I’ve been reading dark fantasy since I was eleven years old. I find the genre entertaining, thought provoking and at times visionary. Very rarely have I been scared or terrified as I’ve turned the pages detailing all manner of monsters and evil.
Dark fantasy is after all, fantasy. There is a certain frisson to be gained by reading about dark deeds while being safe in the knowledge that these deeds could not possibly happen to you. This isn’t necessarily true for all dark fantasy stories. I remember reading the Exorcist when I was still very much a practicing Catholic and the possibility of such a thing was somehow disturbing. Still, it didn’t scare me.
For the most part I find myself more disturbed and terrified by the darkness of the human spirit. The underlying message of a story like Lord of the Flies is at once horrifying and terrifying. So too a story like 1984. When we get into these waters, I find that I can be genuinely frightened by the possibility of such behaviour and how thin the walls are between civilisation and barbarism, and pluralism and dictatorship.
But dark fantasy rarely scares me. When it does it keeps me awake for nights on end.
One such story scared the crap out of me when I was about 12 years old. I’m not sure if it was the story, or whether I was predisposed to being vulnerable to its content.
Why & When I might have been vulnerable
When I had just commenced secondary school. I got pretty sick. So much so that I missed an entire term of school and seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time lying around not doing much at all. My only salvation was reading and I was able to borrow books regularly from the South Barwon library. I had a particular fascination with horror and SF anthologies and consumed them all voraciously. (Nothing to see here so far,)
Prior to getting ill we’d (my brother, a couple of friends and I) started to experiment with air rifles hunting sparrows and blackbirds in the back yard. My friends had quality slug guns. I only could get access to an old daisy air rifle that my father owned. It wasn’t very powerful – it could only dent an aluminium can, whereas my mates newer air rifles punched a hole in them.
One Saturday we spent an hour or so taking pot shots at small birds and not having much luck. After a while, we grew tired of the game and went and did something else. Sometime later we came back to the back yard and found a small sparrow hopping around on one leg. There was great excitement. I grabbed the daisy air gun and we went to work. It wasn’t glorious. In fact it was damn horrific. The gun wasn’t powerful enough to kill the creature outright, but it knocked it about with successive shots until it collapsed and eventually died. Somewhere along the line the thrill of the chase was replaced by a grim need to put the thing out of its misery. To say it took too long would be an understatement.
It haunted me and I never touched that old air rifle again. I felt responsible not just for the death of the bird but for the unnecessary pain and suffering that it went through. It was one of those defining moments that shapes how you come at the world. I did not realise that then. There was only guilt.
When dark fantasy got too close to the bone.
Sometime during my long second term convalescence, I brought home an anthology of weird tales. I can’t tell you what it was with certainty but there’s a strong possibility that it was Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow edited by Ray Bradbury I can’t say for sure that this was it but it feels right a)because I became aware of Bradbury’s work around that time and b)when I went looking for the story, the most apt description for what kept me awake for weeks was a story called The Cocoon by little known American author John B L Goodwin. This story was also included in Houghton Muffin’s Best American Short Stories in 1947.
The story is essentially about a boy who collects, kills and displays moths on his bedroom wall. One day he finds a particularly rare creature and kills it and then pins it to his wall. He then progresses through various stages of fear and terror as he hears the wings of the moth beating against his bedroom window every night. In the end, the moth, or its spirit, or whatever gets its revenge and the boy is found dead in the woods pinned to a tree.
It is pretty grim stuff and it shook one twelve year old boy to the core.
The parallels between my experience with the sparrow and the boy’s fateful encounter with the moth were obvious to me. The boy got what he deserved in my opinion. It didn’t take my young mind long to join the dots and conclude that I deserved the same fate.
I was twelve years old. My imagination was in hyperdrive. Anything seemed possible. That’s why I lay awake at night waiting to hear wings beating against my window. Not necessarily moth wings, but sparrow’s, all bloodied and torn. I won’t say I was in genuine fear, but it was damn close.
Those beating wings have stayed with me forever.
I don’t lie awake at night worrying about it. If the truth be told, I’ve found many more real demons to torment me over the years, but the feelings inspired by that story stay. I’ve been trying to write something as good for the past twenty years.
I don’t think I ever will. That’s the nature of story writing. One hundred people could read the same story and not be affected in the least, but when a story meets a receptive mind, that’s when magic (and terror) happens.
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