Confessions of my Past, Present and Future
Darren O. Godfrey
For me, the love of all things ghastly and bizarre in printed matter all started with two unjacketed hardcover books; a red one and a blue one. Prior to that find were the usual kid’s material: a slew of Seuss, a dash of Dahl, along with favorites The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Desmond the Dog Detective, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Story of Ferdinand, as well as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and a host of other Twain tales, all easily located in the school library.
Those books, though, the red and the blue, were not on the school’s shelves. Nope. Those babies were right there, in my house, close enough to bite me, had they been snakes … and this is where I envision a Ghost of Readings Past (“Long past?” “No, your past”) bringing me, ethereally, to said house on Dogwood Street, in which I did much of my growing up. A green-carpeted living room, dim even during midday, with a fireplace taking up much of one wall, and, on either side of the hearth, built-in bookcases. These shelves hold a green-and-gold set of encyclopedias, dozens of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, and various other tomes not often touched by the family’s hands.
[An aside: I wish I could say that I sprung from a family of voracious readers; alas, I cannot. Mostly casual readers. Two or three of us, however became voracious readers. Later. And separately. In fact, nearly everything we did, we did separately. We were basically five strangers under one roof. But that’s an essay for another time.]
The ghost glides me to a spot near the cold fireplace. We hear sounds emanating from the kitchen, the clink and tink of a bowl and spoon being set in a porcelain sink. A short burst of water from the tap. The succinct footfalls of sneakers on kitchen tile, then softer pads of the soles on carpet. We (the spirit and I) see the shadow of a boy, and then the boy himself, crossing the living room on his way to his bedroom. His eyes flick to the left-hand set of shelves, then to the hallway before him, and then back to the shelves. He approaches the books, drops to one knee, and pulls out a bright red volume, and then its partner, a robin’s egg blue one.
The boy sits, folds his legs, and checks out the blue book. Its spine reads Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories for Late at Night. Its table of contents bear many names, among them Ray Bradbury, Jerome Bixby, William Hope Hodgson, M.R. James, Frank Belknap Long, Henry Slesar, and a funny one, George Langelaan. Langelaan’s contribution is called “The Fly”.
“Cool,” the boy says. He remembers seeing the film at a Halloween party the year before.
The red book’s title is Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories NOT for the Nervous. Inside: Bradbury (again), Joseph Payne Brennan, Dorothy L. Sayers, Frederick Brown, Hal Dresner, and Richard Matheson, among others. A title, “Don’t Look Behind You” jumps out at him. He finds it on page 95 and begins to read. Momentarily, he defies the story’s title and looks behind, as well as all around him. He turns himself, carefully, so that his back is to the bookcase, and reads some more. Nearing the end of the tale (which is about a man on his way to get YOU, yes YOU, the reader of the story), the boy checks his surroundings again, his eyes wide.
“Crap,” he mutters, jumps up, clutching a book in each hand, and scurries into his bedroom to finish the tale. And start another. And then another.
About a month later, the boy would begin to construct stories of his own.
The image below is of the actual red and blue books Darren has owned for over forty years. The books were printed in 1965 (red) and 1961 (blue).
Here, the Ghost of Readings Present smacks me upside the head with a book (or would it be a Kindle? An I-Pad?), for not reading as many new writers as I probably should. I’ve managed a few, here and there, of course – writers who’ve become known to me via book signings, conventions, internet social sites and message boards, through the HWA (works up for Stokers, for example), as well as through other writing projects, and most of those writers are very good – but what I’m mostly doing with my spare time in the here-and-now is rereading. I regularly revisit nearly every book and story written by Stephen King, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Robert McCammon, Dennis Etchison, Richard Matheson, Joe Lansdale, Charles Grant, Michael McDowell, Dan Simmons, James Herbert, Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Charles Beaumont, Thomas Monteleone, Mort Castle, Chet Williamson, John Farris, John Skipp and Craig Spector, F. Paul Wilson, Robert Bloch, Lawrence Block, John D. MacDonald, Richard Adams, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Agatha Christie, and Shirley Jackson. I go back to Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat every few years. Ditto: Bellefleur, by Joyce Carol Oates, Tempting Fate, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and The Trap, by Tabitha King.
