Every story has a genesis. Mine usually come from the world around me. Every good writer is a thief and I steal everything. I pinch from the lives of friends as well as my own. The news is always a great source of inspiration. Even other stories can spark a story. It’s the ideas I go for. They’re just the perfect thing to create a story. So for DRAGGED INTO DARKNESS, here are some of the stories behind the stories.
Sitting up late one New Year’s Day watching Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY, I caught a particular episode about a plane in trouble. It was obvious from what was said that the writer didn’t research his subject too well. The story has the character call out a runway number that doesn’t exist in aviation, but the mistake prompted me to consider “what if.” This story was also a chance to exorcise a personal demon.
When I was flying student, I was returning to the landing strip after a mandated solo flight. As I was turning to make a final approach, another pilot radioed in to land. Unfortunately, he misread his location and we were on a collision course. Our two planes were within seconds of a mid-air collision when I spotted his plane descending on top of me. I made an evasive maneuver and when I’d recovered from that, I realized I’d lost my bearings. To compound matters, low clouds swept in and air traffic control and I lost sight of each other. The airport couldn’t switch on its lights because they were undergoing maintenance. I flew around for nearly an hour trying to find my way back, but with no luck. Panic really had a grip on me and I actually considered crashing the plane just so the ordeal would be over.
Luckily, a passing helicopter spotted me and he had the advantage of seeing both the airfield and me. He talked me down and the airfield cleared the runway for an emergency landing. I made a perfect landing in front of a row of fire tenders just in case things didn’t go well.
A lot of this real life experience became the heart of Neal’s plight in Runway Three-Seven. The emotional force this tale carries is what I felt and I hope you feel it too.
This was first story idea I ever thought of, long before I even thought about writing. It was during one those perfect summer days and I thought to myself, what if I was a total sun worshiper but was denied that pleasure? A story immediately popped into my head with the dilemma of what a sun lover would do if they were cursed to become a vampire.
The story has become one of my most popular, having been published four times. A lot of people ask about The Whistler character and if he will make a return. I don’t know myself, but I hope so, mainly because he was based on a real life person. In the late 80’s, psychiatric patients were being “released into the community.” My hometown was graced with the presence of several such characters, but one guy really stood out. I’d come out of a movie theater one night and I was walking back to my flat. Other moviegoers peopled the street, but one guy stood out. He stood over six feet tall with trousers that didn’t meet his socks, a raggedy Nike sweatshirt and bowl haircut. He didn’t walk; he strode and cut a swath through the crowd. He was some two hundred feet behind me when he started to whistle. I didn’t recognize the aria, but it was operatic. This guy was pitch perfect and possessed the power to project his music like he had a microphone. His ability was stunning to the extent that he stopped people in their tracks while they took in this amazing giant. I didn’t stop. I kept walking and walking fast, because for all the music’s beauty, there was a sinister edge to this man’s whistle. Nothing should have been that perfect. As I hurried, I felt him and his music close in on me. His music, which seemed to be right behind me now, enveloped me and I feared how long it would be before the Whistler got to me too. He caught me up. The intensity of his whistle hurt my ears. I couldn’t deny how much I feared this man and my fear was repeated on the faces of the people coming in the opposite direction. The Whistler overtook me, never once acknowledging my existence. A sense of relief flooded over me. As he left me behind, I felt safe again. I came across the Whistler on several other occasions, but I never heard him whistle again—and I hope I never do.
At the 2004 World Horror Convention, I was on a panel about fears. I stated that I feared just about everything. I get nervous in a Starbucks because there are too many choices and the line of people waiting for me make a decision looks ugly. Ladies’ restrooms also make me nervous. Don’t ask why I have visited a ladies’ restroom in the first place. Let’s just move on. There’s something forbidden about a ladies’ restroom, for men leastways. These places aren’t for men, so if one ventures inside, then there should be consequences. What triggered this desire to write about this forbidden place was an incident a few years back when I was leaving a movie theater and I spotted the janitor leaving the ladies’ restroom and he seemed fine with being there. At the time, I was unemployed and the jobs I was willing to undertake didn’t rule out working in places that scared me. Hence a voyage of discovery awaits my hero in “The Ladies’ Room.”
This is a pretty short story, but it’s becoming a crowd favorite at readings. It’s a pretty shocking tale about a woman who can’t throw anything away. What makes this story that much more shocking is that Charlene Casey’s obsessive compulsive disorder isn’t fiction but a fact and so much so that it’s in a category all of its own. Hoarding is a disease. There are people who can’t bear to throw anything away and what seems over the top in the story is drawn from several case histories. It just goes to show the lengths that we can go to. I hope this story is a warning to us all.
