Portrait of a Horror Writer
by Tim Waggoner
You stare at the laptop screen, trying to come
up with a good opening line, one that's suggestive without
being obvious; atmospheric without being vague. No It
was a dark and stygian night.
Slow minutes pass, but nothing
comes, and now even dark
and stygian night is starting to look good.
You decide to try beginning
with an image - it's worked for you in the past - so instead
of focusing on words, you now sift through pictures in your
mind, odd snatches of daily life that impressed themselves
upon you over the years: a single bloody sock you found at
the end of your driveway one afternoon (perhaps thrown out
of the window by someone in a passing car?), a purple rubber
dildo attachment for a vibrator you almost ran over with the
mower one spring (though how it got there, and what happened
to the vibrator itself, you haven't a clue), a replica of
an electric chair bolted to the roof of a frat house down
by the university. You
read about it in the paper, clipped out the picture that accompanied
the article and stuck it in your idea folder, though you've
long since lost track of it. It's probably packed away in one of the boxes
stored in the attic after you moved a few months ago, along
with dozens of old computer disks and print-outs containing
the text of far too many stories and novels that will never
be published but which you can't bear to dispose of. Too bad. That folder sure would come in handy today.
You glance at the clock on
the dining room wall behind you (you know better than to set
up your laptop where you can see the clock while you write
- or in this case, try to write). 10:48. It won't be long before your wife and three-year-old
daughter get home from Tuesday morning playgroup. Have you really been sitting here struggling
to get something down since they left at nine? It seems hard to believe, but clocks don't lie.
Wait, maybe they do! There's an idea that just might . . . the initial
rush of enthusiasm is gone before it has a chance to build. Stupid thought, not even worth jotting down
and sticking in the idea folder - that is, if you knew where
the damn folder was to stick anything into.
Maybe another cup of coffee. You lift your hands away from the computer and notice
how they tremble and decide that you've had enough coffee
for now. How about
a walk, then? A little
exercise to get the old creative juices flowing. Besides, you've been meaning to do something about
the spare tire around your middle. No time like the present, right?
You leave the laptop on - it's
not like you're going to be gone that long - get up from the
dining table and walk through the living room, glancing out
the picture window on your way to the hall closet. It's been snowing on and off the last few days, and
the ground is covered by white. Some flakes are drifting down, but the snowfall
is light and will probably taper off to nothing soon. Good. You've
never much liked snow.
You put on boots and your winter
coat (you decide to do without a hat, you hate the way your
hair gets all matted down when you wear one), open the door
and step outside. The air is cold and crisp, and when you inhale
your sinuses throb. You
figure they'll adjust to the temperature soon enough, and
you take your keys out of the pocket of your jeans, lock the
door (this is a safe suburban neighborhood, but still you
never know), put the keys away, turn and start down the terraced
front walk. You shoveled
it off yesterday evening, but enough snow fell during the
night that it's covered again. You know you should probably clear the new
stuff away, but you don't want to put off your writing. Yes, you know that going for a walk is an excuse
for not working, but at least there's a chance you might really
come up with an idea while you're out. If you stop to shovel snow, you won't even have the
illusion that you're still working.
You make your way down the
walk carefully, the corrugated tread of your boots giving
you plenty of traction. Snowflakes
descend lazily around you, and as they fall, you fancy you
hear tiny shrill screams. A flake lands on your cheek, an instant of
cold on your skin and then it starts to melt. You imagine the snowflake isn't really a snowflake,
that it's some small creature that's only masquerading
as snow - one of hundreds, perhaps thousands that are falling
from the sky - and now that it's made contact, it's not melting
but rather seeping into your flesh, entering your bloodstream, riding the surging
tides of your circulatory system toward your heart, or perhaps
You smile. Not bad. You
might be able to work with it.
Feeling vindicated in your
choice to go for a walk, you continue, dozens of tiny screams
echoing in your ears as the "snow" keeps falling. You slip your hands into your coat pockets (you hate
wearing gloves) and step off the curb and into the street. Your house is on the end of a cul-de-sac which borders
a small park - open fields, a half dozen picnic tables, a
swingset and slide. Sometimes in the morning, looking out the window and sipping coffee
as you try to wake up, you see people walking their dogs in
the park. One woman
always brings three small white poodles, sometimes dressed
in matching green and blue sweaters. You hate poodles . . . yappy little things with rheumy
eyes that shiver and squirt pee when they get excited.
