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, Damien Angelica Walters, whose story “Tooth, Tongue, and Claw” you can listen to here, writes about the formative scary books and movies of her youth.
When I started this post, I thought for certain I’d write about one specific movie and one book, because they’re what I mention time and time again in articles and in person when asked what pulled me into the horror genre. But instead of writing straightaway, I thought back to my childhood, and while the two standouts in my memory played a massive part in my fondness for horror, there were others that also hold weight, so bear with me while I rewind the clock and peel back the curtain of my childhood a bit.
First I should note that I have a memory like an elephant. Even after half a century on this planet, I can recall what a specific hallway looked like when I was a toddler and how the adults standing in that hallway appeared as strange towering figures, how the hallway opened into a room with a scratchy braided rug. It’s an odd memory, very sensory in nature and hard to truly describe with words but it’s definitely a memory, as strong as all those that came later. I can also easily recall many other distinct events and even exact dialogue from countless conversations.
Some of my fondest memories are of weekly visits with my father to our local library. There was nothing quite like the excitement of passing through the front doors and smelling that uniquely potent library smell. Or of walking through the aisles and running my small fingers along the spines. All those stories waiting there to whisper into my ears, all those books waiting to become a towering stack in my arms. Even when I go to the bookstore now (or did, pre-Covid) I never carry a basket. I like to balance a tower of books in my arms because it takes me back to those days.
I don’t know exactly when the towering stack of Jenny and the Cat Club books changed to Judy Blume and Lois Duncan, but somewhere in between I discovered Ruth Chew and her witch books. They weren’t frightening, but they were filled with magic and possibility. I might be cheating a bit talking about them here because I don’t think I borrowed any of them from the library. A teacher loaned one to me; the rest were purchased via the Scholastic Book Club. Poring over the book club flyers was something quite magical in itself.
I still have seven of those Ruth Chew books, battered and worn, the pages yellowing. They’re on a bookcase with my Nancy Drew books and a handful of others that survived the passage of time, including Five Were Missing by Lois Duncan. I’m pretty certain that was another Scholastic Book Club buy, although a later one. Her other books, though, including I Know What You Did Last Summer, Summer of Fear, and my personal favorite, Down a Dark Hall, were library reads. I borrowed Down a Dark Hall multiple times, thrilled and horrified by the scene in the boarding school where Kit wakes up playing a song on the piano she’s never heard before. That loss of control is such a primal fear and the goosebumps I still get when I think of the scene are a testament to its power. The Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson is another book that owned my heart. In it, everyone over the age of twelve dies, leaving all the children to fend for themselves. It’s safe to say that the macabre found a home within me early on.
But books weren’t the only influence. On Sunday mornings, my brother and I would wake early and turn the television to the channel that played old movies. There I watched Godzilla destroy Tokyo and fight Mothra, King Ghidorah, and Mechagodzilla, among others. I was transfixed by Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation that allowed Sinbad to battle the fighting skeletons, the cyclops, Medusa. I cried when King Kong fell to his death and thought Ultraman was the absolute best. Old school disaster movies I loved, too. All that destruction and fear and death. The Poseidon flipping upside down thanks to a tidal wave; the skyscraper catching fire and trapping everyone.
But the movie that towers above all the others from those weekend viewings is Westworld. I’m not sure how old I was when I saw it for the first time, but neither the film nor the fear it generated in young me have ever left my memory. Even though the movie is terribly dated now, Yul Brynner is still terrifying as the gunslinger. His posture, his walk, his expression. He played that role to perfection. He doesn’t look real. He looks like a robot with murder running through his circuits. When it was announced that there was going to be a series, I was so thrilled I couldn’t stand myself.
My mother watched Sybil when it aired on television, and I watched it with her. If I close my eyes I can still see the scene where Sybil is locked in the wooden box, purple crayon clutched tight in her hand. My mother had the paperback, a copy I ended up swiping from the bookcase, along with The Exorcist, when I was a teenager. I still have it, although it’s missing both the front and back covers. The copy of The Exorcist is in slightly better shape; it’s only absent the back cover.
Alongside parachute pants, Miami Vice, and garish makeup, the eighties brought a glut of mass market paperback horror, all with lurid covers and either formulaic or eye-catching titles. Do you remember The Dark or The Amulet? How about Suffer the Children or Cold Moon Over Babylon? The quality of the stories within varied from the brilliant to the rather less so. They were relatively inexpensive nightmares that fit into a pocket, perfect reading for a young girl who preferred shadows to sunflowers. I still have all my Stephen King paperbacks from that era, along with several by Peter Straub, James Herbert, and Dean Koontz, but none of the others survived. My best guess is that they were tucked away in a box in my parents’ attic and later donated or sold at a yard sale. But there’s a part of my mind that hopes maybe they’re still in that box, moldering and crumpled at the corners, hidden beneath the eaves of a house no longer in the family, all the stories waiting to be discovered again.
