Sunday, July 30, 2017

Real Ghosts from the Past: The Story Behind THE JOURNAL OF JEREMY TODD

Every story starts somewhere. For CONSEQUENCES, it was a local legend from my high school days. For THE JOURNAL OF JEREMY TODD, it starts more recently, but it does dig into things that happened as far back as middle school for me, and also digs into things that keep themselves hidden in the dark recesses of my mind, only coming out on occasion when I’m feeling especially vulnerable. Writing the story helped me to deal with those to some degree, and hopefully writing this “story behind the story” post will help me finish exorcising them. Will it get rid of them? No, they’ve been there too long, and have become a part of who I am. But hopefully they’ll lose what little remains of their sting, and that’s more important, anyway.

Since JEREMY TODD has only been out for a couple of weeks now, I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible for those who haven’t managed to get very far into it.

One of the themes in JEREMY TODD is bullying, and how victims of bullying deal with it as they get older. This is the first and only time I’ve ever gone into a story with even that much of a theme in mind. Usually, I just have the story idea and then I write it. I might find something during edits, some subconscious thing that crept into the story somewhere along the way, but it’s never a conscious decision. This time, it was. Everyone has their hot-button topic, the thing that sets their blood to boiling until the rage is nearly strong enough to consume them. For me, that topic is bullying.

The main catalyst for THE JOURNAL OF JEREMY TODD was the suicide of a fourteen year old girl who went to my youngest kid’s school. She was bullied incessantly, and ended up stabbing herself to death in one of the local parks near where I live. I already posted a rant about how this made me feel (which you can read here if you’re interested), so I won’t rehash it. At the time, I thought that rant would get the anger out of my system, but it didn’t. I also didn’t realize it at the time, but it was only going to get worse.

See, I was bullied in school. Nowhere near as badly as Jeremy Todd is in the story, and by high school the majority of it had faded as I found my own “crowd” to hang out with, but it happened. I wasn’t into sports, I loved computers and science fiction and horror and comics and the like. I wore glasses and had an orthodontic device (can’t remember what it was called, but it was to fix an overbite) and generally had zero self-confidence. I never got into fights from it—I was always the one who ran away—so the abuse wasn’t ever physical, but the mental and emotional abuse was more than enough. Somehow, I managed to push all that to the back of my mind as I grew older. I realized it wasn’t that important anymore, and tried to move on. The problem was that all of those feelings were still there, hiding, waiting for the chance to spring out and surprise me.

When I started writing Jeremy Todd, they got their chance.

I realized almost immediately that this story would only work if it was told in the first person, and on the heels of that came the knowledge that it needed to be this guy’s personal journal.  Therefore, to write this, I had to become Jeremy Todd to some degree, had to allow his thoughts to supplant my own for the couple of hours a night I was sitting in front of that open MS Word document. Then, as he worked up the nerve to write about his past, I discovered that those memories I held and tried to keep hidden started peeking out to mess with me once again.

Let me go ahead and clarify a couple of things, one of which I’ve mentioned but feel bears repeating. NONE of the things that happened to Jeremy Todd happened to me. The abuse I dealt with was much more subtle than what he had to contend with. Also, with one exception, the bullies in the story are NOT based on any one person, be it in name or personality. I did blend some people together, and made a couple up whole-cloth, but I didn’t single anyone out from those days. The one exception is a name, and no, I won’t be revealing which character holds the same name as one of my bullies. I have no idea what they did with their life, and have no intention of dragging their name through the mud if they’ve become a better person than they once were. My catharsis came by using them in the story, and that was good enough for me.

As I was saying, those memories came back as I transcribed Jeremy Todd’s tale. It’s normal for me to drink a beer or two while I’m writing—three if it goes especially long. For Jeremy Todd, though, that jumped to a six-pack or more as well as most of a pack of cigarettes in two to three hours. The character is dark, and since I was writing in the first person, that by necessity caused me to go to a dark place. Those memories that kept creeping back made it even darker. I couldn’t sleep without getting so hammered I passed out. I was miserable even during the day, and often couldn’t figure out why. I grew to HATE Jeremy Todd, and considered scrapping the whole idea more than once.

But I didn’t. There was some little voice telling me that I needed to see it through to the end, needed to write the pain out, in a way. So, I forced myself to keep going.

The words came easy enough, but that doesn’t mean the story was easy to write. The exact opposite was true. I didn’t even realize why at the time. I finished the manuscript and filed it away like all the others, and got started on something else, something more light-hearted and fun, and tried to forget about that nasty little thing I’d done. I sent it off to my beta readers and figured I’d get to the next draft eventually, but for the moment, I didn’t want to think about it anymore.

