Location: A little town in Southern Pennsylvania, United States
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
My interest in writing grew out of my love of reading. I’ve experienced many enjoyable hours in the worlds created by some fine authors. It’s amazing when you stop to consider it – how communication between minds can span centuries through the written word. I can open a book by Charles Dickens, and I’m immediately transported back to Victorian England, viewing the times and conditions of that era through Dickens’ eyes. On another day, I might pick up Seutonius’s ‘The Twelve Caesars’ and experience the early Roman Empire as witnessed and perceived by him.
Where else can you experience this but through the written word?
The idea that I might entertain or move a reader, or cause of flicker of an idea to cross the mind of someone years from now, is mighty engaging. In fact, it’s exciting.
Why do you write?
Because, at heart, I’m a spinner of tales. I like to think how people might act in any given situation – and then I want to take you along for the ride.
For example, I see a room. A beautiful woman holding a bloody dagger enters it. Her long, dark hair is mussed and hanging over one eye, preventing us from seeing her expression. She is wearing a tight, yellow dress which is torn and stained with blood spray. Can you see it? I hope so. But more important, I now want you to wonder what happened to her, and I want to create in you a need to know the rest of the story. Why is the dagger bloody? Was someone only injured or murdered? Does the knife belong to the woman? Were her actions in self-defense or something more? What expression is she hiding beneath the heavy hair? What will she do now?
I write because I like to make up my own worlds and people them with characters of my own imagining. In the end, I’m nothing more than another teller of tales, much like the old men who used to gather on back porches, passing around a shared bottle of whiskey, exchanging made-up stories, trying to ‘tell you a good one.’
What is your favorite genre or style to write in?
The honest answer is whichever one I’m currently attempting! I’m not sure I can define my genre. The closest label might be suspense. I like a bit of horror, but like it to be subtle. I think there is a lot of subtle horror in life. True horror isn’t vampires and werewolves, perhaps. It might be the kid down the street who says hello to you every morning – and then takes a small arsenal into school one day. Or it might be the fellow who silently works a 9 to 5 job, the guy everyone thinks is just swell, and who secretly sends a packet of anthrax through the mail to a government representative. Or it may be of a more mundane nature, such as the horror a mother experiences as she wonders how she’ll go on, now that a beloved child is dead.
I think we try to explain away the horror in life, seeking reasons for it. I think horror is just a byproduct of life. It’s all around us, but often we don’t recognize it. I deal with this in the piece I’ve provided for your readers.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that strikes you about his work?
John Steinbeck is my favorite author. What strikes me about his work is how clearly and compassionately he views humanity. He sees the good and evil, and he never whitewashes it or tries to explain it away. Evil exists, and humanity must acknowledge its presence – only then can we answer it. To Steinbeck, evil is a choice, as is goodness. He brings great heart to his writing. If I could spend an hour with a writer, past or present, Steinbeck would be my choice.
What books have most influenced your life?
The Bible, of course – it’s a collection of stories that depicts the human condition brilliantly. We see the bravery, the folly, the greed and jealousy, the hope and despair of countless generations, and the longing for something more than just ourselves. The Bible shows our loneliness, how we long for something greater than man to take notice of us… to love us. To find us worthy. It’s a pretty scary thing, stuck out here on this rock, orbiting around our small star, while the immensity of the universe seems unaware of our existence. The Bible brings the universe a little closer and tells us we are not alone. Someone once told me that every story ever written finds its basis somewhere in the Bible. I think that may be true; humanity and its condition hasn’t changed much through millennia, in spite of our burgeoning technology.
Another influence is Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden.’ The book’s exploration of good and evil, of human motivation still stands up. He reworks the story of Cain and Abel on a grander, modern scale. He reminds us that while our emotions profoundly affect who we are, we can ‘choose’ whether we shall rule over them or whether they shall rule over us. Pretty heady stuff, that! Such a hopeful message, I think: we can choose to rise above our emotions.
Another thing Steinbeck shows us is that sometimes there is no rationale for evil. It just IS. In our modern-day quest to try to diagnose and cure all things, I think we sometimes forget that evil just often IS. It isn’t always environmental; it isn’t always genetic; it isn’t always psychological. Sometimes, it just IS. And who can explain why? No one, not even after all these centuries.
