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PERFECT FEAR: AUTHOR INTERVIEW, PART 2

A Conversation with Richard Poe, Author of Perfect Fear
by Paul Germano (continued)

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Department store scene in Carnival of Souls

In the 1962 film Carnival of Souls, a woman tries on a dress in a department store and suddenly slips into another dimension. When she comes out of the dressing room, she realizes that no one can see her. No one can hear her. No one can help her. She is completely alone. And then the ghosts rise up and come looking for her. Even in broad daylight, in a crowded department store, they can still get to her. That’s perfect fear.

THE ULTIMATE FEAR

Germano: What about the book title? What does it mean? What is “perfect fear”?

Poe: Perfect fear is the ultimate fear. It’s fear without limit. Fear without boundaries. It can strike you anywhere, any time, even in broad daylight, in a room full of people.

Germano: How did you come up with this concept of perfect fear?

Poe: As a horror fan, I know what I like. “Perfect fear” is the perfect horror experience. For me, the scariest works of horror are those which make you feel totally vulnerable, as if there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, no sanctuary, no shelter, no escape. No matter what you do, the bogeyman is going to get you. Stephen King captured that feeling in his novel It. There’s a 1962 film called Carnival of Souls which also captured it.

In one scene of that film, a woman is trying on a dress in a department store. All of a sudden, an eerie silence descends. It’s as if she’s slipped into another dimension. She’s in a brightly-lit department store, surrounded by people, but no one can see her. No one can hear her. No one can help her. She is completely alone. And then the ghosts rise up and come looking for her. Even in broad daylight, in a crowded department store, they can still get to her. That’s perfect fear.

POE: Whenever I tried writing horror, I would become afraid. The writing process itself would activate my fears. … It was hard to maintain a comfortable distance. I believed too strongly.

Germano: The Exorcist has that quality for me, that sense of no place to hide. When you see Jaws, you know you’re okay as long as you don’t go in the water. But in The Exorcist, the evil strikes directly at your mind, and you can’t escape your own mind.

You can deny that the Devil exists, but that doesn’t help, because disbelieving just makes you more vulnerable. In The Exorcist, the priest who was questioning his faith became a target, and the demon got him. That really creeped me out.

Poe: I suppose faith is the only real sanctuary, when you come right down to it.

THE RELUCTANT HORROR WRITER

Germano: When we first met at the Syracuse New Times, you were totally focused on journalism. In all the years I’ve known you, you’ve written nothing but journalism and non-fiction books. Suddenly you’re writing fiction — horror fiction! What caused this sudden turn to the dark side?

Poe: It’s actually not so sudden. I’ve always loved horror. I’ve been trying all my life to write horror, since I was a kid. But it didn’t come easy. It was a struggle.

Germano: What made it so difficult?

Killer rock sequence from The Outer Limits

POE RECALLS HIS FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH THE HORROR GENRE: “It was an episode of The Outer Limits. I was only four and a half years old. I remember a scene in which a black rock was sitting on a man’s desk. The rock melted into a squirming, pulsating blob, crawled up the man’s arm and attached itself to his face. He screamed in agony. The next day, I started screaming too.” (“Corpus Earthling,” Episode 9, November 18, 1963)

Poe: I had to overcome my own fears. Through the years, whenever I tried writing horror, I would become afraid. The writing process itself would activate my fears. The whole point of writing horror is to scare other people, to scare your readers, but I would end up scaring myself, to the point where I’d have to stop writing. Remember that children’s song, “Alfred the Airsick Eagle”? They used to play that on Captain Kangaroo. Alfred couldn’t fly like the other eagles, because heights made him dizzy. That was me. I was an airsick eagle. I wanted to write horror, but I was too frightened.

Germano: What made you so sensitive to horror? Were you like this as a child?

Poe: Yes, always. As a child, I loved watching scary shows on TV, but they would leave me so traumatized, I could barely function. Still, I kept going back for more. It was a compulsion. I was drawn to it, like a moth to the flame. I couldn’t stay away.

Germano: What was the first horror work that truly scared the pants off of you?

Poe: It was an episode of The Outer Limits. I was only four and a half years old. Everyone was talking about this scary new show on TV, and I really wanted to watch it. But my mother forbade me. Well, one night, my mother went out somewhere. My father let me watch the show, but only on one condition: Don’t tell Mama! And so I watched The Outer Limits with my father. I remember a scene in which a black rock was sitting on a man’s desk. The rock melted into a squirming, pulsating blob, crawled up the man’s arm and attached itself to his face. He screamed in agony.

POE: I majored in creative writing at Syracuse University… We didn’t do horror in the SU writing program. They were training us to write fine literature, and horror was not considered literature.

The next day, I started screaming too. It happened in the bathroom. I suddenly noticed a ball of steel wool resting on the floor beneath the sink. For some reason, it reminded me of the killer rock in The Outer Limits, so I started screaming. My mother came running. I pointed to the steel wool, screaming, “It’s a rock! It’s a rock!” Well, it didn’t take long for Mama to pry a full confession out of me. I told her everything.

Germano: You threw your father under the bus!

Poe: Yes, I’m afraid so. My mother was furious at my father for letting me watch The Outer Limits. And my father was furious at me for ratting him out. When he came home from work that night, my father said, “I hear you thought there was a rock in the bathroom.” I could only hang my head in shame. “Okay, big shot,” he said. “So you thought you could watch The Outer Limits. Now you’ll never watch it again.” And he meant what he said. That was the last time I ever watched The Outer Limits.

Germano: You were four and a half when that happened?

Poe: Yes. Actually, I was almost five, just one month short of my fifth birthday. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I can tell you the exact date that episode aired. It was November 18, 1963. The title was, “Corpus Earthling.”

Germano: Four and a half is quite young. Did you have an easier time dealing with horror as you got older?

Poe: Yes, but it was always touch and go. It was hard to maintain a comfortable distance. I believed too strongly. As I got older, I found that it helped to have roommates or girlfriends around to keep me company. If there were other people around, I could tolerate horror much better. And when I got married, I thought I really had it made. Now I had a wife, so I figured she would always be around to keep me company while I watched scary movies. But Marie quickly put the kibosh on that. At a certain point, she just went on strike. She said these horror movies were giving her nightmares and she couldn’t watch them anymore. And I said, “No, no, you can’t do that. You have to stay and watch these movies with me, otherwise, I’ll be too scared!”

Germano: At least you admitted it.

Poe: Well, of course, I didn’t have any problem admitting it. But Marie wouldn’t budge. She refused to watch any more horror movies with me, so I pretty much had to stop watching them for awhile.

Reprinted from Perfect Fear (released by Heraklid Books, July 5, 2012)

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