Today we’re excited to welcome Chris DiLeo back to Ink Heist with a guest post titled “The Dead Breathe: Confronting Our Monsters”. Chris talks about the deeply personal losses of loved ones and how that shaped him as a writer and how those moments came to influence his novel Dead End, which is out now through Journalstone, This is a powerful essay where Chris not only opens up about his own experiences with death and grief, but also the importance of writing your truth and how Horror can be a tool to explore our fears, confront them, and re-write the impact they have on us.
“The Dead Breathe: Confronting Our Monsters”
A Guest Post By Chris DiLeo
I’m thirty-nine years old, a teacher and a writer, and a long time ago I watched my father die.
I’ve told this story to friends, to a crowd at a book signing, and I’ve written about it more than a few times in essays, stories, and novels, including my newest, Dead End, which opens with a boy witnessing his father’s death.
To a certain degree, the telling is always fictionalized.
Here’s what actually happened: Eleven years old and I’m scared of most things—loud noises, rollercoasters, spiders, my older brother—and I’m sitting in a plush loveseat, feeling as meek as I look, seventy pounds, knobby knees and elbows, and when my father stretches out a hand from the couch where he sits beside my mother and brother, I am sure I am the first to notice the tremble in his fingers, the quaver as he tries to speak, and the milky white as his eyes roll back in his head.
Or maybe I’m on the couch and it’s my brother who’s in the loveseat. He is twenty-one, a high school dropout, tattooed and smug, yet he leaps from the chair and tackles my father, who collapses onto me and I am shoved to the floor, small and crumpled, my black-and-white composition book wedged beneath me.
Mom hiccups screeches that sound like animals in a slaughterhouse, and the psychologist who’d complimented my writing only moments ago is slack-jawed, too shocked to do anything, to even grab the phone on the end table and call 9-1-1. How can he be so paralyzed with fear when he’s an adult?
My brother is trying CPR, which I recognize from TV shows. He beats at my father’s chest, but Dad is a scarecrow yanked off his post, limbs of straw, and now he’s vomiting a whitish gruel that looks like bird shit.
Someone yanks me by the arm, the psychologist I think, and I’m standing in the narrow waiting room while my father dies a few feet away. I think of the ride here, how the car filled with laughter, how light that made me feel—a happy family crossing a bridge, the Hudson River reflecting the setting sun.
Stories help us make sense of our lives and our mortality. My father dies, and soon I kiss his cold forehead in his coffin, but the lesson is even more personal—it is the most elemental of lessons, the most basic and vital.
We all die.
The paramedics arrive in ten minutes, but those minutes stretch and stretch as I stand frozen outside the room of screams and grunts. They are two men with red duffle bags. One of them stops and kneels before me, asks if I’m okay. The question is ridiculous, and I am unable to respond. I cry freely, helplessly, the way an infant cries.
Stories make us feel. They make the past real and present.
His trembling hand, reaching out toward me, that brings it into the now. My brother beating CPR on his chest, that makes it real. The paramedic kneeling and asking if I’m okay while my father dies a dozen feet away, that makes me feel. Maybe it makes you feel, too.
Stories force us to reconcile, to wrestle with ambiguity, and empower us to find truth and meaning. Come look: an eleven-year-old boy, a skinny kid who is often picked on at school and who spends recess sitting by himself writing made-up stories in his composition book, who is the spitting image of his father when he was this age—watch this boy stand there unable to do anything except cry as his mother screams, his brother punches his father’s chest, and his dad dies.
The paramedic does not ask if I’m okay. No, the paramedic touches my shoulder and his blue eyes are fabulously bright, so bright they burn through twenty-eight years of memory, and I am transfixed, too stunned to do anything.
“This’ll stay with you forever,” the paramedic says.
Stories teach us to be human, and this story won’t ever end because it never stops happening, and it never stops teaching.
The paramedic takes my composition book, flips through, scans a page or two of my story about a detective hunting a serial killer, hands it back.
