A closed mind is the worst defense against the supernatural… If it happens to you, you’re liable to have that shut door in your mind ripped right off its hinges!
Dr. John Markway – The Haunting
Rolling from Mansfield, Ohio to Madison, Wisconsin. The sky is low. Oppressive. Immediately conjuring the horrors of films like 1963’s The Haunting or The Haunting of Hell House. For it’s not just the inner walls of a claustrophobic house closing in, but the sky above that weighs down as if it too will fall and crush those in the throes of the supernatural.
I head west on Route 30, a small highway, that transforms into a country road and back again, that took me from Ohio to a slice of Indiana. The area reminded me of the towns out and about Kutztown, Pennsylvania as well as Sussex and Warren counties in New Jersey: clusters of homes and more farms than people – and too damn quiet. The only difference is there are no rolling hills. The Appalachians have clearly given way to what will become the flat lands of the country I will witness until the young, majestic Rockies rise before me, and where weather will play its most vital role (more when I get there).
Wind streams through this section of Indiana in massive gusts, but since the sun has burst through like a teaser in the second act of a gloomy horror, offering characters’ false hope that all will be well (just ask Nell in The Haunting), the rays shine off flattened corn stalks and other crop leftovers. They radiate as if gold, but the twenty-degree temperatures clearly announce all is not pleasant.
But like Tornado Alley south of me, this must be a consistent bowling alley for wind to throw strike after strike because large, towering windmills and their sweeping white arms have stretched for miles. I first noticed them in Van Wert, Ohio, taking residence and holding firm as if the latest additions to a science fiction film where the modern age contrasts with farming of old.
Van Wert stood out because of its name. Ms. Carol Van Wart had been my English and Creative Writing teacher at Kearny High School. A great supporter of those who embraced the written word, her positive energy and reinforcement proved to be contagious and inspiring. Although I was still a student of craft and realize now how little I knew about writing in general, her encouragement and guidance propelled me forward. She was kind enough to tell my parents during conferences that, “He should publish everything, right now.” That was overly kind. I was the Feature Editor of the Hi-Kearnian school newspaper, and wrote the worst poetry – ever. You’ve read it before: the sad sack “why doesn’t anyone understand and love me shit” that’s simply a woeful cry and completely devoid of any poetic structure, wit, or grace. Godawful stuff.
I had rediscovered that bad poetry, some of which had been published in shady anthologies, and small press books and even smaller magazines. The bulk is dreadful, but “The Vampire and the Rose” about a prostitute dreaming of a trip to India’s Taj Mahal right before she was attacked and killed by a New York City vampire, seemed to garner much attention, and even led to my first public reading. Yes, the prosititute didn’t make it, but neither did the vampire. She had AIDS, he drank it all down, and within minutes his eternal life of preying on others had been cut way short. That piece had won “Best Long Poem” and was published by Tri-Quarterly Press – right before they went under.
“The Circle” was another poem that wound up being published in many venues, maybe because it tried to tie everything in existence into one neat little package. I found that in a “Bill’s Writing” box along with the aforementioned, where material, good or absolutely horrid, mixed together as a sort of historical record of my writing. Yes, I found decent lines within some of the poems and short stories, but any intriguing concepts eventually died convoluted deaths at the hands of bad storytelling, including three horrendous novel writing attempts that reinforced the idea of giving up the craft altogether, and I did so for three years (a story for another time). Even so, the one poem I did like ended up in the back of 1983’s “The Lamp Post,” the yearbook for my graduating class, with art from my friend and Dungeon’s and Dragon Dungeon Master, Kevin Kirst. I definitely rolled a “natural twenty” on that one, and I am honored that it helped represent my graduating class of 426, which included wonderful friends I’m still very much in touch with and love for many reasons, even if we haven’t spent a lot of time together over the years: Christine Lynn, Debbie Valenta, Stacy Wolff, Joe Loughman, Joe Vala, Steve Mager, Stephen Richardson, Dan Price, Steven Keller, Gordon MacAvoy, Russ Murray, Fernando Semiao, and Barbara Gordon, and many more. I’ve known several since Kindergarten through eighth grade as well, thanks to Franklin School, but it was in third grade that I chased poor Barbara Gordon around – and caught her from behind. When she yelled, “Let me go!” I did so, and she fell face first to the ground. She came up crying as blood poured from her chin. Shellshocked from harming her, I cried too. Our wonderful teacher, Ms. Huhn, knew it was not deliberate, and Barbara became my girlfriend. Today, she’s an amazing mother and a phenomenal soul, but I think she still has a little scar on her chin thanks to me not thinking ahead.
But I’m thinking ahead now. My body aches for a break, but the sun has been undercut by formidable clouds. The Malibu flashes an “ice warning,” and flurries abound. Thoughts of the time when I took one of Ms. Van Wart’s writing prompts about ice cream, and wrote of the “Dolly Parton”: two large scoops of vanilla, with small rings of strawberry sauce, topped by two cherries – and didn’t get in trouble for writing so, quickly escape my mind. I ride through more tiny towns, and since I want to circumvent the underbelly of the great city of Chicago before rush hour, I continue at 80 miles an hour, and pay too much for tolls as if I’m heading down the Jersey Shore. Snow whips around but fails to cling to the road, and everyone’s moving along 90 West as planes come into O’Hare. By 6:30, I’m safely in Madison, Wisconsin before snow does indeed stick to the surface.
The third act had its challenges today, but staying ahead of stormy weather is the name of the game. Nell (Julie Harris) couldn’t do it in The Haunting and succumbed to the oppression of the house, her frightened mind, and the heavy sky that weighed upon her, which only introduced more isolation and even more fear. In effect, Nell was pressed to death. She had felt a supernatural presence, first created by the talented Shirley Jackson of “The Lottery” fame, and brought to the screen by director Robert Wise, and went all in until she underwent an internal collapse. Yet Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) kept his mind open to the world around him and reigned supreme. I like to think I pulled a “Dr. Markway” today and pressed on in the wake of ice and snow while respecting Mother Nature’s warnings.
Tomorrow will undoubtedly be the same as I slip on a Misfits “Legacy of Brutality” T-shirt and ride further west to Sioux Falls, South Dakota – though I wish they’d change the name to Siouxsie Sioux Falls. See, the teenage writer in me still comes to the fore and makes me look ridiculous. Dammit. But every rotation of the tires gets me that much closer to my beloved Ally Bishop.