I am now closing in on the publication of The Baby Werewolf, a novel whose story began with a nightmare in 1978. It was a dream I had about being a monster. I woke up in a cold sweat and realized, to my complete horror, that I had been repressing the memory of being sexually assaulted for twelve years, the thing that almost brought me to suicide in 1973 and that I couldn’t put into words when I talked to counselors and ministers and friends who tried to keep me alive without even knowing that that was what the dark black words were about.
I don’t normally write horror stories. Yes, it is true, a character of some sort dies at the end of practically every novel I have ever written, but those are comedies. I am sort of the anti-Shakespeare in that sense. The Bard wrote comedies that ended with weddings and tragedies that end in death. So, since my comedies all seem to end in death, I guess if I ever write a tragedy, it will have to end with a wedding.
But writing this horror story is no joke for me, though I admit to using humor in it liberally. It is a necessary act of confession and redemption for me to put all those dark and terrible feelings into words.
The main theme of the story is coming to grips with feeling like you are a monster when it is actually someone else’s fault that you feel that way. Torrie, the main character, is not the real werewolf of the story. He is merely a boy with hypertrichosis, the werewolf-hair disorder. He has been made to feel like a monster because of the psychological and physical abuse heaped upon him by the real werewolf of the story, an unhappy child pornographer and abuser who is enabled by other adults who should know better and who should not be so easily fooled. The basis of the tale is the suffering I myself experienced as a child victim.
It is not easy to write a story like this, draining pain from scars on my own soul to paint a portrait of something that still terrifies me to this day, even though I am more than sixty years old and my abuser is now dead. But as I continue to reread and edit this book, I can’t help but feel like it has been worth the pain and the striving. No one else in the entire world may ever want to read this book, but I am proud of it. It allowed me to put a silver bullet in the heart of a werewolf who has been chasing me for fifty-two years. And that’s how the monster movie in my head is supposed to end, with the monster dead, even though I know the possibility of more monsters in the darkness still exists.
Yes, I read this book. Yes, it scared the poop out of me. Yes, it made me cry. This is a uniquely horrific horror story that is so realistic that you know that it has actually happened in real life somewhere, sometime. Only the names of the characters would be different.
I have a deep abiding respect for Richard Peck as a writer. He earned that with his books A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago. Those books made me laugh so hard it blew chocolate milk out of my nose. And, yes, I was drinking chocolate milk at the time. They are so realistic because the people in those stories are real people. I know those people personally. Of course, they have different names in real life.
But Are You In the House Alone? is a very different book from those other two masterpieces. It tears your heart out and eats your liver because it is a first person narrative in the voice of a high school girl being stalked by a sexual predator. Everything that happens to Gail in the high school, at home, and at the house where she babysits is hyper-real with horror movie levels of attention to detail. I don’t wish to be a spoiler for this well-written book, but the narrator does not die in the book and it definitely does not have a happy ending. For anyone who has the amount of empathy I do, and in many ways becomes the narrator-character by reading, reading a book like this can physically hurt. A teacher like me has lived through horrible things like this happening to students before, it even happened to me as a boy, and it adds the slings and arrows of those things being re-lived as you read.
This is not the only book that has ever done this sort of damage to my heart strings. I remember the pain from the conclusion of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. You root for Little Nell and boo Daniel Quilp. But the bad guy wins. No happy ending can linger in the harp-strings of your memory-feeling song as long as a tragic outcome does. I was there with Scout in that ridiculous costume in the dark when Bob Ewell was attacking her brother Jem in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. That story was filled with wise and laughable things, but the stark horror of that climactic moment nearly wiped all the good feelings away, if not for the heroics of ghostly Boo Radley whose timely intervention brings it all back before the novel ends. It horrifies me to admit it, but I was there, too, in the moment when the boys all turn on Simon on the beach with their sharpened sticks in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. They mistook him for the monster. I still haven’t fully recovered from that reading trauma.
The thing about books that hurt to read which makes it essential that I never try to avoid them, is that they can add more depth and resonance to your soul than any light and fluffy piece ever could. Life is much more like Lord of the Flies than it is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I am sadder but wiser for having read Are You In the House Alone? I am recommending it to other readers like me who don’t so much live to read as they read in order to live. Not because it is easy and good to read, but because it is hard and essential to read. It will hurt you. But it will leave you like it leaves its narrator, damaged, but both alive and purely resolved to carry on.
When I was but a young teacher, unmarried, and using what free time I had to play role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller with students and former students and fatherless boys, I came across a game that really creeped me out. And it was quite popular with the kids who relied on me to fill their Saturday afternoons with adventure. It led me on a journey through the darkness to find a fascination with the gruesome, the macabre, and the monstrous. The Call of Cthulhu game brought me to the doorsteps of Miskatonic University and the perilous portals of the infected fishing village of Innsmouth. It introduced me to the nightmare world of Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
“H. P. Lovecraft, June 1934” by Lucius B. Truesdell
Old H.P. is as fascinating a character as any of the people who inhabit his deeply disturbing horror tales. He was a loner and a “nightbird” but with little social contact in the real world. He lived a reclusive life that included a rather unsuccessful “contract” marriage to an older woman and supporting himself mostly by burning through his modest inheritance. As a writer, he got his start by so irritating pulp fiction publishers with his letters-page rants that he was challenged to write something for a contest article, and won a job as a regular contributor to “Weird Tales” pulp magazine. He was so good that he was offered the editorship of the magazine, but true to form, he turned it down. He resembled most the dreamer characters who accessed the Dreamlands in various ways, but let their mortal lives wither as they explored unknown continents in the Dreamlands and the Mountains of the Moon. He created a detailed mythos in his stories about Cthulhu and Deep Ones and the Elder Gods. He died a pauper, well before his stories received the acclaim they have today.
I have to say that I was so enamored of his stories that I had to read them as fast as I could acquire them from bookstores and libraries all over Texas. My favorites include, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, and At the Mountains of Madness. But reading these stories lost me hour upon hour of sleep, and developed in me a habit of sleeping with the lights on. In Lovecraft’s fiction, sins of your ancestors hang like thunderheads over your life, and we are punished for original sin. A man’s fate can be determined before he is born, and events hurl him along towards his appointed doom. H.P. makes you feel guilty about being alive, and he shakes you to the core with unease about the greater universe we live in, a cold, unfeeling universe that has no love for mankind, and offers no shelter from the horrors of what really goes on beyond the knowing of mortal men.
Loving the stories of H.P. Lovecraft is about deeper things than just loving a good scare. If you are looking for that in a book, read something by Stephen King. H.P. will twist the corners of your soul, and make you think deep thoughts to keep your head above water in deep pools of insanity. I know some of his books belong in yesterday’s post, but we are not talking about happy craziness today. This is the insanity of catharsis and redemption.