No Poodle-Woman today, though. Probably too cold out for her precious darlings. Maybe . . . maybe the poodles are really
the masters, and they're taking their human for a walk? You grimace and shake your head. Been done a billion times. Keep walking, keep thinking.
As you head across the cul-de-sac
toward the park, you glance at the house across the street
- a ranch like yours, with only minor variations in color
and design to mark it as any different - and you see a SALE
PENDING sign. You
stop and look at it, thinking that this is the fifth time
the sign has gone up. Four
times before FOR SALE has been replaced by SALE PENDING, and
four times the latter has come down and the former returned. You don't know the owners well, an old couple whose
kids are grown and long moved away, but you guess that there's
something wrong with their house that's revealed when potential
buyers have an inspection done. Maybe the basement leaks and there's water damage .
. . something like that. Still, these flip-flopping signs seem vaguely sinister. Maybe there's another reason why SALE PENDING never
lasts long. Maybe the owners aren't so much interested in selling their house
as they are in attracting people to come look at it. And once these folks are inside . . .
A sigh escapes your lips, expelled
breath turning to curls of white steam in the frigid air. The idea's nothing but a variation on the "Venus
flytrap" scenario, a story structure so old it was probably
a cliché back when primitive tellers of tales squatted around
campfires and told their stories with grunts and gestures.
In the house, a window curtain
that was held open a few inches is released, and the fabric
falls back into place, concealing whoever - or whatever -
was watching you. You look at the window a moment longer before
shrugging and continuing toward the park. You step off the asphalt of the cul-de-sac, which has been plowed
clean by city workers, and onto the snow-covered field of
the park, snowflakes still drifting down around you, screaming
in their faint, high voices.
The top coating of snow is
hard, and it resists your weight for a second before collapsing
under your boot with a satisfying crunch. Before you the spread of white is unbroken, save for
a single line of tracks left by something with long, thin
toes that end in claw-points. Raccoon, you guess. You don't even bother to imagine what else
might have made the tracks; it's not worth the effort. A line of trees, branches bare save for a dusting
of snow clinging to the topside of the wood, begins a dozen
yards off to your right. You remember how excited your wife was when you first
looked at your house - back when it had a FOR SALE sign in
"It'd be so great living next
to a park. Jenny would
have so much fun - running through the field, swinging, sliding,
exploring the woods . . ."
"It's not that big of a park,"
you said, knowing that it didn't matter what you thought,
that she'd fallen in love with the house and the park and
you were going to buy it. Despite the fact that there were no streetlights
here and no lights in the park, either. Anyone could approach from the dark woods, make their way across
the unlit field and the empty cul-de-sac, up the driveway
(which is illuminated at night, if poorly by a
low-wattage fluorescent bulb), around the back of the house
where the bedroom windows were - where Jenny's
The thought of anyone trying
to get into your daughter's room makes you shudder, but you
don't even consider using it for your story. Unfortunately, it's a news item that's all too common. Besides, some things hit too close to home to write
Coward. That's exactly what you
should be writing about.
"Fuck off," you mutter and
keep walking. You
notice the raccoon tracks veer off toward the woods, and that
their shapes change the closer they come to the treeline,
becoming larger, gaining extra toes and longer claws. Something rustles among the trees, something
big, and do you hear heavy, labored breathing? You're tempted to look more closely, maybe even walk
over to investigate, but why bother? Whatever you'd find probably wouldn't be worth writing
You can see the next street
over from here, which ends in a cul-de-sac just like yours,
and you decide to head for it. No particular reason; it's just someplace to go. You keep crunching across the field, leaving a line
of tracks behind you. You imagine the tracks filling in until the
snow is smooth and unbroken once more, imagine another pair
of tracks appearing next to yours, even though you're alone. The images drift away as easily as they came, no more
substantial or significant than a solitary flake of melting
reach the other side of the park and step over the curb and
onto asphalt. The home before you, while in the same basic
position relative to its cul-de-sac as yours (facing your
house, like a mirror image) is yet another ranch, but it's
smaller than most around here, the brick painted white, the
roof and shutters black. And the front door's open - not wide open, less than
a foot probably, but it strikes you as odd. It's far too cold to leave a door open for any length
of time. You've only been outside for a few minutes, but already your ears
are numb and your nose is running.
