The writer’s most dreaded question is “Where do you get your ideas?” The answer, of course, is everywhere, but people hate this answer. They want to believe there’s a very specific mechanism to idea generating, one that they can learn. But the truth of the matter is, if you have to ask where ideas come from, you'll never understand any answer, not fully.
Popular media often portrays horror writers drawing on one traumatic experience in their past for their fiction. When Stephen King was a child, one of his friends was killed by a train. Supposedly he witnessed the event, but he has no memory of it. Over the years, a lot of armchair psychologists have suggested this one event led Stephen King to write horror, but even if it did affect his creative life, it’s far too reductive to ascribe his prodigious output to one event in his life, no matter how tragic.
Still, there are times when writers can point to certain events as being pivotal in their development as both a person and an artist, and two such events happened to me in 1973, when I was nine years old. My Great Uncle Red (whose real name was Lawrence, but he hated being called that) died unexpectedly of a heart attack in February of that year. Uncle Red was like a second father to me, and I often spent weekends at his house, along with Aunt Becky and Great-Grandma Mast (Becky’s mother). He was the first close family member of mine who died, and the event was a highly traumatic one for me. Then in the summer of that year, my family went on a week-long vacation at Rocky Fork Lake in Ohio. We had a small camper we stayed in, and during the week, I met a kid who was collecting cans to recycle for 5 cents apiece. I’d never heard of recycling before (this was 1973), so I decided to help him. My parents had told me that I could wander around the area anywhere I wanted (like, I said – 1973) but I was forbidden to go near the lake since I couldn’t swim. Of course, Recycling Boy wanted to look for cans by the lake, and since I didn’t want him to know I couldn’t swim, I said nothing and went with him. We walked out onto the boat dock, and as I was looking down into the water, he pushed me in as a joke. I, of course, was terrified and I panicked, thrashing in the water, going down, coming back up, convinced I was going to drown. Back then, it was common folk knowledge that if you went down for the third time, you would never come back up. It’s not true, but I believed it then, and I was going down for the third time when the kid grabbed my hand and pulled me onto the dock. As we were leaving the lake – me sopping wet and reeking of lake water – he said, “I’ve never been a hero before,” and all I wanted to do was smack the little bastard in the face since he was the one who’d pushed me into the water. But I said nothing because I knew what happened was my own damn fault for not listening to what my parents told me.
These two events – Uncle Red’s death and my near-death – sent me into a two-year existential depression, and when I came out of it (as much as I ever did) I was a different person. I’d been a monster kid all my life, loved every horror movie and comic I could get my hands on, but I understood then that pain and sorrow were part of horror too, and it changed my relationship to the genre forever.
I’ve drawn on my near-drowning in my fiction, whether directly or indirectly, many times over the years. Here’s a list:
· “Blackwater Dreams.” Bruce Coville’s Book of Nightmares 2. Scholastic Books, 1997.
· “Till Voices Drown Us.” Apprentice Fantastic, DAW Books, 2002.
· “Waters Dark and Deep.” Masques V. Gauntlet Press, 2006.
· “Swimming Lessons.” Delirium Books website, 2006.
· “Surface Tension.” Queen Anne’s Resurrection. Dec. 2011.
· “Lover, Come Back to Me.” Tales from the Lake. Crystal Lake Publishing, 2014.
· “The Nature of Water.” Children of Gla’aki. Dark Regions, 2016.
· “Fathomless Tides.” The Beauty of Death. Independent Legions Publishing, 2016.
· “Every Beast of the Earth.” The Beauty of Death 2 – Death by Water. Independent
· Legions Publishing, 2017.
“Deep Like the River.” Dark Regions, 2014.
The opening chapter of We Will Rise. Flame Tree Press, 2022.
A drowning incident is a major plot element in my currently unpublished psychological thriller novel Pretty Like Butterflies.
In 2018, I collected a number of my water stories for the collection A Little Aqua Book of Marine Stories, which came out from Borderlands Press. Here’s the introduction:
Introduction: Water, Water, Everywhere
I don’t believe in astrology, but my sign is Pisces – the fish – and I’ve felt a psychological connection to water all my life. I love water.
And it terrifies me.
When I was nine, I almost drowned. This happened not long after my first experience with death, when my Uncle Red died unexpectedly of a heart attack. These two events were a double punch to my psyche, a pair a blows that in some ways I’ve never quite recovered from.
When I was eleven, Jaws came out. I was a monster kid who read horror comics and watched scary movies on Shock Theater every weekend. The previews for Jaws made it seem like it would be a fantastic monster movie, so I begged my dad to take me. I had never seen a movie like that before – so suspenseful and intense – and while I loved it, I was also traumatized on some level. The idea that a monstrous, ravenous thing could be concealed beneath the placid surface of the ocean and burst forth to attack at any moment was terrifying. Just like how Death lurks behind the surface of everyday life, ready to claim us when we least expect it. Just as it had claimed my uncle two years earlier.
