Coffin Books and Writing Horror
An Essay by Chris DiLeo
My parents were highly educated, both had master’s degrees; Mom taught French, Spanish, and English, and Dad edited encyclopedias. They read all the time. Our house was a haven for reading: there were books, piles of newspapers and magazines that never made it to recycling, and the implements of writing—towers of looseleaf, numerous notebooks, tons of copy paper, and a plethora of pens and pencils.
We lived in a bi-level and the downstairs was my father’s lair—half-office and half-study. In my friends’ houses, the downstairs was a family room or a play/movie room, but in mine it was a library.
Floor-to-ceiling books. Crammed shelves covering every wall. Uneven stacks teetering in the corners, obscuring a TV, barricading my father’s desk, and engulfing an ancient typewriter.
My father would sit down there for hours, hunched at his desk, a green banker’s lamp casting an emerald glow up the wall onto the ceiling. The only sounds were the soft turning of a page or the slow, precise scratch of pencil on paper.
When he wasn’t down there, I’d sneak around looking at the books.
They were of all sorts and subjects: two full sets of encyclopedias, dictionaries of all sizes, including an enormous one with its own stand, Time Life collections of Lost Civilizations and Mysteries of the Unknown, multi-volume sets on medieval history and the Civil War and anthropology, large, heavy books about dinosaurs and ants and gorillas and wolves, a sex manual with graphic drawings on every page, dozens of books in French, numerous textbooks on science, history, and English, books about 1950’s music, hundreds of science fiction paperbacks by Philip K. Dick and Frank Herbert and Arthur C. Clarke and Philip José Farmer, Robert E. Howard’s Conan books, an entire shelf for Ray Bradbury, dozens of true crime books covering the Twentieth Century spectrum of serial killers.
I would take these books off the shelf and caress the garish covers that promised shocking true horrors of madness and murder. These were not the Hardy Boys books that comprised my literary diet. I’d run my fingers over the specks of blood on the cover of Helter Skelter, and I’d read the opening page that warned: “This Book Will Scare the Hell Out of You.” I dared to read only a few pages. I flipped through the photos in the middles of these books and was completely terrified I might one day encounter a madman as deranged as wild-eyed Manson, as repulsive as John Wayne Gacy, or as cocksure as Ted Bundy. What compelled these men to such heinous acts? Something supernatural, perhaps.
Last of all, but not least in that downstairs world, wedged between crammed bookshelves was a special bookcase, custom-made for my father and perfect for Dracula: a black coffin, standing upright, its lid closed.
Inside: six shelves of hardcovers and paperbacks—all horror.
These were books by Stephen King, Peter Straub, Robert Bloch, Fitz Lieber, Dennis Etchison, Ramsey Campbell, Robert McCammon, Clive Barker, and fat volumes of Poe’s work, and Stoker’s, and Lovecraft’s. There was a large red book with a cover declaring it a Treasury of Horror & the Supernatural.
As I did with the true crime books, I would take these books down to caress the gory, macabre covers, to wonder of the contents, to build up courage enough to read one.
But why the coffin?
My father loved Halloween, you see, and every year he decorated our front lawn with hand-inscribed gravestones and mannequins dressed as monsters, and he donned a costume as well (his favorite: a two-headed monstrosity that he wore with bloodied clothes, a severed head in one hand and a sickle in the other) and with strobe lights flashing and horror-movie soundtracks blasting, he emerged from that coffin to horrify and delight trick-or-treaters.
Rising again and again from the dead.
A heart attack killed my father when I was eleven. I saw it. His hand reached out, fingers trembling, and a crackling moan rattled in his throat. His eyes were wide, frightened, and he stumbled and fell.
He never got up.
