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, Matthew Lyons, whose story “Blood Daughter” you can listen to here, writes about how Ash Williams taught him that every story is a horror story.
You’re the Curious One
I must have been fifteen the first time I saw Evil Dead 2.
Up until that point, I had always liked horror well enough (I spent a lot of my formative years watching countless Friday the 13th installments on VHS with my doofy friends, reading Stephen King way earlier than I probably should have, and watching Joe Bob Briggs’ MonsterVision as well as the Kubrick adaptation of The Shining whenever they were on late-night weekend cable), but it never really… clicked for me.
Maybe it was the limited scope of what was available, horror-wise. Other than the occasional MonsterVision gem, all I had to work with was the well-known, mainstream stuff that got regular cable reruns: the slashers, the critically-adored classics, the occasional episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? or Unsolved Mysteries. Now, there’s nothing wrong with growing up on that diet, but after a few years spent really trying to get deeper into the genre, nothing had really taken in the way that I’d been hoping. I’d started to think that maybe horror maybe just wasn’t for me.
But then, one Friday, everything changed.
My family used to rent movies from a neighborhood video store called Video & Video Games, back when video stores were a thing (kids, ask your parents). One Friday after school, I stopped in at Video & Video Games to find something new to watch – I’d recently discovered zombie movies and wanted to broaden my horizons. Bringing my selections to the front counter, Mike, who I had long considered to be the most knowledgeable clerk at Video & Video Games, grokked the theme and shook his head.
“What?” I asked. But Mike wouldn’t answer. Instead, he set my chosen stack of cassettes aside, then led me back to the Horror section, where he thumbed a single VHS tape off the middle shelf and handed it over.
“Seriously, if you want to get into the good stuff, you should really watch that one first.”
On the cover was a grinning skull sporting a pair of wide, frightened eyes above the tagline Kiss your nerves good-bye!
Beneath that, in bright, blood red: Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn.
Right out of the holster, I said, “…but I haven’t seen the first one.”
He laughed, not unkindly, and told me not to worry about it. At Mike’s insistence, I left all the other movies behind and promised to watch it that night.
Who’s Laughing Now?
It was the chainsaw scene that did it. You know the one: after making actual physical contact with one of the cabin’s many invisible horrors, Ash’s hand gets possessed and rebels, attacking him with a series of plates, glasses and more (in one of the best one-man slapstick performances I’ve ever seen). In response, Ash revs up the Knowbys’ old chainsaw (still warm from dismembering Linda, his possessed girlfriend) and cuts the possessed hand from his body, cackling like a madman as he does it.
Honestly, the first time I saw it happen, I was a little sick to my stomach. The blood drenching Bruce Campbell’s face and neck seemed so real, and there was just so damn much of it. It was hard to get past it; it was just so… excessive. But there was something about it that I couldn’t shake, like being on the verge of understanding a joke that had gone over my head the first time. I was so close to getting it; I just needed to hear it all the way through, one more time.
As soon as Ash weighed down the bucket containing his dismembered hand down with a heavy copy of A Farewell to Arms (to this day probably my favorite visual gag in any movie, ever) I hit rewind and watched the scene all play out again. Except this time, by the time he trapped the hand under the Hemingway, I was laughing like a maniac.
See, Evil Dead 2 is very much its own thing, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that it played by its own rules. Like the rest of the series, it isn’t exactly a zombie flick, but it’s not far off the mark, either. It’s a possession movie, but it wasn’t like any possession movie I’d ever seen––I mean, come on, the last one I’d watched was The Exorcist. I was young; I didn’t know that a chainsaw to the face was just as effective (maybe even more so) as Father Karras enticing Pazuzu into his own body before heroically defenestrating himself. Also, I’d seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (again, at probably too young an age)––chainsaws were what the bad guys used, weren’t they?
But then things started coming into focus: Ash was the good guy, but he was also very clearly kind of a goddamn blockhead. The furniture was coming to life and turning evil for some reason, but it was doing it as a goof. The malevolent, otherworldly things taking up residence inside Ash (and Henrietta, and Linda, and Ed) were scary, but they were fun-scary. They were cartoon characters. Cartoon characters that bled and rotted and slaughtered the innocent for fun, sure, but cartoon characters nonetheless.
