DiLeo Writes—Chapter 2: On Death and Horror (and a Free Short Story)
Thank you for subscribing to my newsletter. The first one was sent way back in February, and now that it looks like we are finally emerging from winter's cold lifelessness into spring's warm rebirth, I thought it a good time to discuss death.
As a fan of horror fiction and movies, I encounter fictional death quite frequently. Those of a similar ilk don't need to ask why people find death and violence entertaining—we are acutely aware, perhaps more so than the masses who shy from Stephen King and the latest horror flick in the cinema, that the consequence of life is death. There is no escaping it. There is no willing it away. We each owe a death, and we don't know when that moment will come.
People might counter that while they know death is unavoidable, they don't see the point in fixating on it. Why fill your head with such dark, depressing thoughts and images? Doesn't that road lead to a callous immunity to real suffering?
No. It doesn't.
Why do we read or watch movies? Why, for that matter, do I write? To go one step further, why do I teach English?
The answers are the same: to discover what it means to be human.
In a riff off of Camus, I will say that all art (books, movies, paintings, et al) is an effort to reconcile our understanding that we will one day be dead. Camus might say it doesn't matter how or when we will die, and in fact everything we do is, essentially, meaningless, but that doesn't change the basic circumstance: we are going to die.
Horror, more so than any other genre, confronts that troubling problem head-on, which is partly why it is an oft-maligned subset of the thriller and the drama (and sometimes the comedy). (It's also derided because of all those scantily-clad women fleeing crazed chainsaw madmen through dark woods. And, oh yeah, all that blood.) Horror dares us to experience possible deaths vicariously. In some ways, the genre provides rehearsal for the inevitable. Unlike thrill-seekers who BASE jump off cliffs, the horror fan is in no rush to directly challenge death. There may be a love of chaos nestled in the horror-fan's heart, but it is a controlled and contained chaos.
Yeats wrote that "the center cannot hold," but I do not want the world to crumble into anarchy, or a "blood-dimmed tide" to drown the world. Such terribleness makes splendid fodder for stories, but it would be a real bummer if it came to fruition. (Politics aside, every generation believes it is living in THE END TIMES, and I guess eventually somebody will be proven right.)
While the apocalypse may or may not ever come, we each face our own personal destruction: our death. Horror helps us face that fact, confront the fear, and challenge us to ask what might wait in the darkness after that last breath.
The first real adult book I read was Stephen King's Cujo. I chose it because it was (relatively) short, and featured a growling dog's muzzle on the cover, fat globules curving off fanged teeth. This was a book that promised danger and violence and terror.
I was eleven.
I read that book in three days and then read it again. The story quickened my pulse, wet my palms. In it, the characters spoke like adults and did adult things. They didn’t censor themselves and when Cujo, the rabid dog, pounced, the descriptions spared nothing. Flesh tore. Guts spilled. People died.
This was an awakening. The Hardy Boys stayed on the shelf above my desk and Cujo took up residence under my bed. Soon, other books joined the secret stash. This included many more Stephen King books, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series, and Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs.
These books belonged to my father. He was an academic with a great fondness for the macabre. The downstairs was his domain. Shelves lined the walls and hundreds of books crammed those shelves. There were encyclopedias and textbooks and science fiction novels, but the stuff I wanted—the really good stuff—was concealed in a colonial-style coffin.
No joke. My father hired a carpenter to build a life-size coffin (see above and below) suitable for Dracula himself, and on Halloween my father set that coffin on our front steps, donned a monster disguise, and tried his best to scare trick-or-treaters.
The rest of the year, the coffin stood against the wall downstairs, the lid firmly shut.
My father died when I was eleven.
So, now this is where you armchair psychologists can gently cough and, as soothingly as you can, suggest to the man on the couch (in this case, me) that perhaps my love of horror and all things dark and bloody actually stems from the loss of my father at a very young age. Were I in a particularly honest mood, I might volunteer that, sure, yeah, that could have something to do with it because, you see, not only did he die when I was just a kid, I also saw him die.
You will no doubt nod with sympathy and self-satisfied pride. Good job. Another spot-on diagnosis. Normal people, after all, would not have such fondness for the macabre if not for some trauma that bent the sapling of their disposition into the warped tree of their adult selves.
Reading Cujo, and all the other books I secretly snatched from the coffin, was an effort at communing with my deceased father, but it was also a genuine awakening—a true epiphany: books could peel back the innocent veneer and expose the gruesome underbelly of the adult world, AND books could openly explore what I knew at eleven years old not in theory but in cold reality—we will each die.
As I've gotten older, death has taken on even greater tangibility, and my interest in it has deepened. I recently finished writing a novel (more on that in a future newsletter) that revolves around death in both the concrete way I've experienced it and the heady way I've pondered it. It is a horror novel, of course, and the pleasure (and frustration) I found in writing and revising it is part of my ongoing journey to make sense of this life we each have and that uncertain death waiting for us somewhere in the future.
Again, it's about discovering what it means to be human.
Death doesn't negate what we do, or how we live (even if Camus is right and none of it actually matters), but what death does do is force us to make a conscious choice how we will spend our time, what we will value, and how we will respond when chaos strikes our lives and when Death knocks on our door, his black robe rippling, his scythe polished sharp.
The work of horror invites you into the dark so you can safely entertain these questions, and when you emerge back into the light perhaps you'll have learned something essential about yourself.
