I’m not going to say much by way of preface to this one. Todd Keisling’s words speak for themselves. They are heartfelt, achingly honest, and most of all, I think, important. Read on in this very personal essay by one of the most talented and promising authors of our generation.
Placing Your Hand into the Void
Like most horror writers, I’ve got a story to tell you. It’s kind of dark and a little scary. It’s a story about the void and what I found there. So, listen up:
Let’s rewind to 2013. I’d just turned 30 years old. My second novel, The Liminal Man, had bombed in spectacular fashion. I’d just been diagnosed with a hiatal hernia. I put on weight. My appendix decided it wanted to part ways, resulting in a good chunk of medical debt. And for icing on the cake, I was also going through the worst depression of my life without even knowing it.
At the height of that depression, I read a book called The Cipher by Kathe Koja. Here’s a short primer on The Cipher: Published in the early 90s, the book won Koja a Stoker Award, and for good reason. The book is filled with a suffocating sort of existential dread, embodied by two characters in a parasitic relationship that spirals out of control when they discover a hole in their apartment building’s storage room. The hole appears to be bottomless, and anything they send down it comes back deformed, mutated in some way. There’s a lot more to it, but I don’t want to spoil the story for those who may be interested in reading it. The point in me telling you about this is because of the hole in that story. Or “the Funhole,” as they call it.
Reading Koja’s book was a weird turning point for me on a personal level. I enjoyed the book, but I don’t think I can read it again. It was claustrophobic and frantic, revolving around two hopeless people who were caught in a debilitating relationship like two planets destined to collide and obliterate one another. In all honesty, I don’t think I should’ve read it while being depressed—but that’s part of the point I’m trying to get at here. I didn’t realize I was depressed until I read the book.
Well, that’s not entirely true. There were other factors, but the book was a big part of my epiphany. Keep that mind. I’m going to come back to it. Just bear with me for a few minutes.
What I know now—what I’d yet to learn back then—is that depression is a liar. You’re fine, it says. Everything is fine. This is normal.
I ignored the fact that I wasn’t sleeping well. After all, I’ve always been a night owl, always working best late at night, always reading late at night, and always paying the price during the day while toiling at my job. I’d get around 4 to 5 hours of sleep a night during the week, and crash on the weekends, sometimes sleeping 10 to 12 hours. The lack of balance was killing my health. But that’s okay, because it was fine, it was normal.
I ignored the fact that I’d withdrawn from family and friends. The only person I felt comfortable enough to talk to was my wife, and even then, I spent a lot of time in my home office, isolated from the world. Some of my friendships suffered. Some professional relationships also suffered. I was irritable and angry. I hated looking at myself in the mirror. I didn’t like the man I’d become. I was falling apart, and I wanted to fix myself, but I just lacked the energy to do it. Everything I did left me feeling exhausted. Physically, mentally, spiritually—I was strung out in every possible way.
But everything’s fine. Everything’s normal. All systems A-OK.
I remember the breaking point because I was sitting in my living room, trying to write a blog post from my laptop. I’d moved my workspace into our living room so I could be closer to my wife, because I didn’t want to be alone. I was listening to music—in this case, “Find My Way” by Nine Inch Nails—and the words just wouldn’t come. I’d type something, read it, delete it, and try again. Everything I wrote seemed stupid, shitty, and pointless. I kept at it for over an hour before giving up. My wife was sitting at her computer in the far corner of the room. I set my laptop aside, walked over to her, fell to my knees, and began sobbing in her arms.
I felt trapped inside my own mind, forced to live under the threat of some unseen pressure that could crush me at any moment. I’d become a passive observer in my own life, watching myself obey the basic rules of daily human existence, going to work, going home, eating, sleeping, rinse and repeat.
This wasn’t fine. This wasn’t normal.
I realized something was wrong, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Worse, I was afraid to.
And then I read Koja’s The Cipher. I learned about the Funhole, and it reminded me of
that old Nietzsche quote: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
Except I didn’t agree with that assessment. I still don’t. There’s a sick poetry in The Cipher, in that its protagonist is forever changed by the unknown. He dares to dip his hand into the void and emerges transformed. The abyss does gaze back, but in doing so, it will reveal things about yourself that even you didn’t realize. Figuring them out is the fun part. When the abyss gazes back—or when Koja’s protagonist lowers his hand into the Funhole—a transformation takes place, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
My inner demons, my depression and anxiety, was my own sort of cipher that I had to crack. I could figure out this puzzle of brain chemistry and defeat it. Rather than run from it, I could face it. I could use it. If I could only put my hand into that void, maybe I could take hold of what’s lurking there. Sure, it would probably transform me, but considering where I was at that point in my life, something had to change.
So…I did what any self-respecting writer would do: I took my pain, twisted its arm, and forced it into my fiction in ways I’d never done before. Rather than shy away from the things writhing beneath the surface of my psyche, I ripped off the scabs and smeared them on the page. And it hurt, folks. God, it hurt like a motherfucker. There are stories in Ugly Little Things that were painful to write, probably some of the most gut-wrenching, soul-tearing fiction I will ever write in my career. Writing them was my way of facing the void, taking hold of the squirming unseen things living there, and in the process, allowing it to change me.
