In thinking back, perhaps it was that story my mother once read aloud, the one which lurks now just beyond the grasp of remembrance. All I can tell you is that it had something to do with a deep woodland, wandering children, and shadowy mystic creatures—elves? gnomes? fairies?—and that it touched something in me that has never fully left. Like a wispy mist drifting on the far edge of a town.
Or, more concretely, it could have been that film The Magic Sword, an early sixties, low budget affair (which somehow managed to land Basil Rathbone) about a group of knights on a far-flung, danger-laden quest. That movie with its armor-clad band of brothers and seven curses/obstacles deeply struck a chord in my six-year-old self.
Or it could even have been the thousand-and-one tales overheard from the horde of uncles and aunts in my sprawling Irish-American family. They were tales of a lost land, old customs, rebel grandparents, and, of course, ghosts. Many, many ghosts. True ghosts, it was claimed, ones “seen with my own eyes.”
Yes, any of those things might have fueled my desire to tell stories (like peat blocks tossed upon a cottage fire). And quite probably all played their part. But one specific memory, which seems almost too idyllic not to be contrived, is an image that I link directly to my life as a teller of stories, as a writer. In my boyhood Connecticut home, just beyond a sliver of a brook, stood a line of pine trees, perhaps a dozen in all, separating our land from the neighbors’. At some point in my adolescence, I took to going out to that lonesome stretch and sitting with a book. No doubt, a few volumes made it out there with me, but my most frequent companion was a brick-red hardcover called The Family Album of Favorite Poems.
As the fairly corny title suggests, this collection, first printed in 1959, was a gathering of chestnuts. The usual suspects were all there, from Shelly to Whitman to Frost, with stopovers at Dickinson and Kipling. The collection wouldn’t pass modern muster, what with its lack of diversity and experimentation, but it served then to enamor me to the written word. The section I chiefly gravitated to was Chapter XII: Story Poems and Ballads. There I first encountered such worthies as The Raven, The Highwayman, Casey at the Bat, The Cremation of Sam McGee, and the epic The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. All of these offered full tales, with points of departure and arcs and outcomes.
The summons to narrative was compelling—Listen, my children, and you shall hear Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere—and, as instructed, I did listen. I not only read those story poems, I memorized several, further strengthening my bond with them. And just to jack up the romance of that lad-among-the-trees imagery, I’d pluck the old brown pine needles from the forest floor and use them as bookmarks. True.
At some point early on, I made the transition from absorbing these tales to wanting to create them. Composition assignments in grammar school paved the way for this; for example, I recall some noble fledgling effort about a spaceship called Pegasus. The first fully realized short story I wrote—with the emphasis on short—came when I was a high school freshman. I don’t think it was assigned, though, just something I felt drawn to do. It was a three part tale, each section from a different character’s viewpoint, and I still remember the title: “Memory of a Storm on the Irish Sea, 1913.” Poetic? Pretentious? Overwrought? To this day, by God, I stand by it. The title was arguably the best thing about the story. That said, my plot of a doomed fisherman did hint at something worthwhile, and I’ve retained enough it that I may actually try to give it new life someday. What I like about that title, I think, is that it could be something I’d currently conjure up for one of my stories. For better or worse, my sensibilities as a writer have shown some consistency over all these years.
At its heart, storytelling is, I believe, not an indulgence but a human necessity. On the heels of any joy, tragedy, or absurdity, often comes an urgent need to recount what befell us. It’s not enough for the knight to live through a curse/challenge/merriment, he must share it with his fellows in the mead hall. Speaking of mead, several years back I was chatting with my adult daughter and, for whatever reason, I brought up the fact that she’d never seen her father drunk. Mildly tipsy perhaps, but never inebriated. I added that on those rare times, mostly in my youth, when I had imbibed too much, I was never a particularly moody drunk nor an insulting one nor certainly not a combative one. I would just start telling stories without stopping. On hearing this, my daughter stared at me and, without missing a beat, said, “My God, you’ve been drunk my whole life.” I think that sums up my place as a storyteller pretty well.
Moving from the spoken account to the written one, humanity at large arrived at fiction, which is, at its core, sanctioned lying. Stylized gossip about things that never happened. When writing fiction, I’m sometimes struck by the notion that I can make anything happen to any of my characters at any point in the story. And then, if I did my job well, it will seem to the reader that, of course, that’s exactly what had to happen in the narrative, as if no other trajectory was feasible. That may seem like a terribly basic and obvious observation, but it still fills me at times with a quiet sense of wonder.
In my latest piece in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (Sept/Oct 2022), “Polk, Pitts, and Cadaver,” I’ve fashioned a suspense tale set in the 1930’s vaudeville world. Vaudeville itself, like other stage and screen arts, can be seen itself as a form of storytelling. As I recall, this story came out at a fairly brisk pace, more or less dragging me along in its wake. It seemed to know where it wanted to go. This will be the tenth time I’ve appeared in Hitchcock, which has a particular savor to it. At one point, as a child, my family had a subscription to the magazine. It’s warming to think that that boy, with his story poems and pine needles and aspirations to tell tales, would one day find himself in the very magazine that lay there on the living room coffee table.