In addition to the books, there were movies. So many movies, starting with Halloween, released in 1978, and then all the slasher films that came after. A few held the same creeping dread of Michael Myers and his implacable savagery; most only offered an ever-increasing number of dead bodies and creative kill methods. Young Damien watched them all, squirming at the flashing blades and spurting blood, daring to look until she had to look away. I strongly suspect most of them were more of an exercise in grim determination than actual enjoyment.
And now to the two big defining works that stand above all the rest. We’re going to flip back a few pages because I encountered both the year I turned eleven, before all those 80s horror novels. I was still reading Lois Duncan and a friend of the family who knew I enjoyed scary stories gave me her copy of The Shining, the paperback version with the shiny foil cover. Once I read the first page, I couldn’t put it down. I’m guessing quite a bit of the deeper context of familial disintegration went over my head but the story held me fast. The hedge animals. The roque mallet. And the woman in room 217. For more years than I care to admit, I had to peek behind the shower curtain to make sure the bathtub was empty. Seriously. That’s how much impact that single scene had on eleven-year-old me. I’ve reread the book many times since then and still adore it but I confess that every time after reading, my first trip into a bathroom with a shower curtain gives me pause. I don’t have to peek behind the curtain anymore, though. At least not most of the time. The Shining is still one of my favorite King novels, alongside Lisey’s Story.
That same year my father took me to see Alien. We didn’t know much about it, honestly; movie trailers didn’t give much away then, a trend I wish would return. But there we were, popcorn in hand, watching the film. The scene with the chestburster horrified me but it was the tension afterward, more than those few minutes of gore, that did me in. I couldn’t watch anymore. Couldn’t bear to sit there hearing it either.
I begged my dad to leave and we did, although I know he wanted to see the rest of the movie. But in the days afterward, I couldn’t get the movie out of my head. I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to know how the Nostromo crew was going to fight back. I wanted to know if they were going to win. So I asked my dad if we could see it again. I asked and asked and asked and finally he said yes, but I had to promise to stay until the end, no matter what, even if I had to hide my face in my hands. I agreed, and I did, without hiding my face for one second, and I was terrified and loved every second of it.
At one point in time VHS tapes were about $100 each. I saved my money and bought a copy of Alien and watched it more times than I can count. I had the movie soundtrack on vinyl. I had the iconic poster. And it’s still my number one favorite movie of all time. My pit bull, who passed away from cancer earlier this year, was named Kane. His rescue sibling is named Ripley. I even have a Xenomorph decal on the back window of my car.
But while I have old favorites, I love the way horror has changed over the years. The genre is so much more expansive and inclusive. These days it’s a wide umbrella with many spokes and room beneath for all sorts of stories, and they’re not the same recycled format told over and over again by the same voices. Some of my favorite more recent novels include The Grip of It by Jac Jemc, The Deep by Alma Katsu, and My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. The show Hannibal is brilliant. I won two wine bottles from the set in a prop auction and they’re on prominent display in my office. And when it comes to movies, I adore The Witch. I also love Us, The Babadook, Get Out, and Sputnik, a recent watch that owes much to Alien and yet definitely brings its own story to the table. I watched Natalie Erika James’ Relic this past weekend and it was fantastic. Creepy, atmospheric, and emotionally gripping, too. I have yet to see Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona, but I’ve heard wonderful things, and I’m ridiculously excited for Nia DaCosta’s Candyman.
I think about the very small Damien with her arms full of library books and can’t help but smile. She has so many stories yet to read and later, she’ll have her own to write. If I had to tell her one thing, it would be to keep reading, but she managed that just fine on her own.
Damien Angelica Walters is the author of The Dead Girls Club, Cry Your Way Home, Paper Tigers, and Sing Me Your Scars. Her short fiction has been nominated twice for a Bram Stoker Award, reprinted in Best Horror of the Year, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, and The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and published in various anthologies and magazines, including the Shirley Jackson Award Finalists “Autumn Cthulhu” and “The Madness of Dr. Caligari,” World Fantasy Award Finalist “Cassilda’s Song,” “Nightmare Magazine,” and “Black Static.” She lives in Maryland with her husband and a rescued pit bull named Ripley. Find her on Twitter @DamienAWalters or on her website.