It’s Halloween again, theoretically my favorite time of year, and at my age you get nostalgic a lot, so I started to think back at how I ended up writing horror. Why horror?
I’ve written before about how during winter of 1976 I read a paperback novel by a writer I’d never heard of. I saw it on a grocery store rack, found the cover intriguing, and picked it up. And it scared the shit out of me, a latchkey kid home alone every day until well after dark. The novel was ‘Salem’s Lot by unknown writer Stephen King (his second, but I was unaware), and even though I had always “wanted to be” a writer, and had written plenty of short stories and aborted novel beginnings by then (including my first werewolf tale in a 4th grade parochial school English class), that book made me seriously say: “I want to do this!”
I read plenty of horror (especially King and James Herbert) in the next few years, but I also read plenty of mysteries and British thrillers, which were also a first love, so my horror phase took a back seat.
Then in late spring of 1981 I was on a field trip with my college geology class (spending the weekend in Wausau, WI, if you care) and during the bus ride I noticed that our T.A. was reading a magazine I’d never seen before: Twilight Zone Magazine. After getting bored playing electronic football (remember that? I think it was Coleco Electronic Quarterback) with my lab partner and motel roommate, I leaned across the aisle and asked the T.A. if I could borrow that magazine. Not only did he lend it to me, when I tried to return it later he told me to keep it.
Now I think that small kindness was a catalyst for my writing career.
Inside the June issue of the magazine, among other things, was Stephen King’s story “The Jaunt.” I still have that issue. Something else in there was an ad for the very first TZ story contest, which was to be judged by Harlan Ellison, a writer I already admired.
I read that magazine cover to cover, and I became convinced I should enter the contest. I spent the rest of my weekend trying to get excited by the rock formations we were visiting, some in very picturesque places indeed… but all I could think about was the story I was going to write. And I did write a story, and submit it to the contest. I had submitted stories to pro-level publications since 1976 (remember ‘Salem’s Lot?), accumulating a fair stack of form rejections. Turned out some were the very same men’s magazines that had published King, but I didn’t know that. In any case, I submitted my story and waited eagerly, knowing deep down I wouldn’t win, but still hoping.
Well, there were 7000 entries and Dan Simmons won that contest, if I recall correctly.
And I got a rejection slip.
I still have it. See photo above, or at top of left column.
It was the first rejection slip on which someone had bothered to write an encouraging note. Of course I knew it wasn’t Ellison, but still… I owe that person a huge debt.
That rejection slip, and later that summer Raiders of the Lost Ark, kept me writing and reading and dreaming in the genre.
I would have more good responses from Twilight Zone (see second photo in left column), but none would ever match the injection of hope and persistence and encouragement given to me by that one person, who told me that “Web of Dreams” was a good story. It later morphed into another story after various rewrites and workshop appearances, and is included in my collection, Shadowplays. In that form, it earned an Honorable Mention in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror (14th Edition).
It took me twenty years to publish a novel, but I might not have changed my major from geology, or pursued my Master’s degree in Creative Writing, or taught at the college level, or finally finished that first novel, which remains in print to this day, and which started a series which is now up to a sixth installment.
As for Twilight Zone magazine, I remained a subscriber until its demise.
But what a difference a “good” rejection slip can make…
Thanks, Twilight Zone, and whoever wrote that note. Hope comes in many shapes.