PERFECT FEAR: Prologue
by Richard Poe
Reprinted from Perfect Fear (released by Heraklid Books, July 5, 2012)
“CAN you recall anything from your childhood that was particularly terrible?”
This question was put to horror writer Stephen King during a panel discussion in 1979. King responded by telling the following story. When he was four years old, little Stephen went to a friend’s house to play. He came back early, white as a sheet, and refused to speak for the rest of the day. Only later did his mother learn what happened. Stephen’s playmate had been run down by a freight train. There wasn’t much left of the boy afterwards. They picked up the pieces in a wicker basket. No one knew if young Stephen had seen the accident. Stephen couldn’t remember. His memory had gone blank. Everything King knew about that day he had heard from his mother. King stressed to the audience that he remembered nothing about the incident himself. “But you’ve been writing about it ever since,” panelist Janet Jeppson interjected. Jeppson was a science fiction writer, the wife of Isaac Asimov. She also happened to be a psychiatrist.
King later wrote that Jeppson’s words brought, “an approving murmur from the audience.”1 It was as if she had given voice to what they were all thinking. Everyone in the room seemed to share the assumption that there must be something wrong with King. Something must have happened to him in his childhood. Something bad. Why else would he have chosen to become a horror writer? And why would he be so good at it?
Why Do People Write Horror?
As the world’s bestselling author of horror fiction, King has endured more public attention than most. He has also endured more amateur psychoanalysis than most. Interviewers often ask why he chose to write horror. Very often, they ask whether some childhood trauma may lie at the root of it. King dislikes these kinds of questions. He frequently complains that writers in other genres, such as westerns, romances or detective mysteries, are seldom subjected to this kind of intimate probing. “Nobody wants to know if Arthur Hailey or Harold Robbins took an unusually long time learning to use the potty,” he grumbled in his book Danse Macabre. But people most certainly do want to know these things about horror writers. Stephen King believes he understands why. It is because, deep down in our hearts, we suspect that people who write horror must be a little odd. A little twisted. A little warped. And we want to know how they got that way.
As I prepare to release my first published work of horror, I find myself thinking more and more about Stephen King’s experience during that long-ago panel discussion. In the happy event that my tales of terror should find a wide audience, it seems reasonable to expect that someone, someday, may decide to ask me some version of that same question: “Can you recall anything from your childhood that was particularly terrible?” Rather than wait for the question, I see no reason why I shouldn’t just go ahead and answer it now.
My tale is not nearly so dramatic as Stephen King’s. Most of what happened to me happened inside my head, in the furnace of a child’s burning imagination. There are no killer freight trains in my story, no blood, no gore. No one gets dismembered or disemboweled. But, if you have a weak spot for those quirky psychological thrillers that pop up now and then under the “horror” category on Netflix, if you like those eerie little tales that depend more on curious plot twists and surprise endings than they do on gallons of fake blood and digital special effects, well then, you might just enjoy the little slice of life which I offer below. And so, without further ado, here is my tale.
The Thing That Comes at Night
As a child, I did not have many friends. But I had one enemy. This enemy was very close to me, like family. It lived in my house. It snuggled up beside me, in bed. And sometimes, when I was sleeping, it would put its hands around my neck and strangle me till I turned blue. My enemy was not imaginary. It was real and deadly. The doctors called it asthma. And, when the asthma got bad, I really did turn blue. Quite a few times, my mother rescued me with shots of adrenalin, which we always kept on hand in the refrigerator. But, every now and then, the adrenalin was not enough. Twice, during my childhood, I had to be rushed to the hospital and placed in an oxygen tent.
Early in life, I noticed that asthma has a tendency to attack at night. No matter how bad it may get during the day, you can rest assured that it will get worse after dark. And so I came to think of asthma as a nocturnal predator, a kind of vampire, that strikes after sundown. Because I thought of it as a living thing, I gave it little nicknames. I called it The Thing that Comes at Night, The Thing that Won’t Let Me Sleep, or The Thing that Wants Me Dead.
During those long, sleepless nights, when I struggled to breathe, my mother would sit up with me, all night long. Her presence was like garlic and wolfbane to the vampire. As long as my mother stood guard, The Thing could not kill me. Mama was my champion and protector. For that reason, I imagined that The Thing must hate my mother with an infernal fury. I imagined that it wanted her dead. Only with my mother gone, could The Thing finally have its way with me. And so I gave some additional nicknames to my foe. I called it The Thing that Wants My Mother Dead. And sometimes I called it The Thing that Wants to Get Me Alone, So It Can Kill Me.