It wore its influences like a badge of honor: it was a Three Stooges movie where the Stooges were all condensed into one beautiful, lantern-jawed dumbass. It was a remake that, I found out later, kept what it wanted from the original and scrapped the rest in favor of something better. It was a splatter flick that didn’t limit itself to one color of blood (notably, there are four, sort of like a fucked-up Crayola sample pack: Human Red, Cabin Black, Deadite Green and Big Bad Blue).
To my young and impressionable teenage mind, this was nothing short of a revelation. Up until this point, I hadn’t fully realized that tropes were tools, not rules; it was how you used them (or didn’t use them) that mattered. Evil Dead 2 wasn’t just the coolest movie I’d ever seen, it was my whole introduction into deconstructionism.
That Friday night, I stayed up late and did something I’d never done before, and have only ever done a handful of times since: as soon as the credits rolled, I rewound the tape and I watched it all the way through again. And then I did it again.
Find What You Love (and Let It Kill You)
It wasn’t just the splatter, or the goofs, or the one-liners that I latched onto. It was the writing. Everything in this movie is absolutely crazy in the best possible way, but somehow it never loses the audience along the way. It never crosses some arbitrary line that breaks your suspension of disbelief and makes you throw popcorn at the screen, shouting “Bullshit!,” because everything that happens in Evil Dead 2 is a direct result of somebody doing something else first. The whole movie is an expert study in consequences.
In a movie full of legitimately amazing things, maybe the best thing that Evil Dead 2 does (and it does it over and over and over) is that, like any other brilliant comedy of its caliber, it never stops Yes, and-ing. Contrast that with the first Evil Dead, which, while a classic in its own right, it’s still mostly a straightforward splatter flick: haunted woods, demonic possession, dwindling party, roll credits. It’s not bad, it’s just so dang… straightforward.
Evil Dead 2, on the other hand, is constantly examining the consequences of every plot turn: Linda gets possessed, Ash cuts her head off with a shovel. Yes, and? The demons possess Ash next, but when he recovers, he finds that his only way out of the woods has been destroyed. Yes, and? Ash returns to the Knowby cabin and fights the reanimated demon-Linda, but in doing so, gets his hand possessed, forcing him to carve it off with a chainsaw. Yes, and?
It commits to this trick so effectively and completely that over the course of eighty-something minutes, every step the story bravely takes toward the summit of Batshit Mountain feels completely organic. By the end of the movie, Ash has made himself into a stone-cold killer, traded his right hand for a chainsaw, watched everyone else die in bloody, screaming agony, fought a giant demon tree, and topped it all off by getting thrown back in time to the 14th century. None of it feels unearned, none of it feels out of the realm of possibility.
That’s why more than anything, Evil Dead 2 made me want to drop everything I was doing and write horror. Because if horror could be this intentionally oddball and wacky and still some-goddamn-how stick the landing, then horror could be anything. For the first time in my life, I saw that more than any other kind of storytelling, horror is genre-inclusive. After all, even the lightest stories traffic in fear and dread somewhere along the line; peel back the wallpaper far enough and you’ll find nightmares scribbled on the plaster in every house.
Whatever you’re into, there’s a horror story out there that you’re going to love. You want heavy family drama with your scares? Here, watch Hereditary. Oh, you were looking for John-Hughes-style comedy that’ll still shake you to your core? Check out My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix. So you’re in the mood for strange, melancholy sci-fi, but also cosmic mythology and buckets of blood? Let me ask, have you played Dead Space yet?
After watching Evil Dead 2, I didn’t just feel like my eyes had opened, I felt like somebody had drilled down into my skull and set off a bomb inside my brain. I finally understood: when it’s done right, horror can be anything, because horror embraces everything. Every story is a horror story. You just have to look at it from the right angle. It wasn’t until I saw Ash Williams, lunkhead extraordinaire, screaming in anguish atop that hill in front of the Castle of Kandar that it finally clicked into place forever.
On Sunday morning, I dropped the tape off at Video & Video Games, told Mike that he was right, and thanked him. The next weekend, I came back and rented it again. I couldn’t not. The movie – and horror itself – had sunk its hooks in me for good. All that was left was to strap a chainsaw to my hand and go out to greet it with a smile.
(Also, while I’ve still got you, I just want to go ahead and say: Fede Alvarez’s 2013 EVIL DEAD rules, and it sucks that we never got to see the sequel for it. Just putting that out there.)
Matthew Lyons is the author of the novel The Night Will Find Us, as well as over three dozen short stories, appearing in the 2018 edition of Best American Short Stories (edited by Roxane Gay) and more. Born in Colorado, he lives in Denver with his wife and their cat.