I’d like to think it’s for the better. I’m in a much better place now. I’ve got medication to take the edge off all the anxiety and help me deal with the depression. I have a loving wife and son, a loving family and close friends who support me in what I do.
Like the protagonist of The Cipher, the void is still with me. It’s transformed me into something else. Something better. It’s a part of me now. And I am not afraid.
Buy Ugly Little Things by Todd Keisling
Buy The Cipher by Kathe Koja
TODD KEISLING is the author of A Life Transparent, The Liminal Man, and the critically-acclaimed novella, The Final Reconciliation. His most recent release is the horror collection, Ugly Little Things: Collected Horrors, available now from Crystal Lake Publishing. He lives somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania with his family where he is at work on his next novel.
UGLY LITTLE THINGS: COLLECTED HORRORS
On Sale Date: 9/15/17
THIS IS GOING TO HURT.
The eleven stories in Ugly Little Things explore the depths of human suffering and ugliness, charting a course to the dark, horrific heart of the human condition. The terrors of everyday existence are laid bare in this eerie collection of short fiction from the twisted mind of Todd Keisling, author of the critically-acclaimed novels A Life Transparent and The Liminal Man.
Travel between the highways of America in “The Otherland Express,” where a tribe of the forsaken and forlorn meet to exchange identities. Witness the cold vacuum of space manifest in the flesh in “The Darkness Between Dead Stars.” Step into the scrub of rural Arizona and join Karen Singleton’s struggle to save her husband from a cult of religious fanatics in “When Karen Met Her Mountain.” Visit the small town of Dalton in “The Harbinger” and join Felix Proust as he uncovers the vile secrets rooted at the heart of Dalton Dollworks. And in the critically-acclaimed novella “The Final Reconciliation,” learn the horrifying truth behind the demise of the rock band The Yellow Kings.
With an introduction by Bram Stoker Award-winner Mercedes M. Yardley and illustrations by Luke Spooner, Ugly Little Things will be your atlas, guiding you along a lonely road of sorrow, loss, and regret. This is going to hurt—and you’re going to like it.
“Todd Keisling is a born storyteller, drawing the reader into artfully constructed narratives that scout the darker end of the literary spectrum with skill and bravado. A pleasure to read, his stories linger well after the last page has been turned. Excellent stuff.” – John Langan, Bram Stoker award-winning author of The Fisherman
“Keisling writes in the shadows, his words like that first long drag on a cigarette after work. I couldn’t help coming back for more, and before I knew it, that one story, that one cigarette, turned into the whole pack.”—Stephanie M. Wytovich, Bram Stoker award-winning author of Brothel and The Eighth.
“In Ugly Little Things, Todd Keisling ventures deep into the dark abyss of cosmic horror. What he finds there—or what’s found him—will terrify you. This varied collection is tailor-made for fans of existential dread. Prepare to face the void. Try not to scream.” —Brian Kirk, Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of We Are Monsters.
“Todd Keisling’s promise delivers with Ugly Little Things. The only time you will dare to look away from the page is when you stop to look over your shoulder. He’s earned his right to sit on the shelf alongside King, Koontz, and Ketchum.” –Eryk Pruitt, author of Dirtbags and What We Reckon.
“Todd Keisling’s Ugly Little Things contains 11 tales that sing with lyricism while they move the reader with suspenseful, clever, humorous and often wonderfully elegiac developments. The author has a keen, lucid understanding of suffering, which lends each plot-line extra heft and depth. These stories contain tenderly and humanely rendered characters who are drawn towards various forms of uncanny annihilation. After reading this excellent collection, I’m eagerly awaiting whatever Keisling produces next.” –Jon Padgett, author of The Secret of Ventriloquism
“One of the few perfect story collections I’ve ever read. Todd Keisling will keep you guessing page after page. He also has a knack for surprise endings you will not see coming!” – Armand Rosamilia, author of the Dying Days series
“Keisling always gets down to the essence of good storytelling. His no-nonsense approach arrests us, showing us worlds and characters that expand our imagination, leaving it tainted with horrors only the author can deliver. These stories are a testament to one of the bravest and scariest new voices in horror fiction.” —Ben Eads, author of Cracked Sky.
“Herein lie stories told in the traditional manner of spooky tales told round the campfire. Read this collection on a dark and stormy night and don’t answer the door if someone knocks.” —Kristi DeMeester, author of Beneath.
Todd, thanks for sharing. I went through a similar experience about 15 years ago, and it took me a long, hard slog to get out of it. I think using that journey to inform your writing is a smart thing. I like to think that doing that helped both me and my writing immeasurably. Thanks for bravely putting this out there, and I hope things have settled for you.
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That’s kind of you to say, John. Using the journey was really the only choice I had. The only one that made sense, anyway. Things have definitely settled for me, and I hope they have for you as well, man.
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