Here we are, in the greatest month of all. My various skulls are up. My house ghost Margery is outside keeping watch. I drink my cold brew out of a skeletal hand wine goblet. The leaves are changing. The creepy doll videos are in abundance. It’s a beautiful thing, my friends. Beautiful.
And I get to share it with Bobby Mathews, who is here today to tell us all about his greatest and deepest fears. I’ve only met Bobby once, very recently at Bouchercon when I weirdly went over to him and said hello like we’ve been besties forever and gave him a hug and he was gracious and kind about it and didn’t call security. But he’s got that kind of persona, an infectious sort of energy that makes you feel like you’ve known him a lot longer or better than you actually have. He also, according to his bio, makes the best grilled cheese sandwich, which is clearly a lie, since my dad makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches, but whatever. We’ll let it slide this time.
Anyway, onward! Tell us, what scares the crap out of you, Bobby?
What is your greatest fear?
As the years pass, fear of failure has become much more prominent in my mind. That fear is sometimes nearly crippling. I have two little boys, one just starting middle school and one in elementary school. I worry whether I’m properly equipping them to make their way in the world, and I alternately fear that I’m being too hard on them or too easy on them. I fear failing them, even though I know that I will at some point. I fear overreacting to a given situation or underreacting to it. Parenting is such an easy thing to get wrong, and I think everyone leaves unintentional scars on their children. My hope is that I leave as few as possible.
What is the scariest thing you remember from childhood?
When I was five years old, my parents went to a drive-in movie theater playing The Exorcist. The movie originally came out in 1973, Google tells me, so this must have been some kind of revival or second run down in the Deep South because it was 1976 or early 1977 by the time my parents and I went. Maybe it was playing in support of the sequel, I’m not sure. Regardless, my parents thought that I was asleep in the backseat of the car, and maybe I was for a time. But I was awake and wide-eyed by the time Regan MacNeil’s demonic head spun all the way around on her body. I stayed quiet and low in the back seat, barely breathing, until the movie was over. Then once the credits began and I knew it was over, I laid back down and shut my eyes tight. I don’t think my parents ever knew that I’d woken up.
Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?
I used to be scared of heights, but when I was 14 or so my dad got me hired on under-the-table for a summer as a general contractor’s helper. Part of the job was toting bundles of shingles up to the rooftop, hammering in 2 X 4 boards so the roofers had a place to put their feet so that they could maintain their balance and work. Sometimes I laid shingles myself. I hoisted shingles, kegs of nails, boards, equipment, and swung a roofing hammer on top of a lot of houses for the next two years. I learned that I needed to respect heights—because if you lose your concentration, something could go wrong—but going up and down those ladders every day of the week changed the way I viewed heights. As far as changing me, the thing it taught me was that sometimes you just gotta get on with things despite your fears.
How do you deal with fear?
I start by admitting I’m afraid, even if it’s only to myself. I think there’s a dangerous (one might say toxic) element in some masculinity that says that men shouldn’t show fear. I think understanding that you’re afraid—admitting it—is a healthy step in dealing with fear. As a fiction writer, I may lie to readers, but I try not to lie to myself. If I can admit to being afraid, I can think somewhat logically about what to do next in a given situation. I subscribe to the notion that I first heard espoused by Oprah Winfrey: “Real courage is being afraid but doing it anyway.” Part of my writing process is that I try to do something every month that scares me. Submit somewhere that might laugh me out of the slush pile, put together an anthology, give a talk, lead a seminar … whatever “it” is, I try to just be afraid and do it anyway.
“Going up and down those ladders every day of the week changed the way I viewed heights.”
Have you ever had any paranormal experiences or premonitions?
To borrow a phrase from a couple of friends of mine (Hi Paul and Kent!), I think the veil is thin sometimes. I also think that our hunches and feelings about certain places or things often hinge on senses we may not know about. Once, several years ago, I had lunch at what was then a favorite restaurant. I like to dine alone and read while I do it, but some feeling made me restless that day. I could only get a few lines into the book … something kept doing the emotional equivalent of poking me in the ribs. I paid and left. A car came through the wall of the restaurant less than 10 minutes later. It wasn’t exactly where I was sitting, but it was close enough that I would have likely been badly hurt had I stayed.
What is your greatest fear as a writer?
I’m always, always scared that my talent won’t live up to the story I’m writing. That’s true for every book I write, but it’s pretty current for me right now. I’ll give you a concrete example. I’m struggling through the first draft of a novel I’m calling UNTITLED SOUTHERN GOTHIC, and the writing feels flat, like I’m pushing against a flexible wall, trying to find a way through to get to the story that I want to tell in the way that I want to tell it. I’ve had a couple of friends peek at the opening, and they’ve assured me that it seems good to them, but the seed is in my head that I’m not a good enough writer to tackle this kind of book. There’s a voice whispering in my ear that I’m just not there yet, and that I may never be. Quieting that fear is one of the hardest parts of writing for me.
What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever written?
Back in the mid-1990s, I had a story that was almost published by whatever iteration of Weird Tales that was limping along at that time. It was called “Hidden House,” and it was a ghost story based upon a real-life murder that happened at the house just down the road from my parents’ home. A young man who used to sort of babysit me and my friend Tim murdered his stepfather. It was a shocking thing to my childhood brain, and I think as a result a lot of my fiction tends to explore the hidden sides of people and the awful things they’re capable of doing to one another. Probably the most disturbing story I’ve ever written, with a psychological horror element to it, is called “A Good Night’s Sleep.” It was published in Murderous Ink Press’s Crimeucopia: We’re All Animals Under the Skin anthology, but subscribers to my Substack can read it here for free. Hidden House will be published there this month, too, as a fun little Halloween bonus for subscribers.
What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read? Is there a particular scene that really haunts you still?
Stephen King’s short story collection, Night Shift, remains the book that consistently scares me the most, and it’s because of one story: “The Boogeyman.” Without major spoilers, the characters know the Boogeyman is around because the door to the closet in their room won’t stay shut. It audibly clicks open. In my bedroom growing up, the closet door would not stay shut. I could close the closet door, turn off the light to my room, and as soon as I was under the covers, the door would click open. Some nights it wouldn’t be immediate. I’d be drifting off to sleep, and I’d hear the click of the closet door as it opened ever so slightly — just a sliver, as if something was looking out at me, watching and waiting. To get to sleep, I began wedging a chair under the doorknob before bed. Even writing about that story just now gave me enough of the creeps that gooseflesh broke out on my arms and shoulders. My dad uses that bedroom now, and a funny thing: the closet door no longer swings open on its own.
What is your favorite monster/villain?
I’m always sold on Pennywise, the Dancing Clown (especially the portrayal by Tim Curry from the 1990 miniseries). But usually I like villains who know they’re doing the wrong thing while believing in their hearts that their objective is just. Guys like Boyd Crowder from the TV show Justified are the ones that scare me. Because I’m at heart a small-town Southerner, I know guys like that, good-ol’-boys whose ego and personal charm allow them to get away with whatever they want to do. Of course their actions are most often in their own self-interest, but when their self-interests align with what they see as ‘the common good,’ they can do a lot of damage to a lot of people.
People often say death is their greatest fear. What are your feelings about death/dying?
It’s interesting how my feelings on this have changed as I’ve gotten older. I used to be scared of dying, but it becomes less and less important to me. Back in 2007 I lived through a car wreck that should have killed me. (And I still bear the scars from it.) I can remember when my SUV began tumbling off the road, I thought “Well, this is it.” But it wasn’t, and I’m so thankful for the years I’ve had since then. But I look at dying differently. I’m 51 now, and while I want to keep on living in this meatsack of mine for as long as I’m able to be in my right mind and semi-healthy, my main concern is that I want to be alive long enough to see my boys into manhood. I grew up in a religious household, and while I don’t particularly believe anymore in a permanent, unending paradise after we die, I tend to subscribe to the idea that we go on in some way after we pass. If the scientific law of conservation of energy is correct that energy cannot be created or destroyed — only converted from one form of energy to another, then that gives me a kind of peace. What’s the line that Jake Chambers says to Stephen King’s Gunslinger? “Go, then. There are other worlds than these.”
What’s more terrifying to you: freezing to death in a blizzard OR dying from extreme heat, lost in a desert?
Lost in a desert and dying from extreme heat. One of my favorite mixed martial artists was a guy named Evan Tanner, who became the UFC middleweight champion. He was born only a couple of months before me, and I loved watching him fight as well as loved reading his blog posts and insights about life. He was often referred to as the UFC’s warrior-poet. He went out for a solo weekend getaway to the Mojave Desert. He died out there at 37 years old from heat exposure. Before he left, he wrote: “So my plan is to go out to the desert, do some camping, ride the motorcycle, and shoot some guns. Sounds like a lot of fun to me. A lot of people do it. This isn’t a version of ‘Into the Wild.’” And then he never came back. This was a tough guy, a smart guy, in good shape. And yet … when I think of how he passed, I always think that it was such a waste of a human being, such a waste of spirit. I’ve read the reports on how he died, not really all that far from his camp where there was plenty of water … the pain and exhaustion and confusion of that kind of death does scare me.
Bobby Mathews is a writer and journalist in suburban Birmingham, Alabama. His novel, LIVING THE GIMMICK, is out now from Shotgun Honey Books, and his short fiction has appeared in Reckon Review, Rock & a Hard Place, The Dark City, Yellow Mama, and Bristol Noir among others. His work has also appeared in the anthologies Trouble No More and Under the Thumb: Stories of Police Oppression. When he’s not writing, Bobby makes the best grilled cheese in the world.