I wrote a poem today and it was horrific.
Not horrific in the sense that it was filled with typos, misspelled words, or a stupid message.
But horrific in the sense that I wrote it as a response of sorts to a picture of a terrible incident I found on the Internet.
The photo was of a picture of a lynching. It must have been taken around 1920, I think it was, and it showed a young black man hanging. Actually, the lynch-mob decided it wasn’t enough to hang him, so they doused him in coal oil and burned him while he hanged.
I guess they wanted to make sure the job got done right.
And yet, as horrid as this picture was, what bothered me most was the reaction of one man in the crowd.
He was smiling. Smiling as if he was watching the greatest show on earth.
I guess maybe he was.
As I looked at the photograph, I kept my eye on this man, holding his shotgun, so smug and satisfied with the action taking place before him, deaf to what I’m sure was this young man’s pleas for mercy, immune to this same man’s screams and cries of pain.
The guy just stood there, smiling away, and I began to wonder about the kind of hate a heart must harbor in order for a person to stand there so coldly and yet so happily at the demise of another human being, especially a death of such a gruesome nature. The more I looked, the more I pondered, and then before I knew what was happening, I had a Word document open on my desktop, and my fingers were flying over the keys.
I wrote and wrote and wrote and when I was done, I had written a poem in the voice of the smiling man. A vicious, sarcastic verse about this postcard picture and as far as that poem goes, it does what it’s supposed to do. It’s dark and ugly, filled with hate and vitriol and venom. It’s filled with horror.
Because for me, this is where true horror starts: in a postcard. In reality.
This “postcard” is clear, hard evidence—one of many, unfortunately—of the ugliness in human nature that leads to horror. In that photo, true horror is presented in its rawest form: in this case, a man smiling at the violent, senseless death of another.
What is my point? My point is that frequently, people ask me: “How do you do it? How do you come up with this stuff?”
I don’t know that I ever just “come up” with anything. I know what frightens me, and based on that, I look around and I interpret what I see. Unfortunately, there’s darkness everywhere, all around. For me, I typically base my darker works—either stories or poems—in reality, because clearly, these things can, do, or have happened, and they are terror in their own right. I don’t necessarily need to make up stories about lab experiments gone wrong, demons from hell, or aliens from outer space, when all around me, regular people are providing a narrative of darkness everyday. When I weave my tales of horror, it’s the human animal I refer to and that provides me with ample fodder. And because there is an element of truth and possibility in the storyline, I think it makes the story that much more frightening.
That’s how I get my ideas.
This isn’t to say that I won’t venture into the fantastic or the supernatural. Not at all. I don’t want to limit myself or my writing in that way. But, for me, as a writer and as a reader, there is a kind of comfort that is derived from a tale that, when I put the pen down or the book away, I can easily venture back into the realms of reality knowing that the imagined words on the page will never come to pass. I’m scared only for a moment, while in the moment, and then it passes. It’s over. It’s gone.
But, in my capacity as a writer, a reader, or even as a casual observer of human behavior, the minute that realism is introduced, however it’s presented—through fact or fiction, in verse or in prose, through pictures or film, in actions or in deeds—then it stays with me, tormenting my thoughts, dictating my actions. I keep my children a little bit closer, I hold my husband a little bit tighter.
When there is a hint of realism, of possibility, of probability, I know horror is lurking around the corner, waiting for me. And as a result, as part of my creative process, I don’t need to look for “scary ideas”. Horror finds me.
When I was on the computer today, surfing the net, I wasn’t looking for anything particularly shocking. But somehow, in my many clicks, I wound up on that site, on that picture, and on the face of the smiling man. To me, it was pure evil, when I least expected it, when I was least looking for it, and it scared me.
And then, I wrote about it.