The Little, Haunted Room
One day, when I was probably about nine years old, my parents decided to move me. They took me out of the large bedroom which I shared with my two older brothers, and put me into the little bedroom across the hall. It was a tiny room, just big enough for one child. My mother thought it would be easier to take care of me in there, during my long illnesses. And so, for the first time in my life, I had to sleep alone, in the dark.
I spent a lot of time hiding under the covers, listening to every creak and groan of the floorboards. One night, I peered out from under the blankets and saw a strange shadow in my doorway. At least, it looked like a shadow. But as I studied this apparition more closely, it seemed to resolve into a huge, hump-backed figure, silhouetted in my doorway. One great hump of a shoulder brushed against the ceiling. One long arm hung down toward the floor, like the arm of an ape. I am sure it was a trick of the light, but it seemed very real, at the time. In my heart, I felt certain that my old enemy had shown its face at last. The Thing that Wants Me Dead was standing in my doorway.
I was all alone, in that little, haunted room. Who would hear me, if I cried out in the dark? If the monster took me, who would know? All night long, I lay watching the shadow in my door. And, all night long, the shadow stared back at me, its long arm hanging toward the floor.
Peering Over the Cliff
Every little boy knows that, if you get too close to the cliff, you might just slip over the edge and fall to your death. But few little boys can resist the temptation to try their luck. They run right to the edge and look over. As a child, I approached my fears in a similar way. I ran right to the edge and looked over. I became fascinated by spooky things. I loved nothing better than to watch scary movies and read scary books.
One day, my sixth-grade social studies teacher caught me reading a book called Strange Women of the Occult. Now, that’s not quite as bad as it sounds. Despite its lurid title, there was nothing sexy or salacious about this book. It was an innocent potboiler featuring “true” stories of psychic or paranormal phenomena, all of which just happened to involve women, in one way or another. What intrigued me about this book was the author’s claim that every story was true. The mere possibility that these bizarre events had actually happened made them much more interesting to me, and much more scary.
I wish I could remember more about that book. While writing this Prologue, I did a Google search for it. It turns out that a man named Warren Smith wrote it in 1968. I even found a picture of the original cover on the Internet. The cover looked exactly as I remembered it, a yellow, mass-market paperback with four spooky drawings, touting four of the stories inside.
The teaser above the book title says, “Startling! Shocking! Beyond Belief! True Accounts of the Other World.” The four drawings on the cover had captions underneath, saying, “The hideous curse of the ghostly serpents,” “Strange case of the unearthly caller,” “The woman who scented death” and “Grisly dancer of Panola Hall.” I’ve forgotten what those stories were about. I only remember that this book gripped me like glue. I couldn’t put it down.
Mr. Vanderveen, my social studies teacher, caught me reading the book in class. All of a sudden, I heard his voice from the head of the classroom, saying, “Mr. Poe, if you could tear yourself away from Strange Women of the Occult for a minute, maybe you’d like to answer this question?” All eyes in the classroom turned to me. I was mortified.
Strange Women of the Occult was the most terrifying book I ever read as a child. I don’t know why. The only story that I clearly remember from that book was about a man who was watching TV late one night. Suddenly, he saw the image of an old woman on the screen. She was lying in bed, apparently sick, maybe dying. The man had no idea who this woman was, or why she had appeared on his TV screen. But he couldn’t get rid of her. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get her image off the screen.
After reading that story, I became positively inflamed with fear. Don’t ask me why. I just did. I felt as if every hair of my body was dancing in a kind of static electric field. I remember walking down a stairwell in my junior high school. I don’t remember where I was going. I must have had a hall pass. The halls were empty. The stairwell was empty. There wasn’t a soul in sight. And suddenly I realized I was completely alone. If anything happened to me in that stairwell — let’s say, if the fabric of the universe suddenly ripped open, and some ungodly being from another dimension, bristling with eyestalks and tentacles and writhing pseudopods, suddenly poked its head through and pulled me back with it into the void — if something like that happened, no one would ever hear me scream. No one would know what happened to me. This thought so terrified me, that I could hardly move.
At long last, I reached the floor where I was going. I remember standing before a big metal door, unable to open it, for fear of what I might see on the other side. Never in my life had I known such dread. It was not like the fear of asthma, suffocation or death. Those were ordinary fears, part of my everyday life. But this terror in the stairwell, this was different. It was pure and boundless and overwhelming. It was fear without limit. Fear beyond reason. Perfect fear. It tingled across my scalp and rippled down my back. It set my nerves humming like an electric motor. And yes, I must confess, it was not all bad. There was something I liked about this feeling. Something I liked very much. I hope you will like it too. Welcome to my nightmare. Welcome to Perfect Fear.
New York City
1 Stephen King, Danse Macabre (New York: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster, 2010 edition, p.87; originally published 1981)
Reprinted from Perfect Fear (released by Heraklid Books, July 5, 2012)