From that coffin bookcase, I grabbed the one with a cream-colored dust jacket with black lettering and a line of blood dripping off the bottom edge. Night Shift by Stephen King. It was signed by the author himself, personalized to my father, who met and spoke with King at the World Fantasy Convention in 1979. Dad showed this to me with pride, and I used to show friends as if it were a secret treasure or an illicit possession. I don’t remember what the inscription said, and I can’t check because I nestled that book in the crook of my father’s dead arm at the funeral home and his casket was closed, sealed, and ultimately cremated.
The summer after my father’s death I turned twelve, and I finally read a book from the coffin.
It was Stephen King’s The Waste Lands. That book is the third in the Dark Tower series, but I chose it because the paperback cover featured a runaway train, looking ghostly and surreal. It was a promise of danger, but perhaps not more than I could handle.
The story of Roland and his quest did not interest me as much as that of ten-year-old Jake, who suffered visions of Roland’s mystical tower, and who was scared he was going crazy and even more afraid the adults would find out and lock him up in an asylum. I sometimes wondered if the strange, imaginative thoughts I had were evidence of nascent madness. I spent most of my time in my room, playing with He-Man and G.I. Joe action figures or building cities out of copy paper and staging epic Matchbox Car crashes. During recess at school while other kids ran around the playground, I sat alone with a composition book and wrote stories, another form of playing make-believe. Kids called me names. Avoided me. And now here was Jake, a weirdo kid like me. His journey thrilled me, and when he entered the haunted house that would bring him to Mid-World, I was completely terrified and forever hooked. No story had delighted me as much. As Jake fell into Roland’s world, I fell into King’s.
His was a world where kids and adults had hidden thoughts and fears and didn’t behave the way the Hardy Boys did. These were real people, people like me and my friends and my teachers, and I wanted to discover as much of that reality as I could. There was a distinct revelation that through these stories I was granted the privilege to know what the adults didn’t want me to know.
Reading King was an electric charge, and it was all the more exciting because it felt taboo. None of my peers read these books. Their parents wouldn’t let them if they asked.
I read Cujo and then Pet Sematary, and in addition to that book scaring the shit out of me, I discovered in the margins of that hardcover my father’s penciled notations: perfectly aligned letters, knife-sharp checkmarks, and straight-edged underlines.
Many of the coffin books contained my father’s marginalia—and whether I realized it or not at the time, reading those books became a sort of communing with the dead, a means through which I might get to know my father. He had enjoyed these stories, and now I could enjoy them, too. Through his works in particular, Stephen King became a surrogate father to me, bridging the divide of life and death through the magic of story, and simultaneously seeding the soil of my fertile imagination with monsters, madmen, and demons.
In that copy of Pet Sematary there was also a sliver of yellow paper with the following typed on it: “I’ll love you when you’re more like me.” That’s the title of a book by M.E. Kerr, and I have no idea why it was tucked between the pages of that book, but I thought of it as a secret communique from my father to me. A promise from beyond the grave.
I read all the King novels from the coffin. I toted a King book with me wherever I went. Teachers asked why I was reading such trash, professors in college declared I needed to broaden my horizons, and adults today will give me suspicious glances when I open a King novel while waiting in the grocery checkout line.
Some may wonder what my mother was doing allowing me to read such macabre and adult books when I surely wasn’t mature enough to comprehend them. Answer: she was encouraging me. We often went to Walden Books and in 1993 she didn’t hesitate to buy me Nightmares & Dreamscapes and the accompanying audiobook on cassette. I sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor and listened to Whoopi Goldberg and Rob Lowe and Tim Curry and Kathy Bates and Matthew Broderick and King himself tell me tales of crazed revenge, accidental apocalypse, ravenous chattery teeth, predatory fingers, Rock n’ Roll Hell, and man-eating frogs raining from the sky.
It was so absolutely cool to listen to the stories in the book as I read along.
And at some point during my second or third listen-and-read of the book, I took up a pencil and scribbled my own notations in the margins. It is a habit I continue to this day.
