Cover art for THE TOLLTAKER by James Sneddon, published by Five Star Press. “The Tolltaker” copyright © 2003 Alan M. Clark.
In 1989, my diseased brain tried to kill me, but a year later, that experience saved my life.
Ever since I was a young adult, people have asked me in one form or another, “Why are you interested in horror?” At first I had little in the way of an answer beyond saying, “it’s just cool.” I’ve thought a lot about it over the years, though, and now have a better answer.
The darkness in horror represents man’s struggle against adversity. In life, we all face the possibility of brutality, pain, insanity, having our aspirations denied, and our freedom taken away. Even if we escape those fates for most of our lives, inevitably we lose control of our lives and die. Ultimately, we face the unknown. As we move along through life, we try to fill the time we have with light—the good and pleasant experiences—and avoid the darkness—the bad and painful. Yet the contrast between the darkness and the light provides existence with drama. Contrast helps us to see more clearly, to understand and appreciate with greater clarity. And though the people who’ve asked me the question might pretend otherwise, they too like such disturbing things, if only because they like a good story or having their preconceptions challenged by a piece of art.
In my new novel, The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir, I’ve attempted to write something of an anthem for those of us who like the dark and disturbing, as well as a broadside against those who would deny the value of the morbid, and choose to believe that individuals with an interest in the macabre are hiding a sinister and disturbed nature. The story is both a memoir and a fiction with a fantasy/horror element, sort of an alternate history of my life that allowed me to speak of emotional struggles, pain, and triumph that I’ve known intimately and could therefore relate with verisimilitude.
As a visual artist and a fiction author, I know that no good story has ever existed that didn’t have strong conflict, that there’s no good piece of art that doesn’t have a slice of darkness. There is no more powerful conflict than fighting to survive while facing the annihilation of death. That sets up great contrast in story-telling.
Composition in visual art employs contrasts of all sorts: The juxtaposition of light and dark, of warm and cool colors, of shapes that suggest motion and direct the eye, of subject matter that implies unusual relationships. Intimations of death, destruction, decay, and annihilation have long been a staple of artistic expression.
I have often wondered if Utopia is boring, if human beings have arguments in Heaven, if theatre is any good in Shangri-La. Experiencing perfect happiness in Elysium, does one cease to recognize it and appreciate it after a time?
I live sixty miles from the Oregon coast. The environment at the oceanside is beautiful, peaceful, refreshing, fascinatingly unique to me. A friend hearing me talk about it once asked why I don’t move there. An answer came to me instantly, one that was so automatic I knew it to be the truth—“If I lived there all the time, I would quickly cease to see it for the wonderful place it is.” I live in a beautiful part of Oregon, so I’m not missing out, but If I lived at the coast, the contrast with what I live with day to day would be missing. Sure, if I lived there, I wouldn’t cease to appreciate the environment entirely, but the intensity of what I experience as a visitor would be somewhat lost.
In 1989, as I began the treatment for brain abscesses that would keep me in the hospital for seven weeks, my doctor said, “Your condition is very rare. If you’d gotten brain abscesses twenty years ago, you would not have survived because medicine wasn’t what it is today. You’re lucky.”
I didn’t feel at all well, having stitches in my tongue, an upset stomach from ingesting my own blood, raw tissues from the tubes the doctors had stuck in me, and a severe headache. I was an alcoholic trapped in a situation in which I wasn’t allowed to drink. A surly bastard, I wouldn’t show any appreciation for the care I’d received. “Lucky,” I said, “is not getting brain abscesses at all.”
I was wrong about that. The flow of events from the time of that illness, the twists and turns of my life, the good, the bad, and the indifferent, led to circumstances that enabled me to make a commitment to getting sober, and my life became infinitely better than it had been. The reasons are complicated and I won’t go into them here. They are laid out in detail in The Surgeon’s Mate: a Dismemoir.
Instead, I’ll relate an old Chinese tale that exemplifies the point I’m trying to make about distinguishing fortune from the misfortune.
In a small kingdom, there lived a farmer who had a small plot of land. He had one son and one horse to help him. One day the animal got out of its paddock and ran away. The farmer’s neighbors expressed their sympathy, and said, “How unlucky for you.”
The farmer shrugged and said, “Who can say what will happen?”
Not long after the horse ran away, the beast came back and entered the paddock, leading three wild horses with it, and the farmer instructed his son to close the paddock gate.
When the neighbors heard the farmer had recovered the original beast and gained new ones as well, they congratulated him and said, “You are a lucky man.”
He shrugged and said, “You never know.”
While trying to break one of the wild horses, the farmer’s son fell and broke a leg, and the farmer’s crops suffered that year because he had less help in the fields.
The neighbors again expressed sympathy, and said, “Luck is not with you.”
The farmer shrugged and said, “Perhaps.”
War came to the small kingdom, and the emperor commanded that all able-bodied young men were to be called into service. While the farmer’s son was excused from serving because of his injured leg, the neighbors gave up their sons to the fight. All the young men were lost in a terrible massacre during the war.
When the neighbors said to the farmer, you are a lucky man after all, again he merely shrugged and said, “Who knows what will come of it?”
The farmer in the tale is much more philosophical than I am. The brain abscess experience nearly killed me three different ways. In the midst of the ordeal, I quite reasonably feared the worst, and had a dread of what the future held for me. If I’d known how things would shake out, and that ultimately my life would be so much better as a result, I might have relaxed and enjoyed the ride. Probably not, though, since the experience involved a lot of pain, both physical and emotional.
We spend much of our lives trying to avoid pain and hardship, putting systems in place to mitigate risk and ease suffering, and I’m not suggesting that we do otherwise, but clearly, dreading the grim possibilities we face in the future is not helpful. Pain and death are inevitable, yet, as unpredictable as life is, some of the safeguards we thrust before ourselves as we move forward through time must also reduce the potential for good outcomes.
I try to relax and allow the world to do its complicated thing. I’ve never had to ignore or turn away from the grim, the morbid, and the grotesque in order to benefit from the good, where ever it pops up. Instead of denying the darkness, I value its role in life.
—Alan M. Clark