This year, as part of our Halloween celebration, I asked a whole bunch of the greatest living horror writers to tell us about the three SCARIEST books or stories that they’ve ever read. The thinking here is, if something scares THESE folks, it is probably awesome. Many authors have been kind enough to send in their picks, which will be coming out in these final days before All Hallows. I can’t wait to share them!
Some of the writer-folk put together entire essays (like Mr. Grau from a couple days ago). I’m going to be putting a few of these longer ones up as their own critters. With that in mind, we bring you…
WHAT SCARED THE PISS OUT OF A YOUNG LAIRD BARRON
Author’s note: Let us just say, my parents, like many parents in the 1970s, were pretty damned cavalier regarding their kids’ mental health.
Don’t be Afraid of the Dark came out on television in October of 1973. The plot? A woman and her husband get taken down by a horde of doll-sized terrors that dwell under the foundation of an ancient house.
I was three years old and visiting grandma with the rest of the family. I recall being plopped in front of the television while the adults milled around the kitchen of my grandparents old, vaguely labyrinthine house—a house all too similar to the creepy joint inherited by the hapless couple in the movie. Two scenes scared me—the little bastard antagonists sneaking around in the dark, stringing tripwires; and the protagonist having a swell time at a dinner party until one of the creatures reveals itself under the table.
I happened to see the film again a few years ago. A friend of mine is a horror maven and he screened Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark outdoors for members of his cinema club. The audience sat around on lawn chairs and got eaten alive by mosquitoes, and yeah, it’s a cheesy flick. Yet, as the night deepened and I sank into the narrative, those skulking, whispering diminutive figures onscreen reminded me that everything frightening is true to a child.
Phase IV. I caught this one in the theater, aged four or five. What kid isn’t fascinated with ants? What kid wouldn’t go gaga over a poster featuring an ant burrowing through a human hand? The Plot: a cosmic anomaly grants colonies of ants super-intelligence and a lust for world domination.
I’m not going to belabor the point—ants eat a spider; ants eat other ants; ants eat a mantis; ants eat (and enslave!) humans. Everything a child could possibly want from a movie. As with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a couple of years back, I watched it again for the first time since the ‘70s, and let me tell you, it’s so much better and weirder than I’d imagined. Phase IV is probably the finest cosmic horror film and it’s representative of the weird tradition.
Andy Kaufman. In the ‘80s it was the vacuous, glittering-eyed comic who gave teenage me nightmares, whether it was his turn as the lovable mechanic on Taxi, or his various stints on late-night television, while everybody else laughed, I stared at him with unease. Unease that grew into dread when he materialized in my dreams. The problem with Kaufman is that he behaved like a professional doppelganger. His public existence amounted to the propagation of a long con. See the unnerving provenance and career of Tony Clifton. See the hoax with Jerry Lawler. See his second appearance on Letterman’s show in 1980—“I’m not trying to be funny.” No sane man would carry the excruciatingly deadpan non-comedy shtick to that extreme. Holding one’s hand over an open flame for three minutes would be less agonizing than dragging out that performance before an increasingly befuddled audience. Kaufman, according to Lawler, never aspired to comedy. “I’ve never told a joke in my life,” are the alleged words of Kaufman—and I believe him. This radio interview with Lawler which is supposed to clear matters up (and Lawler obviously admires Kaufman), actually reveals hidden depths of darkness.
I always suspected Kaufman knew something the rest of us didn’t; an awful, horrid secret that bulged his eyes and plucked at the corners of his mouth. I loathed the affectedness of his flat affect demeanor, the orientation of his gaze upon an invisible middle distance while audiences tittered as if they understood. But they didn’t understand; they laughed because you have to laugh or scream, trapped there in the studio.
Folks of a certain age like to joke that Andy Kaufman is still alive, man. Of course, he is—his saturnine expression is acid-etched on the wall of some dark cavern of my mind.
Laird Barron is one of the greatest living horror writers, and a volcano of creepy creativity. If you don’t already know that, boy are you in for a treat! Read his books–all of ’em are awesome. Find out more (and keep track of this diabolical maniac’s whereabouts) at his website.
Thank you, Laird!