The story that appears in the two-hole in my first collection is titled “The Clever Mask.” This was the first horror story to get accepted anywhere long before I put Seven Deadly together, and it has a nifty little story of its own.
I had always wanted to write horror stuff from my love of Stephen King’s books, and in 1992 I joined a writing workshop at Temple University in their adult enrichment program. (No grades, just fun). I had no idea what to expect. I thought the teacher was going to do grammar, or dialogue lessons, or what-not. The instructor was this young guy in his early 30’s like me, and the first thing he did was a brief lecture concerning the elements of fiction (situation / trap, impending peril, time limitation, conflict and resistance, climax and resolution, epiphany, and logic errors). I took furious notes, and to this day I still use this lecture as an opening for my own creative writing units.
But after this, he simply asked if there was fiction anyone wanted to turn in. People suddenly stood up to hand out copies of stories and he started scheduling them. What? I felt left out! And that was the point. This teacher was so popular, he had repeaters who took the workshop again and again, and the entire class after the brief lecture was based on student work and student criticism. Wonderful! And let me tell you, when it was “your night,” and the class pored over your story detail for detail for 45 minutes, it was an absolute rush.
I got working at home, working with a vengeance. Took me three weeks, and I wrote what I thought was the best, bloodiest, most suspenseful horror story I could muster. Handed out copies. They scheduled me for two weeks later.
They hated it. Comments were dark, nasty, filled with hatred actually. “It was gratuitous and disgusting,” one woman said. “This is not worth reading,” another piped in. “I was absolutely appalled,” a third added.
I was crushed. I had worked hard on this thing, giving a good set-up, nice foreshadowing, and a string of pay-offs like a multiple orgasm. I also had a “gross-out” scene that I thought was spectacular, as my protagonist removed his thumb in the bathtub with a razor blade and the help of the spigot for the final “snapping.” I even called a doctor to make sure I had the anatomical details straight.
I was crushed. Then, a young woman named Jill raised her hand sheepishly. She said, “I don’t know what you all are talking about. I loved it. This story was primal and in-your-face.” The class exploded into argumentation. Ken Bingham, the instructor raised his hand, gaining the quiet that became one of the most suspenseful pauses of my life. He said, “Guys. You may not like this piece for its harsh content, but I’m telling you this, it is going to publish. Bank on it.”
It did. Three weeks later it was accepted to Midnight Zoo magazine. They folded before it hit print, but that wasn’t the point. I had my open door. I was a writer now.
“I went downstairs for a cup of coffee, and the Grim Reaper was sitting in my living room.”