Today’s guest is Chet Williamson, author of over 20 books, including Dreamthorp, Reign, Second Chance, Ash Wednesday, Soulstorm, and most recently, Defenders of the Faith, and a hundred short stories published in such notable publications as Esquire, The New Yorker, and Playboy. His book, Figures in Rain, which ranks as one of my favorite single author collections, won the International Horror Guild Award in 2003. In addition to his print credits, Chet has also written for theater, and served as actor and director, and from 2001 – 2007 was the lead singer and guitarist for traditional Irish music band Fire in the Glen.
Here Chet discusses the genesis of his love for horror, his recent trip to Washington, and the darker things he took away from some of the more notable locations…
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The Halloween Mind
by Chet Williamson
You can always tell when Halloween is coming around. There are the usual signs, of course – the change in color of the leaves, the bite of the autumn air, and now, in formerly temperate Pennsylvania, the first eight-inch snowstorm of the season, and what’s up with that? There are other indicators as well, more technological in nature. TV movie networks start running more horror films, Facebook friends post shots of Karloff, Lugosi, and Christopher Lee as their profile pics, and the classic monsters begin their annual reappearance in every media you can think of. Ah yes, Halloween is at hand.
But there are those of us who, in our way, celebrate Halloween every day, who have a Halloween mind all year round, and if you’re reading this particular blog on Kealan’s website, I’d hazard a guess that you, gentle reader, are one of those fortunate, haunted people. You, like I, are drawn to the darkness, to the creatures of the night, to the shadow of death that stalks each one of us from the moment we’re born.
We all come to that Halloween state of mind by different paths. For me, it started when I was about eight and heard edited (but not expurgated!) versions of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe told to me by Bob Hill, the teenage stock boy in the dank and winding cellar of my grandfather’s grocery store. Of course I sought out the originals, was fascinated by them, and then in 1960 or so, I bought from the newsstand the fifth issue of Uncle Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland, and my fate was sealed forever. There on the cover was Basil Gogos’ interpretation of Bela Lugosi in 1932’s Island of Lost Souls (which I’m buying on Blu-Ray next Tuesday when the Criterion half-price sale hits Barnes and Noble), and inside were dozens of wonderful photographs of classic and not-so-classic monsters, ads for incredibly cheesy and horrific items, and the worst puns ever uttered – everything that most appeals to a twelve-year-old.
Around that time the Universal horror films had been released to TV, and I got my share from “Leroy,” the shock jock working Channel 55 in Harrisburg PA. The tamer films aired at 4:00 Saturday afternoons, and they saved the good ones – the Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, and Mummy series – for the 11:30 PM slot, which I begged my parents to let me watch (and often they did, bless them. And bless them too for taking me to see the first run of Psycho!)
From there I made my way to the horror paperback anthologies published primarily by Ballantine, where I first made the acquaintance of Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and others of the Weird Tales school, as well as the classic stories of M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and so many others. I lived, loved, and dreamed monsters. My mind was a Halloween mind, and when that holiday, second only to Christmas in popularity, came along, I reveled in it. This was the time when everyone thought like I did, for one precious day, at least.
And I still have a Halloween mind, and suppose I shall until the day I die, when I’ll finally learn the truth – or the fraud – about that dark mystery, death. On a recent visit to my son in Seattle, I found myself drawn to the darker elements of everything I saw. In Issaquah, where Colin lives, Laurie and I ate at the last Triple XXX Root Beer stand, a beautifully preserved example of a 1950s teenage, car geek hangout. But what really got my attention was the bus in which Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens, among others, had made their last tour. After it broke down once too often, the three musicians took a private plane to their next destination, and we all know how that worked out. The bus seemed haunted, redolent of death, tragic with the sense of young, creative lives lost – at least to this particular Halloween mind.
The EMP Museum in Seattle, with its displays of vintage guitars, Jimi Hendrix memorabilia, and shrine to Nirvana, had an extra bonus for me with its “Can’t Look Away: The Lure of the Horror Film,” in which such items as Jack Torrance’s axe from The Shining, Freddy Kruger’s glove, original Frankenstein boots, and other such items were on display. Yet, fun as it was, most of these items struck me as displays for the explicit horror wannabes, and I kept perversely wishing that Kurt Cobain’s shotgun would have been on display in the Nirvana exhibit. Yeah, I know, too soon…
Even the natural glories of Washington State were no balm against the darkness. We had a wonderful hike around the base of Mount Rainier on a glorious day, but what I left the gift shop with was a book about the many attempted ascents on the peak, with chapter after chapter about the deaths of unlucky climbers, including photos of their frozen bodies and stories of how many had never been recovered. Along with the beauties of the mountain, I was now able to appreciate it as a giant cemetery, its crevasses and glaciers holding a multitude of frozen corpses. Such are the quirks and glories of the Halloween mind.
So when October 31st comes around, we of the Halloween mind may rejoice that for one brief season, for one short day, nearly everyone sees the world as we see it every day. But we should also remember that when November comes those other people will put away their plastic pumpkins, wipe off the smidgens that remain of their once-a-year zombie makeup, and go back to their normal lives, leaving it up to those of us with Halloween minds to keep the darkness burning with its black flame, to recognize the creatures that walk beside us, and to be ever mindful of that most dreadful monster of all, the one that will take our hand after we celebrate our final Halloween, and lead us into the richest darkness of all.
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Visit Chet Williamson at his website.