Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Think Before You Slice

Dear Sir or Madam,

I don't own a computer, and wouldn't know how to use one if I did, so I hope this letter reaches you. My name is ______, and after a great deal of worrying and praying over a moral dilemma, I'm writing to ask for your help. I'm facing some very serious surgeries, so in preparation for the hospital, I went to the store to buy new slippers, a robe, and a nightgown, and got a few paperback books to help pass the time and take my mind off my pain and fears. The store is small and hard for me to manuever in my wheelchair, so I didn't really examine the books -- a crossword puzzle book, a comedy, and a spooky one. The spooky one says on the cover, "The best novel of the year. I can't recommend this novel highly enough." It's called Pandora Drive by Tim Waggoner, and is supposed to be about a young woman with psychic abilities, but it's not really about her at all, and that's why I'm asking for your help. It was on a revolving rack right next to a Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys books. I had no idea that it was so vile. The author's photo is on the inside, on the back cover with some information. He is a teacher at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, and there is something I sense from what he has written in this book that is so evil and so perverse and dangerous, that I am greatly concerned over the safety of his students, and everyone he may be in contact with. If you can obtain a copy of this book and read it, you'll understand what I'm trying to explain. It's not fair to judge someone by the way they look, but a person who can conceive of such evil thoughts, and expose impressionable students to them, might be a predator, a pedophile, and even worse. I don't want to accuse an innocent person, but he may act on his thoughts and not be so innocent, and someone who is truly innocent may pay the price with their lives. Please, could you run a background check or whatever you can do, to find out if this man is dangerous to others? With all my heart, I hope and pray that what I feel about this man is wrong -- that he just has a "warped" imagination -- but if he's harmed someone, or will in the future, perhaps you can help, you can stop him before something truly terrible happens. He's too sure of himself, he can write such vile things and get away with it, no one will check, after all -- he's a teacher -- and that's a position of respect (or it used to be.)

Maybe it's intuition, or fear, I don't know how to explain what I feel when I look at the man's picture, but it's upset me so much that I'm asking you, begging you, to please check into this matter. I apologize to you, and to him, if I've misjudged him, and pray for you (and his) forgiveness if I have, but if I'm right, maybe someone will be saved. Thank you for reading my letter, and for your time and help. May God bless you and your good work, and protect you and all those you love.

The above letter was sent to the Dayton Police Department in December, 2009. They forwarded it to Sinclair Community College, where it ended up on the desk of my division dean at the time. The dean has a doctorate in theatre arts, and she well understands the difference between art and the artist and wasn't unduly concerned. She told my chair about the letter, who in turn informed me. My first reaction was to laugh. Me? A danger to anyone? Why, as Norman's mother said, I wouldn't harm a fly. But seriously, I've never even been in a fight, never thrown a punch, not even to defend myself. I don't know if I'm even capable of violence. Yeah, I could be mean to my siblings when I was a kid (though my sister was much meaner and tougher than I was, and I'm still scared of her to this day), and there were times when my ex-wife and I were fighting that I yelled, and once I threw a TV remote against the wall and broke it. Once. And I still feel shame about that. As for being a pedophile, I have two daughters and four nephews (and now a new grand-nephew). The thought of anyone harming a child makes me ill. And corrupting the minds of my students? Most of them don't read for fun, and most of those that do don't read horror. And for those who do read horror . . . well, they often dig my stuff. Warped minds think alike, I suppose.

And when I finally had the chance to read the letter itself, I got another laugh when I saw this line: "There is something I sense from what he has written in this book that is so evil and so perverse and dangerous, that I am greatly concerned over the safety of his students, and everyone he may be in contact with." I mean, can you imagine a better blurb for a horror writer?

And the part of me that's a cynical salesman regrets that the media didn't get hold of this story and blow it up into a huge money-generating scandal for me.

When I was a younger writer, I might have viewed this letter as a badge of honor. After all, one of the goals of horor writing is to make readers uncomfortable, to provoke, unsettle, and disturb. As John Trent says in John Carpenter's brilliant film In the Mouth of Madness: "People pay money to feel like that? It's cute. Put it in the press kit." But this was an instance where someone reading my fiction was unsettled to the point of believing there was an actual threat in the real world. Kind of like a small-scale version of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast. My words had such an impact on this woman that the line between fantasy and reality blurred for her -- which is precisely what happens in Pandora Drive. So without realizing it, she had participated in a wonderfully bizarre metafictional experience -- and had brought the Dayton police and my college's adminstration in as well. (The best metafictional reading experience I ever had was when I read Joseph Heller's Catch 22, and the paperback slowly fell apart in my hands as I read it. Let's see e-books try to recreate that experience!)