Water stirs imagination. It can take any shape, and anything can be concealed in its depths. Horrors, treasures, or things which are a bit of both. I return to the water time and again in my fiction. I find it an unlimited well of inspiration for tales of horror and dark fantasy. The surface of the water is like a border between our world – the world of sunlight and air – and a hidden world of shadow and unseen creatures, a hostile environment in which we cannot survive, and which we can only experience in short glimpses for as long as we can hold our breath. To me, this is the essence of existential horror. People swimming, boating, fishing, enjoying their lives on the surface of a great mystery, trying their best not to think about what might wait for them below.
I never learned to swim, not very well anyway, and I hate putting my head under water. I can’t stand the feel of water on my face, the sound it makes in my ears . . . Because of this, I made sure my two daughters had swimming lessons from the time they were toddlers, and now they both swim like fishes.
In the stories that follow, you’ll see echoes – or perhaps a better word would be ripples – of my experiences with water. You know what they say: writing is the cheapest form of therapy.
So turn the page and dive in. The you-know-what is fine.
Opening Scene of “Waters Dark and Deep”
For this scene, I drew heavily on my own experience of nearly drowning.
Water roaring in her ears, pushing heavy against her ear drums. Hands clawing for purchase, feet kicking, trying to find something, anything solid to stand on, but there’s nothing – nothing but water. She opens her mouth to scream, takes a deep breath first, but instead of filling her lungs with air, liquid rushes down her throat and a shower of bubbles bursts from her mouth. Her lungs feel full and heavy, as if they’re filled with concrete and it’s weighing her down, down, down . . .
My camera! she thinks. I can’t lose my camera! Mom and Dad will kill me!
She looks up, sees a scattered diffusion of light somewhere above her – five feet? Five hundred? There’s no real difference at this point. There’s a whole world of air up there, if only she could reach it. If only she was wearing a life jacket, if only she had learned how to swim . . .
A small shape slides toward her through the gray murk: sleek, scaled and streamlined. It’s a fish of some sort. Daddy would know what kind, but she doesn’t. It turns as it nears her face, displaying its flank, a cold black eye looking at her with supreme indifference as it passes, and then it’s gone, returned once more to the darkness it came from, and she’s still going down, down, down . . .
I don’t recall seeing a fish when I almost drowned, but I had just gotten glasses, and I was worried that I would lose them in the lake and my parents would be angry with me. I changed that to a camera for this story.
I try to be careful about revisiting my near-drowning in my fiction, but sometimes I can’t help it. When that happens, I go with the flow (get it?) and let the story come out however it wants to.
Last year, I realized that 2023 would be the 50th anniversary of my near-drowning. In all that time, I had never returned to Rocky Fork, didn’t even have a clear idea where it was located. I thought it might be a cool idea to go back there, to reconnect to a pivotal time in my life – at an age when I’m much more aware my own mortality – and as a giant fuck you to the lake that tried to take my life but failed. (Or did it? Maybe I’m a water-logged corpse typing this right now.)
Yesterday, my wife Christine Avery, and my little dachshund Bailey, accompanied me on my pilgrimage to Rocky Fork. I don’t remember the exact date I almost drowned, but it was in summer, and I figured the end of June was close enough.
So what was it like?
Weird, of course, but strangely peaceful in a way, too. When I got home, my daughter Leigh asked if I’d been scared. I told her, “Not really.” And it was true, I wasn’t. What I felt was something deeper than fear, something beyond fear, something I don’t have a name for.
More of this later.
Rocky Fork is located about an hour east from where I live in Ohio, in the midst of farmland, woods, and old, decaying small towns. Christine didn’t grow up in the state, but as we drove, she said, “Now I understand why so many horror stories are set in Ohio.” I couldn’t remember which specific part of the lake I almost drowned at, but since it had boat docks, we first headed for an area called Fisherman’s Wharf. The day was cool and overcast, and felt more like September than late June. It seemed like a perfect atmosphere for the kind of adventure we were on.
