) … nightmares … ghosts … vampires …
And then I remembered the house I’d grown up in, a 200-year-old former way station; a house so old that the attic beams bore tree bark and were held together by hand-forged spikes. The field stone cellar had a dirt floor and smelled of ancient dust, an odor like the grave. Cobwebs draped the ceiling joists. Shadows loomed in the corners where oddments of family junk were stored.
I walked closer; afraid, yes, but willing to take a look at what was piled there. A bone emerged. It was a slender one, a fibula maybe, but enough to build around, enough to stand on if I could only find a foot …
It took several weeks, but in the end Swumbo looked at me after reading my submission (“The Cellar,” Tricks and Treats: A Collection of Spooky Stories by Connecticut Authors) and smiled with pride. “I knew you could do it,” she said.
I grinned. Better yet, I knew it.