Welcome to Ménage au Talk. We’ve invited Walking Dead author Jay Bonansinga to join us in a three-way discussion about writing, horror, and what inspires us. First up, we talk about why we write and some of the things that influenced us in our earliest years – things that fascinated, frightened, and gave us the nightmares that brought us to where we are today. Whether you’re a reader, a writer, a Walking Dead fan, or all three, we hope you’ll enjoy our continuing chat.
What made you want to be a writer?
Rod Serling and Cruella De Vil, basically. I remember vividly being six years old and in the front seat of my grandpa’s ’56 Chevy, and I’m sandwiched between my grandma and grandpa, and innocently watching the original Disney film 101 Dalmations. And then… and then… this limousine that’s like a block and a half long pulls on screen, and out steps this Freudian nightmare mother from hell with long, black talon-like fingernails, a white fright wig hairstyle, and a fur stole made of puppy skins!!!!! I jumped into the back seat and covered my eyes, and somehow, even then, in my little childlike way, I kept saying to myself, “Never again.” But I think I was really saying, “Never again will I put myself in this position. I want to be the one who scares people.” And when I first laid eyes on Rod Serling, I wanted to look like him, dress like him, BE him. I wanted to dress in a black sharkskin jacket with thin lapels and smoke and have Kennedy-esque hair swept back, and introduce scary stories.
I remember that long black limo, too. Truly a scary moment. What I loved though, was sprawling on the living room floor to watch Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and One Step Beyond. Beyond was my favorite because the stories were supposed to be true. I loved those shows. Then, around first grade, I discovered Ray Bradbury. I was drawn into his words – his prose is poetry – and compelled to write my own, to practice creating spooky places like the ravine in Greentown, Illinois. His stories, The Lake and The Man Upstairs fascinated and repelled and compelled me. And gave me nightmares. A story titled The Thing in the Cellar by David H. Kellar, was what made me keep the lights burning. In its way that single story was as much an inspiration to write as Bradbury and Serling. My other influence was The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. I remember seeing it in the theater and being scared and laughing simultaneously. I spent my very early years singing The Beatles’ Paperback Writer. I don’t ever remember wanting to be anything else.
There were two main contributors for me. I too, was first introduced to horror through Disney when I went to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the drive-in around six years old. The dwarves and Snow White herself made no real impression on me, but when the evil queen was on screen, I was rooted in place. I vividly remember the moment she drinks the potion and begins her transformation into the hag. I was riveted, watching in fascinated horror as the aging process took something beautiful and made it terrifying in a matter of seconds. That it happened against the backdrop of a storming sky and a shrill blast of frightening music only made it worse. That scene has never left me and even now, I see the echoes of it in my work. But I don’t remember thinking I wanted to write scary stories then. The first I-want-to-be-a-writer moment I had was a couple of years later, when I was eight. It was around Halloween and my teacher gave us an assignment I was very excited about: to write a scary story, which she would read aloud in front of the class. I wrote about a serial killer who also happened to be a ghost (two of my favorite subjects) and I was very proud of it. But when the time came for my story to be read, my pride turned to humiliation. My teacher stumbled over the words, squinted at the page, did a lot of eye-rolling and heavy sighing, then announced that my story was “stupid” and made no sense before tossing it aside half-read and moving on to the next. Chuckling and snickering rippled through the classroom. I was humiliated and hurt, but I was also angry – and I’ve been writing ever since.
So those are the things that made us all want to become writers. Next question: We were all drawn to dark fantasy by these early influences. But was there something that was simply TOO scary for you as a child? Something traumatizing?