In the next room, my mother is shouting my father’s name—“Warren! Warren!”—and my brother is grunting and yelling for my dad to “Stay with me! Hang on!” and the paramedic is calling for Joe, this guy staring at me with those eyes, and I smell pencil shavings and the harsh stink of vomit.
“You’ll write about this one day,” he says, calm as if we’re outside enjoying a summer’s sun.
I cannot respond, but I want to slap him and punch him and hug him.
“You’re never going to stop writing about it. That’s my guess.”
He pats me on the shoulder and goes into the other room to bear witness.
This happened twenty-eight years ago, but I swear that’s the way it went down. I was alone in one room while everyone else watched my father die in the other.
To write about my father’s death—the way it actually happened—is impossible. My truth of experience may hold no factual reality. But I’m not searching for fact. I want truth and meaning. I can do that in a novel. Only through the magic of fiction can I honestly explore what I experienced on May 2, 1992.
It’s my truth. My story.
In Dead End, Mike Munacy watches his father die in front of him, much as I did, but first Mike’s father climbs to the top of a hill behind his house, stretches out his arms, and falls off the cliff-like edge. Eleven-year-old Mike kneels beside his father in the grass and watches his father’s eyes roll up, “completely white—the chalky, milky-yellow white of maggots,” and his father’s trembling hand touches Mike’s face—“The flesh [is] warm. The fingers tapp[ing] Morse code on [his] cheek.”—and his father speaks a dying word: “Coward.”
That is truthful. I am eleven and my father is dying in the next room and all I can do is stand still and cry. I can’t even speak when the paramedic stops to examine me. I want to yell at him, to slap him, to beg him to make everything the way it was only moments ago, the psychologist praising my writing and asking me why I thought we were in his office. I say nothing. I do nothing. My father dies. I am a coward.
Stories force us to accept who we are. If we tell the truth, if we are unflinchingly honest and write without artifice, stories can strip bare the soul—and it is only when we are so raw and vulnerable that we may begin to heal.
Death is a journey. Come.
The dead breathe.
In the coffin, my father’s chest rose and fell, gently, as if he were sleeping. He could be dozing as he often did on the living room couch, only this time dressed in a suit and without any cat curled in the crook of his elbow or on the center of his chest.
He was dead—I’d witnessed the heart attack that crumpled him to the floor—yet I was watching him breathe.
People, strangers mostly, took turns staring into the box where my father laid, hands joined across his stomach, eyes and mouth permanently closed.
A room of hushed voices. Someone blurted a ripple of laughter and someone else honked a nose-clearing bleat into a tissue.
Flowers crammed around the coffin and their sharp, perfume stink clotted in my throat.
A hand squeezed my shoulder—and a kind face said words immediately forgotten. I nodded, the person left, and before me, in his final bed, my father went on breathing.
If I placed my hands on his chest, would I feel his dead lungs fill with air?
A gentle rise and fall.
Twenty-four years later, my mother breathed in and out from a hospital bed where she’d lain for weeks. During that time, the doctors had conveyed a gradually deteriorating sense of optimism and the short, bearded doctor on call that night already asked me about a DNR and a morphine drip.
A bipap breathing-machine forced air down her throat. Inside the clear mask, air fluttered her lips off her teeth.
On a Saturday in June four months later, I was running down the driveway. A neighbor spotted a cat in the road and she knew we had five. We used to have seven. One went into the woods behind our home and never came back, and the other was killed in the road just beyond our driveway—the exact spot where I was running right then.
That other cat had been killed the previous October, and when I scooped her into my arms, she was heavy, heavier than she’d been in life. I screamed my wife’s name over and over and stumbled back to the house with our poor, dead cat held against my chest. Her head hung in a terrible, peculiar way, and her pink tongue jutted from her open mouth.
All her breath was gone and I’d soon bury her in our yard, but this time when I darted into the road, I found our cat sitting Sphinx-like, head up, legs stretched before her.
Ten years earlier, my aunt sat shawl-draped in a chair wedged in the corner and said, “I just want to live.”