Then Sinister Grin did their month-long open call for submissions, and I realized it was the next logical thing for me to work on and send out.

I got my beta feedback and knocked out the second draft in a week. I wasn’t paying great attention to the story itself, but rather the technical aspects of cleaning up the first draft and making sure everything was coherent. Then, incredibly, they took it. A week after I signed the contract, I decided to sit down and actually read what I’d written, to try and force myself to dig into what I’d done.

What I discovered first was how much of myself I’d put on the page. Jeremy’s stories about delivering pizza near the start of the story? Those actually happened to me, almost exactly as written (with one exception: he wanted to save someone after the second one, I just drove away thinking “what the fuck was that?”). He wants to write comic books, I think it’s obvious the career path I’ve chosen. Even down to some of the strange thoughts he occasionally has matching my own at times (I’ll elect to keep those to myself, thank you very much. If you know me well enough, you might can guess at them, though). Other things were exaggerations on me or feelings I’ve had. A prime example? I’ve never reacted to anything the way he does, nor have I ever WANTED to do to anyone the things he does to some of the folks in this story. I never had to deal with the extreme tragedy in my life he did. All of that is pure fiction. Still, what is fiction except the lie that covers the truth?

The other thing I learned as I read through the story was that while I’d convinced myself that all those things from so long ago no longer mattered, the truth was that they did. Without my even being aware of it, they’d shaped me and how I reacted to things even as I led what I felt was a pretty well-adjusted life. When I looked back I could see the struggles I’d endured, and to some degree still endured. I could see how difficult it had been to get my self-confidence to a level where it needed to be, how hard it was to feel like I belonged in the places and with the people I ended up with. I’d been fighting a war for years in my subconscious, and I’d never even realized it. It’s possible other people might have seen, but I kind of doubt that. One of the first things I’d done was to become adept at wearing the mask, no matter what. Anyone who saw me would have seen someone who appeared to be doing just find. Hell, it was even what I saw when I looked in the mirror. The difference was, I could feel the twinges of reality beneath the surface, even though I was keeping them buried as deep as I could.

This is one of the wonderful things about writing horror, though. I have a dark lens through which I can filter those negative feelings and emotions, something that acts like a strange sort of self-psychotherapy in a way. As a result, a funny thing happened once I finished that read-through of JEREMY TODD: I actually felt better. I’d lanced the wound and allowed the infection to escape. I’d faced down and fought some of my demons, and came out on the other side as the victor. Did it totally get rid of those feelings? Of course not. I’m over forty years old; they’re a part of me now. But I did learn to deal with them instead of trying and ultimately failing to ignore them.

Even better, as I’ve gotten to know other people in this field, other horror writers specifically, I’ve heard stories about growing up that very closely mirror my own. I’ve learned that I’m not alone, and to me, that’s the biggest struggle when dealing with the after-effects of being bullied as a kid. When it’s happening, YOU’RE the one it’s happening to. It doesn’t matter if you were the hundredth person those bullies had dumped on that day. That’s their methodology, see. They isolate you, make you feel apart from everyone else. Yet to hear so many others talk about the same things, I realized that while I felt alone at the time, I never truly was.

People are sometimes surprised that horror writers are some of the nicest, kindest, most accepting people they’ve ever met. I think this is one of the reasons why. We see those demons in each other, recognize them as familiar, and almost instinctively band together to fight them. We see people who feel like we did, who feel like they don’t belong, and we actively welcome them. We stand as one and scream that no matter what you’ve gone through, you are not alone. As writers, we deal with our demons through our work, and as readers we do it through someone else’s experiences that touch that part in us that we have in common with them. And the beauty of it is that it works across no barrier from time or distance. How freaking awesome is that?

Times have changed. What got us picked on as kids is now considered “cool”. Unfortunately, the bullying continues. They just found something else to use to beat us down and lift themselves up. Maybe one day we’ll finally stop it, but for now, all we can do is be there when we’re needed.

I didn’t do it in the text, but THE JOURNAL OF JEREMY TODD is officially dedicated to the memory of Sherokee Harriman and all the others who were bullied beyond their ability to withstand it, and who decided the only way out was a permanent way out. It is also dedicated to all those silent masses who are still being bullied, and are struggling to deal with the immediate results of it, not to mention the results they won’t know about until many years from now. I get it: It feels like no one else could possibly understand. But that’s not true. We are out there. We understand.

And you are NOT alone.

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