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Being Scared

Mar 06,2013
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Most nights the sea came rushing over the hill and punched in Jasper’s window. It was always the ceiling fan that worried him most, slicing down as he bobbed up from his bed. 

When it wasn’t a tsunami, it was an asteroid burning across the night sky. Once, he saw a meteor collide with the moon and massive fragments of shattered rock came tumbling in flames to Earth. Running for his life, Jasper looked back to see a fireball engulf his father. 

Another night, there was a vampire patrolling the town. The only way to keep him at bay was to leave a tub of strawberry yoghurt atop the side fence. Jasper was in a panic — there was only apricot yoghurt in the fridge. 

Then there was the other nightmare, the one that didn’t go away when he woke up. Nuclear war. The world disappearing in a flash. Surviving would be even worse than dying, as the radiation pulled every tooth from his bloody gums, plucked every blond hair from his head.

One night, his father found him turning circles in the living room, approaching tears. 

‘Why don’t they just stop?’ he asked.

‘Who, Gazsi?’

‘Bob Hawke, Ronald Reagan, the Russian man. Why don’t they just agree not to have a war? Why doesn’t somebody tell them?’

His father frowned, giving the television an admonishing glance. No more News. ‘That’s not how it works, Gazsi. You see, the whole point of having nuclear weapons is not using them. Only an idiot would use one.’

‘You said the world is full of idiots.’

‘True.’ His dad ruffled Jasper’s hair. ‘I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space, were it not that I had bad dreams.’ He was smiling in a weird way and using that voice that meant his words belonged to someone else.

‘What does that mean?’ Jasper asked.

His dad’s smile flattened out and, soon enough, disappeared completely. ‘I don’t really know. Your mum used to say it. It’s from a play.’ He pointed at Jasper’s forehead. ‘I think it means there’s a lot going on in there. Keep room for the good things, Gazsi.’


This is an extract from a book I haven't written yet. On my computer, there are (let me count) four YA books in various states of undress. I'm not sure which, if any, of them will first emerge into daylight in their Sunday best, but this one (let's call it Lost Things) is pretty close to my heart. Basically, I was Jasper. All those nightmares he has were my nightmares. It seemed like I was dreaming about the end of the world every night for my first twenty-two years. 

Like Jasper, I grew up in the 1980s. This was the end of the Cold War. It was a time when the whole world was worried about nuclear bombs dropping out of the sky and killing us. Hard to imagine that. Even in my tiny seaside town, which felt like the safest place in the world, we could all have been killed in a bright, brilliant instant.

In other words, I grew up feeling very, very scared.

I now wonder if this baseline of terror was what made interested in other scary things. Maybe this is why I became obsessed with ghosts. My local library had a whole reference section on real life ghost stories and I spent far too long down there, reading through them. My favourite was book called A Dictionary of Ghosts (I think this is the one), which was a wonderful guide to all the different kinds of spirits — poltergeists, grey ladies, headless horsemen. It was reading that book that taught me the words malevolent and benevolent, as these are the main classifications for spirits.

Ghost Busters

The release of Ghostbusters might also have had something to do with this obsession. I rented that movie about 20 times, which is particularly impressive considering I didn't have a video player. There was something about that film's mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary that really chimed with me. Most adventure stories were about travelling to fantastical places. This one made me feel that a more exciting existence was in reach. There was another, slightly terrifying, world running parallel to ours.

Fire in the Sea doesn't have any ghosts, but it does have that same mix of the very ordinary and the extraordinary. That's something that is essential to the best ghost stories, I think. In a ghost story, the hero and his or her world has to be very real. We need to imagine we could be that person.  I think that, the more fantastical your story, the more realistic your hero should be. I kept that in mind when creating Sadie.

Of course, back then, I wasn't thinking about writing my own ghostly tales. This was the pre-writer stage, before I worked out that, on paper, you could make the world into anything you wanted it to be. In the meantime, I was looking for ghosts wherever I could. I was looking for excitement on my doorstep and in every shadow. I was determined that I was going to grow up to be a Ghostbuster. I'm still slightly sad this didn't happen.