Soon, she would be bedridden, unable to speak, barely able to get enough oxygen to keep breathing, to keep living, and yet and for a little while, she would, and it was hard to tell when the brain cancer finally killed her—those ragged breaths just kept coming.
My cat was alive—dazed with blood filling her left eye and bubbling from her nose and mouth—but very much alive. I cradled her as I had our slain cat.
In the car speeding to the emergency vet’s, the cat’s rapid breathing gradually eased, and I shook her. “No,” I said. “Stay with me! Hang on!”
In that hospital room on an ice-slick February night, the bipap machine was turned off. We’d been summoned back in the middle of the night: my wife, my best friend, and me.
My mother’s breath caught—and continued.
In the distance, dawn’s first light peeled its way up the night sky.
We each held her, my wife and friend holding her hands, I caressing her head, and that final breath came easy and soft. There was a remarkable gentleness to that breath. She let it go and lay still just as the sun pushed over the mountains along the horizon and bright light splashed across the window.
It is how she wanted to go—peacefully and with people who loved her at her side. When that final breath left her, it was so slight and peaceful, so graceful and unlike the painful struggle she had battled as her congestive heart failure worsened and her kidneys surrendered.
Yet, there I was on my knees in the October cold, scooping out clumps of dirt for my cat’s grave, my hands sore and cramping from shoveling rocky ground for over an hour. My throat hurt, too, because I had been screaming accusations, damnations, and threats at every passing car—and at the sky above.
When I placed our cat in the ground, wrapped in her favorite green blanket, the one she would knead and suckle on, white paws flexing, drool slipping off her muzzle to blot the ragged cloth, I found it was too final, too absolute and irrevocable, to cover her and fill the hole. Too much like forgetting.
Yet I filled the hole, smoothing over the dirt. The ground was cool, and beneath my hands it lifted just slightly and dropped.
A gentle rise and fall.
My father in his coffin. My mother. My aunt. And a cat.
Dead—and still breathing.
Stories help us make sense of our plotless lives. They let us discover connections and forage for meaning. The dead breathe because we keep them alive.
Wait. Get this.
I knew about the coffin, of course, but it wasn’t until after my father died that I dared take something from it. A heart attack killed him when he was fifty-one and I was eleven. I saw it happen and maybe that’s why I write horror (all you armchair psychologists can agree on that), but it’s really the coffin—and what was inside it—that seduced me into the world of the macabre.
My father loved Halloween, and every year he decorated our front lawn with hand-inscribed gravestones, and mannequins dressed as monsters, and he donned a costume (his favorite: a two-headed monstrosity, very much like the one Mike’s father has in Dead End, 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 a custom-built coffin to horrify and delight trick-or-treaters.
That is the image of my father I think of most often—a man embracing his monstrous side in full, public spectacle on Halloween night.
During the rest of the year, while my father worked as a textbook editor, that coffin stood in our downstairs, crammed with horror novels. I’d sneak down there and peek inside, but the books scared me.
After my father died, I opened the coffin and the books were not so scary anymore. They were a reminder of the father I’d lost, and they offered an opportunity to connect with him through something he loved.
The first book I chose was by Stephen King—The Waste Lands (I dug the cover of a ghostly runaway train)—and when I read it, my life changed forever. The entire world opened up to me in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. I read and read and read, one book after another. Those books were not the bland, safe Hardy Boys tales I’d been reading. These were books 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. These were scary stories that infected my sleep with nightmares, but they reminded me of a truth I discovered firsthand—bad things happen—and they taught me something absolutely vital: the bad things, the monsters, must be confronted. A boy must enter a haunted house, a woman must fight a rabid dog, a father must hold his dead child.
Reading King’s works and the other horror novels from that coffin was an electric charge, thrilling and scaring me, and it was all the more exciting because it felt taboo. None of my peers read such books. Their parents wouldn’t let them if they tried.
When my mother discovered I was working my way through my father’s coffin collection, she did not tell me to stop, did not advise me that those were adult books too mature for my pre-adolescent mind. She gave her approval, her permission, and her encouragement.