It's nothing, you tell yourself, trying
to ignore the crawling sensation on the back of your neck
that has nothing to do with the temperature. Whoever lives there just left the door open
while they bring in groceries from the car, that's all.
car in the driveway, though, and none in front of the house.
crawling sensation is getting worse.
hesitate for a moment, two, and then start walking toward
the house. You tell yourself that you shouldn't be doing
this, that you should call the police and let them check it
out, but you left your cell phone charging on the kitchen
counter. If this were one of your stories . . .
it's not, so you keep going. You don't know who lives here - you haven't been in
the neighborhood that long, and truth to tell, you're not
the most sociable person in the world - and you feel like
an intruder as you start up the driveway. It hasn't been shoveled and your prints are the first
since the snow fell. You
start across the yard toward the open door, and you notice
a set of tracks coming from the next house over. They're clear and crisp, which means they're recent
. . . and they lead up to the front door, but there are none
coming out. Which
means whoever made them is still inside.
Don't be so sinister, you tell yourself. Someone could've just come over for a visit, and after
they went in, the owner didn't shut the door tight and the
wind blew it open. Except
there is no wind. The
air is still (you resist thinking it's dead),
snow drifting slowly, if not silently, down around you.
that you're close to the house, you see that the paint on
the brick and shutters is old and flaking. The curtains are drawn, so you can't see inside, but
you can tell that the glass is coated a dingy yellow. Whoever lives here definitely hasn't earned the Good
Housekeeping seal of approval. You reach the porch, careful not to step on the tracks
that are already there, just in case.
Just in case what? That they might be evidence?
stand there, hesitating, trying to decide what to do next. Do you just pull the door closed and leave? Do you knock and wait to see if someone answers? Do you push the door open a little wider, lean your
head in and call out "Hello? Anyone here? Your door is open!"
you're trying to decide, you hear something. A voice mumbling words you can't make out, and the
shhkkt-shhkkt-shhkkt of scissors cutting. The sounds are coming from somewhere in the house, of course. Where else?
alarm goes off in your hindbrain, telling you Something is
Wrong and that now would be an excellent opportunity to prove
that discretion really is the better part of valor. But your hand reaches for the door knob of its own
accord (you've written about this, people watching as their
bodies do things - walk forward, peer around a corner, grip
a door knob - as if they were no more than puppets and someone
else was working the strings, but this is the first time you've
experienced it). You push the door open, and by Christ if you
don't step inside, just like one of those moronic characters
in cheap-ass horror movies who, as a friend of yours once
put it, exist only to get "slurped by the glop." You've never had any sympathy for those sacrificial
lambs, figuring that anyone who's dumb enough to walk into
the house of horror deserves whatever grisly fate awaits them,
but now you wonder if they (thinking about them as if they
truly existed) are gripped by the same fascination you are,
a compulsion, really, almost hypnotic in its power, to keep
going despite the fact that all your instincts are screaming
(much louder than the snowflakes) to get-the-hell-out-of-here-NOW! But you don't because, even though you know you shouldn't,
like Lot's wife, you have to see.
But you smell first, a stink so thick you could
take a bite out of it. Once
when you were a teenager, you were mowing the field - you
grew up in the country, on six-and-a-half acres, which meant
a lot of mowing every spring and summer - and you ran over
the flattened, yellowed desiccated carcass of a groundhog. You were on a riding mower, and you jammed
your foot on the brake, but not in time. Bits of leathery skin and broken bone shot out the
mower's side, and a truly hellacious stench filled the air,
greasy and rank.
smell is worse.
John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer . . . bodies
buried in the basement, sealed in plastic barrels . . .
You're in the foyer, and a glance to your right
show you the living room. Aside from the curtains, which you now see are nothing
more than tattered gray sheets hung over the window with nails,
the room is bare. No furniture, no carpet . . . even the walls are unpainted. The "curtains" are thin enough to allow some
light in; otherwise, the house is dark.
mumbling is louder now, the shhkkt-shhkkt
of the scissors faster. And
you become aware of a new sound: the soft mewing of cats.
