One of my most memorable Halloween moments occurred when I was in fifth grade, so I would’ve been nine years old. The teacher assigned us to write a scary story for the upcoming holiday. She had but one rule: no blood. None of the stories could be bloody. I argued with her at length about that proviso, but she remained inflexible . . . which only meant I had to get creative to circumvent it.
She gave us a week to come up with our stories. The Friday before Halloween we all read them aloud to the class. The kids pushed their desks against the walls then everyone sat cross-legged on the floor in a semicircle, and in the middle was a stool for the various guest readers. The teacher closed the thick plastic curtains and shut off the lights to bathe us in darkness.
Each student took turns reading his or her story in front of the others, even using a flashlight under the chin for appropriate atmosphere. Finally it was my opportunity to sit on the stool. The tale I wrote was meant to be a sequel to Stephen King’s It. I don’t know why I made that choice, considering I’d neither read the book nor seen the movie by that point. All I knew of the novel was that it involved an evil clown, and clowns gave me the creeps.
I kept a few of the stories I wrote from my elementary schooldays: one a fantasy about leprechauns, another about a time-traveling scientist. But this particular piece has been lost to the ages, and I must admit that stings a bit. Fortunately I remember it vividly, so at least it hasn’t been entirely forgotten. The gist was thus:
A kid comes home from school one afternoon to find the house empty, so he watches some TV to pass the time. He turns on a scary movie — Stephen King’s It — and falls asleep on the couch. A violent thunderstorm passes by, during which an errant lightning bolt strikes the home’s TV antenna. The lightning magically activates the television, allowing the film’s killer clown to invade our world.
The clown kidnaps the boy and drags him into the TV set. Now trapped inside the television, the boy’s stranded deep within a complex labyrinth. He tries to uncover an escape route, hitting one dead end after another. And all the while he hears the clown taunting him, threatening his life. The jester’s sing-song voice grows in strength as he moves effortlessly through the maze toward the boy.
After a time the kid discovers an exit. He spies a window through which he’s able to view his living room. The only problem is that the portal’s above a wall and out of reach. The boy jumps up and gains a tenuous hold atop the wall. As he starts to pull himself up, the clown appears and seizes his foot to drag him back into the darkness.
At that point the kid grabs his trusty pocketknife, the one his grandfather had given him for his tenth birthday (*). He takes the knife and amputates the clown’s arm with a single slash (**). The clown screams in agony, his gaping wound spurting green pus (***).
After that the boy pulls himself back through the television and into the real world. The one-armed clown pursues him, trailing halfway through the TV set when the boy grabs a basketball and smashes the glass screen with it. The clown is defeated, reality restored. THE END (****).
About halfway through reading the story, I recall looking up from my handwritten pages. In that moment every person in the room was focused on my tale, a fictional world I had conjured from nothing but my imagination. Two dozen people, including the teacher, hanging on my every word to find out what happened next. That instant was frozen in my mind, seared like an after-image in my retinas.
That day I learned there was power in telling stories; more than that, there was magic. I don’t want to oversell that point because it sounds too bohemian for my tastes. But there is a certain level of truth in the matter, as any writer will tell you. Some stories effectively tell themselves, become greater than the sum of their parts. It’s rare when it happens, which makes it all the more special.
In retrospect that was a pivotal moment that helped point me in the direction of writing, even though I hadn’t been aware of it at the time. Let me add Happy Halloween; have a safe evening trick-or-treating. Don’t let any bogies snatch you away, and remember not all monsters wear masks.
* A line verbatim I still remember vividly from the original story.
** Because that’s how it would happen in real life, my nine-year-old self figured. No muscle or sinew, bone or cartiledge to worry about, just instant amputation.
*** Not blood, I pointed out to the teacher, gangrenous pus. I was so proud.
**** Once my classmates had a chance to share their stories, everybody voted on whose was their favorite, the scariest. Guess who won that year?