When we got to Fisherman’s Wharf, it didn’t look familiar to me, nor did it resemble the scene I’d painted in a number of my stories over the years. The shape of the far shore did seem kind of familiar, and Christine and I wondered if the area had simply changed a lot in the intervening years. Because my family had stayed at the campgrounds all those years ago, Christine thought we should try there next. We drove to the area, and as soon as we were there, I recognized it. The Welcome Center was in the same spot I remembered it (although the building was light brown and I remember it as white), and the boat docks were there, looking exactly as they had fifty years ago. Even the few rental pontoon boats moored there looked much the same. In one way, the area looked smaller than I remembered, but in another way it looked much larger. For fifty years I’d imagined the scene up close, without thinking about how far out the lake went, the trees on the far shore, the expanse of sky above. We walked onto the dock and I led Christine to the decking (the part that sticks out from the main dock which boats are tied to) where it seemed to me I fell from. If it wasn’t the exact spot, it was close. I’d forgotten this was a floating dock, and when I stepped off the ramp onto the decking, I was startled when it moved beneath me. I’m a lot heavier now than I was at nine, so maybe the decking didn’t move much back then. Or maybe that detail was lost to my memory, driven out by the experience of falling into the water. The unsteadiness of the decking made me a bit nervous, and I thought it would be ironic if I lost my balance and fell into the water on my first visit here in fifty years. (I wasn’t worried about drowning, though. I can swim a little now, and Christine used to be a competitive swimmer who at one point was being scouted for the Olympics, so I knew I was safe.)
I walked to the end of the decking and looked out over the lake. I turned to my right because that’s the side I was standing on when Recycling Boy pushed me in. I had been looking to see if I could spot any fish. I had once done the exact same thing at a lake in Michigan when I was four, but I fell in all by myself then. I was wearing a lifejacket, though, and just bobbed in the water until my dad came to get me. I touched the lake water to reconnect with it, and I flipped it off as a “Fuck you, I survived for fifty more years after you tried to take me!” gesture. I had Christine take pictures so I could post them with this essay. That was a huge difference from when I was nine. Back then, we didn’t think about recording every moment of our lives or purposely staging them for the Internet.
Christine and Bailey came out onto the decking with me, and we hung out for a while. Then we left and visited the nearby campground store. Christine got a refrigerator magnet. I got a coffee. I would’ve got something to remind me of almost drowning there, but – unsurprisingly – they sold nothing like that, not even a I ALMOST DIED AT ROCKY FORK T-shirt.
Earlier I said I wasn’t afraid but I felt something beyond fear revisiting the place of my near-death experience. I don’t know how long I’ll live, but I know I’m a hell of a lot closer to my end than I am to my beginning. The lake was my bete noire for so many years, but it cannot begin to compare to Time and my own aging body. That feeling was, in an odd way, peaceful and came with a sense of rightness, as if this was how things should be. My making peace with the natural cycle of life? Or my rationalizing my own forthcoming end because there’s not a goddamned thing I can do about it? Maybe both.
I told Christine that the spot where I almost drowned might be a good place to scatter my ashes once I’m gone. Kind of a way of fulfilling what the lake tried to do five decades ago, and maybe a way of thanking it for letting me go. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I write a story about a middle-aged man revisiting the lake where he almost drowned as a child. I don’t know what supernatural/surreal element I’ll add, but I’ll come up with something. I always do.
I learned one other thing during my trip to Rocky Fork. I have a new answer to the question “Where do you get your ideas?" I don’t get them anywhere. I am my ideas.
If 1973 was the first time I went down in the water, and 2023 was (at least metaphorically) the second time, what will the third time be and when will it happen? I don’t know, but I plan to tread water as long as I can – and to keep writing about it.
I had no idea Christine took this picture of me touching the water.
Rocky Fork magnet
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
A Hunter Called Night
A Hunter Called Night was released earlier this month in trade paperback and ebook formats.
If you’d like a preview of the book, you can listen to me read the first chapter here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlxK0PANa2g&t=1s
A sinister being called Night and her panther-like Harriers stalk their quarry, a man known only as Arron. Arron seeks refuge within an office building, a place Night cannot go, for it’s part of the civilized world, and she’s a creature of the Wild. To flush Arron out, she creates Blight, a reality-warping field that slowly transforms the building and its occupants in horrible and deadly ways. But unknown to Night, while she waits for the Blight to do its work, a group of survivors from a previous attempt to capture Arron are coming for her. The hunter is now the hunted.
Barnes and Noble Paperback: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/a-hunter-called-night-tim-waggoner/1142487192?ean=9781787586314
Lord of the Feast
My next novel for Flame Tree, Lord of the Feast, won’t be out until April 2024, but the paperback is available for preorder. (The ebook edition should be available to preorder soon.) No cover art to share yet.
Twenty years ago, a cult attempted to create their own god: The Lord of the Feast. The god was a horrible, misbegotten thing, however, and the cultists killed the creature before it could come into its full power. The cultists trapped the pieces of their god inside mystic nightstones then went their separate ways. Now Kate, one of the cultists’ children, seeks out her long-lost relatives, hoping to learn the truth of what really happened on that fateful night. Unknown to Kate, her cousin Ethan is following her, hoping she’ll lead him to the nightstones so that he might resurrect the Lord of the Feast – and this time, Ethan plans to do the job right.
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