In analyzing my earliest introduction to horror, two distinct incidences leap to mind, like Jack Nicolson bursting through the bathroom door with an axe. It was the mid-1970s and my best friend’s family was quite a bit different from my own. Her dad, Bill, was a technical junkie, always delighting in acquiring the latest gaming system or computer on the market. He was a movie buff and a comic book collector; in short, I guess you could call him the original geek.
Bill had an extensive collection of Creepy and Eerie magazines. Andrea (said best friend) and I loved to peruse these and delighted in creeping each other out under the naked bulb in her wood-paneled bedroom on a Saturday afternoon.
Quite often, Andrea’s dad would take the family to a Friday night movie. Although her family often treated me to a movie, (back in the days when movies were cheap) it was rare that they invited me to a horror flick—probably reasoning that my parents would not approve. So, I would have to rely on Andrea’s movie retelling skills the next day.
In those days, there were quite a few horror series on TV. My favorite of all time was a made-for-TV anthology film, called Trilogy of Terror, based on three of Richard Matheson’s works; but it was the short, Amelia, that made its impression on me. The piece was developed from Matheson’s short story, Prey. The story opens with Amelia, who has acquired an African Zuni fetish doll as a gift for her anthropologist boyfriend. The doll comes with a scroll that indicates that if the chain falls off the doll, the warrior spirit will cause the doll to come to life. So, you can guess what happens--yep, the chain falls off. The Zuni doll terrorizes Amelia and it does not respond to her attempts to kill it.
The doll was indeed terrifying to my 8-year-old self, with its carved lips pulled back in a grimace to expose razor sharp teeth and its way of screaming yayayayaya as it chased actress, Karen Black around the apartment. But the real terror for me was that it could not die! And that fear embedded itself into me like a burr to dog fur.
The other memory that makes up the base component of this fear is an episode from another TV horror series, Circle of Fear. In one episode, an evil carved horse terrorizes a young couple. This horse, which the husband finds buried in the earth at the construction site he works at and brings home, seems to relocate and grow larger on its own. It too is not so easily disposed of.
The interesting thing about these two memories is I had somehow fused them in mind. For years, I thought that the Zuni doll episode was from the show Circle of Fear. So these two tales of horror were closely related in my psyche.
In addition to our love of horror movies and TV shows, Andrea and I delighted in borrowing library books about true ghost stories.
One of the most memorable stories we found in the book, Some Canadian Ghosts. It was a supposedly true story from BC, about an artist who had painted a portrait of a woman, but each time she tried to paint the left side of the portrait, it kept changing to resemble a man. She had later discovered that her old home was the site of a murder, in which a man had killed his wife. This changing painting, a spirit reaching out from the past, was another concept that terrified me.
So, now we are building on this fear of things that can’t be so easily killed, and tossing in an interesting connection to the past.
Now, I come to the history of my love of gothic.
When I was a kid growing up in North Vancouver, the neighbourhoods were littered with old houses. I can think of two specific abandoned ones. The first was an old manor house, with a large property. My mom and I used to pass by it on our walks to and from the store. I was in love with the house, with its pristine white siding and dark green shutters, its large and interesting shape, the way it resembled a barn. Then one night it burnt down. I was horrified, saddened and intrigued. I was in kindergarten and at recess a bunch of us left the school grounds, something that we were forbidden to do, to go see the burnt out house several blocks away.
I felt scared and guilty so turned back after getting about ½ a block from the school. The other kids went on to see the house and we all got in trouble for it after recess. I remember feeling quite devastated by the house burning down. It was a beautiful entity to me, a beautiful being and it was gone, turned ugly and abandoned. For years, I dreamed about that house and always in the dream, something sad and slightly terrifying would happen to me there.
Another memorable house from my childhood was the Stoker farm, located on the corner of Lonsdale and 29th. It was a beautiful old farmhouse with an acre or two of land. Whenever I was up that way, I would feed the horses that ambled about the yard and approached the fence whenever someone neared. I’m not sure of the story, but one day the horses were gone and soon after the house was abandoned and sat empty for years. It became a favorite place for teen parties and urban explorers. The house fascinated me and my friends and we delighted in inventing ghost stories about its owners’ history and their demise.
So, to recap, my childhood fears involved scary houses and entities that were nearly impossible to ditch. It wasn’t until I recently went looking for the two aforementioned horror shows that I started to realize that I wrote my gothic horror novel, A Peculiar Curiosity, from this place of early fear. A Peculiar Curiosity is about a Haitian Voodoo zonbi brought to London in 1865 by a dealer of curiosities. Henri, the boy zonbi, is somewhat difficult to be rid of, much like the African Zuni fetish doll and the possessed wooden horse. A Peculiar Curiosity takes place in the basement of a Victorian manor, dragging it into the gothic.
I thought it was interesting and pretty cool when I realized that I wrote the story from my subconscious childhood fears. Michael Slade, horror and crime fiction writer advises a writer think of the scariest thing that has ever happened to them and build a story from it. I seem to have done that without even realizing, and in a way, that makes the story all the more primal.
A Peculiar Curiosity will be published by Regal House's imprint Fitzroy Books in 2018.