Today I get to deep-dive into the pools of fear with my very dear friend Christopher Allen. Chris and I were co-editors of SmokeLong Quarterly for many moons, and now he has taken it over and done many beautiful things. If you are a flash fiction writer or reader, you need to know SmokeLong.
Christopher is a man of many talents, though. A fine writer, editor, and singer among them. There is no other person (besides Helen) that I’d want to do karaoke with. He’s smart and hilarious and reliable and snarky and kind and all the things. He is also great at entertaining young people by telling them how to say silly phrases (“I pooped my pants”) in German.
I can go on and on, but you’re really here for the Woman in Wood that marred his childhood, so let’s proceed, shall we?
What is your earliest childhood memory of fear? Or the scariest thing you remember from childhood?
I grew up in the Baptist Church with demons and The Devil and the very real threat of hellfire. The woodgrain on my bedroom door—the side that would face the hallway if closed but never was—had the rough outline of a woman’s face exactly at face height. My mother said I just needed to close my door and I wouldn’t have to see her, but I was terrified of sleeping in my room with the door closed. Sometimes when the moon shone just right through my window at night, I would wake up with the woman staring at me—still better than being in the room “alone” with the door closed.
Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?
Besides sleeping in a room with the door closed? Quite a few. When I was a teenager, I thought I’d never be able to live alone. I was so afraid of the dark, of being alone in a house, and being left alone in the house with my brother. I was also afraid of needles (anything sharp) and swimming in the ocean. I was terrified of my brother and freaked out by heights. These days I enjoy a dark empty house, have no fear of needles, and have a scuba-diving license though I’m still afraid of swimming in the ocean. My brother died in 2007. But heights. Oh god. My body turns to goo.
What are your phobias?
Heights. I am afraid to stand on anything I can see through, especially if it is very high. Zip-line platforms scare the hell out of me, but the zip-line itself is great. Once I’m harnessed and flying, I’m fine. I’m afraid of people walking toward me on the street. If I’m walking with someone and also approaching someone who is walking toward us, I make sure the person I’m walking with is between me and the other person when we cross. Does that make sense? I feel like I should draw a diagram. In a hotel, very much like David from Schitt’s Creek, I’m afraid of sleeping on the side of the bed closest to the door. Alexis would have had to buck up and take that bed if I’d been David.
“I am afraid to stand on anything I can see through, especially if it is very high.”
Do you have a recurring nightmare?
I used to have a recurring nightmare that The Devil was laughing at me. The dream was usually set in the church I attended 3 times a weeks from birth to university. I would usually be in a Sunday school room with my friends. The laughing would begin as a whisper somewhere above us, then crescendo until the ceiling began to crumble above our heads. Once I woke up and could still hear the laughing.
When I was younger I walked in my sleep almost every night. Convinced that someone was trying to kill me (the recurring bit I guess), I left my room and roamed our house so often that my parents put a croquet set in front of my (open) door so they’d hear me when I tried to leave my room. I guess I got good at moving the croquet set because I sometimes woke up under the kitchen table.
What’s something that most people are afraid of that you are not? Why aren’t you?
I grew up singing on stages for lots of people, so I’m not afraid to sing on stage. In fact, it doesn’t take much for me to burst into song. Public speaking, I discovered at university, is different. I hyperventilate and stammer quite a lot.
Have you ever had any paranormal experiences or premonitions? How did you deal with it?
As I’m writing this, I’m discovering that my childhood bedroom was an awful place. Maybe it would have been a nicer place without all the SATAN IS REAL talk I dealt with every single day of my youth.
I once saw a woman’s face surrounded by sparkles rise from the foot of my bed, which sent me into hysterics, which provoked my mother’s presence and her slapping me repeatedly, screaming “Snap out of it!” I still know exactly what the woman looked like.
What is your greatest fear as a writer?
That I won’t have the time, the energy, and the talent to write the important story I should have told years ago.
Do you have any horror movie dealbreakers?
I can’t watch cruelty or graphic violence of any kind. The images stay with me for decades. This means that I don’t watch horror at all.
Do you like Halloween? If so, what’s your favorite part? If not, why?
I have actually never had Halloween. My parents did not allow my brother and me to participate. We turned all our lights out on Halloween at 6pm and did not answer the door. The next morning the trees in our front yard were always rolled. Oh wait, once I was invited to a “fall sleepover” at a Baptist church across town. I was probably 14? When I arrived, it soon became clear that I didn’t know anyone. How fun? This Baptist church was considerably more liberal than my parents. They’d actually created a haunted house in the church, which I immediately disappeared into. A few minutes later I found a piano, sat down and started playing spooky music, which scare the shit out of everyone there because they had no idea who I was. This is my favorite—and only—Halloween experience.
Christopher Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press, 2018). His work has appeared widely and is forthcoming in The Best Small Fictions 2022 and Flash Fiction America (Norton) in February 2023. Allen has judged The Bath Flash Fiction Award, Micro Madness, the Cambridge Flash Fiction Award, and is the 2023 flash fiction judge for the Bridport Prize. He has a BA in music business from Belmont University and an MA in English from Middle Tennessee State University. Allen is a nomad.