Fear was my gateway to becoming interested in stories.
My nanny growing up, a Scottish expat named Jackie with a fox pelt of red hair and a manic Rottweiler named Jack o' Lantern, dragged me through my formative years kicking and screaming whenever my parents were away.
She was a good nanny. A damned good nanny. As protective and wily as she was crass and off the cuff, not to mention willing to take care of two American children whose parents couldn't seem to do it on their own.
Every wicked edge of Jackie's demeanor was somehow mitigated by measured bits of wisdom and control. Her dog, for example, while a drooling psychotic, was contained by a series of terrifying commands, all of which instructed the beast to maim and/or kill, but only when she sanctioned it so. She was kind of like Ygritte on Game of Thrones, in retrospect, or the female version of that guy from The Beastmaster, and she seemed to view childhood as preparation for the hellish pain of adulthood as opposed to a precious time of innocence.
One night, on a particularly long stint of stay, she had her boyfriend over to the house, a polite black man who wore a lot of cologne named Darryl. After spending some time winning me over, he retired with her to the couch and quickly announced, while flourishing a VHS rental case in his hand, that they'd be watching a movie. Jackie, already confined to my house for a good week while my parents were working a trade show in Atlanta, said that sounded like a great idea and, looking at me like a homeless lodger who didn't belong in the comfort of her living room, told me to get lost.
"This is a horror movie, wee child," she said. "It's too mature for your like. Go upstairs and play with your toys. You'll not like what you see."
But for some reason I resisted. I didn't want her to see my weakness. Not this lovely Celtic chieftain from a faraway land.
"I want to watch it," I said. "I don't want to go upstairs."
Darryl, shaking his head, said something like, "Kid, you're too young for this one."
But Jackie, she cut him off midway.
"No," she said, with her thick Scottish tongue. "If he must watch, then let him watch. He's his own man. He can make his own decisions."
Darryl, shaking his head, opened up the VHS rental case and took forth Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, a film hardly top-notch — which I wouldn't know for many years — that nonetheless branded its memory on my childhood.
Throughout the evil film's duration, my face noticeably paled. I whimpered uncontrollably at the idea of this demon of dreams, sometimes turning around to face the back of the couch so that I couldn't see the gore. Darryl would regard me with concern.
"Kid, just go upstairs. We'll come tuck you in when it's through."
"Go upstairs and play with your toys, wee boy." Jackie would then bellow. "If you can't handle the heat, then get out of the fire. Leave the monsters to those who can handle them."
But still I'd say I wanted to stay, afraid of reneging on my commitment, on somehow letting this magnificent second mother regard me with disdain. Darryl looked at me like I was crazy and, preparing to unpause the reel, said, "Alright then."
By the time the film had ended, I was just about as fucked up and scared as I thought I'd be. I was nine years old, for fuck's sake. Blood itself still filled me with dread. The last thing I wanted was to go to bed. But I was up past my bedtime and Jackie, despite my frightened protests, insisted.
"Up to beddy-bye, young thing," she growled malevolently. "You'll sleep the demons away, won't you?"
"Jackie," I said, as she tucked me into my top bunk (my brother was staying with my aunt and uncle for two days, tightening anxiety's grip). "Will you sit with me until I fall asleep?"
"The only thing that will accompany you to bed is your nightmares," she laughed. And after this came one of the most inexplicable moments in my life, something I still think about to this very day. Jackie, as opposed to soothing my worries, began to sing to me. And not just any nursery song, but the theme from Nightmare on Elm Street, cooing and wiggling her fingers like a banshee from the misty hills of her ancestors.
"One, Two, Freddy's coming for you," she began. "Three, four, better lock your door. Five, six, grab your crucifix." She moved away from the bed and put her hand on the doorknob. "Seven, eight, never stay up late. Nine, ten, never sleep again." And with those final words, the door was shut tight, the lights were flipped off, and I was left all alone.
Terror, thus, became a part of my character. I found myself pursuing monsters and ghouls, always invigorated and fascinated by the dark. All the stories I tell circle back to a creature in the shadows, claws that shred and teeth that bite. Even in a superhero folk story like League of Somebodies, beasts still lurk in the attic. Malevolence blooms and childhood is stymied, twisted up in thorn bushes and brambles. Terror taught me how to see shapes in the dark.
Perhaps, then, I write this to say thank you, Jackie, for your malevolence. Thank you for exposing me early to how cruel the world can be.
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