I’ve mentioned this before, but when I was a child I was a slow reader.
Then I started reading horror novels - James Herbert’s The Dark, to begin with - and I began to read well. My mother has always maintained that she bought me a mechanical device that dispensed raisins every time I read a passage correctly. I have no memory of this thing, but to this day I’ve always loved raisins so maybe she’s right. But to me, it was always my love of horror that saved me from school.
I decided I would write a horror story for school. I think I was in grade four.
It wasn’t much of a story. Told in the first person, the story begins with a condemned man in his cell. He’s getting the death penalty, so I wrote a lot of grim things about guilt and imprisonment.
The officials come to the cell and take me( the prisoner) away. Down the corridor I go, and soon I am strapped into the electric chair.
The warden turns on the juice, and here is where a nine year-old gets a little carried away with the purple. In great detail, I write how my body shakes and fries. Then, in a glorious final (not to mention utterly un-realistic) touch, my eyes pop under the strain of electrocution, and my last memory before dying is of the ocular fluid running down my face. Not much for plot or development, but somewhat vivid anyway.
So here’s where you’re expecting me to go straight to the principal’s office, the police getting called, the child psychologist coming in to see if I had trauma in my past. But it didn’t happen that way.
My teacher raved about the story. It was sent straight to the principal, who later told me how much he liked it. I had a birthday party the following summer and my father, dense as a block, took out the famous story and read it to my friends ( I think I hid somewhere).
Eight years later.
I was McGill university, taking a degree for which I would later have no use. I was in residence, living in the infamous McConnell Hall, which had an international reputation for wildness. Beer was two bucks a pop and came served in plastic Molson cups. We had a shooter party in which puke buckets were placed in ten-foot intervals throughout the room. After second term half of residence caught mononucleosis, which not so nasty a disease as you would think.
The floor fellow kept half his apartment open for anyone to use. He had a VCR we could use, and one night someone rented Faces of Death.
Faces of Death is a cult film. It is directed by ‘Conan le Cilaire’, and someone named Doctor Francis B. Gross served as ‘Creative Consultant.’ It is often described as ‘Banned in 40+ countries.”
It’s a piece of Mondo documentary crap made in 1980, set to strange, jaunty muzak, and full of ostensibly real blood and gore. Someone gets torn apart by alligators, a man murders his entire family; there are assassinations, falls from great heights, and trips to the morgue.
About halfway through the movie they get into the executions.
The first is is a gassing. It’s pretty uneventful. The poor bastard shakes and coughs a bit before his head hangs.
The second is by electric chair.
It’s starts with a man pacing and smoking in his cell. The officials come and take him down the hall to the chamber which contains the electric chair. He struggles when they put on the straps, and then he is calm. His eyes are covered with cloth and tape.
When they turn on the juice, he pulls and shakes so much he nearly comes out of his electric cap. After the charge is finished, the doctor examines him and determines that he is still alive. So everyone steps away, and the juice is turned on yet again. This time he smokes a bit, and then, as the camera pulls close, blood pours out from beneath the cloth covering his eyes. The awful music swells.
It was faked, of course, as most of Faces of Death was. The question of what was and wasn’t faked in the first (for there were many sequels) Faces of Death has always been debated, but the electric chair scene was unquestionably faked.
Banned from TV came next, and a host of other imitators, but Faces of Death was the mondo film that put the faux-documentary/exploitative-trash film genre on the map for a wide audience. Then Al-Qaeda began releasing the beheading videos of real people, and the whole idea of compiling death for entertainment became moot.
This is a fear of mine. Like the main character in Clive Barker’s short story Dread, I have a very specific fear. Barker’s character had a fear of a giggling clown with an axe.
My fear is of being in an enclosed room without windows. Around me are uniformed men and officials paid to be there at this moment: a time long ago set aside just for me and a time I can never escape. The men are grim and businesslike, beefy, with working-class moustaches and perhaps union cards in their wallets. They are so casually merciless that one of them seems a little bored. There’s a doctor there are well, a nervous alcoholic failure of a man whose options for work are limited.
To either the gurney or chair they strap me. My fate has been sealed by countless lawyers and judges and technically there is no injustice.
I never imagine the actual death. The waiting and the preparation are perfectly terrifying and I never get beyond that. It’s a good creative lesson - the lead-up is far more interesting than the ultimate reveal. We know we won’t be around for the end anyway.