To celebrate the release of the second season of Come Join Us By The Fire, our audio horror anthology, we’ve asked authors with stories included in this year’s anthology to join us and write about horror. Below, Clay McLeod Chapman, whose story “The Fireplace” you can listen to here, writes about parenting two young children while writing (and imagining) horror.
I am a terrible parent. We’re talking a truly awful monster here. I’m telling you this all up front so that there can be no doubt in your mind, no conceivable excuse for the horrendous deeds I have done to my own flesh and blood.
In 2015, my wife and I welcome our second son into this world. I’ll keep him anonymous to protect him from the unfortunate truth… for now. As long as I possibly can.
Picture it: Here we were, our family, introducing our newest brood to the gang. This kid, I swear—he was always smiling from the get-go. Nothing could get this kid down. It was as if he was genetically designed for optimal cuddling. Hands down, he’s an absolute charmer. I loved him—and have continued to love him—with every aching fiber in my body since the day he entered our lives.
But what did I do? I imagined the worst.
I pictured tossing him into the fireplace.
A parent is supposed to protect their kids at all costs. They are supposed to shield them from the horrors of this world for as long as humanly possible… right? Isn’t that what we do?
But what if the horrors of the world begin at home? What if they are born from the very imaginations of those who are meant to protect these children?
I don’t know if the question or the answer came first, but I do recall asking myself what would be the worst, the absolute worst thing a parent such as myself could do to my own kid.
Turns out, the answer was simple. Very simple. Maybe a little too simple. May God have mercy on my soul, but that answer became the first sentence of my short story, “The Fireplace.”
The thought of tossing our baby in the fireplace first popped into my head a month or so ago.
I should maybe have mentioned up front that I’m a writer. Trying to be, at least. Inspiration comes from the ether most days, but sometimes, it gurgles up at you while you’re changing its diaper. What I have come to understand is, as an author of monstrous things and as a parent of quite cuddly sons, I am suffering from the habit of casting my own kids in my horror stories.
A while back, I remember reading an interview with playwright David Lindsay-Abaire about his new play at the time, “Rabbit Hole.” I don’t want to give away the plot of the play (or the film) because the mystery of it is the whole point to the story, but let’s just say there is an incident at the core of Rabbit Hole that reverberates throughout the lives of the fictitious Corbett family. Fate plays its hand and these parents are left to deal with its seismic repercussions.
In this interview, the question posed to Mr. Lindsay-Abaire was something like—Where did you get the idea for this play? How could you, as a parent, write something so tragic as this?
His answer—and I am completely paraphrasing here—was that, as a parent, he couldn’t help but imagine the worst-case scenarios for his family. His writing was an opportunity to exorcise those scenarios from his psyche. Cleanse himself from worrying about the worst, even when the world itself offers dangers around every corner.
At least, that’s what I think he said. That’s what I remember, at least. He—and we—as parents are now confronted with a whole new slew of horrors that besiege our parental imagination. If he didn’t write them out of his system, they would get backlogged in his brain. He had to confront his own fears and process them to move on and, I’m assuming, no longer be afraid of them. Thank god David Lindsay-Abaire writes tragicomedies. What if he wrote horror? (The remake of Poltergeist notwithstanding.)
It is terrifying to be a parent. Now everything has the added edge of imminent death.
Crossing the street…
…Watch out for that car!
Swimming in the pool…
…Don’t swim out to the deep end!
Even sucking on a lollipop…
Suddenly, the wall sockets want to electrocute my kids. The neighbor’s dog wants to devour them. That two inches of water at the bottom of the bathtub is just yearning to drown them. Not to mention the pesticides on our pears, the very chokeable Legos covering our floor, our persistently hissing gas oven… I find horror everywhere. Ev-er-y-where.
Before having children, mortality was a plaything. As a writer who tackles spooky stuff, it was quite honestly a hell of a lot easier to author wholesale slaughter before parenting entered the picture. Now that I’m a dad, I can’t help but feel as if horror has new consequences. Endless depths. I was never flip about death, but… well, there are just so many things to be afraid of now. I see death—can’t help myself from seeing it—everywhere, in everything. Danger lurks right outside our door. On the streets. In the very air we breathe (please wear a mask).
But worst of all, I see it in me.
It happens rather naturally, a certain mental knee-jerk moment. I’ll be walking with my kids and—Oh, what if that tree were to come to life and pluck our sons up and swallow them whole? Or—Oh, what if those raccoons scrambling about our backyard clawed their way into our house and abducted our son and raised him as one of their rabid own?
Inspiration is endless. When you’re this terrified of the world and what it can do to your kids, it’s quite easy to simply… riff.
That is around about the time I noticed our fireplace.
So… why? Why do I do this to myself? To others? I can’t help myself. The horror was in me from the beginning, even before I had kids. Becoming a parent has just given a new dimension to these terrors. Perhaps it’s added a bit more depth. The horror came home.
I can hear you right now: How? How could you even think of something like that?
The answer is… I don’t know. It’s always been there. It goes back to when I was a kid and I wanted to write spooky Stephen King-ish stories rather than toss the football in the backyard. These stories were in me, always within me, and they were just looking for a way to escape. The best writers, I feel, take their own experiences and imbue them with an emotional core that their readers can feel as if they are their own. It doesn’t matter how outlandish or surreal the story itself is. As long as there is an emotional core to the story, creating a kinship between these characters and the reader, then the writing resonates.
I took a fundamental experience—probably the one I have dreaded my whole life—fatherhood—and turned it into my personal nightmare. Maybe it’s your nightmare too?
I’ll be honest, I thought I could get away with it. That I’d never have to explain myself—to my son or my wife or anyone else. I could just write out this awful thing that spawned itself from the worse parts of my imagination and be done with it. Like David Lindsay-Abaire, I could exorcise it. Purge it from my system. Let it go and… run. Run far, far away. Never happened.
One day, years from now, my son will stumble upon this post and discover the grim truth about the origins of this ghastly story… I only hope he forgives me. Or I’ll be long gone by then. In my defense though, I’ll say this: I haven’t tossed either of my kids into our fireplace.
Clay McLeod Chapman is the creator of the storytelling session “The Pumpkin Pie Show” and the author of The Remaking, Rest Area, Nothing Untoward, and The Tribe trilogy. He is the co-author, with Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick, of the middle grade novel Wendell and Wild. In the world of comics, Chapman’s work includes Lazaretto, Iron Fist: Phantom Limb, and Edge of Spiderverse. He also writes for the screen, including The Boy, Henley, and Late Bloomer. You can find him at claymcleodchapman.com. His next novel, Whisper Down the Lane, will be published in April 2021.