Many writers are fascinated, even to the point of obsession, with other writers’ inspirations. Stephen King claims to have located a small, curious store that sells multi-million-dollar story ideas for a mere pittance, although he’s rather vague as to the emporium’s exact location.
Horror maestro Bentley Little accounts for his facility with terror by letting his readers in on a little--or should one say a “Little”--secret: his birth followed closely upon his mother’s having attended a showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
In his volume of short stories, The Collection (2002), Little offers more specific accounts of his muse’s muses, prefacing each of his tales of terror with a brief explanation concerning its inspiration.
Bentley, who won the Bram Stoker Award and was thereafter “discovered” by both Dean Koontz and Stephen King, is excellent at plotting--except in one crucial respect: his endings (at least of his novels) are notoriously unsatisfying. However, his fans, aware of this near-fatal flaw, forgive him, for his action-packed plots, full of odd characters and odder incidents, propel readers forward with roughly the same force (and at the same pace) as that of a rocket. Before they fully realize that the conclusion of the story that they’ve spent hours reading is, to put it mildly, disappointing, they’ve finished another otherwise-excellent narrative, full of suspense and horror--trademarks, as it were, of a Bentley Little production.
There are 32 stories in The Collection, involving hitchhikers, newlyweds, a unique serial killer, residents of a town as strange as it is small, and an assortment of other grotesques of only the sort whom Little can create. It would be unfair to share all of the inspirational tricks that Little’s muse played upon the writer of this volume, but a few might suggest the variety of inspiration that Little experiences.
The lead-off tale is “The Sanctuary,” which was inspired by a source similar to one of those which motivated King to write his first novel, Carrie (1974).
King was inspired, in part, to write the story of a telekinetic girl’s use of her powers to avenge herself against her high school’s in-crowd bullies by his having wondered what it might be like to live in the house of a religious fantastic, as a girl he’d known in his childhood did (and as Carrie White, his novel’s protagonist, who was based, in part, on this girl, does). Strangely enough, the “inspiration” for his first novel has since been revamped for his official website, and it now includes a theme that has received an overtly feminist interpretation:
The character “Carrie” was a composite of two girls Stephen knew during high school. The story is largely about how women find their own channels of power, and what men fear about women and women's sexuality. “Carrie White is a sadly mis-used [sic] teenager, an example of the sort of person whose spirit is so often broken for good in that pit of man--and woman--eaters that is your normal suburban high school. But she's also Woman, feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.”
(That's quite a revisionistic view of the novel's theme!)
The same sort of wonder concerning the effects of religious fanaticism upon a child prompted “The Sanctuary,” Little confides to his readers:
Religious fanatics have always seemed scary to me, and when I hear them espousing some wacky eschatological theory or promoting their perverse interpretations of the Bible, I always wonder what their home lives are like. What kind of furniture do they have? What kind of food do they eat? How do they treat their neighbors and their pets?
“The Sanctuary” is my version of what life would be like for a child growing up in such a household (The Collection, p. 1).
The similar inspirations are interesting and allow fans, readers, critics, writers, and others an opportunity to see how two masters of the horror genre each handle a similar theme, one in a full-length novel, the other in a short story. What perspective does Little take as compared to King?
The sixteenth story (the one that appears at the halfway mark, so to speak, of Little’s anthology) is “The Pond.” According to Little, it had a somewhat more cerebral theme, “about lost ideals and selling out,” and is, as such, a story concerning “moral shortcomings”:
This is a story about lost ideals and selling out--moral shortcomings which are not limited to the boomer generation depicted here.
By the way, there really was a group called P. O. P. (People Over Pollution). They used to gather each Saturday to collect and process recyclables. Back in the early 1970s, my friend Stephen Hillenberg and I belonged to an organization called Youth Science Center, which would offer weekend science classes and field trips. We got to do Kirlian photography, visit mushroom farms, learn about edible plants on nature walks, tour laser la oratories--and one Saturday we worked with People Over Pollution, smashing aluminum cans with sledgehammers.
Stephen grew up to create the brilliant and wildly popular cartoon SpongeBob Square Pants (p. 199).
The final story in The Collection is “The Murmurous Haunt of Flies,” about which Little writes:
I’m not a poetry fan. Never have been, never will be. But while suffering through a graduate class on the Romantic poets, the phrase, “the humorous haunts of flies” leaped out at me while [I was] reading Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” I thought it was a great line and wrote it down.
Some time later, I found myself thinking of my great-grandmother’s chicken ranch in the small farming community of Ramona, California. She’d died years before, and I hadn’t been there for a long time, But I remembered a little adobe banya or bathhouse on the property that used to scare me (this bathhouse pops up again in my novel The Town). I remembered as well that there had always been flies everywhere--because of the chickens--and I recalled seeing flypaper and No-Pest Strips that were black with bug bodies. The Keats phrase returned to me, a light went on, and I wrote this story (p. 433).
A graduate class in Romantic poetry. A phrase from a John Keats poem. A grandmother’s place in Ramona, California. A bathhouse. Flypaper, No-Pest Strips, and “bug bodies.” For the writer, all human experience is “grist for the mill,” and nothing is sacrosanct. Anything and everything related to being human in an inhuman world is raw material for literary treatment in the horror genre, as The Collection itself does a pretty good job of showing.
An interest in a writer’s inspiration teaches another lesson, too, for aficionados of literature, and its reading and writing pursuits. These insights into the origins of stories--or, at least, of the ideas for stories--indicate an all-too-important, if basic, truth. (Often, because such truths are basic, they are easily and soon forgotten.) As Ihara Saikaku reminds the readers of his own short story, “What the Seasons Brought to the Almanac Maker,” there is a fundamental difference between literature and life. The latter, made up of a discrete and separate series of incidents involving, more often than not, random, and even contradictory situations and expectations, lacks a pattern to its events--especially, a cause-and-effect pattern. In other words, it lacks a plot. Therefore, much of the experience--or series of experiences--that, collectively, we call “life,” seem absurd, meaningless, and purposeless, which can lead to despair at the sense of the futility of existence, tempting us to say, along with King Solomon, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
By selecting from the multiplicity of life’s--and, indeed, of history’s--incidents and situations, those which, assembled in a particular sequence, according to the principles of cause and effect, literature suggests that life is what it otherwise does not seem to be--significant, meaningful, and purposeful, which perception leads one to hope (sometimes against hope) that it is worthwhile, after all, despite Hamlet’s “ slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and “proud man’s contumely.”
With respect to horrific incidents and situations in particular, horror fiction suggests that such experiences are not only survivable but are also important. They can teach as well as torment. They can enlighten as well as frighten. They can help us to get our minds right about ourselves, others, and the world around us. How, specifically, horror fiction accomplishes such feats is analyzed in several other, previous posts and is likely to be examined, yet again, in still future essays.
Meanwhile, The Collection awaits, with interesting insights of its own.