Here at Pen and Kink we understand that you would much rather hear from our authors than from us, so we invited the contributors to Legendary to stop by and write a guest post for our blog.
Today we’re hosting Michael Leonberger whose story, “The Hook” was a favourite around here.
By Michael Leonberger
There is something in the dark. Always.
Horror as a genre thrives on this, like a vampire gorged on blood.
There are no safe nights. No innocuous shadows. No corners not full of dread and threat and horror, ready to strike at a moment’s notice, ready to smash the placid facade of normalcy, ready to remind you that death is real and that it is coming and that no one is safe.
None of us, not ever.
And I love horror. To its diseased marrow.
I imagine part of the reason is because I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, when I was in fourth grade. What that meant for me was that I was constantly hounded with obsessive thoughts about how things could go wrong. These relentless visions of failure and tragedy meant I also shouldered a lot of guilt, about what could happen, or about what maybe had happened already.
Maybe being the operative word.
The thing about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is that it means most of the things you’re worried about haven’t happened. That maybe they won’t. But you really can’t tell the difference. It’s a rabid dog without a leash and before that diagnoses, I was wracked with the constant guilt and fear. Receiving that diagnoses probably resulted in the first period of true calm I can remember from that time in my life, because it put the dog on a leash. It was an explanation. A get out of jail free card. It said, loudly, that it wasn’t my fault, whatever it was that was in my head, keeping me up at night. That a lot of the things I worried about were simply made up.
(I like to think it also said that I had a pretty okay imagination, too. Out of control and attacking me, but pretty okay.)
Before the diagnoses, I was dogged by imaginary phantoms, all of the time. Panicked imagery in my head, possibilities that horrified me to my core.
For example, I remember sneezing in class and imagining my teacher might somehow catch the germs that I carried that had clearly caused me to sneeze in the first place.
I imagined that maybe she had some kind of compromised immune system that I didn’t know about. Maybe a young baby at home, or an older grandparent, who existed in a state of fragile health, all of the time, and now she’d carry the germs I’d given her home, and it would kill them. The baby, the grandparent, herself. And those scenarios would swish around in my head until I finally got up the courage to march to her desk and tell her that her death was imminent, that it was all my fault, and that I was deeply sorry.
And she’d laugh, and remind me that the world wasn’t ending, that everything would be okay, that people sneezed all the time.
And the relief I’d get from those smiles, those admonitions to relax, was incredible.
True calm, absent of dread. It’s a blessing.
Fleeting, but incredible, before I’d go home and wash my hands and imagine I’d splashed water into an outlet in the bathroom, and that my mom would plug in a hair drier, and she’d flip it on, and whamo!, plugging that sucker into the wet outlet would kill her, electrocute her right then and there, and…I mean, by God, I’d feel bad about that, too. So I’d dry the outlets for as long as I could, then tell her I was sorry if I accidentally killed her, only for her to smile and hug me.
Everything will be okay, you worry wart.
Everything’s gonna be just fine.
Horror, as a genre, reminds us this as surely as it reminds us of the other thing. That yes, everything is awful and bad and the world is really ending, all of the time, for somebody. Sure. But for the rest of us? For those of us in the audience? It’s actually going to be okay.
It’s just a book or a movie, after all.
It’s going to be just fine.
At least, better for us than it is for the hapless character in the fiction, who’s being chased by some brute wearing human flesh over his face and wielding a chain saw.
But that’s where the magic comes in. Because what if, for that hapless person, everything is going to be okay, too?
They just have to get past this. They just have to survive.
Sink a machete into Jason’s hockey-masked face.
Slide Freddy’s own claws into his gut.
Shoot the boogieman in the eyes and burn the hospital down and just live.
Horror, I find, can be incredibly cathartic. Moving and life affirming, if not just because it matches people up against incredible odds, and sometimes they get to win.
Sometimes we win in life too.
And then, my friends, it’s all a metaphor. For Dracula is just the boogieman in your own life, whether it’s imaginary stuff your chemically imbalanced brain is producing on the regular, or an illness. A death in the family, a loss, or a stressful job. Panic, paranoia, depression, trauma. Aging, death itself, waiting in the night, laughing. With worms in its putrid eye sockets.
But you know what? Sometimes you get to beat those things. In the horror genre, you get to beat those things all the time. Gloves off. You can smash that smiling deaths head into bits and pieces and hop in the car with your lover and drive away, like the hero of a Bruce Springsteen song.
I love the idea of Final Girls, those strong, resilient heroines of eighties slasher films. I think I grew up worshipping at their altar. Our Ladies of Scars, the Nancys and the Lauries and the blood splattered survivors who walked away. Who beat the bad guy and got to relax, at least for one night.
With the short story The Hook, I wanted to write about such a person. A survivor, a lover, a dreamer. A person with enough gunk and terror jammed up into her head before she even met the psychopathic slasher killer she’d inevitably cross paths with. And yet, she’s got what it takes. The sand, whatever it is, to dig in, to bloom in the shadow of her own madness. To fall in love, to meet someone whose own broken pieces compliment her own. To find strength where she least imagined it and to maybe, just maybe, survive.
I think it’s a common (and valid) assumption that horror stories are designed to scare us straight, and in doing so, prevent us from straying off the path of “normalcy”. To keep us capitalistic and monogamous and religious and heterosexual and whatever the world wants us to be.
But I think the genre actually has a higher purpose.
To remind us that we’re all scarred and broken and running. That there is no normal. That the things some people think make us bad actually make us good. That there is grace in the darkest of shadows. That life makes monsters of us all sometimes, but that there are actual monsters, even bigger monsters, waiting to swallow us whole. True monsters.
But they won’t swallow us, actually.
Because the things that have maimed us just mean we’re ready.
And, for all of it, we’re going to be okay.
It’s perfectly normal to be a mess, you know?
So don’t even worry about it.
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