Ginger Nuts of Horror
Everything about my aesthetic as a horror fan and as a writer began at a B. Dalton bookstore (RIP) in the Roosevelt field mall in the year 1993.
The Werewolf of Fever Swamp was not my introduction to all things scary, (one can thank my father and black and white monster movies for that), but it was the singular event that sucked me in for life. Everyone has that moment when they find their passion. One moment they’re wandering in the dark, and then they find… something. Something that they pick up, plug into the wall, and presto! Just like that, the lights are turned on and you’re left wondering how you ever managed in the dark.
I am not a subtle writer. That’s not meant as a knock against writers that are. Subtlety is a real talent. It takes a deft hand to keep a reader interested as you slowly weave them into a web of sinister undercurrents until they’re too entangled to get out. You have an end point you mean to get to, but you don’t want your reader to know where you’re going and you have to find a way to keep then engaged until you get there.
I am not that guy. I don’t creep up behind you with a scalpel. I come bursting out of a closet, swinging a sledgehammer and screaming at the top of my lungs. There’s no confusion about what I’m here to do. You know right off the bat that you’re in a damn horror story. It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be bloody, and it’s going to be glorious. And if you don’t like it, there aren’t going to be any apologies.
The Werewolf of Fever Swamp was my first experience with that kind of gleeful gruesomeness. Right from the green and purple cover with the dripping slime font, this was a book that reveled in being a horror story. Reading the back cover summary, you can almost hear the ghastly voice chuckling in your head-
“There's something horrible happening in Fever Swamp. Something really horrible. It started with the strange howling at night. Then there was the rabbit, torn to shreds. Everyone thinks Grady's new dog is responsible. After all, he looks just like a wolf. And he seems a little on the wild side. But Grady knows his dog is just a regular old dog. And most dogs don't howl at the moon. Or disappear at midnight. Or change into terrifying creatures when the moon is full. Or do they?”
That’s not to say there’s no build up. R.L. Stine layers the atmosphere with some classic tropes, like a suspicious hermit in the woods and mangled animals and missing neighbors all over the place, but for the reader, there’s no question where we’re going. The title of the book is “Werewolf of Fever Swamp” for God’s sake. Every plot development may deepen the mystery for the characters, but for the reader, they may as well be flashing signs saying, “Awesome Werewolf This Way!”
My tastes have matured somewhat since I was six. I enjoy a little more violence, a higher body count and, yes, a little more in the way of character development. But I’ve never outgrown my appreciation for the sense of ghoulish joy that R.L Stine took in his work. I love books where the aim isn’t to make you look away, but to make you look closer. Books like this are like the kid in the schoolyard who invites you to check out this dead squirrel behind the dumpster. There’s a genuine love for the material that was particularly appealing to my young mind. The book ends with the main character becoming a werewolf and going out for a moonlight run with his dog. If that’s not a celebration of the genre, I don’t know what is.
Some people might call his approach graceless and clumsy. Childish even. I prefer to think of it as simply Not Fucking Around. It may not be a deft hand, but it certainly takes a skilled hand to glorify the genre’s Halloween tropes without descending into self-parody.
And for me, I started to learn those skills as I walked through the mall with my nose firmly jammed in the pages of Goosebumps #14, lagging fifty feet behind my mother, barely avoiding collision after collision with strangers as I descended deeper into the Fever Swamp.
Sean McDonough is the author of three horror novels. His latest, Rock and Roll Death Trip, is available now for pre-order. You can get more updates on his work and feelings about the horror genre, like the criminal exclusion of Busta Rhymes from the new Halloween, on his Facebook page.
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