The Strange in Your Past

One of my earliest memories is of rolly pollies (Armadillidiidae, pill bugs, etc.), the small bugs that roll up into balls when handled. I played with them often as a young kid, but there’s a particular event that stands out—my baby sister, laying in a crib on her back and wearing only a diaper, and me maybe three years old, putting a small handful of rolly pollies on her chest. There was no malice intended, at least none that I can recall now, but rather a desire to share these amazing things.

Some of my most accessed memories for writing are like this—not the extreme highs or lows (though I draw from those as well), but the weird, the strange in my past. These visceral experiences are often my most inspirational.

When I was twenty-three, I helped my step-father and older brother with a house renovation. The house was old, and probably had not been occupied for a few years. As I was the youngest, and possibly the most wiry at the time, I got the privilege of doing work in the attic. It was a small ranch-style, and the attic was one low space I crawled through, rafter by rafter. It was dirty, hot work, and I’m sure I hated it at the time. But I don’t remember it that way—instead, what always comes to mind is the dozens of mouse bones I found in there. Most were skulls only, but many were full skeletons. Each were bone-white, either extremely old or possibly baked away during the heat of summers past.

I collected many of the skeletons, and decorated the dashboard of my car with several of the skulls. Morbid, sure, but a great memory to tap into as a writer of fantasy, horror, and the weird.

In my younger years I was a bit of a pyro. I have many distinct memories of burning things—frozen hotdogs blackened to a crisp on the outside and still cold in the middle, stormtrooper figures melted into creative disfigurements, or setting a small fire at the edge of the school yard during recess (where I hid the burnt matches in the sandbox, and a few girls dug them up to turn me in). The strongest memory, though, was a small fire out in a field behind my house, nestled in this hollow of trees and wild growth. What we were burning was scavenged wood, underbrush, and leaves, and it grew to a pretty good size. We kept it under control, though, and when we left we made sure it was out. However, because of all the leaves we had burned, a great amount of smoke had built up, and it covered the entire field like a low-hanging fog, just a couple of feet off the ground. I can remember the surreal, serene feeling, the otherworldly nature of it all, even as sirens started growing in the distance.

Once, for work, I visited a cadaver lab at the Mayo Clinic. I was treated to a number of anatomical lessons regarding the heart from a surgeon who removed a few for this very purpose, straight out of a body, and right before my eyes. This happened the day before Thanksgiving (there’s a lot of parallels between what I saw there and what is typically on a table for Thanksgiving, but I’ll spare you).

These kinds of memories are formative. All memories are, really—from the excitement of travel to the mundane of the day to day—but the weird events occupy a special place in my heart. They’re personal experiences with odd little twists, and they’re just right to spark new ideas, or fill in a well-honed detail.