The story is seen through the eyes of Dr. Birnbaum, who has made three appearances in my stories. I hope to produce a collection featuring Dr. B’s stranger cases. There are a lot of phobias out there and if one person is equipped to deal with them, it’s him.
“Hungry For More”
This tale is one of my few gross-out pieces and came from one of those daft backhand remarks I sometimes make. Eating in America is an experience. The amount of food and sheer size is intimidating to a small Englishman like myself, so my early experiences ordering food in diners and restaurants usually resulted in the sweats. Diner menus have a habit of showing pictures of food rather than descriptions and what looks big pictorially is usually even bigger in the charbroiled flesh. It’s not uncommon that I’ll receive a burger that I can’t get my mouth around, so my backhand comment was along the lines of, “How do you people eat these things?” The rest is disgusting history.
“In The Eye Of The Beholder”
I find phobias fascinating in a train wreck kind of way. It’s hard to turn away from one person’s inability to deal with a certain aspect of their environment. My fascination with hoarding came out in “The Hoarder.” With “In The Eye of the Beholder,” I was drawn to an article on Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). Basically, this is a where a person has a severe distaste for their bodily appearance. They go beyond thinking their butt is too big. In extreme cases, people feel their body is unbalanced and amputation is the only way to even things up. At the time, a story had made the news about a man who’d instructed a doctor to remove a leg because he could no longer live with his scarred leg after a bike accident. The actual scarring wasn’t that bad. I found the surgeon’s comments engrossing. He risked his medical license because he totally empathized with the man’s plight. With this story, I wanted to deal with perfection and imperfection. When I was thinking about where to set this story, there could be only one place—Hollywood.
This is probably my most popular short story. It’s been reprinted a number of times since it originally appeared in the paperback. I think the true nature of this story has an affect on people.
In June ’98, I was in Thailand and I visited a British war grave about a mile from the Bridge on the River Kwai. One of the people I was traveling with was an Australian girl. After we left the grave, she told me about her grandfather. He was a World War II veteran and never talked about the war—except once, when he was drunk. He’d explained to her and her family how he’d been one of the men that was charged with the task of picking up the bodies of fallen soldiers after the battles. I was riveted to her every word, which is astounding, considering she was giving the account second hand.
I wasn’t writing at the time, but her story stuck with me. Some years later, Horrorfind ran a war-themed contest and I wanted to use this traumatic event somehow. Unfortunately, I had a first half for this tale but not a second and it was another year before I came up with Clelland’s bargain with Oracle. The bargain creates a powerful dynamic. The story’s format takes on one of “effect and cause”—the effect being the bodies on the beach and cause being Oracle’s need for food. If the Bucket Boys’ task wasn’t distressing enough, the bargain Clelland has made with Oracle makes what the Bucket Boys do a thousand times worse.
This story started out as an experiment. I and three other writers began a round-robin story. We’d write a section then pass it on to the next person until we had a story. Unfortunately, the team lost momentum and the story fizzled out, but I felt strongly about the piece. I believed there was something to be salvaged and I asked if I could finish it. I added a considerable chunk to the story to complete it then pared it down to produce a contiguous and consistent piece. I think the reason why I wanted to see this story completed was that collaborating with three other writers had forced me to write something that I wouldn’t have normally written. This stretched me and I enjoyed the torture. I find it a very satisfying piece.
“The Shower Curtain”
When Julie and I moved from Sacramento to the Bay Area, we lived in an apartment and the shower curtain in the bathroom was made of a silk-like cloth. The bad thing about it was when you showered and got close to the curtain, it would stick to you and it didn’t matter how warm the shower was, the curtain was always cold, clammy and cloying. Its touch felt like skin flayed only minutes before from its owner. I came to hate having a shower in that bathroom fearing its deathly touch and with this hate came an idea. “The Shower Curtain” was written one evening while my hair was still damp.
After starting with a flying story, the collection also ends with a flying story. My flying experience makes me very susceptible to flying tragedies. One such tragedy that sent me searching for more information was the Alaskan Airlines flight from LA to Seattle, which crashed into the Pacific minutes after take off. The FAA published a transcript from the black box. The reports made by the pilots chilled me. I found it hard not to become emotional. These two men, when faced with certain death, were ice-cool under fire. The plane was coming apart on them and they were still making calculated decisions. Personally, I know I would have lost it. Even when hope had abandoned them and the plane was only seconds from impact, these guys were still professionals and the copilot’s last words still chill me.
He said, “Ah, here we go.”
So when I got the idea for “Faith,” a story about what really keeps planes in the air and our feet on the ground, I decided to honor these men and all pilots who’ve died trying to overcome crashing planes. The dialog between the pilots during the crash scene is directly quoting the Alaskan’s pilots. For me, it makes the piece all that more traumatic.
I hope you like these glimpses behind these stories.