On Becoming a Writer
I’ve told the story many times about how I became hooked on the horror genre as a reader. I was twelve or thirteen years old and needed a new book to read. The shopping center in Medford, the next town over, had a Woolworths that carried a small selection of new paperbacks. It was late summer or early fall, so I headed out one night. I can’t remember if I walked the few miles, rode my bike, or took the bus. I do remember spinning the black wire rack that held the paperbacks, and being intrigued by one book in particular. It had a glossy black cover with a child’s face embossed on it, the only splash of color was a single drop of red blood. The book, of course, was ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. I devoured the story, fascinated not only by the plot and the characters, but for the first time in my life by the writing itself. I was one of the residents of the Lot, watching my little town become overrun with vampires. There’s more to that story that I don’t tell as often. That book was also a major impact on why I became a writer. Early that school year, my English teacher, Miss Comeau, gave us a creative writing assignment. Write a story about anything we wanted. I wrote, obviously, about vampires. In my tale, a boy in class begins to show signs of illness. His teacher sees him deteriorating, growing pale and listless, finally resorting to wearing sunglasses in school. One night, the teacher is up late correcting papers, when she reads the submission by this student. It is a weird tale about people who need to drink human blood to survive. She falls asleep shortly after reading it, and has disturbing dreams about a strange visitor who comes to her in the night. She wakes the next day, groggy and disoriented, haunted by the strange dream. She touches her throat and feels what seem to be two small cuts. When she goes into the bathroom to check it out, all she sees in the mirror is the wall behind her. She passes out, end of story. Miss Comeau loved the story. Not only was there an “A” scrawled at the top of the paper, there was a note: “Let’s put it in Boojum Rock!” Well, as happy as I was about the grade, there was no way I was putting my story in our school magazine. Everyone would read it! I was painfully introverted back then, and the thought terrified me. I was picked on enough, I didn’t need to give the bullies another reason to target me. So, Miss Comeau and I were the only ones to ever read the story. Fast forward a lot of years. Haven was under contract with Cemetery Dance, and I was working on my second novel, Eternal Darkness. The story I’d written in high school, that I hadn’t thought about in decades, came rushing back to me. If you read Eternal Darkness, you’ll find a bit of an homage to that first horror story. As I began to do interviews, and often got the questions “why did you start writing” and “was there anyone outside your family who encouraged you” my thoughts went back to Miss Comeau. I still wonder what would have happened if I’d had the guts to publish the story back then. Anyway, last year I was working on a story about a guy that attends his 40th high school reunion, and a series of events eventually bring the realization that his memories of high school weren’t quite accurate. I added a scene where his old English teacher approaches him and they talk about the vampire story he’d written in high school. In that story, the teacher is cleverly named Mrs. Como. The novella is called Class Reunion and it’s one of the two novellas in Backwater. Oddly, after all the times I’d thought of Miss Comeau over the last few years during my writing, I’d never bothered to find out what happened to her. I though how nice it would be to send her a note and let her know what a huge influence she was, even after forty years. So, through the magic of Google, I found her. Or, I found her obituary. Miss Comeau (or Mrs. Lyle) passed away in 2008 after a long battle with cancer. Although she was my teacher for just one year, the fact that I still think of her after nearly forty years is a testament to the impact she had on me. I wish she was still around so I could tell her. Writer friends (or anyone, really), if you have this type of person in your life, someone who inspired you or helped you along the way, tell them now.