As a kid I read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Though I knew it was fiction, I became obsessed with the desire to go to the center of the earth. My mother got me a little book The Story of Caves. It told of holes in the ground and the men who go in them.
Spelunkers, they were called in the book, but when I met a real one at sleep away camp he called himself a caver. He drove us deep into the Berkshires in an antediluvian truck with gears that ground like a factory with pneumonia. We hiked up into the woods and into a sunny green glade and there was the cave. The hole was about a foot high. I stared into the dark, took a deep breath and thrust myself into the unknown.
We crawled and climbed down and finally reached the end—a room that was the first place you could stand up. We made our way with carbide lamps. Now we blew them out. We stood smelling the sweet stink of acetylene, listening to the faint dripping of water, and experiencing absolute darkness. It seemed a holy thing.
I became hooked on caving, and chased the darkness, along with the unknown—its own form of darkness—around corner after corner from West Virginia to Missouri and finally France and Italy.
Even now I relish turning out the bedside light at night and prefer motels with blackout curtains.
I love another kind of darkness. From the time that I was small, starting with Jack and the Beanstalk, my father told me dark tales. As I grew his stories became more gruesome. The true ones were scarier than the fictions. The very worst was a tale he told me one day when we were in the little bathroom off my parents’ bedroom.
He reached into the medicine cabinet and pulled out an unfamiliar object, a flat thin thing six inches long and an inch wide.
“Do you know what this is?”
I shook my head. Something in his tone had me shrinking away from him.
“It's a straight razor.” As he spoke he prized the thing open and showed me the edge. He didn’t have to say how sharp it was. I shrunk back further.
“I started at the Baltimore Sun as a police reporter, shortly before you were born…”
He told of how “two negro men”—it was the 50s when he told me this—settled a dispute by going into a pitch black room, each with one the lethal instruments he held.
Did they die? How much blood was there? He wasn’t saying, and I wasn’t about to ask, though those questions lingered for years.
Around the time I first went in a cave I discovered Edgar Allen Poe. Did my father turn me onto him, sensing my appetite for tales of the darkness in men’s hearts and minds? Or did I just find a well worn version in the walls of books that filled our living room? I don’t remember. But I devoured his short stories, despite the convoluted prose, and soon took pride in his being a fellow native of Baltimore.
Throughout my 20 years in a cult though I dutifully studied the tomes containing the Teachings, my favorite guilty escape was into the pages of hundreds of horror books. My timing was good—it was some kind of golden age of horror, when Barnes and Noble had a whole section devoted to the genre. There were occasional gems, but most were terrible. I didn’t care. Just as I chased the dark into miles of caves, I kept reading, seeking that frisson. Finally, the genre petered out, or rather collapsed down to the sprawling career of Stephen King, who himself had tired of the stuff and was trying out other genres.
As I mined fiction there was of course no shortage of real world horror—the Khmer Rouge and Jonestown, Jeffery Dahmer and Ted Bundy, and of course Charles Manson. Perhaps because he was from my own tribe, the counterculture, I found myself poring sickly over the pages of The Family and Helter Skelter. But that was enough real-life horror for me.
I recently watched the excellent documentary Making a Murderer. I was riveted as I watched. After it haunted me. Real people had been killed, and a real person who was likely innocent was doing life in prison. It was too real. I resolved to stick to the made-up stuff.
All the time that I was in the cult and reading horror books I wrote music for a living—happy, optimistic stuff that corporate clients ate up. I loved doing it. Music has always been to me a thing of light. The only thing more joyful than listening to The Beatles was playing their songs in a band. And the only thing happier than performing was making music of my own.
Yet a time came when enough was enough. I wrote a music library CD, Dark Drama. It did well. The piece Creeping Menace (hit the preview button to the right to hear it) even made its way into a Stephen King audiobook.
Making that CD was just skimming the surface of a deep well in me. It’s filled with darkness that crawls with demons that can’t speak through notes and sound, but need words.
So I write dark fiction. Why?
I’m trying to exorcise those demons. Because while I love the dark, I hate the darkness within—the demons Depression, Dread and Despair, and always waiting behind them, merciless inevitable Death. So I clack them into this thin silver box and send them out into the world.
I like to think my lifelong fascination with the dark comes from a healthy impulse—that as Stephen King suggested in his so-so book on horror Danse Macabre, consuming and creating dark works can provide catharsis. At least in terms of creating, I see evidence for his theory. I sometimes wake in a terrible mood. Once caffeine has put a dent in it, I start writing, and demolish that mood.
But that only goes for the creation. I’ve never looked too closely at my consumption of all this dark material, because the urge is so strong, and because…. What if in consuming this stuff I’ve been poisoning myself all these years, feeding my demons? And I’m now passing them on?
Who’s to say that lurking in my books, my little entertainments, like Russian malware are those Demons, ready to pounce.
So maybe when you’re done reading you’ll need to write something of your own and pass those demons on, along with a few of your own. It’ll be like letter from hell….