That is why Dead End is dedicated to my parents. Without those books, and without the freedom to read them, I wouldn’t be a reader, a writer, or a teacher, and my book certainly wouldn’t exist.
In Dead End, Mike Munacy is my stand-in. He’s an English teacher, as I am, he’s scared of losing control of his emotions, scared of going insane, scared of his domestic life falling apart, scared of the outside evil that threatens to wreak havoc, as I am, and he’s forced to reconcile with a childhood trauma, which is precisely what the writing of this book did for me. Mike’s father is a stand-in for my father, of course, but there is another character in the novel who is also a stand-in for Warren DiLeo: Roman Fort. He is Mike’s neighbor, a retired veterinarian (an aspiration my father had but his parents dissuaded him), and a horror fan.
Whether I was aware of it at the time of not, Roman Fort was my attempt to commune with the dead. Some of my favorite scenes in my book are conversations between Rom and Mike. They talk about horror movies and manhood and marriage and parenthood and death and love and fear and all the other topics I never got to discuss with my dad. Rom and Mike also discuss Mike’s father, Ward, which is like me talking about my dead father with his ghost.
For all I know, that’s exactly what happened.
Consider this: I was about thirty thousand words into the most recent first draft when I discovered an old magazine featuring a horror story my father wrote, and I found a manilla envelope containing reports from the psychologist who we’d been seeing when my father collapsed to the floor and I was shoved into the waiting room to cry like a coward.
That story and those reports became integral to Dead End’s plot.
Something else you should know: the cul-de-sac where I grew up was cursed.
There were five houses, mine at the top of the circle, thick woods looming tall behind. Within fifteen years or so, one person from each house died, the causes all different: suicide, heart attack, car accident, cancer, and ALS.
The night of the car accident, the neighbors gathered on the street near the curbed circle of grass where I sometimes played with G.I Joes. “This place is cursed,” one neighbor said to another. It was dark out, and the single streetlamp cast a yellowy pallor on her face. “Everyone should move. Anyone could be next.”
I was standing right there when she said it. The houses crowded around, towering up in the night, shadowy monoliths with enormous square eyes that reminded me of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods. At that moment, when I was thirteen or so, I had the idea for a story about a street where bad things happen, where people die, seemingly without explanation. An Indian curse. Or demons. Or just bad luck.
Form follows function, writers know, and each book determines what form it will take, how it will be written, and what it’ll look like in the end. We tell ourselves to trust the process, which for me can mean something haphazard, disjointed, and scattershot—notebook pages of random dialogue, stray plot points, vague character backstory, and then there’s pages and pages and pages that get so heavily revised they look nothing like the original draft.
When I got married and we bought a house, the perfect set of new fears mixed with my old fears, and I wrote the first draft of Dead End, the story of newlyweds on a cursed cul-de-sac. Over the past ten years, the book has been revised innumerable times, including two complete rewrites from page one. There have been ghosts and demons and ancient monsters and suicides and murders.
Through every draft, though, there has always been Mike watching his father die, Mike’s filial bond with Rom, and Mike daring to confront the horror besieging him.
Some of my fears are the same as they were when I wrote that first draft ten years ago, and some new fears have been added, but my sense of hope has gotten stronger, more resilient. Horror taught me to never stop believing in the monster, and to never forget that no matter what happens, we must go into those dark woods and face what waits for us.
Writing out your trauma is the path toward freedom. Dead End is consumed with my trauma, but throughout the stories and books I’ve written there are characters with dead parents, dead children, the threat of the unknown outside evil, and plenty of monsters, real and allegorical.
People might think I should just come off it, get over it, move on. Instead, I recall something poet and novelist James Dickey (Deliverance) said regarding the same topic: “I don’t want to come off it. I want to get on it. I mean, really.”
When you write horror, you write about disorder and death and the monster lurking out of sight in those dark woods. It’s my father collapsing to the floor, my aunt unable to speak, my mother’s head in my hand as she sighs her final breath, and my cat mewling in the road, half her face skinned.