But I'm an older writer now, just as prone to overthink things as ever, but perhaps a bit more thoughtful and less self-centered when I do so. The worst thing artists can experience is indifference to their work. As Oscar Wilde said, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about." The woman who wrote about Pandora Drive was definitely not indifferent to the book, and it certainly had an impact on her, although not perhaps the one I'd hoped for when I wrote it. I wrote the novel for horror fans and fans of bizarro fiction. (Don't know what the latter is? Google Bizarro Central.) I wanted to include every type of horror I could think of -- quiet, loud, surreal, erotic, psychological, supernatural -- and I wanted to include echoes of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. I also wanted to include a tribute to the wonderful Richard Laymon, by including a Laymon-esque character whose repressed sexual desires were suddenly brought to dangerous life by my protagonist's ability to manifest others' fantasies. And -- this is the last thing I'll mention, I promise -- I wanted to experiment with providing a false climax (no jokes, please), including what appeared to be a final conflict scene, only to have the story take off in a different direction afterward. (I firmly believe horror fiction shouldn't be safe, and that goes for narrative techniques authors use as well.)

Remember how I said I overthink things? Point proven, I trust.

I have artistic goals for everything I write, although I try not to call attention to them in my fiction. I want my stories to be fun and enjoyable but, if you're interested in delving a little more deeply, there are other levels beyond entertainment to explore and, I hope, appreciate. I don't expect everyone to like everything I create. Much of art appreciation comes down to personal taste. I hate raisins -- they're just the nasty little dried corpses of grapes -- and I refuse to eat the damned things. But while I wonder a bit at the sanity of those who eat raisins, let alone love them, I know raisins are what they are. They never change. Only the people eating them do. But the woman who responded so strongly to Pandora Drive didn't simply dislike horror fiction. She was profoundly, deeply disturbed by my words, ideas, and images. Perhaps even to the point of being traumatized -- and right before she was scheduled for multiple surgeries. I know she's responsible for her own choices as a reader. (Why she kept reading when she found the book was, to put it mildly, not to her taste, I'll never understand.) But I'm also not so naive as to think that my work has no consequences in the real world.

Some writers decry the use of genre labels, obvious genre covers, and genre-identifiable back cover copy, feeling that such things diminish the seriousness with which their work should be taken or begin to shape readers' response to the work before they've even begun to read it. I understand those points, and don't necessarily disagree with them. But we can't have a world like in the wonderfully strange movie Repo Man, where all products are generic, packaged in white with black lettering that says GOOD FOOD, GOOD BEER, etc. Would you want all your novels to be labled GOOD BOOK? (Personally, I'd prefer KICK-ASS BOOK or COMPLETE AND TOTAL MINDFUCK OF A BOOK, but that's just me.) But I don't mind labels and packaging.They let people know whether a work of art may or may not be for them. I tell my daughters they can't read any of my horror until they're at least teenagers, and for some of it, they should probably wait until they're thirty or so (or better yet, just wait until I've joined the choir invisible).

The Letter Woman was hurt by reading my work. Perhaps she hurt herself, but I made the knife she cut herself with, so to speak. And I've made a lot of other knives since then, large and small, some sharper than others. I suppose it's inevitable that when you make knives, someone's eventually going to get cut. But that doesn't mean I like it or that it's always easy to live with.

That woman did me a huge favor. She reminded me that if I'm going to make knives, I need to do so responsibly, always remaining aware that there's a person who will one day grasp the handle, pick it up, and attempt to use it. She reminded me that, as it says in theme to the old cartoon Super Chicken: "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it."

Do I believe in censorship? Of course not. Do I believe in self-restraint when it comes to writing? Only if it helps me tell the best story I can. But that means I also believe in a total lack of restraint if that's what a story requires. Do I always toss in as much sex, violence, weird ideas, and bizarre imagery into my horror fiction as possible? Nope. Do I give my imagination free reign to go where it will while at the same time keeping my readers in mind? You bet. These days, however, I consider my artistic choices -- and their potential impact -- a bit more carefully.

Bottom line: Respect the knife and the eventual wielder of it, but always make the sharpest goddamned blade you can.


Apex Books have released a new edition of my horror novel Like Death. which I wrote before Pandora Drive. (If the Letter Woman had read that book instead of Pandora Drive, she'd probably have sent the FBI, CIA, and every branch of the military after me -- along with the Salvation Army for good measure!) The book is available in both trade paperback and e-book editions, and this weekend Apex is having a Black Friday sale: 25% percent off all their books. So drop by their website and pick up a copy or ten of Like Death. And if, after reading it, you feel inclined to contact the media and report me as a major menace to society, my bank account will thank you for it. Here's the link: http://www.apexbookcompany.com/blogs/blog/4651912-black-friday-sales