marionette strings tug at your limbs and you continue down
the foyer to a hallway, turn right and walk toward the sounds. The rooms have no doors, and the first two you pass are empty, completely
so save for more curtain-sheets, but the third bedroom (the
master, you guess, from the size) is not. The floor is littered with debris: scattered newspapers,
soiled fast-food wrappers, and empty styrofoam cups. Tiny black shapes skitter among the trash, and you
shudder with revulsion. But the insects are far from the worst. Cats - a dozen at least, maybe more - are gathered
around the still form of a man in a mail carrier uniform. He's lying face-up on the floor, coat open,
his chest and belly covered with wet crimson. There's blood on the floor around him, splattered onto
bits of trash, and the cats are lapping it up eagerly, as
if they're starving.
mail carrier can't be more than thirty, you guess, though
it's hard to say, what with all the blood covering his face
and the cats clustered around and on top of him. You've read numerous stories and novels where a character,
confronted by something awful beyond imagining, loses control
over his bodily functions and warm urine runs down his legs,
soaking his socks and shoes before dribbling onto the floor. You've never used that tired old gag in your
own writing, always figured that it was a cheap way to indicate
overwhelming fear. But
now, even though you don't piss yourself, you understand why
someone in this situation might. Oh, yes you do.
on a simple wooden stool in the middle of the room is a grossly
overweight man wearing only a muscle T-shirt (spattered with
blood, of course) and dingy boxer shorts. On his lap is the mail carrier's bag, and he's holding
a letter with one sticky-wet hand and cutting it in half with
a pair of gore-slick scissors. The two halves of the letter fall to the floor, to
join a pile of other halves.
can make out what the fat man is mumbling now.
the beginning was the Word and the Word was awful and the
Word was wonderful and the Word was death and the Word must
die must stop the Word must cut-cut-cut the Word cut all
the Words. . ."
man suddenly notices you and looks up. He frowns for a moment, clearly puzzled, but then recognition
fills his eyes and he scowls.
aren't you that fellow who just moved in over by the park? The one who makes Words?"
most awful thing about his voice is that it sounds so normal:
no guttural tones or demonic echoes. In a way, this is worse than the empty house, the dead
mail carrier, even the ravenous cats, for the fat man doesn't
sound like a monster . . . he could be any man, in any house, in
anywhere. The sheer horror of this realization (and now the word horror means so much more to you than it
did only a few moments ago, more than just a descriptor in
a market listing or label on the spine of a paperback) breaks
your trance, and you turn and flee the room.
man bellows and you hear the mail bag drop as he stands, hear
thrashing as he kicks his way through the debris, hear the
protesting reeeeee-ows! of cats getting out of the way. Hear the slap-slap-slap of bare feet on uncarpeted
floor, and you know he's coming after you, scissors in hand. Of course he is, you think, an edge of
hysteria to your thought-voice. It wouldn't be much of a story if he didn't.
the hallway and the foyer, through the front door, onto the
porch, leaping over the steps, landing in the snow and almost
slipping, managing to stay on your feet, then running toward
the park. Heart pounding
in your ears, lungs heaving, breath fogging the air like white
smoke. He won't come
after you, you tell yourself, not in his underwear and bare-footed,
not in this cold and not with snow on the ground.
almost make the mistake of slowing down, but then you hear
feet smacking the front porch, hear a bestial growl (which
strikes you as more appropriate, and somehow more comforting,
than his "normal" voice) and you know that the fat man doesn't
give a good goddamn about the cold. You run into the park, tromping across the tracks you
made during your previous crossing, obliterating the raccoon-thing's,
too. (And do you see, out of the corner of your
vision, a feral-eyed, fur-covered face staring at you from
between a pair of trees? Maybe).
halfway across now, and although you feel an almost irresistible
urge to look behind you and see how close your pursuer is,
you don't. The sounds are more than enough to indicate
his progress - pounding feet, harsh breath, his half-growl,
half-whine a mix of anger and frustration. You almost slip as you leap over the curb onto the
asphalt of your cul-de-sac, and you imagine that he's so close
he takes a swipe at you with bloody scissors, blade raking
the back of your jacket but sliding off without cutting, thank
Jesus. At least you hope you imagine it.
make it to your front walk and begin bounding up the terraced
stone steps. Snowflakes are still falling, but they aren't
screaming anymore; they're laughing, laughing their cold,
crystalline asses off.
reach the door, grip the knob, start to turn it -
course it is, you always lock the door when you leave. Ironic that a basic safety precaution is going
to spell your D-O-O-M. You
jam your hand into the front pocket of your jeans, but you
know you're not going to get your keys out in time, let alone
unlock the fucking door. You can't resist any longer, and really, what's
the point? You turn
around and look.
