After self-publishing only two books (both in the same series) I haven’t done enough to nail down my niche as a write/author/illustrator/storyteller.
I can say with certainty, however, that I don’t want to be known as someone who writes ghost stories. (Though Stephenie Meyer made out pretty well writing only about vampire lust, I can’t stay focused on one topic for too long…the world is too big and many different stories I want to tell). While Freeing Linhurst is generally perceived as a ghost story, there’s more meaning behind it and readers get that. In finding my niche, I’m actually getting somewhere.
I was a kid who grew up watching too much television, and we had one of those giant ones with the bulbous smokey-grey screen. It sat inside a beautiful piece of wooden furniture—which my dad refinished when I was about seven or eight—in light cherry and covered in what felt like 3mm of polyurethane. I miss it like an old pet.
I moved a lot and found that absorbing hours of mindless sitcoms, game shows, and (thanks to my mother) 60s and 70s reruns allowed me to escape the otherwise nagging idea that we would probably be pulling out our arsenal of tattered and reused cardboard moving boxes and hitting the road again any day. In reality, the tv was a source of comfort that took me from making friends and getting involved socially, which was simply confusing and terrifying at once.
I learned something from all those hours in front of the boob tube.
like a kid who grew up playing video games starts to see the patterns to win, I went from seeing each episode of Gilligan’s Island, Facts of Life, Saved by the Bell, and Home Improvement not so much a window into the lives of real people (who I didn’t get a chance to see firsthand because I was sheltered inside my living room) but more as a formulaic storyline that pulled viewers away from their daily lives for a half hour at a time once a week.
Because of all the moving and the overwhelming amount of TV and movie time, I didn’t get a whole lot of reading in as a kid. My ADD was never attended to, certainly because at the time it wasn’t even a thing. I was also tortured in second grade when a teacher said I was very far behind in my reading and needed to spend every night at home reading for an hour or more (but that’s another story potentially titled “My Parents Loved Me and That’s Why They Tortured Me”). But I really think the ignored diagnosis that has characterized recent generations, and which I learned to harness—coupled with missing summer reading lists due to the many moves—kept me from getting further than a few pages into any great book. Now as a busy parent, I still don’t find enough time to dedicate, but I know one day I will pour through all those pages I missed. For now, I read what I can and become inspired by practically everything I pick up. There are so many great authors out there!
Let’s get back to the point—why do I write what I write?
Partly that I have stories to tell. I’ve been telling stories for as long as I can remember. I would put together written and illustrated short story books in elementary school. I used to write up plays for me and my three siblings to perform for our parents when we were kids, usually at Christmas time. I wrote a children’s book in ninth grade for a creative writing class that my English teacher worked tirelessly to get published (to no avail, partly because I was weakly involved due to my continued fear and understanding of social norms). Through college and beyond, I sketched out many ideas for numerous books, screenplays, cartoons, comics and movies…but “life” has always called me to ground myself first. I would love to just throw away the career in graphics, design and marketing I have built up since I was 17 years old and just go for this, but there’s too much at stake to do anything but go my own pace and in my own way.
When the time came that I committed myself to finally pushing through a first major project, I had to start somewhere. Sure I had helped write and illustrate a few books for clients over the years, but they were never mine. I had a part in the process, but it wasn’t my concept or original idea, I just helped bring it to fruition.
Freeing Linhurst was the first. But why? Many have asked that question. The short answer is that I felt inspired by it more than most of my ideas. The other answer is that of all the stories that have crossed my mind or landed on a sketch pad over the years, this one (or one like it) kept coming back to me.
Disclaimer: I was terrified of anything remotely scary as a child.
I was the kid who hid his eyes when a commercial came on for an upcoming horror flick or kid’s Halloween film. Not atypical. I think we can all relate to that. My family likes to say that watching Scooby Doo cartoons at six did it to me. They have no idea—I would have loved to keep watching Scooby Doo. I had nightmares about Jaws, the shark movie based on a real incident in 1916 that was likely committed by a bull shark and not a great white that couldn’t even swim in shallow waters to commit most of those man-eating atrocities. The nightmares of that animatronic cartilaginous lasted until I was about 17 years old. I watched Jaws with my family when I was about nine or 10—what parent allows that? Good lord! But it still wasn’t Jaws that started it all. My family wanted to go to the movies to see Ghostbusters and I literally had a nervous breakdown over the idea, it still wasn’t the thing that started it all. (And let’s admit that Slimer and the ghost in the library were a little scary in the movie trailer despite it becoming a comedy classic).
