I get asked a lot about the inspirations for my stories and they usually have interesting origins. For my re-issued collection, DRAGGED INTO DARKNESS, the reasons for these stories vary greatly in meaning. Several pieces were born out of curiosity, while others have dark personal meanings and don't deviate too far from the truth. A number have a fun, almost whimsical origin which I applied a dark and twisted logic to for an unusual outcome. But all these stories have a great spark that ignited my mind. These are the tales behind some of the stories.
Sitting up late one New Year’s Day watching Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY, I caught a particular episode about a plane in trouble. It was obvious from what was said that the writer didn’t research his subject too well. The story has the character call out a runway number that doesn’t exist in aviation, but the mistake prompted me to consider “what if.” This story was also a chance to exorcise a personal demon.
When I was flying student, I was returning to the landing strip after a mandated solo flight. As I was turning to make a final approach, another pilot radioed in to land. Unfortunately, he misread his location and we were on a collision course. Our two planes were within seconds of a mid-air collision when I spotted his plane descending on top of me. I made an evasive maneuver and when I’d recovered from that, I realized I’d lost my bearings. To compound matters, low clouds swept in and air traffic control and I lost sight of each other. The airport couldn’t switch on its lights because they were undergoing maintenance. I flew around for nearly an hour trying to find my way back, but with no luck. Panic really had a grip on me and I actually considered crashing the plane just so the ordeal would be over.
Luckily, a passing helicopter spotted me and he had the advantage of seeing both the airfield and me. He talked me down and the airfield cleared the runway for an emergency landing. I made a perfect landing in front of a row of fire tenders just in case things didn’t go well.
A lot of this real life experience became the heart of Neal’s plight in Runway Three-Seven. The emotional force this tale carries is what I felt and I hope you feel it too.
This was first story idea I ever thought of, long before I even thought about writing. It was during one those perfect summer days and I thought to myself, what if I was a total sun worshiper but was denied that pleasure? A story immediately popped into my head with the dilemma of what a sun lover would do if they were cursed to become a vampire.
The story has become one of my most popular, having been published four times. A lot of people ask about The Whistler character and if he will make a return. I don’t know myself, but I hope so, mainly because he was based on a real life person. In the late 80’s, psychiatric patients were being “released into the community.” My hometown was graced with the presence of several such characters, but one guy really stood out. I’d come out of a movie theater one night and I was walking back to my flat. Other moviegoers peopled the street, but one guy stood out. He stood over six feet tall with trousers that didn’t meet his socks, a raggedy Nike sweatshirt and bowl haircut. He didn’t walk; he strode and cut a swath through the crowd. He was some two hundred feet behind me when he started to whistle. I didn’t recognize the aria, but it was operatic. This guy was pitch perfect and possessed the power to project his music like he had a microphone. His ability was stunning to the extent that he stopped people in their tracks while they took in this amazing giant. I didn’t stop. I kept walking and walking fast, because for all the music’s beauty, there was a sinister edge to this man’s whistle. Nothing should have been that perfect. As I hurried, I felt him and his music close in on me. His music, which seemed to be right behind me now, enveloped me and I feared how long it would be before the Whistler got to me too. He caught me up. The intensity of his whistle hurt my ears. I couldn’t deny how much I feared this man and my fear was repeated on the faces of the people coming in the opposite direction. The Whistler overtook me, never once acknowledging my existence. A sense of relief flooded over me. As he left me behind, I felt safe again. I came across the Whistler on several other occasions, but I never heard him whistle again—and I hope I never do.
At the 2004 World Horror Convention, I was on a panel about fears. I stated that I feared just about everything. I get nervous in a Starbucks because there are too many choices and the line of people waiting for me make a decision looks ugly. Ladies’ restrooms also make me nervous. Don’t ask why I have visited a ladies’ restroom in the first place. Let’s just move on. There’s something forbidden about a ladies’ restroom, for men leastways. These places aren’t for men, so if one ventures inside, then there should be consequences. What triggered this desire to write about this forbidden place was an incident a few years back when I was leaving a movie theater and I spotted the janitor leaving the ladies’ restroom and he seemed fine with being there. At the time, I was unemployed and the jobs I was willing to undertake didn’t rule out working in places that scared me. Hence a voyage of discovery awaits my hero in "The Ladies’ Room."
I’ve seen a lot of hitchhikers on the roads in the US. I’ve never picked any up and have never been one. Like most people, I fear that my hitchhiker will be a nut or conversely the person giving me a ride will be a nut. I wanted to write a story where a blacktop predator would meet his match and he did in "Polka Dots."
This is a pretty short story, but it’s becoming a crowd favorite at readings. It’s a pretty shocking tale about a woman who can’t throw anything away. What makes this story that much more shocking is that Charlene Casey’s obsessive compulsive disorder isn’t fiction but a fact and so much so that it’s in a category all of its own. Hoarding is a disease. There are people who can’t bear to throw anything away and what seems over the top in the story is drawn from several case histories. It just goes to show the lengths that we can go to. I hope this story is a warning to us all.
