Before I dive into this week’s question, let me first get this out of the way: that Davidson chick is messed up. I mean, for real. Every picture you’ll ever see of her, she’s flashing this dazzling smile, as if she walks through life with candy-coated unicorns pirouetting through her mind to “Walking on Sunshine” on an endless loop. And then she goes and writes stuff like this. Kind of makes you wonder where that smile really comes from, doesn’t it? But I digress.
Where were we? Ah, yes: How wouldn’t I like to die?
At first blush, this one seems like a softball: there is no shortage of truly awful ways to die. But I’m a writer, for God’s sake; there’s a certain pressure to perform here – to give y’all a little something you haven’t seen before. Do I go glib, and answer “in obscurity?” Do I cite The King, whose decades-long fall from Graceland reached its terminal nadir with the indignity of being found dead on the john? Do I get all ripped-from-the-headlines and mention these poor saps, who succumbed to fumes while cleaning a septic system just miles from where I hang my hat? Or do I play it straight, and attempt to compete with Hilary “Horrific Death” Davidson? I’m paralyzed by indecision.
But wait – a thought! (Yes, I have them on occasion.) I’ve long posited in interviews my horror stories reflect my own worst fears: perhaps the answer to the question at hand lies in the darkest recesses of my published prose.
Looking over my bibliography (what? I can’t be expected to remember everything I’ve ever written), I’ve published four horror tales to date. It seems to me we needn’t concern ourselves with ancillary characters; psychologically speaking, I assume I’d pin my worst fears on those characters I’ve asked the reader to identify with. Is that assumption sound? I haven’t the faintest. But I have taken upwards of one undergraduate psychology classes in my life, so I think I’m on pretty solid scientific ground. That decided, let’s see how my protags fared, shall we? (It should go without mentioning that spoilers abound.)
In “The Toll Collectors,” a hardened criminal comes face-to-face with the gruesome undead visages of those he’s killed. He flees in terror, finding sanctuary in a dank, abandoned highway tunnel (this one, in fact.) But as he plunges through the darkness, he steps on something alive, squirming – a rat, he presumes – and loses his footing. He loses consciousness a while, and when he comes to, he has no idea which way he’s facing. So terrified is he of his once-victims, he’s unable to move, for fear he may strike out in the wrong direction, and wind up heading back toward them. The story leaves him lost in the darkness, presumably forever – but it does leave him alive, if only to suffer further torment.
“The Well” stars a young girl who spends two weeks trapped at the bottom of the titular aperture. She goes a little mad down there, forced to survive on whatever creepy-crawlies she can find. And by the time a friendly fireman is lowered down to collect her, she’s so very hungry that she… well, never mind what she does to him: the point is, she doesn’t die.
The protagonist of “A Better Life” wants nothing more than to rid his rickety old farmhouse of the scratching in its walls, which he mistakenly attributes to mice – and he does, at vulgar cost. He lives, too, though I suspect the reveal at the end of the tale shall haunt his every waking moment until he dies.
And finally, the main character of “A Native Problem” is a man of science, sent to the wildest depths of the Amazon rainforest to investigate a strange illness that leaves its victims with an unquenchable appetite for human flesh. When we part ways with him, he’s still very much alive… if hungry. It’s not clear at story’s end what will win the day – his humanity or his gnawing, endless craving.
So yeah. No death-related insights there. And as it turns out, my crime fic’s no more illuminating. Lots of guilt, regret, handwringing, and torment, but damn little in the way of phobia-plucking death scenarios. It seems I’m far less worried about how I’ll die than how I’ll live. Which isn’t to say I’m particularly looking forward to shuffling off this mortal coil. I’m reminded of Woody Allen: “I am not afraid of death – I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Oh, and for the record, if I was gonna compete with Hilary and mash all my phobia buttons along the way, let’s just say my nightmare demise might feature a giant doll-headed cockroach with a rusty syringe…
Chris F. Holm really isn’t as morbid as this post might lead you to believe. If you’d like to read any of the stories he’s so callously spoiled, you can download his acclaimed short collection 8 POUNDS, which features “The Toll Collectors,” “The Well,” and “A Better Life,” or pick up BEAT TO A PULP: ROUND ONE, featuring “A Native Problem.” Or you could just check out his debut novel, DEAD HARVEST. There aren’t any doll-faced cockroaches in it, he swears.