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A Head Full Of Sick Stuff
by Robert Hood

Writing horror stories is definitely a suspect occupation. People look at you askance. "Why don't you write nice stories?" my mother asks periodically, and though I tell her my latest tale of surreal bloodshed is a nice story, she doesn't seem to believe me. Writing stories full of extreme behaviour, gore or even spooky disorientation encourages normal society to scowl at you and say things like: "Don't you think it's a worry that your head is full of all that sick stuff?"

But where do the strange ideas come from? Consider some of my stories, chosen more-or-less at random.

In January 1993, Chris Masters wrote to me asking for a 'gratuitously gory' story which he could include in a magazine of extreme horror (then to be called Severed Head). It seemed like an interesting proposition, so I let my imagination go, beginning with the image of someone up to his armpits in a living patient's brains and intestines - because such an image seemed at the time nicely gratuitous. As it turned out the story was indeed gory, though not gratuitous, I trust. It's both funny and nasty, depicting a faulty perception which mistakes death for life. The story, "Autopsy", was published in the first issue of Bloodsongs, and managed, along with one or two other pieces, to earn the magazine an R-rating and to get it banned in Queensland.

On the other hand, the story "You're a Sick Man, Mr Antwhistle" is a quiet, suggestive piece in which there is no blood, a sense of threat but no violence, and a mere ambience of perversity. It was inspired by evenings spent listening to prose, poetry and music in a pub at Bulli - evenings run by poet Deb Westbury. Sometimes Deb would get me to read my own work and more than once commented that I was "a sick man". This phrase joined with reflection on the subtle undercurrents of tension often existing even in a room dedicated to the finer things in life, and produced the story. It was published in the literary magazine Mattoid in Australia, and subsequently in the late Karl Edward Wagner's Year's Best Horror XIX.

"Peripheral Movement in the Leaves Under an Orange Tree" was suggested by walking to work through the botanical gardens at Keiraville in Wollongong. As my shadow passed over the ground by the side of the path the dry leaves would rustle, as tiny lizards disturbed by my presence ran for cover. The story explores a mind haunted by delusions, and is full of things half-seen and movement caused by unseen influences. It was published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

Then there's "Voyeur Night", a technological zombie story in a hardboiled detective mode, which examines the nature of guilt. Inspired by the literary impulse of wanting to mix the genres - and influenced by the sexist imagery of such stories-, it was subsequently published in the cross-genre anthology Crosstown Traffic.

"Dead End", doomed to be my most published piece of writing, is a textured murder story (complete with imaginary zombie) which looks wryly at relationships and won the Australian Golden Dagger Award - not a horror story as such, but some of the elements are there. It came from watching my brother and his wife renovate a terrace house in Annandale. On one occasion, while digging up the concrete that covered the back yard, they found a football sock. That sock became a dead footballer and the story was born.

"Sandcrawlers", which was written for the fictionalised true-crime anthology Case Re-opened, is essentially a crime story based on the Wanda Beach murder case from the 70s - for me it is also one of the most horrific things I've written. The concept itself gave the story its impetus and its themes of revenge and culpability arose from the writing.

"Nasty Little Habits", appearing in Dark Voices 3 and re-printed in my collection of ghost stories, Immaterial, arose out of frustration caused by my exuberant and bad-habit-ridden 8-year-old son. Though he was simply doing what all kids do and I shamelessly exaggerated his behaviour in the story, the feelings evoked were universal enough to make response to that story particularly favourable among parents. The mixture of anger, frustration and guilt proved quite potent.

On the other hand, the surreal and very weird "Rotting Eggplant on the Bottom Shelf of a Fridge" (published in Eidolon) was simply inspired by a rotting eggplant on the bottom shelf of my fridge, and by thoughts on the nature of coincidence. The title here came first and meditation upon that produced the story.

I could go on, but you get the idea. These stories, all arguably horror stories, sprang from different sources and are differently inspired, with thematic aims that are similar only in so far as they deal with darker aspects of life and reality or with the breakdown of normality. None of them were specifically designed to horrify. Some did not set out to do so at all. Their basic impulses, and achievements, are those of all literature.

So where do the ideas come from? The short answer is, I suppose, "From life". As for the long answer, which involves consideration of my personal experience, the forms of rationalisation that I give to it and the imagery with which I clothe it - that will have to wait for someone much more objective than I.

 

2002 Robert Hood

 

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