From the Desk of Adam Cesare
“Why are you so morbid?” Ms. M asked. Her tone was half-exasperated, half-accusatorial and fully non-rhetorical. She wanted an answer.
Boom. A favorite teacher asking me this was a punch right in the What have I been doing with my life? section of my soul.
All these years later, I remember the question, but I don’t remember my answer. Probably because my answer was rambling and inarticulate, as I can still feel the bloom of embarrassment on my cheeks. Picture something like me yelling: “because I am!” and storming out of the classroom.
Let’s back up, set the scene a little.
Ms. M is the kind of teacher essays like this often get written about. I had her for two English classes and a drama elective. She was supportive of all her students’ interests and creative endeavors, didn’t play favorites, and put a spin on language arts education that I rip off whenever I talk to kids about reading. And I’m not saying that her asking me why I was so morbid caused some kind of irreconcilable rift between us, because it didn’t. Ms. M ended up writing me a glowing college letter of recommendation that helped smooth over any phoned-in math homework. How can I not be cool with her after that?
But, being the good English teacher and voracious reader that she was, Ms. M would frequently take book recommendations. This led to the one and only time I would ever lend her a book. It was a copy of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. If you haven’t read it, it’s not really horror but it definitely has one foot in the genre. It’s an at-times-funny dark drama about a writer in a nameless totalitarian state and his brother, a brother who may-or-may-not be taking inspiration from his morbid stories and killing children.
Now I don’t remember the exact timeframe, but I feel like all of this might have happened over a weekend’s span. I handed the play to Mrs. M on a Friday and by the next Monday she had read it.
After class, she handed the book back to me. “What did you think?” I asked. I love that play, and was ready to be showered in Mrs. M’s praise and validation.
That’s when she popped the question: “Why are you so morbid?”
It wasn’t a question asked in a vacuum. It had to have been building. Ms. M was aware of my interests and had read some of my early attempts at fiction. But the frankness of it still caught me off-guard. The way the question seemed to be loaded with the weight of an alternate, more sinister query: “Why are you wasting your time on this crap?”
And that was the question I feel like I heard, in the moment, and one that made me sad and a little angry. But it’s also one that I began to ask myself over a period of years, not that it deterred me from liking the things I like, but it made me feel a kind of unearned shame about it. Later, I read a passage in college that helped me contextualize this incident from high school. I’ve included it below, because a lot of fancy autobiographical essays pause to include book quotes, don’t they? Bonus points if the book is from the 19th century right? It’s from Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman:
“Nay, if you come to that, Sir, have not the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself,–have they not had their Hobby-Horses;–their running horses,–their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets,–their maggots and their butterflies?–and so long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,–pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?”
With that in mind, here, over a decade later, is my actual answer to Ms. M:
Horror is my hobby horse. The genre, in all its forms (literature, film, comics, plays), is my lifelong obsession. And I refuse to let it be a “guilty” pleasure. The genre is one of my main sources of pleasure, full stop.
I’m a man prone to obsessions. I don’t really go through phases, I just capriciously switch between interests (a list as varied as Star Wars, Shakespeare, Warhammer 40k, the films of Jean Rollin), devote myself to them fully for a few months, then come back around to them later. A lot of “nerds” (if we’re still using that word, after the great nerdification of the culture) will share a similar back-story. But horror has always been my constant, the one fandom I most identify with.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully articulate my love of horror or its origins. But I do know, like Sterne says, that I’m keeping peaceable on the King’s highway. I’m not hurting anyone. If anything, my book and film library is stimulating the economy.
But that ‘morbid’ obsession? It’s not only benign: it’s a positive force in my life. It’s been good to me. I don’t think I’d be a novelist (four-time novelist, with the release of Mercy House, more if we’re counting novellas) if I hadn’t started my writing career by asking myself Mrs. M’s question, then trying to write a book-length answer. And that’s what a good amount of my work is. I mean, they’ve got characters, plots, other thematic interests, and maybe (a few) severed limbs, but they’re also responses to that question.
Now, before I take too much of a victory lap, I should probably point out that my new novel with Random House Hydra, Mercy House, may not be for you. Oh, I’m proud of it. I think it’s the best thing I’ve written. But I also understand that it’s only a ‘beach read’ if you’re Morticia Addams sporting a parasol. And while I’m thankful for everything Mrs. M’s done for me, I’m sure it won’t be her cup of tea.
But if your hobby horse has a similar mane to mine, even slightly: if you’re a reader who spent Saturday nights deciding between one more chapter of Stephen King or switching on a local station to see what the horror host was presenting, if you have stacks of Leisure paperbacks and Fangoria back issues holding up the sag in your mattress, if you own more home video copies of Evil Dead 2 than you do button-down shirts, if you hear people snicker about Jason X but you know the real low-point in the series is Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.
If any those conditions apply, or if you self-identify as a horror fan in any way: welcome to the club, welcome to Mercy House. It’s the novel that answers the age-old question: sure, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, and Romero’s Dawn of the Dead are pretty great, but what if they took place in a nursing home?
“You can use all kinds of obsession. You can use obsession for humor, you can use it for style, you can use it for fashion. Obsession is great if it brings you pleasure and helps you make your living doing something you love.” John Waters
Start with Laurence Sterne, end with John Waters. There we go.