A Pleasing Terror: Horror and Me, A Prologue

My grandmother’s house was built in 1886. It was a row house, typical of the factory cities of the northeast, with three rooms (and a bathroom) on the ground floor, two bedrooms upstairs (where 7 people lived for a while in the 1950s), and a finished basement. It’s the one in the header image, just left of center, with the green porch and white downspout.

Or rather, semi-finished. The front half, which had a window that looked out on the street, right at the level of the sidewalk, so that you could see the legs, up to the knee, of any visitors or passersby, was done up with cheap paneling and carpet remnants laid over painted concrete floors. The back half, which housed the furnace and the heating oil tank, in front of where the coal chute had stood, was just rough brick walls and a plaster ceiling, so old that it was crumbling, held together by a web of horsehair and dust. And in the back wall of that room, as far from the wan, milky light of the window, was a hole, five feet high, knocked right through the brick and into the earth below the kitchen. In that hole, which was maybe six or seven feet deep but looked like the Abyss to me, my grandfather kept bits of lumber and pipe and the other detritus a self-taught handyman would accumulate over two decades of keeping a house together on the cheap.

That hole in the wall might as well have been an open grave as far as I was concerned. I was terrified of it, of the cold air and the damp earth smell it seeped, of the spiders and silverfish that made a den in it, of the stacks of wood under which who knew what abomination slumbered, or simply waited. Waited for a plump little boy who always had to touch the stove, who couldn’t just be satisfied to be told it would burn his hand.

I’ve been chasing that frisson ever since. The closest I’ve ever come to the thrill of knowing, knowing, that the ghost was right behind me, its spectral hand twisted into a claw, reaching for me in the dark, was when I spent an hour in the Catacombs of Kom al-Shoqafa, the Roman crypts under Alexandria. The lapping of water in the empty tombs, tombs that had once held the mummified remains of the holy Apis bulls and their human worshipers, echoed my heartbeat as I traversed a place given over entirely to the dead. I loved it.

Some of you are superhero fans, some sci-fi or fantasy enthusiasts. For me, horror, and supernatural horror in particular, has been the central genre of my life. I loved the friendly monsters of Sesame Street. I was enthralled by the chilling mysteries of In Search Of…. I wanted to be a werewolf between wanting to be a paleontologist and wanting to be an archaeologist. The first movie I ever saw on my own had Godzilla as the top billed star. And even now, especially now, as things spin out in a way none of us would have expected even last Christmas, it’s the manageable scares of Dunwich and Derry and Lufford Abbey that give me comfort.

Anyway, I thought I’d bring you along on this exhumation of the things that haunt the dark and cry out in the night. It’s going to be my Dollar Store version of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre and Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie and maybe a bit of Leila Taylor’s Darkly, too. My plan is to talk about an author or a movie or a place or an object that has connected with me in some way, in part as a way of exorcising it, in part as a way of passing this wonderful curse on to someone else.

I’ll be back soon to talk about something. Maybe M.R. James, maybe the cheap thrills of the 70s paranormal craze, maybe the way the ghost is a stand in for capital in my idiosyncratic theory of the horror genre. We’ll see when we get there. But for now, let’s have some fun, stumbling along in the dark together.