It wasn't just ghosts and nuclear bombs I was scared of, obviously. There were sharks and tsunamis and spider bites and asteroids and tiger snakes and demons and blue-ringed octopuses and aliens and plesiosaurs and terrible diseases. Frankly, I'm astonished I survived my childhood.

When I look back at my writing — and I'm thinking about all the stuff I wrote before I ever had anything published — there is this thread of terror that runs through it. All the characters are afraid of something, whether it's being alone, failing to accomplish something meaningful, or undersea monsters. Maybe becoming a writer was a way of dealing with things that scared me. On the page, through the flywire of fiction, scary things become exciting things. The end of the world is no longer a nightmare, but a thrilling adventure.

My apocalyptic nightmares went away when I was twenty-three. A couple of things happened that year. One, I met the woman whom I eventually married. Two, I started writing like it was a profession, not a hobby. I started writing books that took all of those worries and paranoias and terrors and made them into stories. I put those things somewhere they couldn't hurt me.

Is being scared a good reason to start writing? Is it a way to disarm those things we worry might harm us? Have you ever written about something that terrified you? 

(By the way, if you enjoy a good [fictional] ghost story, you should absolutely check out the work of M.R. James.) 
Mar 07,2013

WOW. Biggest coincidence. I was listening to Sting's Russians just before I clicked on this link. O.O I think ambivalence put it well, that extract seems so powerful. x) Also, I laughed when I read "Frankly, I'm astonished I survived my childhood." Me too, though for different reasons. I was the kind of kid that was afraid of absolutely everything.

I wrote a short story once about something I was afraid of, and I channelled a lot of my thoughts (from my overactive imagination) into it. Interestingly, a few of my friends who read it all thought it was easily one of my better stories. So I guess writing about things you feel strongly about, like a fear, gives the writing a certain power because you have that insight. :)

Mar 07,2013

That puts a really amusing image in my head... a person in a really fluffy kind of place, with rainbows and butterflies and happy times... then in go the headphones of angst and depression.... hahahaha.... I think I need to go to bed now o.o

Mar 07,2013

Thanks guys! I was actually a little nervous sharing it in its first-draft-not-seen-by-an-editor form, so it means a lot to hear that you liked it. I hope I have a chance to return to it in the not-too-distant.

Kerry, I think you're right. As a writer, you want to tap into the things that excite, anger, inspire or terrify you. I think that's where a piece's depth comes from. Otherwise it's all plot, really.

ambivalence, I think it's perfectly natural to crave danger when you haven't really been exposed to it. When I was younger and had no reason whatsoever to be unhappy, I used to listen to miserable songs about heartbreak and despair and wish that I knew how it felt to be utterly wretched. Misery had glamour. Which is odd, really. Perhaps the search for drama -- even the real world variety -- is an inherent part of being a creative type.

Mar 06,2013

^_^ Oh wow, I absolutely love that novel you haven't written yet. It goes from a little funny to a little sad to a little philosophical in one go... ♥

And that's a really interesting-but-somewhat-logical reason to write. For me, writing was my escape from the boring life. I was... living the thrilling life vicariously. I just... well, you know, sometimes when I watch a really exciting movie, something like Pirates of the Caribbean, I end up feeling really sad and frustrated, because I can't help thinking WHY CAN'T I BE ON A PIRATE SHIP?

And so it goes.




I know it's sad to crave near death experiences, but still. So that's why I end up writing about them, and I think that's why I tend to write without planning. Because if I was in one of those situations, well, you wouldn't be planning it, right? And you certainly wouldn't know the ending... hm.

(And see, now I'm wondering why can't I have grown up during the Cold War? I know it's pretty shallow to wish for those things, but we studied it at school, and there was just so MUCH going on... one huge thrill ride... I'm a sad person -_-' )

Mar 06,2013
anonymous's picture

I loved Jasper's story! I too dreamt of scary things but as a child of the 70's my fears were far more mundane. The amount of times I dreamt about wolves coming down our street! Australia doesn't have wolves but I guess the fairy tale bad guy was good enough for me or I lacked imagination.

I believe writing about anything that makes you feel strongly is a good idea. I know that writing about scary people frightens me and I haven't been brave enough to tackle it yet.

Thanks for the great read. :) 


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