I could go on and on (and maybe I will in future newsletters), but I think you've earned a little story time. Below is a story that was published in Slices of Flesh (Dark Moon Books) Edited by Stan Swanson. It's short, and it's me trying to make sense of death (armchair psychologists ready your pens and pads of paper), and it even brings us back to Yeats.
"Things Fall Apart"
by Chris DiLeo
After Dad’s funeral, we went to Napoli’s for lasagna and hard liquor. After the second round of beverages, Collin told me about his teeth. The rear two molars had fallen out, completely intact.
“Found them on my pillow,” my brother told me. “Lucky I didn’t choke on them.”
“That’s how it started with Dad,” I said.
After a moment of contemplation, staring at the glass in his hand, he asked what he should do.
“Drink,” I said and held up my glass. The ice cubes tinkled together.
* * *
Collin called me late that night. “Three more fell out.”
“Drank too much.”
“What am I supposed to do?” His voice bordered on the brink of tears.
I closed my cellphone.
“It’s getting worse,” I told my wife.
“You know why,” she said in a sleepy voice. “He’s just like your father. You both are.”
I touched my front teeth delicately as though they might fold back into my mouth.
* * *
Driving home after work the next night, I ended up on the road leading to the cemetery. Hope Road, it’s called.
The mound of dirt was moist from a light rain. I knelt there, knees in the soil. I touched the mound with both hands like a celebrity placing his palms in fresh concrete on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
We had set Dad’s hands palms-up inside the coffin. There had only been three fingers left on each hand. The others, wrapped in handkerchiefs, were tucked into his suit pocket.
We assembled him like I used to piece together the full-sized body hanging in my high school biology classroom. We had called the body Skelly. Its organs and muscles came out. And the bones, of course. We dismembered him until he was a hollow shell with stumps and then reassembled him, if we could.
“The body is intricately and uniquely connected,” Mr. Cantor had told us. “When something goes wrong, the body does whatever is necessary to preserve the functions needed to live. It’s amazing how much we can take away from Skelly and yet, were he real, his body would still fight to stay alive.” Mr. Cantor juggled a plastic liver in his hand like a ball.
“Dad,” I said to the mound of dirt. “How do we stop it?”
* * *
In his final hours, our father resembled the mummy from that old movie. Bandages covered his whole face, save for his right eye. Three holes had been made for breathing. He couldn’t eat normally anymore.
His jaw had fallen off. We wrapped it in a washcloth.
“How does this happen?” Collin asked. “How does someone just fall apart?”
“That poem again,” I said.
* * *
Grandpa had died. We watched our father release his ashes into the wind. I had never seen my father so serious. I thought he might cry but he didn’t.
Sometime later, we gathered at home around the fire for story time.
“Words are magic,” Dad told us on that night so long ago.
Collin and I huddled close beneath a large knitted blanket. He was a year older and bragged about it all the time, but when it was story time, we were equals, and equally enthralled. Equally scared, too.
“Grandpa read this to me when I was your age and one day you will read it to your own sons.”
We rested our heads on our hands and gazed up at Dad in his big, plush red chair. The fire crackled in cryptic whispers.
He leaned forward, a big musty-smelling book in his hands, his fingers tucked on a page in the middle. “It’s called, ‘The Second Coming.’ It’s about the end of everything.”
My breath caught in my throat.
“Do you believe?” It was Dad’s usual question.
Our smiles were our signatures on a contract we couldn't yet comprehend.
As he read us the poem by a guy named Yeats, I think I completely forgot to breathe. This was not like the usual stories he read us--this was about death, about rivers of blood, about the world crumbling.
“Things fall apart,” Dad repeated. “The center can not hold.”
* * *
In those last hours, Dad could only groan through his thick bandages.
“It was just a poem,” I said. “Wasn’t it?”
Dad did not respond. Perhaps he hadn’t heard. His ears had dropped off the day before. They were in a plastic baggie.
* * *
Collin again: “I can’t stop reading it.” His words slurred together, but not from drunkenness.
“It’s a poem. It’s not a curse,” I said.
“But we believed--all three of us.”
I had the musty book open in my hands. Collin had his own copy, a gift from Dad many years ago. “Just words,” I said. “Nothing more.”
We said nothing for a moment, silently rereading the end of everything. “It’s getting worse,” Collin said. “My tongue is falling--”
* * *
In bed, my wife turned to me. I was off in the book, lost in a blood-dimmed tide.
“You’re going to make it worse,” she said.
“Depends on what you believe, I guess,” she said.
When I closed the book, my finger kept the page. I rested the book on the nightstand and when I turned away my finger remained stuck in the book, a macabre bookmark jutting out from the page of some poem my father had once read to my brother and me.
There wasn’t any blood. Just a tiny stump that looked almost fake, like the stumps on Skelly in Mr. Cantor’s class.
Things fall apart, I thought. The center can not hold.
“Do you believe?” Dad had asked.
That's it. Be good to one another. See you next time.
What I'm reading:
Deliverance by James Dickey
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
The River at Night by Erica Ferencik
(Can you find Cujo?)
Still here? Okay, cool—check this out:
The trailer for the new film version of IT.
I'm a big fan of the book (and the original miniseries), and I have high hopes for this film.
Finally, Stephen King and his youngest son Owen cowrote a book together, pubbing this fall. Owen was kind enough to visit with my creative writing students in the past—he is a brilliant, considerate man (and a damn good writer).
Find me on Twitter. @authordileo