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February 29, 2004

Installment #2: Of Premature Exits, "How Can You Write This Shit?", and To Each His Darkness 

A few things to tidy up before we get on to the heart of matters:

I want to thank everyone who took the time and effort to both sign up for the newsletter and send along thoughts about the initial rant; your comments and support are deeply appreciated. Keep 'em coming.

Now, about the initial rant:

Please stop asking me to identify The Mouth. The folks who were there in the room that night all know to whom I was referring, and by now have undoubtedly informed all concerned parties (though I haven't heard from The Mouth directly, and suspect I won't).

What I will tell you is that The Mouth is not Brian Keene...which seemed to shock a great number of you. (What that says about Brian's standing as Horror's Happy Social Butterfly, I cringe to think.)

That out of the way, you need to understand that this installment is going to be a bit more serious and downbeat than I'd initially planned, concerning itself in part with depression and suicide. (The column on fuzzy bunnies will have to wait until Easter, I'm afraid.) Because of the content of this column, I'm also going to forego the writing tips and recommended reads this time. You'll understand why.

About a month ago, we lost 2 wonderful writers in the space of mere days: Jack Cady and William Relling, Jr. Jack Cady died of cancer at the age of 71; Bill Relling was a suicide at age 50. To lose any writer of these men's quality is a tragedy at any age; to lose one to a death at his own hands makes the tragedy only more hurtful.

I met Bill Relling a couple of times at conventions -- mostly back in the 1980s when he was riding the "horror boom" with excellent novels like Brujo and Silent Moon. He and I once spent a terrific forty-five minutes sitting in a hotel bar talking about the work of one of our mutual writing gods, William Goldman. I found him to be an upbeat, intelligent, thoughtful, instantly likable man who treated me like I was an old friend. That someone whose writing I so admired treated me, a newcomer, like one of his comrades-in-arms, made my day.

I'm not going to pretend that he and I were friends, because I hardly knew the man, save for our appearing together in some anthologies and, of course, his wonderful novels. But in the hours and days immediately following his death, there was much discussion on certain boards concerning the reasons why -- and this of course sparked controversy, especially when other writers who were his friends, who did know him well, and who had spoken with him as little as five days before his suicide, chimed in to try and say a few words about their fallen comrade. These fellow writers were in a great deal of pain, and trying hard not to let too much of it come through. They, like everyone else, couldn't figure out why he'd done it.

Then -- as more and more details about his suicide began to emerge -- these questions of "Why?" raised by everyone (both those who knew him and those who didn't) started turning into "How could he?" And, finally,at a message board that I will no longer frequent (not the Shocklines Board), one especially sensitive person, upon finding out that Relling left behind a family, made the followinmg statement: "Well, I sure as hell won't be reading him anytime soon. I refuse to spend my money on books written by some coward who'd do that to his wife and children."

There is so much arrogant ignorance in that statement that I won't even bother commenting on it, save for this: That statement was not the only time the "cowardice" of suicide was brought up during the days immediately following Relling's death.

We're going to wander off the main highway here for a moment, so stay close.

"How can you write this shit? I mean, doesn't it ever bother you to write about horror all the time?"

That question was put to me recently, and after I recovered from my surprise (I was expecting the traditional "Where do you get your ideas?"), I realized that I had no ready answer.

It seems like a simple enough question at first glance, but if you think about and examine it closer, you might find some disturbing implications. I know I did.

One possible answer might be, "Yeah, sure, it bothers me sometimes. I wish it were in me to write something more humorous and genteel, something like The Wind and The Willows or Sense and Sensibility or the Dortmunder novels of Donald Westlake, things that would appeal to a wider audience and not clear the room of humans every time I announce what I do for a living, but I can't; my particular point of view won't allow me."

That's one answer.

God, if only it were that easy.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the purpose of all good horror fiction (aside from its holy duty to entertain) is to explore the relationship between violence and grief while trying to reconcile the existence of those things with the concept of a Just universe, and to do so in a manner that will disturb the reader in such a way that maybe they'll come away from the story or novel a little more able to deal with the suffering and injustice that exist in the real world.

That horror fiction deals with subjects of a dark and unpleasant nature is a given; so too is it a given that the writerof horror fiction spends a decent portion of their waking (and sometimes sleeping) hours thinking about and exploring these self-same dark and unpleasant things in order to strengthen and enrich their fiction. The horror writer has to accept that darkness, pessimism, anger, violence, loneliness, grief (and all the other more unpleasant aspects of life that no one else wants to talk about) will always be a part of their daily thought processes, and therefore, to an extent, their own personality. This eventually becomes something of a necessity, because any combination of those darknesses has to be available to them at a moment's notice when the story or novel demands they make an appearence.

