Ghastly Plots In Metro Detroit
In the wee hours of late, I've been reading Neil Gaiman's Coraline. This horror fiction novella is marketed to kids, but scares the bejeezus out of me.
"[Coraline] dreamed of black shapes that slid from place to place, avoiding the light, until they were all gathered together under the moon. Little black shapes with little red eyes and sharp yellow teeth.
They started to sing.
We are small but we are many
We are many we are small
We were here before you rose
We will be here when you fall
Their voices were high and whispering and slightly whiney. They made Coraline feel uncomfortable."
They make me darn uncomfortable too.
The Free Online Dictionary defines horror as "An intense, painful feeling of repugnance and fear."
And according to the Horror Writers Association: "Horror, by nature, is a personal touch -- an intrusion into our comfort levels. It speaks of the human condition and forcibly reminds us of how little we actually know and understand."
When we hear of unnerving things we know little about say, cougars sightings are inevitable. Recent press reports tell of elusive wild cats leaping from their mountain haunts into Midwest backyards, including that of a local Beverly Hills resident.
Cougar sightings would make great fodder for Detroiters specializing in the black art of horror writing, but authors of this ilk are nearly as rare here as those big cats. Why? The publishing world is tough on new writers. The Michigan chapter of the Horror Writers Association is now defunct. Scarce retail shelf space keeps Metro Detroit from emulating cities like Burbank, Calif., which has shops devoted to grave literature. That's a strange irony right there.
Ann Arbor comes closest with its crime-themed bookstore Aunt Agatha's Mystery Bookstore, so maybe there's hope for hopelessness yet. After all, the college town, until recently, was home to Michigan's biggest horror novel success, Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian.
Until Southeast Michigan joins the ranks of the literary dead, our only access to the genre is through Amazon and other horror zines and publishers with names like Chaosium, Necrography, and Hippocampus Press.
Abhorrence is a full-time avocation for Peggy Christie, a Clawson-based author of horror fiction, who grew up watching the old Creature Features TV show and is a fan of Vincent Price movies and of Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and Neil Gaiman. While male authors seemingly predominate in this genre, horror mongers of the femme kind are crawling out of the woodwork.
"We're not all about sparkly vampires," she explains. "There are women out there that actually like the more visceral, the extreme scare." When you think about it, witchery began with women.
Christie has just sold a short novel for the Tales From the Shadows collection issued by Lyrical Press, and is now polishing her poetry. Her work has appeared in Appalling Limericks and Vicious Verses, and Shroud Publishing will include one of her pieces in The Terror of Miskatonic Falls, due out next spring.
Its writings are based on the Cthulhu Mythos by classic horror novelist and cult fave H.P. Lovecraft. Cthulhu is "a tentacled deity, like a cross between a space alien and some kind of horror gothic creature," she describes. "There's a whole mythology based on when this creature's supposed to come and it's the end of the world."
Christie is also a founding member and former VP of the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers, open to not only scribes but all fans of the genre. Its 40 members, who live as far away as Texas and Georgia, fund raise for literacy organizations, visit conventions, bandy story ideas about, and like their humor spiked with an undercurrent of the deadly serious. The group has published two anthologies: Erie Tales No. 1, which is set in Michigan, and zombie stories in Erie Tales No. 2. A third anthology is in progress and a new print mag, Ghostlight, will be published a few times a year. Christie says "tons of submissions", enough for three issues, have been received.
"[People] keep saying, 'Yeah, the horror genre's dead'. I don't think so!" she declares. "So it's good to hear that there are a lot of people out there, writing."
But every writer needs a setting. Take circa 1800s downtown Pontiac, home to Bo's Brewery & Bistro. Christie got the chills in the quiet stone walled windowless basement where her husband's band held rehearsals, which inspired her modern-day piece "The Lonely Corridor". It appears in Erie Tales No. 1 and tells of a band whose members encounter the ghost of a boy trapped in a fire that burned there over a century ago. Suffice to say, "I killed off the bass player," she reveals.