I started writing horror stories in high school. One of my first was about an ancient evil that lures an unsuspecting truck driver into the woods and then possesses him to slaughter his entire family. Another was about a man so enraged at his wife’s infidelity he murders her in a restaurant and cooks her up as the day’s special. Yet another was about a teenage boy possessed by the love songs of the 1950s who stalks and kills girls. Another was about a man like my father who decorates his lawn for Halloween, but does so as tribute to an ancient god, who then possesses him to murder his next-door neighbors. A few years ago, Pseudopod: The Sound of Horror published my story “The Candy Store,” a tale of a boy possessed by the most common of demons: puberty.
Much like my poor, doomed characters, I experienced possession, only mine was writing itself. As when I was alone on the playground, I wrote in black-and-white composition journals, but writing was no longer a means to distract myself when kids wouldn’t play with me—it was now a transcendent, joyful, and intoxicating enterprise in which the real world fell away and I dropped into the vast reaches of imagination. Stories crowded my mind. They were abundant, endless, and writing them was almost dictation: they came to me from somewhere else, as if from someone else. My father, perhaps, who wrote and published a Lovecraftian story that culminates in necrophilic incest, which must be a form of possession.
I typed drafts on an electric typewriter and shared the morbid tales with my mother, who always praised them, and when my first short story was accepted for publication no one was more proud.
That story, by the way, was about a teenager who murders a classmate because he believes the kid is possessed by demonic powers, and my acceptance letter was dated exactly six years to the day of my father’s death.
In college, I wrote my first novel. It was a tale of, you guessed it, possession: a young man is stalked by a mysterious figure in black that threatens his sanity, and at the same time an ex-girlfriend, who may or may not be harboring a demon in her head, tries to wheedle her way back into my hero’s life.
While at college, I took a Bible as History course. I was raised Episcopalian, my father served as Warden of the church for years, my mother as lay reader, and religion always fascinated me. In its way, religion is another form of make-believe, including its own ghosts, risen-dead, and demons.
Among all those books in my father’s lair were numerous copies of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the Torah, the Koran, The Book of Mormon, the Witchcraft Bible, and even the Satanic Bible.
As I did with the other books from the downstairs world, I would carefully examine these, and I remember how my child-heart raced as I held The Satanic Bible, as if merely touching it I was damning myself for all eternity, and I remember almost dropping the book when I saw the author’s photo—the bald head, the intense stare, the pentagram behind him.
As a requirement of that college course, I read a lot of the Bible and found, much to my surprise and amusement, an orgy of cruelty and violence. Two stories in particular struck me and have stayed with me ever since: the tale of Abraham and his son Isaac, and the story of Job.
God commands Abraham to take his son up Mount Moriah and sacrifice him as proof of Abraham’s devotion. So, Abraham brings his son up the mountain, sets up an altar and burning pyre and ties his son down and raises his knife—and an angel stops him, saying God is very pleased. Abraham has proven his fealty.
When I was nine, my father brought me to the church’s midnight Easter Vigil. As part of this service, we went up to the altar and stood at the lectern to read a scripted version of the Abraham and Isaac story. He was Abraham and I was Isaac, and I wasn’t quite sure what we were reading, but when my father read the line about Abraham raising the knife to slay his son, I wondered what sort of sick biblical story this was and also why my dad wanted to read this aloud before the entire congregation.
As for Job, his was the perfect horror story. One day, Satan challenges God on the devotion of His believers, claiming that if they were suffering miseries they would not stay faithful. God disagrees. They make a bet. The Devil essentially goads God into allowing him to ruin Job’s life—kill his children and grandchildren, murder his livestock, destroy his home, and riddle his body with painful sores. Job remains faithful, believing that if he accepts good from God he must also accept evil. Job’s wife and their friends challenge him to turn against God. Eventually, he snaps—there’s only so much misery a man can take—and confronts God, who fiercely admonishes him for his sin of pride. Job repents and God rewards him with a long, prosperous life.