For me it was Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. I wasn’t even in school yet when I saw – and loved – Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? so I remember settling in my seat in the theater thinking this movie would be fun. And it was, right up until that cleaver came down on Bruce Dern’s wrist. I slammed my hands over my eyes, traumatized in a way no ghost could ever manage. And my father yanked them off, whispering that I was being a coward. I tried to stare at my knees. He pushed my chin up. I spent the next 90 minutes or so with my eyelids clamped shut. And the next five years sleeping with my head under the covers and having nightmares about severed hands. I could have used a therapist, but instead, I found relief through writing about it, turning to stories about girls being torn apart by bears while camping and killers climbing in windows. I’d never written anything bloody before Charlotte.
Pre-Charlotte, when I was four or five, I happily watched The Hands of Orlac on my grandmother’s TV, all alone in the dark. Crawling hands were supernatural – hence, more fun than scary. People chopping hands off – that was another matter. I’ve always loved and been titillated and scared in a fun way by supernatural horror. What scared me then, as now, is what real-life people can do to each other.
War and war movies. Real-life stuff. That’s what truly scared me. My dad was a fan of M*A*S*H and I was so terrified by the idea of war that even hearing the show’s opening music from the television sent me into the other room where I’d spend long moments trying not to think of war. I don’t know why. I have no memory of anything happening that traumatized me this way, but that was the only terror that was too much for me.
I’ve always had recurring dreams of crawling through battlefields full of torn-apart bodies, but oddly, they’ve never scared me even though the dismemberment in Charlotte did me in. Isn’t it odd how we’re all affected slightly differently by these things?
It is odd. I’ve also had war-dreams, especially when I was young, and they always terrified me.
You are so right, Alistair – for children of the seventies, Vietnam was the pinnacle of scary (and somehow also tedious and mundane). But when I think about it… Good Lord, what didn’t scare me? When I was a kid, everything scared me. I was like Woody Allen as a kid in Annie Hall. The expanding universe scared me. Anything vast and inscrutable horrified me. Deep space. The stuff they used to teach us in Catholic Sunday school — hell is the heat of a lighted match multiplied by a million. The ocean freaked me out. Dark basements. Air travel. Ski lifts. The police. Police stations. The Ice Capades. Clowns. Mimes. Summer camp. Suspension bridges. Dead bodies. I could go on. Being a lapsed Catholic, though, I think the biggest influence that scared me as a kid was the original William Peter Blatty/Bill Friedkin EXORCIST. For my money, it is still the grand champion of scare films. I remember a few years ago my teenage sons challenged me to show them an old school horror film that was truly scary (and has aged well). After a few embarrassing screenings, I showed them THE EXORCIST. They were riveted and petrified. And these are videogame-saturated kids. I think for Catholics, the whole demonology corner of the the store remains terrifying. Go figure.
We always hear about how difficult it is to shake loose those Catholic moorings. And on that note, when our Ménage au Talk with Jay Bonansinga continues, we’ll start out by talking about religion, horror … and zombies.
(to be continued)
Jay Bonansinga is the New York Times bestselling author of The Walking Dead series as well as Lucid, and his latest release, Self-Storage. He is also an indie filmmaker and his music videos have been seen on The Nashville Network and Public Television. He holds a master’s degree in film from Columbia College Chicago.
Tamara Thorne is the internationally bestselling author of Haunted, Moonfall, Eternity, Candle Bay, and many others. Tamara’s interest in writing is lifelong, as is her fascination with the paranormal, occult, mythology and folklore.
Alistair Cross is the author of the bestselling novel, The Crimson Corset, as well as several others with his collaborator, Tamara Thorne. Alistair has been writing since the age of eight and was first published in 2012. His next solo novel will appear later this year.
Together, Thorne & Cross have written The Cliffhouse Haunting, The Ghosts of Ravencrest, and the upcoming psychological thriller, Mother. They are also working on the second Ravencrest Saga novel, The Witches of Ravencrest. The first part of this serial novel, Grave Expectations, is now available on Amazon. They also host the horror/thriller-themed radio show, Thorne & Cross: Haunted Nights LIVE!, which has featured such guests as Laurell K. Hamilton, V.C. Andrews, and Charlaine Harris.