Another ode to the inhumane is "The Alley" published in Black Ink Horror magazine, about a people-sucking unmentionable living in an alley pitch black by day, as Christie recalls off Congress Street near Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit.
For all haunts and purposes, Detroit is Morbid City
Author Steven Climer, a professor of English at Baker College, finds the "suffering" in Detroit makes a good breeding ground for horror. "Despair creates beautiful art," he observes. He finds the Michigan Central Station, and the "urban desolation" of overgrown Scripps Park, with its old gate and brickwork, to be ripe for the imagination to creep.
But the very endurance of such places give a story its guts. "Suffering without survival and a return to normalcy or thriving can't drive a plot," he says.
As the developer of PlayIt4Word, a language arts card game, and the founder of SugarBuzzBooks, a publisher of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy titles for children and young adults, Climer knows the elements of plot. His novel Demonesque was optioned for a movie and was a 1997 finalist for Best First Novel from the International Horror Guild.
Climer, who is pursuing a PhD in English, cites a challenging publishing market and a love of children's literature as reasons for his current focus on young readers. "Anyway, after about six years on the 'D' List in adult horror, I found myself more and more drawn to young adult and children's [markets]," he recalls. "Adult horror and fantasy and sci-fi is a very closed, tight community and it's very difficult to break in even though I had many novels receive critical praise and awards."
His latest, Once Upon a Halloween Night, about a witch who helps a ghost escape prison with the help of a substance, Wind-dough, is intended for a middle grade audience. Another recent issue is Don't Read This: Chilling, Thrilling, Fantastic Tales for the Young and Young at Heart, an anthology of classics that served as early influences on current authors. And his agent is getting positive feedback from publishers on the first book in his children's series, Weresapiens, about animals that turn into humans during the full moon.
Although his audience is youthful, there's nothing childish about the sites framing his work. The defunct Duns Scotus College (formerly a Franciscan monastery in Southfield and now the Word of Faith International Christian Center), the now-demolished Ypsilanti Regional Hospital, and Eloise Hospital inspired an as-yet unpublished dark young adult fantasy/horror tale. This one is about "a very sinister private school where a young trouble maker ends up and realizes he is on virtually the cusp of where all worlds converge."
Decayed mental institutions like the abandoned Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital figure into his dreams. The freakiest place of all, he says unequivocally, is Eloise Hospital (formerly known as the Wayne County House and Asylum) on Michigan Avenue in Westland. "Look up the garish history of Eloise online and you will be appalled."
Eloise, a subject of local lore, is covered by the Tales of Eloise website and a 1913 tome, History of Eloise. The old mental health residential complex and hospital for the indigent was connected by underground tunnels and housed, among other lurid things, a tubercular sanatorium and an asylum piggery. Maybe even the pigs went loony after a while.
The 902-acre campus, which housed Wayne County's mentally disabled and underprivileged from 1839 through 1981, is now a shadow of its former self. All that remains are a historical marker, a few of its original 78 buildings, and the Eloise Cemetery, where 7,000 patients whose bodies went unclaimed are buried. According to the Westland Historical Commission, the 1910 register shows the paupers died in most fearsome ways
"exhaustion from paralysis, senility, cancer of the face, strangulation from hanging." It's hard to say whether any patients found ablution there.
"Horror just means a visceral response, an emotional response, to me," Climer says.
Agreed. I don't want to see a cougar doing its danse macabre on my street. And before landing in the asylum, I'll stop at Coraline maybe.
Tanya Muzumdar is Metromode's Assistant Editor. She doesn't scare easy. She is also a freelance writer. Her previous article was Frontier Spirit, Urban Ideas.
Oakview Cemetery - Royal Oak
Michigan Central Station - Detroit
Graffiti at Eloise Hospital - Inkster
Peggy Christie - Royal Oak
A spriral of barbed wire - Detroit
Eloise Hospital - Inkster
Old Well on the grounds of Eloise Hospital - InksterPhotographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D
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