What sort of God manipulates his followers this way? I don’t have an answer, but the not knowing is wonderful fodder for fiction: it gives the writer room to explore.
Both of these biblical stories form the thematic backbone of my novel The Devil Virus, the story of an Episcopal priest who must venture into a nightmarish world to save his daughter from a demon.
The tale of Job’s miseries is, I believe, so perfect as a means to relate my protagonist’s plight, I use paraphrased excerpts from The Book of Job as epigraphs. I stole that idea from King, who paraphrased John’s Gospel to begin each section of Pet Sematary.
A third of the way through my book, my besieged priest has lost a child, his wife, and his father, and his only remaining child is in a coma, and he declares: “‘Job didn’t deserve any of that shit God let Satan rain down on him. I’m Job. His bait. His toy. Behold my loyal servant, Lucas. Look at his happy, perfect life. Fuck him. Let him suffer. That’s why bad things happen. Why WE suffer. It’s God will—SO BE IT!’”
In the acknowledgements, I recognized that some readers may be offended at the “sacrilegious” conversations between priests or, as to be expected in such a book, the blasphemous things a possessed child might say, as Regan does in The Exorcist, another coffin book of course. Turns out I was right: the first person I hired to perform the audio of my book asked to be released from our contract because he couldn’t reconcile his own faith with the awful things my possessed character was spouting.
Perhaps that could be used in ads for my novel: So Disturbing the Narrator Quit!
Offending and nauseating people is easy; I hope I’m striving for something grander.
Eventually, someone always asks why I write horror. This is usually said with a certain degree of surprised contempt. Your writing is good, they might say, so why are you writing stories like this when you could write anything?
I look into the darkness, and I like the view. I watched my father die, and horror is my therapy. I am troubled by dark thoughts, and horror safely releases them. I’m scared of many things, and horror gives me courage. Choose whichever explanation you prefer.
Also, horror is fun.
Demon stories, especially those about possession, are born of our fear of losing control. It is chaos run rampant, wreaking anarchy through our lives. It is sickness. Cancer. Dementia. That’s why my book is titled The Devil Virus—demon possession is the epitome of disease, the perfect metaphor for all the ways we might lose control of our physical and mental faculties.
By the mid- to late-eighties, my father’s Halloween tradition had grown in reputation and drew thousands of spectators annually. Our street would be packed with people, a line of cars stretching far down the next block, the police controlling traffic.
The event was so popular that in 1985 the local paper wrote up a full-page article about my father. That article is framed and hanging near my desk. When asked about the popularity of his holiday event, my father responded with a broader perspective about the appeal of horror: “I’m reading [or watching] disorder, but I’m safe at home in my chair. Like most people, I have two extremes—one rational and scientific, the other very irrational. I try to lead my life in between, balancing between the real and the unreal. What I like is being in control. I get to change the order of things. But it’s my disorder.”
And writing stories of madmen, monsters, and demons is my disorder.
Horror is a maligned genre, and yet the best examples of it are as literary and thought-provoking as whatever works the literati bless. In fact, by virtue of its scope, horror is untethered, free to tackle personal and societal issues. It is the safe embrace of chaos. We experience the worst situations vicariously. We imagine how we might handle a Job-like devastation. We are forced to come to terms with our mortality.
We get a rehearsal for death.
Horror is my father holding out his shaking hand and his eyes rolling back to all-white. It is the inevitability of his collapse, but it is also the assurance that in our grief there is hope that when the monster comes we might stand strong and face down whatever horror threatens to disrupt our lives.
The coffin bookcase is now in my office. The Stephen King collection has grown, and another collection has started, one that begins with The Devil Virus.
About the Author: Chris DiLeo is the author of The Devil Virus, published by Bloodshot Books, Blood Mountain, Calamity, Hudson House, and Meat Camp, co-authored with Scott Nicholson. All titles are available on Amazon. DiLeo is also a high school English teacher in New York.