The result (and I'm basing all of this on my own personal experiences) is that all of these darknesses exist a bit closer to the surface than they do with most folks. In order to make their fiction as rich as it can be, in order to ensure that the bigger-than-life events they portray on the page are still very much in touch with life, to some degree or another, the horror writer has to make these darknesses a permanent part of their psychological make-up.

Admittedly, that's probably an oversimplification, but I think you get the point.

That's one implication of the question "Why do you write this shit?"

Here's another: Is it possible that the horror writer can end up disturbing him/herself just as much, if not more, than the reader?

Think about it: If something gets too ugly or too intense or too real, the reader has the luxury of putting down the book and returning to the story at a later time, when they've had the chance to rally.

The horror writer has no such luxury. Sure, we might stop the physical act of writing for the day, but the thoughts and emotions of the work are still there, churning around inside our teeny skulls in an effort to shape themselves into something worthwhile.

That led me to the following question: Can writing horror fiction have an adverse effect on your life? Can it eventually begin to poison you?

Hell, yes.

But it can also enable you to produce powerful fiction, if it doesn't kill you.

Sometimes, it doesn't work out for the best.

I would not puport to speak for the friends and family of Bill Relling, but as a horror writer who has struggled with depression since he was in high school, and who has thrice during his forty-three years on this earth attempted to keep an appointment in Sumarra, I would like to say a few words about the so-called "cowardice" of suicide.

Take it at face value: most of you (thank God) will never know what it's like to reach a point in your life when it feels like all you're doing is breathing air and taking up space, and even that hurts so goddamn much it's all you can do to lift your head off the pillow in the morning. I doesn't matter if you've got a successful career, money in the bank, people who love you; it doesn't matter that, everywhere you look, there's irrefutable evidence of your life's worth -- a loving wife, kids who worship and respect you, life-long friends who've seen you through thick and thin, even readers who admire your work and flock to conventions in the hopes of getting your signature -- none of it means squat, even though you know it should mean the world, because all you know, all you feel, all you can think about is the gnawing, constant, insatiable ache that's taken up residence in the area where your heart used to be, and with every breath, every action, every thought and smile and kiss and laugh -- things that should make this ache go away -- you begin to lose even the most elementary sense of self, and the floodgates are opened wide for a torrent of memories, regrets, sadnesses, and fears that no drugs, no booze, no loving embraces or tender kisses or hands holding your own in the night can protect you from. You become the ache, and despite all your efforts to do something to make it better, eventually the ache circumscribes your entire universe, and it never goes away, and you feel useless, worthless, a black hole, a drain and burden on everyone and everything around you and try as you might you can't see any way out of it except...


And if you're a horror writer, the darknesses that come out of these floodgates can be crippling. I know what I'm saying here; I've been there, and hope I'll never have to face down that kind of darkness again.

When you reach the point of "except", there's isn't a question of cowardice; cowardice doesn't even enter the equation; to be in that kind of pain where only Death offers relief, and then choose to end your life...if this offends you, I'm sorry, but that takes the darkest form of courage there is.

I'm not defending Bill Relling's actions; I did not know the man. I have no idea how this has affected his family or his friends. What I do know is that I have been in that place he found himself that day he closed up the garage and started the car's engine, and insomuch as I can do while respecting the feelings of his friends and family, I wish him peace from whatever darknesses followed him not-so-gently into that good night.

As to those folks out there who did not know Bill Relling and are still asking their questions, offering their theories, or scattering about moral declarations like handfuls of rice at a wedding, I've got your answer: It's none of our damned business. The man is dead and no longer has any use for our uninformed theorizing. Be thankful that we who did not know him have the wonderful books and stories he left behind for us. If ever I do some day keep one of those appointments in Sumarra, my sincere hope is that people will remember me for being a writer who tried to make his fiction both entertaining and emotionally substantial.

For those of us who didn't know him, I'll bet -- or, rather, I hope Bill Relling feels the same way.

Rest in Peace, William Relling, Jr.; you were one of the good guys, and I'm grateful for the brief time I spent with you, and for the marvelous work you leave behind.

For the rest of us...to each his darkness, in his own way, in his own time.

Stay tuned....



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