The monster is everywhere. It’s in my closet and under my bed and hiding in the basement corner that never gets any light and in the far end of the attic where the mice are, and it’s right behind me when the hairs on my neck stand up. And it’s COVID-19, an invisible predator that might lay you flat, wheezing, and which has panicked us into buying toilet paper and chicken and guns.
This is when we need horror the most.
Horror erodes society’s veneer, exposes all the ways we are vulnerable; it is the most truthful of genres, forcing us to reconcile with our mortality and confront our fears of things both known and unknown. But in horror there is also hope that when the monster comes we might stand strong and face whatever calamity threatens to disrupt our lives, and horror is there to remind us that even in the darkest hour there is hope that can light the way.
In Dead End, Mike is burdened with all my fears and then some. His life, and all he loves, is in very real danger. I’ve been rooting for him these past ten years, through draft after draft, and I was rooting for him when he didn’t want to look in the coffin, or open the door, or enter the woods. I had no idea what was going to happen to him. His journey taught me more than I can articulate about story, about trauma, and about hope.
If you’ve read anything by Tim O’Brien, in particular The Things They Carried, you will recognize I cribbed his style for parts of this essay. I’ve yet to encounter a better writer who can convey the importance of truth over fact in storytelling, and following his approach was the only way I could convey what it was like to be eleven and watch my father die.
The story circles back on itself again and again. There are innumerable versions, one in which my father dies but then sits up, grins at me, and says, “Well, guess I’m dead now.” There is a version where his trembling hand snags my shirt and he pulls me to the floor so we are face-to-face when he breathes his last. There is a version where an enormous shadow beast strangles my father. There is a version where the paramedic tugs me into the room and holds my eyes open so I must bear witness. There is a version where the paramedic says, “It would be best if you forgot all this. Let it be a crater in your memory.”
But it’s hard to forget something you can’t stop remembering.
Try this version: both paramedics stop in front of me. One kneels and touches my shoulder. The other doesn’t acknowledge me, staring straight ahead into the room where my mother screams and my brother improvises CPR. “I don’t want to go in there,” that paramedic says. “And we never have to,” the other one says, looking right at me, a wet sheen on his blue eyes. “We’ll stay right here until this young man writes the story the way he wants it.”
Sometimes the monsters win, we know this, but that’s not the point, not the truth as I see it.
Here’s the lesson: I don’t have to stand outside that room, don’t have to be a coward.
We can enter those dark woods, we can be courageous, we can confront the monster.
I can rewrite my story.
Home can be a refuge . . .
Mike Munacy was eleven years old when he watched his father commit suicide, jumping off the towering hill behind his house to die in the grass at Mike’s feet. Fourteen years later, Mike and his fiancée, Dani, move into his boyhood home. Something is wrong with Mike’s mother, and moments after warning, “It came back. It never left,” she collapses and will soon die. Things get even worse when Dani sleepwalks into the woods…
Home can be a trap . . .
Mike unearths books and personal documents that question all Mike knows about his parents and implicate his father in a horrific act. He turns to his neighbors—an unsympathetic old man, a stand-in father-figure, and a religious zealot—but these people harbor their own strange and deadly secrets. Mike suspects they know something about why Dani now whispers nonsensical things, lashes out aggressively, and ransacks the house.
Home can be a place of death…
After a child is found burned to death, Mike believes all the horror and misery must be connected. To save Dani and stop a curse his father helped unleash, Mike must learn the secrets of the past, expose a murderer, and confront monsters both human and supernatural.
…and death can be welcome…
With shades of The Exorcist and Pet Sematary, this is a story of secrets and beliefs, of the power of grief, of how we desperately seek meaning in harrowing events, and of the darker corners of hope, where happiness is only a shadow. Dead End will keep you “turning the pages…faster and faster”* until its shocking conclusion.
For some, home can be a place of death…
…and death can be welcome.
*Michael Marshall, The New York Times bestselling author
Follow DiLeo @authordileo.