About every five years, I reread the seminal works of horror fiction: Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Also, I habitually return to the works of Poe and Lovecraft, the shorter works of Henry James, M.R. James, and Algernon Blackwood, and around every six years, I float the Mississippi with Huckleberry Finn.
Oh, and those two books, the red one and the blue one (which my mother let me take with me when I left home). I reread those, too.
Is it wrong to pore over past readings so much? Is it wrong to dwell so much in the past?
If family history has any bearing on it, 2045 will likely find me in a grave. Or in ashes. If I’m still among the living, however, chances are I will be out of touch with reality – even more than I already am – and the dark form over my shoulder will be the Grim Reaper rather than the Ghost of Readings Yet to Come … who, by the way, is here now, pointing not at a hole in the ground, but at a stack of notebooks (paper, not electronic), large and small that contain hundreds of hastily scrawled notes (a great many of them penned while dining in my favorite Chinese restaurant) on various subjects, most of them to do with short stories and a novel-in-progress. The ghost is ordering me, silently, to get to work. Time is short.
I will address the two most pressing subjects from those notes.
An image has pestered me for years, seemingly for the sake of a story, stemming from a train of thought that has also dogged me for years: that of the overwhelming emotions felt by passengers in a plane that is about to crash. (After 9/11, I saw this scenario in my dreams, again and again.) Anyway, whenever I allow my thoughts to go there for more than a moment or two, I try and envision what different things individual passengers might be doing. Each of us reacts in different ways so … what is happening to who and why? Then comes the repeating image: a well-dressed gentleman, distinguished-looking with his silver hair and expensive suit. While those around him are screaming or sticking their heads between their legs, or are simply frozen in fear, this guy is sipping a martini. He doesn’t seem to be bothered in the least; he’s even smiling a bit.
I want to know why, and I want to write a story explaining why. Not long ago, I thought I had it, but (no pun intended) it stalled. I need to finish that thing, and soon.
Even more pressing is my novel, Jack in the Boxes. I started the damn thing almost 30 years ago. It’s about 90% there. It has not died on me – its key elements, its mysteries, its very tone has stuck with me, never weakening. Different, if not disparate, parts of the book have drawn together and dovetailed so neatly that I know it cannot be lying dormant. It’s too … vigorous. And that ghost’s bony finger is insisting I get on with it.
And, as to what I might be reading (again, assuming I am able): I suspect I will be perusing the works of those mentioned above for about the thousandth time, and the pages and bindings of those two books, the red and the blue, well-worn now, will no doubt be held together with Scotch tape, Elmer’s glue, and a heap of hope.
However, anyone out there who feels there are talented new writers whose work is so entertaining, frightening, and enriching that my life, its end ever-approaching, will in some way be diminished by missing out on them … well, feel free to give me a heads-up.
Darren’s short story collection Apathetic Flesh is available to buy as an eBook and just recently as paperback. You can buy it here.
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Darren O. Godfrey, an Idahoan, has lived in seven of the 50 United States and has spent a fair amount of time in more than half of them. While he’s never wrapped himself in the American flag, he has washed a good amount of its soil off his hands. His fiction has appeared in Gorezone Magazine (the late, great sister publication to Fangoria) and Black October, as well as The Museum of Horrors, Borderlands 2, Borderlands 5, and Quietly Now: An Anthology in Tribute to Charles L. Grant, among others. His story, “Recess” was selected by Mort Castle for ALL-AMERICAN HORROR of the 21st Century, the First Decade. Some of his early work has been collected in Apathetic Flesh, published by Books of the Dead Press.
To see more about Darren, you can find him at the links below.