One last thing about Steinbeck: he teaches us that evil is sly. It often masquerades in pretty packages, and looks anything but ugly or dangerous. There’s a horror-filled idea for you!
Do you have a favorite quote or piece of advice that you would like to share with us?
William Stafford, a twentieth century American poet, advised writers to “Lower your standards and keep writing.” I have that quote scribbled on a 3×5 card and propped up on my writing desk where I can always see it. Too often, we have these extraordinary ideas that we can suddenly write prose like the most admired writers down through the centuries, and we’re stopped dead in our tracks by the realization that we probably can’t. And we stop writing.
I don’t think you have to be Shakespeare to tell a compelling story. And so, I’ve learned to lower my standards and I keep writing, always in the hope that someone will find something of merit in my stories.
“Lower your standards and keep writing” – that’s the best advice I have to share. Especially, the ‘keep writing’ portion. Everyday. Even when you’re tired. Even if it’s just a paragraph. Do it.
Is there any background you can give us on your this piece?
The story I’d like to share is called ‘Monsters Under The Bed.’ It is the second installment of a flash fiction trilogy I’ve written that is part of a series entitled “Schuyler Falls Stories.” These short pieces explore the lives of a group of people living in that community. The tales are sometimes fantastical; at other times, the horror arises out of more natural, explainable scenarios, one being the modern day psychological illness of Menchausen’s by Proxy, for example. ‘Monsters Under the Bed’ introduces readers to Isabel Perkins, who sees monsters but learns to keep quiet about them – at least for a time. I hope your readers enjoy it. If so, they may wish to visit the first story in the trilogy, ‘The Good Mother,’ and the third, ‘Signs.’
Monsters Under the Bed
Ever since she was a little girl, Isabel Perkins worried there were monsters under her bed.
It didn’t matter that Mama and Papa would get down on their knees, peek beneath the ruffled edge of the flowered bedspread, and assure her everything was fine. It didn’t matter that the tiny light Mama placed in her room gave off a soft warm blush that alleviated the darkness. Nor did it matter that Papa kept the bedroom door slightly ajar so Isabel could call out if she became frightened.
No, none of that mattered.
Because Isabel was convinced there were monsters under the bed. She might not be able to see them, but she knew they were there.
As decades passed, so did the fears of childhood. The monsters receded from Isabel’s memory.
Until Joe died.
After nearly fifty years of marriage, it was hard being on her own again. The loneliness was something awful, and she had trouble sleeping nights. Worse, she began to worry about things.
It began innocently enough.
Two months ago, she was having her hair done at Bea Edwards’ beauty shop. Everyone said Bea’s was the best place in town for a color and cut. It was also the best place to find out what was happening in Schuyler Falls. Every woman between the ages of fifteen and seventy came to Bea for their beauty needs, and each brought with her a bit of gossip.
That particular morning, Isabel overheard a conversation between two women sitting under hair dryers. It seemed a fellow in a neighboring county, working for the Water Authority, slipped a little something into the water supply, making a rash of people sick. It ended up killing a few of the older citizens – all because they took a drink of water!
Isabel didn’t join the conversation, but thoughts about the possible doings of county employees preyed on her mind. She started worrying about the people in charge of Schuyler Falls’ water supply – and whether a psychological profile ought to be required for county employees.
She said as much to her son, Sam, when he came to visit the next day. Sam just laughed. “Ma, you’re such a card!”
It wasn’t the response Isabel wanted, but she let it pass. Folks said she had an active imagination about things.
Especially since Joe died.
It was like that flat screen TV Sam had given her for Mother’s Day.
He placed it atop the old oak chest sitting across from the foot of her bed. “This way, Ma, you can lay in bed at night and watch TV, snuggled under the covers.”
Sam worried about her. “You know what, Ma? You oughta get a dog. Everybody needs company. Maybe one of those little frou-frou dogs. He could snuggle up against you when you watch JEOPARDY at night.”
Isabel didn’t want any damned dog, frou-frou or otherwise. She also didn’t like the idea of that big TV monitor watching her all night long. Still, she didn’t tell Sam; he looked too pleased with himself.
