It is an accepted fact that our upbringing has a lot to do with the type of people we become. How we are raised as children will have a direct bearing on our interests later in life.
I've often wondered myself what exactly it was that compelled me to become a horror writer. The answer of course has been right in front of me all my life. I never recognized it until now. While visiting my mom, who now resides in a nursing home, during one of her lucid periods, we got to reminiscing about the past. Which always begins with, "Do you remember?"
Recently she asked me "Do you remember how your Aunt Jean used to scare you kids?"
Of course I did.
Growing up I always looked forward to summer vacation. Not only to escape the stifling heat of the classroom. The only air conditioning we had was an open window, and from March on the sun turned our classroom into an oven. But during the summer we would pile into the car to visit our grandparents who lived in the Appalachian mountains of Western Maryland. My mom came from a family of ten children, and when we all got together there were enough of us to put together two baseball teams.
Zihlman, where my Grandparents lived, wasn’t really a town. It was more of a wide spot along Route Thirty Six between Mount Savage and Frostburg, where a group of unrelated people had chosen to settle. Though small the unincorporated town boasted a brick plant that is still in operation today. One church. One barbershop, and two bars. Blanks tavern, which is still open, was originally owned by Art Blank who also owned the barbershop. His main competitor Ray, operated a small grocery whose main attraction, for us kids at least, was the glass case filled with penny candy. During the summer we’d hunt bottles to return for the deposit so we could buy candy. He ran a pretty brisk candy business in the summer, and along with the shadowy bar he operated in his back room, which none of is were allowed to enter, he managed to survive.
Me and my cousins would terrorize our little neighborhood. Of course we knew our boundaries. We were allowed to walk down Zihlman straight to Rays, and no further. Rays stood with two other buildings in a massive gravel parking lot. One building contained Blanks Tavern, and we were all warned to never go into the Tavern, which of course only served to ignite our curiosity about that low long building trimmed in neon lights. The center building housed the barbershop and a small bar. While Rays stood at the other end of the lot.
Practically every night we would camp out on several large quilts that would be spread out in the back yard. There were no tents. Just sleeping bags if one was lucky enough to own one. If not our grandmother would provide several blankets and a pillow to make a bed for us. We’d sit up telling ghost stories as the stars sparkled in the sky above and the moon cast long shadows into the darker corners gathered around the haunted house that stood just a stones throw away.
The house next to my grandmothers was supposed to be haunted. It had been abandoned long before any of us were born. Its doors were missing and many of the windows had been broken out over time. It was rumored the previous owner had hung himself in the living room, and on a moonless night, if one were to venture into the overgrown yard that surrounded the aging structure, you might catch a glimpse of a shadowy figure hanging in the center the center of the living room.
Sometimes our Aunt Jean would sneak into the yard to scare us. Jumping out of the shadows with a sheet draped over her head, sending us screaming to the porch where our grandmother would yell at her to quit scaring those poor kids. But she would never listen and the best scare she ever gave us was when she slipped into the front door of the haunted house and started making noises inside. We were terrified, believing the ghost of the occupant was coming to take us all away. She got a good laugh at our expense, as well as a stern lecture from our grandmother, which she completely ignored.
As we grew older we became braver and were soon sleeping out in the back yard of the haunted house, each of us hoping to catch a glimpse of the ghosts that inhabited its shadowy rooms. We never did, but those summer nights awakened a burning desire within me. A desire to experience the chills we’d felt, and to share them with others.
Several years later my Aunt Jean came to spend a few weeks with us in Washington D.C where we lived at the time. By then I had earned a reputation in the family as a voracious reader. We were talking about those summer nights and I was sharing my latest read with her when out of the blue she said. “You should write about that. If anyone in the family can, it’s you.”