Since writing the story there is now a TV series that focuses on Hoarders. If you catch an episode, you'll see that this story isn’t all that farfetched.
The story is seen through the eyes of Dr. Birnbaum, who has made three appearances in my stories. I hope to produce a collection featuring Dr. B’s stranger cases. There are a lot of phobias out there and if one person is equipped to deal with them, it’s him.
"In The Eye Of The Beholder"
I find phobias fascinating in a train wreck kind of way. It’s hard to turn away from one person’s inability to deal with a certain aspect of their environment. My fascination with hoarding came out in "The Hoarder." With "In The Eye of the Beholder," I was drawn to an article on Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). Basically, this is a where a person has a severe distaste for their bodily appearance. They go beyond thinking their butt is too big. In extreme cases, people feel their body is unbalanced and amputation is the only way to even things up. At the time, a story had made the news about a man who’d instructed a doctor to remove a leg because he could no longer live with his scarred leg after a bike accident. The actual scarring wasn’t that bad. I found the surgeon’s comments engrossing. He risked his medical license because he totally empathized with the man’s plight. With this story, I wanted to deal with perfection and imperfection. When I was thinking about where to set this story, there could be only one place—Hollywood.
This is my favorite story in the collection and in my personal Top 5 of stories I’ve written so far.
In June ’98, I was in Thailand and I visited a British war grave about a mile from the Bridge on the River Kwai. One of the people I was traveling with was an Australian girl. After we left the grave, she told me about her grandfather. He was a World War II veteran and never talked about the war—except once, when he was drunk. He’d explained to her and her family how he’d been one of the men that was charged with the task of picking up the bodies of fallen soldiers after the battles. I was riveted to her every word, which is astounding, considering she was giving the account second hand.
I wasn’t writing at the time, but her story stuck with me. Some years later, Horrorfind ran a war-themed contest and I wanted to use this traumatic event somehow. Unfortunately, I had a first half for this tale but not a second and it was another year before I came up with Clelland’s bargain with Oracle. The bargain creates a powerful dynamic. The story’s format takes on one of "effect and cause"—the effect being the bodies on the beach and cause Oracle’s needs. If the Bucket Boys’ task wasn’t distressing enough, the bargain Clelland has made with Oracle makes what the Bucket Boys do a thousand times worse.
"The Shower Curtain"
When my wife and I moved from Sacramento to the Bay Area, we lived in an apartment and the shower curtain in the bathroom was made of a silk-like cloth. The bad thing about it was when you showered and got close to the curtain, it would stick to you and it didn’t matter how warm the shower was, the curtain was always cold, clammy and cloying. Its touch felt like skin flayed only minutes before from its owner. I came to hate having a shower in that bathroom fearing its deathly touch and with this hate came an idea. "The Shower Curtain" was written one evening while my hair was still damp.
After starting with a flying story, the collection also ends with a flying story. My flying experience makes me very susceptible to flying tragedies. One such tragedy that sent me searching for more information was the Alaskan Airlines flight from LA to Seattle, which crashed into the Pacific minutes after take off. The FAA published a transcript from the black box. The reports made by the pilots chilled me. I found it hard not to become emotional. These two men, when faced with certain death, were ice-cool under fire. The plane was coming apart on them and they were still making calculated decisions. Personally, I know I would have lost it. Even when hope had abandoned them and the plane was only seconds from impact, these guys were still professionals and the copilot’s last words still chill me.
He said, “Ah, here we go.”
So when I got the idea for "Faith," a story about what really keeps planes in the air and our feet on the ground, I decided to honor these men and all pilots who’ve died trying to overcome crashing planes. The dialog between the pilots during the crash scene is directly quoting the Alaskan's pilots. For me, it makes the piece all that more traumatic.
I wanted to be outrageous with this story. I wanted to write about a person’s obsession with their weight. How far would someone go to attain their target weight? I played off the Weightwatcher’s credo and took it to another extreme. What if someone lost all grip on their health and welfare all for a number. So I centered the story on Grace, a successful doctor, but an unsatisfied woman, who has failed every diet regime she's undertaken. She forges her medical records to undertake a wide range of medical procedures which include amputation in order to attain her ideal weight.
I thought I’d really pushed the limits of what was real until I was contacted by a reader. The woman in question wrote to thank me for writing the story. In her past, she’d been in anorexic and bulimic. She’d spent years trying to attain an impossible ideal. She confessed that she’d weighed her limbs and considered amputation in order to see a lower number on the scale. It was a touching and distressing letter, but it went to prove that if a writer can conceive an idea, someone has already done it. we all have our obsessions, but we just have to be careful that we don’t get carried away.
I hope I’ve whetted your appetite to read the stories themselves. The book went out of print in 2004, but it’s now available in ebook format. You can obtain it from the following: