On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 74

I’m back after two weeks on medical leave and some much needed healing. Hope that time has been good to you.

Here’s this week’s writing prompt, from one of my all-time favorite authors, Edgar Allan Poe:

Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?


I’m a lifelong lover of books and music, having been massively influenced by both since I was a child, so this post contains a list of my seven favorite books and—as an homage to one of them—my top five all-time favorite recording artists.

Favorite Books

Listed in chronological order according to when I read them.

The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe (whom my father claims is some distant family relative of ours) is one of the first authors with whom I became enamored; he is also responsible for getting me hooked on supernatural literature. As a teenager, I devoured his stories of horror: “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and others. I also repeatedly read a number of Poe’s grimmer poems. What I admired most about his work was the artful way he generated suspense, the shocking turns he incorporated, and his lyrical style. Poe, to me, wasn’t just a master of the horrific but also rhythm, rhyme, and repetition of sounds (both assonance and alliteration). He will forever occupy a significant portion of my rather morbid heart.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

This book about a pathetic record store owner and self-described arsehole obsessed with making top-five lists, penned by a music-loving writer and critic has been among my all-time faves since I first read it back in college. Hornby’s debut novel reads like an Elvis Costello song (note: the title is an Elvis Costello song and Mr. Declan McManus also happens to be one of my favorite recording artists). I’ve never been able to find out whether or not Hornby purposely chose the title because of the song or whether, just being the music writer and lover that he is, he decided (like Costello) that the double meaning of the term high fidelity was incredibly appropriate (and clever) for his debut novel. Maybe it was a little of both. If I ever get the chance to interview or chat with Hornby, I’ll be sure to ask him. What makes this book one of my favorites, however, isn’t just its references to music or the fact that it was obviously written by a music lover who’d seen more than his share of know-it-all music snobs, but because Hornby is so frank about the awkwardness and absurdity so often inherent in relationships, his flawed and quirky characters are entirely believable, and his chronicle of Rob’s ridiculous romantic entanglements is really funny.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I treasure this tale of magic and the sacred feminine based on the Arthurian legends. Morgaine is without a doubt one of my favorite literary heroines, right alongside Lisbeth Salander (two very different but equally strong women, in my view). When I read this book, Avalon also represented something that I’d sorely lacked for most of my youth—a community of genuinely supportive women. This beautifully woven tale gave me hope that I’d eventually find my own place within one.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

I know I probably shouldn’t list this book among my favorites without also including Bram Stoker’s Dracula on that list, but, well, King’s updated version of the Dracula story is frankly scarier than the original. In fact, it’s the scariest book I’ve ever read. I like my vampires creepy and terrifying and, like his predecessor and obvious influence, Count Orlok, the original film version of Kurt Barlow certainly fits the criteria.

The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

When I was introduced to Duffy’s poems in an Irish lit class in graduate school, it was love at first read. By turns, bawdy, brash, and beautiful, Duffy’s style is one that I admire above many others. Her words, imagery, and subject matter felt so raw and real to me, and when I read The World’s Wife, a collection of poems about famous literary, mythical, and historical women (reimagined and written from their points of view), I identified with so many of them. Duffy herself is one of my favorite writers.

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

Mama Day is another book I discovered in grad school, this one thanks to my advisor (and one of my real-life heroes) Teresa Washington. I suppose that aside from African American lit, this book also falls into the genre of “magical realism.” It’s also something of a love story. Those elements of the book along with its incorporation of the sacred feminine are certainly partly why I love it so. Another reason is Naylor’s brilliant storytelling and creative narrative choices. Parts of the story are told from the points of view of two of the main characters, Coco and George, and written in first person as they talk to/about one other and their relationship. Some elements are a beautiful lesson in history and culture. Other sections are a third-person narrative focusing on the title character of Miranda “Mama” Day and other residents of Willow Springs, which, like its most famous denizen, Sapphira Wade, belongs to no one but itself and its people. This is one book that I will never tire of re-reading because of its richness, and I laugh and cry every time I enter the world of Willow Springs.

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

This book is on my list because of how much it has meant in terms of my personal and spiritual growth. Reading this book awakened something that had been buried and brutalized within my soul, and it inspired me to reclaim and nurture that part of myself—to heal so that I might become whole.

Favorite Recording Artists

My favorite musicians

In true High Fidelity fashion, here are my desert-island, all-time, top favorite recording artists, in alphabetical order:

  • Tori Amos
  • David Bowie
  • Elvis Costello
  • Queen
  • Lou Reed (and The Velvet Underground sans Nico)

Satisfyingly soulful and strange, Tori Amos was a big part of my formative years and although Sarah McLachlan, U2, and Garbage were just as much so, it’s Tori’s music that’s stood the test of time for me. Most of the music that I loved by those other singers and bands were their earlier songs and records, whereas I’d rank albums like 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk and 2017’s Native Invader right up there alongside Tori’s first three. Quite a number of her songs have inspired post titles on this blog.

Elvis Costello, aka Declan McManus, aka Napoleon Dynamite, is the only one of my top five I’ve actually seen in concert (I didn’t really get out much when I was younger, OK?). He’s a masterful, witty lyricist and wordsmith, sharp with a turn of phrase, genius with his use of the double entendre, and fantastic on guitar. I’m a bigger fan of his earlier, grittier work on albums like My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces, but I’m also impressed with his ability to effortlessly shift between music genres, particularly stuff that I wouldn’t have thought a fit for him (see albums like Secret, Profane, & Sugarcane and his work with Burt Bacharach). I appreciate genre-shattering musicians just as much as I do authors.

I suppose the other three on my list are sort of a testament to my love affair with glam rock, which began in earnest when I saw Todd Haynes’ film Velvet Goldmine, but I don’t just love those guys because of their glam records and personae. I love them because they’re weird and wonderful.

Lou Reed was the primary songwriter behind The Velvet Underground, one of the most influential bands in modern rock. To me, he was also its heart. I think one of the reasons I so love Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry is that it reminds me of Lou Reed’s songwriting. He was a poet too, a fellow freak and survivor, and a damn fine guitar player.

Speaking of freaks . . . yes, I loved the oft alien, always androgynous David Bowie for his weirdness too. But, like my other favorites, I also adored him for his musical talents, especially the risks that he took musically and his production work.

Bowie certainly had style and flair but so did Freddie Mercury, who is one of the main reasons that Queen makes my list. I called him “The Voice” because I was simply in awe of that man’s vocal range and talent. To me, he is far and away the most amazing vocalist in all of rock; no one else even comes close. I also couldn’t help but dig the fact that he was often so in-your-face and over-the-top when performing. Freddie isn’t the only reason I love Queen, though. I’m also a huge fan of Brian May’s guitar playing and the band was brilliant in the way that they melded genres and pulled off stuff that I’m sure the people working behind the scenes with them thought would never work.

Hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know a little more about me. I know you have your own favorite books, writers, and music-makers and I’d love for you to share them in the comments.

On Writing


When I was a kid, I was terrified of clowns. To me, they were monsters that wanted to snatch me and do horrible things to me. That was my worst nightmare—living out Stephen King’s It.

These days, I’m scared more by the horrendous things that actual humans do to each other than by some fool in clown makeup, but I still haven’t read or watched Stephen King’s It because I’ve been afraid that it’ll bring me horrible nightmares.

That’s what good horror storytellers do, isn’t it? They tap into our worst fears and nightmares and make them a reality. They play to our survival instinct.

So what makes a good horror story? For me, the sensory experience is a key factor, making the reader or viewer see, hear, and most of all, feel the fear. A spooky scene or creepy music can do that. For example, the scene in Bram Stoker’s Dracula where Jonathan Harker is riding in the carriage through the foggy dark and hears the wolves’ howling; he knows they’re out there but he can’t see them, or much of anything, and he’s wondering if he’ll even make it through the night to Dracula’s castle. Stoker did a terrific job of setting a scary scene there. Similarly, one of the things that makes the original Halloween my favorite scary movie is the music that plays throughout the film and hearing Michael Myers breathing through the mask. The sound, in that case, was the most frightening part. You hear him and you know he’s there even when you can’t see him and that’s creepy. Or you hear those first notes of the eerie soundtrack and you think, get out of there, Laurie, get out now!

Cultivating suspense is also a key element of scary stories and sensory imagery is a big part of that. Poe was great at using sound, repetition, and visual imagery to magnify the suspense in stories like “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and the “Telltale Heart.” Stephen King does a fabulous job of this as well. In The Shining, for example, he makes us feel Danny’s fear when he’s in room 237 by describing what Danny smells and feels and it’s creepy as hell. He uses strict anticipation in the scenes when Danny’s trying to hide from his father, similarly to the scene in ‘Salem’s Lot where Mark is held captive in the Marsten House and trying desperately to escape before the bad guy comes for him. You feel the characters’ fear building as the threat looms closer.

Sometimes, though, the most frightening stories are ones that could actually happen, where the monsters aren’t easily identifiable because they’re regular people. That’s the hallmark of Lovecraft Country for me. The supernatural elements are plenty scary, but the reality of racism and the acts done in the name of it are far more frightening.

I think another element that makes for a good scary story is the unexpected, the shock factor that some storytellers bring into their work. Seeing the main characters in Lovecraft Country held at gun point in the dark woods by racist law enforcement is scary enough. You, like the characters, are wondering what awful things these men are about to do, and then suddenly, something completely wild happens, leaving you going, “What the — ?” That sort of jaw-dropping turn is highly effective.

I’m not just a fan of vampire stories and some mildly gory tales of the supernatural, though. I like the campy stuff too. I was a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because it wasn’t scary yet incorporated elements of the horror with humor and terrific dialogue in a sort of send-up of the genre. The dark humor was what made the Evil Dead movies for me. They were gory and disgusting, sure, but they were outrageous and hilarious too, more a parody of horror films than strict horror. I adore Taika Waititi‘s What We Do In the Shadows for all of the same reasons. If I need to laugh—really laugh—I watch that movie. Dark humor is a thing of mine. Give me bloody disgusting plus ridiculous or outrageous situations and witty dialogue and I’m in love. That’s why I fell so hard for The End of the F***ing World, I think, and a huge reason why Harold and Maude is my favorite film. They’re love stories, yes, but they’re darkly, wickedly funny and, yes, very bloody and gross. They have this fabulous mix of hilarity and horrific. My dream story to read or film to watch would probably be something that’s legitimately scary but also really funny. It’s a hard combination to master, but a brilliant one; if you can pull it off, it’s golden in my book.

What are the hallmarks of a good scary/horror story for you? Who, or what, are some of your favorites?