That TV bothered Isabel, though, especially at night. Emblazoned on the rim of the monitor was its brand name, VIZIO. Even turned off, the name continued to cast a ghostly light into the room. VIZIO seemed too close to the word ‘vision,’ and that unsettled her. She got to wondering if the TV people were watching her while she slept, wondered if those cable people had an arrangement whereby they could spy on citizens as they slept in their beds.
She’d noticed their trucks in the neighborhood. They always seemed to be around. Who knew what they were capable of? Isabel thought someone should do a psychological profile on people who worked for the cable company.
She finally figured out how to hide the TV’s brand name; she placed a large piece of duct tape over the glowing letters. When Sam asked her about the tape, she didn’t tell him about the cable people; she just said the light bothered her.
But that duct tape made everything fine. For a time.
Then the Shadow People started coming to visit.
One night, unable to sleep, Isabel watched a TV show about fleeting, shadowy images, and reports that these shadows might be ghosts or time-travelers – maybe even space aliens!
Chuckling at the gullibility of some folks, Isabel turned off the TV and went to sleep.
But in the days and nights that followed, she’d be making tea or doing a bit of ironing in her dimly lit kitchen and suddenly take notice of a fleeting shadow. First time it happened, she dismissed it as a trick played by the light. But the shadows began to appear with increasing frequency. That scared Isabel.
Scared her enough to bring it up with Sam.
“Ma, I got you the TV so you could watch JEOPARDY, not listen to kooks jibber-jabbering about ghosts and UFOs. Jesus! You keep this stuff up, and people will think you belong on the Funny Farm. You oughta get a dog! Maybe it would take your mind off all this crazy stuff.”
She could see Sam was angry. He was also something more. Something that made Isabel uneasy. Did he think she was nuts? She’d heard of sons placing their mothers in nursing homes for less. Isabel didn’t want to wind up in a nursing home.
That was when she decided silence was a virtue. She’d keep her monsters to herself.
And it was why she kept quiet about Polly Andrews.
Everyone in Shuyler Falls loved Polly, including Isabel. A fine lady who’d been through a lot when she lost her little girl, everyone respected Polly. She’d been such a caring mother.
Becki had died almost a year ago. Toward the end, she’d been skin and bones, and hollow-eyed. It had been a terrible thing to witness Polly’s grief afterward.
But she was a strong woman, and after a few months, Polly pulled herself together and concentrated on the child she still had living. Isabel had admired her for it.
Yet… just a week ago, Isabel had been in Lynette Monroe’s bakery when Polly walked through the door with her picture-pretty little girl, Cindy.
Except she wasn’t quite so picture-pretty that day. She looked tired. Hollow-eyed.
They were there to pick up some chocolate chip muffins. Isabel watched as Cindy said she didn’t like them, that they tasted funny.
Isabel saw Polly frown. “Lower your voice ‘fore Miss Lynette overhears you talking so evil about her muffins. You don’t like chocolate chip? All little girls like chocolate chips. Your sister liked those muffins.”
Isabel strained to catch Cindy’s reply. “No ma’am, she didn’t. Said they tasted funny. She only ate ‘em to please you.”
A look come over Polly’s face at that, one that brought a chill to Isabel’s heart. She suddenly didn’t recognize Polly, and found herself thinking of things that go bump in the night. Dark things.
Then Polly smiled and the look was gone, and Isabel wondered if she’d imagined it.
“Okay, sugar, you don’t like chocolate chip muffins, we’ll get something else, okay?” Polly caressed the girl’s hair. “After all, it’s all the same. Anything will do.”
And then she winked at Isabel.
Isabel wasn’t sure why that wink bothered her, but it did. The thought of it stayed with her long after she left the bakery.
It made her think of the monsters who used to hide under her bed. Monsters that everyone said weren’t there.
She thought of Sam suddenly. She thought of his face when he mentioned the Funny Farm.
Maybe people were right and there weren’t any monsters. Maybe it was her overactive imagination. After all, everyone knew there really weren’t such things as monsters.
Isabel decided to get a dog.
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