this were one of your stories, you'd see a flash of wild eyes
just before sharp scissors plunged into the too-soft flesh
of your neck. But it's not. The fat man is standing at the edge of the cul-de-sac, scissors
gripped in a tight fist, bare feet in the snow, unmoving,
as if he's encountered an invisible barrier that he cannot
cross. His head's cocked to the side, and you realize
he's listening to something. The snowflakes fall silently now, and you can hear
it, too, barely: a high-pitched, plaintive mewing. His little ones are calling.
looks back toward his house, then he turns to give you a final
glare before starting back across the park, muttering to himself
as he goes.
don't wait around to watch; you pull out your keys and gripping
them in a trembling hand, unlock the door, practically fall
inside, and slam it closed behind you. And yes, you lock it.
slide to the floor and sit there, your back against the door,
until your breathing slows to something approaching normal. You stand up, those marionette strings at work again, take off your
coat and hang it in the closet. Then you walk into the living room and look at the
phone sitting on a stand by the entertainment center. You should call the police and tell them what you've
seen. You really should. But instead you walk across the carpet into the dining room, sit
down at the table in front of your laptop, and start to type.
* * *
how did you kill us this time?"
you look up from the computer screen. You hadn't realized
your wife had come home. You glance over and see your three-year-old daughter
sitting on the floor in front of the entertainment center
watching a cartoon. You
have no memory of them coming inside the house, or of the
TV being turned on. You're used to getting lost in your work, but
not quite this
Your wife goes on. "Are we eaten by
rotting zombies? Gutted by a deranged killer? Devoured from
the inside out by alien parasites?" She's smiling, but there's
a coldness in her voice. Your endings - often featuring the
deaths of a mother and child - have become an issue between
the two of you over the years. You've told her you don't know
why you do it, that maybe it's because their deaths are the
worst thing you can think of, and that's what horror should
be about, right? But she's never bought it, and truth to tell,
neither have you.
You try to smile. "You'll be happy to know that you and Jenny
aren't even in this one."
"Oh?" A hint of curiosity in her voice, and she leans over your shoulder
to peer at the screen.
You're always uncomfortable with people
reading your work before it's finished, but all you say is
"It's not done yet. I still need to think of an ending."
She finishes reading the text on the
screen and looks at you, a skeptical eyebrow raised. "A crazy shut-in and cats?"
You sigh. "You're right. It's stupid." Your fingers move across the keyboard and you delete
the file without saving it. Before your wife can protest, you say, "It's no big deal. It was
just something I was playing around with."
Your wife leans over, gives you a kiss
on the top of your head and disappears into the kitchen. Your daughter giggles at something on the TV. You don't look up to see what it is.
Instead, you stare at the blank-white
on the laptop's display - as stark and barren as an arctic
snowfield - and you reach out and press your fingertips to
"Please," you whisper, "let me in."
For an instant, you feel the plastic
begin to yield, grow soft and welcoming, but then it becomes
firm once more. Impenetrable,
in the truest, most awful sense of the word.
Your wife calls from the kitchen. "Hey, hon! Would you like to see what I picked up at
the hardware store on my way home?"
Tears well from your eyes, slide down
your cheeks, become snowflakes as they fall to the keyboard
You sense movement behind you, and
the side of your head explodes with pain and a surprised chuff
of air escapes your lips. Though you can barely think through the agony blazing
in your skull, you realize that something has hit you on the
head, something hard, and you turn to see what it is, too
dazed to think of doing anything else.
You see your wife holding a hammer,
eyes wild, teeth bared in a cruel grin.
"How's this for an ending to your piece
of shit story?" She
screams and swings the hammer at your forehead, far too fast
for you to even think about ducking.
A bright flash erupts behind your eyes. The blow is so hard that it spins your head back around
and you slump forward onto the laptop's keyboard. You hear your daughter laughing in delight
and clapping her hands.
him again, Mommy! Hit
computer screen is splattered with red and you can hardly
see the line of letters on the display - letters created when
your cheek hit the keys. It's difficult to focus your eyes so close
to the screen, especially with the gray haze nibbling at the
edge of your vision, but you read the text, some of it obscured
your wife says with satisfaction. "What do you think of my ending?"
rushes in like an ebon wave and you answer her with your final
It's been done.
As the black closes in, you reach over
with trembling fingers, turn off the laptop, and the Word
goes . . .