What really got it going was something far worse: my imagination.
Overactive as it is, it took years to move all the thoughts in my mind into something more productive. When you are just four years old and your crazy uncles decide it’s hysterical to pull the horrifyingly realistic green mask of Frankenstein’s monster out of the closet, put it on, then growl at you as they chase you around the house—your blood pressure rising to the point of your vision going foggy and limbs feeling weak and heavy—it becomes a good lesson to carry on to adulthood in how you treat children. But that still wasn’t the thing that got me. That only helped me to remember that every frightening thing we see has a simple, real-world explanation behind it. (In the case of my uncles and their “hysterical” antics at the expense of my health and well-being, it taught me that even though they appeared to turn into an actual monster when they put the mask on, it was really just one of my uncles behind it…like in Scooby Doo).
Around that time, those same uncles sat around with my aunts in the living room at my grandmother’s house. It was a warm summer afternoon and raining outside. They decided to check out HBO (this really cool new channel where they play movies all the time) and what came on? Some alien movie rated R that we kids couldn’t watch. Instead of changing the channel, we were kicked out to the front porch—in the warm summer afternoon while the rain came down. What were we supposed to do on the porch? There was nothing out there but a swing and a couple metal chairs. And the house was too small to go anywhere else. They didn’t care. They were just teenagers (yes, my aunts and uncles…yet another story). Being kids, we became bored within a minute. There’s only so many times you can swing the old metal swing against the wall, and get yelled at for it, before you realize there is absolutely nothing to do on the front porch on a rainy hot day. All you want to do is go in and watch television.
So we started peeking through the windows. What we saw was nothing of consequence at first—the occasional extreme closeup of a young male or female character with giant hair (feathered on the sides) looking like they were on the run. A pickup truck flying down the road with a vast universe of night sky above. Train tracks. A diner. So on. But with every peek we took, we got another yell or smack on the window by a big yellow flyswatter.
“Stay outside!” they hollered. “Go find something to do!” or “Quit watching…this ain’t for kids!” Of course, we would keep quiet for a minute or two until we feel safe that they forgot about us again, then give another look.
Then came the moment I would regret. To this day, I don’t remember what I saw. Could have been someone being taken up into a spaceship by a beam of light. It may have been an alien autopsy. For all I know, it was some cheesy graphic scene where a prominent character was decapitated. Don’t remember. Maybe there’s some psychotherapy tool out there to help me remember it. All I know is seeing that out of context left me afraid of so much for years to come.
It’s all in my head.
It’s all in anyone’s head. My seven year old son had a long spat of being terrified that the possessed doll Annabelle would haunt him in his bedroom despite never having seen the movie. The trailer on television was enough to scare the bejesus out of him for months on end, relentlessly scarring his mind and making him turn on lights in every room or needing an adult to accompany him in his brightly lit upstairs bedroom while he dressed for school in the morning.
This is exactly why I write what I write. It’s all about “seeing is believing” versus what we see is not always what it really is.
Perceptions can be changed through good storytelling.
Which is my goal. As I said, I don’t want to be known for writing ghost stories. That’s not really what Freeing Linhurst is about. I want to focus on writing about things that change perceptions. Through storytelling, I want to take the reader on a journey from what they knew to what they could consider. And isn’t that the point of any good writing?
Freeing Linhurst was an attempt to tell the story about a place with so much stigma, but for all the wrong reasons. Too many forget, or don’t want to admit, what really happened in a place like Linhurst because it is too much effort to consider how we never repeat that kind of history.
Still we repeat that kind of history. Over and over and over again in so many ways. I will never run out of stories to tell so long as there are perceptions that can be changed. Hopefully you will keep reading.