I can’t remember the first time I went to a bookstore. I mean a store whose central product is books. Growing up in rural parts of Utah, I had the Scholastic Book order forms, like so many others of my generation. I don’t think Scholastic gets the credit they deserve for being a publisher of gateway horror. My first copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark came from them, as did the gloriously skeletal—but ultimately disappointing--The Train by Diane Hoh. My memory wants me to believe Scholastic published Christopher Pike, too, but I never bought any of those. Two other things found in the book order form helped make me the horror writer I am today.
I still have the first copy of Edgar Allan Poe works I ever bought. The Raven and Other Poems was an Apple Classic from Scholastic and, as you can imagine, the cover was gloriously purple. I must have known something about Poe before buying it, but I don’t remember. “The Raven” hypnotized me and “Annabelle Lee” made me cry, although I didn’t fully understand it at the time. I had not read much poetry outside of Shel Silverstein—a good precursor to reading Poe, in my opinion—and so it took some getting used to the format.
The slim volume was only poetry and so I would soon search out the short stories and began to notice how often Poe showed up in other media. I remember one episode of the sitcom Cheers in which Carla invoked the spirit of “The Tell-tale Heart” to freak out someone else at the bar. Later there would be The Simpsons epic version of “The Raven” pitting Homer against Bart the raven.
Around this time, ages nine to 13, I truly began to embrace horror. I had been a casual fan and a sufferer of nightmares. But my birthday is on Halloween, and I soon sickened of other people scaring me. It was my turn.
Re-enter the Scholastic book order form.
During my sixth-grade year, Scholastic sponsored a contest to complete an unfinished R.L. Stine story. Later, as Stephen King took over my reading life, I learned that King had done the same thing with a men’s magazine in the 1970s. “Finish this story,” beckoned the flimsy catalogue. So I did. I took Stine’s story of basement experiments and paternal secrets and created a Moreau-esque bird monster. I did not, however, win. I could consider this my first rejection but more importantly, it was the first real story I finished. The Goosebumps book that Stine’s start later became featured sentient and monstrous plants, not a birdman, so at least he didn’t steal my idea. Someone won that contest and I hope they stayed the course and became a writer.
What I got out of that story, besides the important act of finishing something, was a nomination by my teacher and acceptance to the Utah State University young writers conference. My mom and I got to spend the day on the college campus. Somebody gave a speech, we were given lunch, and I got a medal. We also got to hear other participants read their stories and essays. We heard quite a bit of monotone reading, but I wanted to scare people.
That was my first public reading. Gasps at the scary parts and a round of applause and that was it for me. Even though I didn’t immediately devote my life to writing, I always craved the applause… and the screams.
I’ve done theater and worked in haunted houses. Those are all collaborative experiences. I might be the focus in the moment, but there’s a mask or a character between me and the audience. There’s the set and maybe music. During a reading, it’s only me and the words I put down on paper. A reading is a performance. I’ve read about Poe’s public readings and attended a large outdoor reading by Stine. I know they both understand.
Without them, and the access to their work via the Scholastic book orders, you wouldn’t be reading this now.
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. He has been a grocery store janitor, a college English and journalism instructor, an essential oils warehouse worker, a reporter, and a fast food grunt. He holds a Master's degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son.
Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net.