I have taught English at universities and community colleges in my area since I was barely legal to drink. Many of my students, early on, were twice my age or more - the age I am now, in fact, as I write this recollection.
I’ve instructed literally thousands of students.
Each one is important to me, and I do everything I can for them while they’re in my class.
If they were memorable or ask politely.
But, alas, I generally forget their names.
And, generally, although I try to inspire as much flair and style and substance in their writing as I can, I generally forget their essays as well.
Except for a few. Every now and then there is an essay I simply cannot forget.
The woman, now in her forties, who described her suitcase sitting by the front door, lit by a beam of sunlight, packed for her to go to the big university - and the subsequent panic attack which derailed the next twenty-some years of her life before she was finally willing to give college - even the local community college - another go.
Another woman, this one elderly, the granddaughter of slaves, whose mother was the first to realize the value of an education, making her stay inside after school. She seethed over extra lessons her mother imposed at the dining room table as she heard the voices of other children playing in the fields across the street.
The man whose daughter was run over by her own school bus.
The female drug mule who still lives in fear of having cut and run from her Mexican cartel.
The ex-con who, inspired by television and the movies, decided to act in court as his own legal counsel - then realized within mere minutes, if not seconds, how completely out of his depths he was. It’s both a hilarious and heartbreaking piece of writing which should be widely anthologized but which I doubt anyone but a small group, including myself and a handful of students, has read.
Or sometimes there’s even something as basic as the guy who wrote a comparison/contrast piece about his adventurous dog and his lazy, do-nothing cat. It had twenty to thirty students crying with laughter, and I doubt it was much longer than 1,000 words.
This list goes on.
But the strangest essay by far was by a man who wrote about his literally crazy ex-wife. She would pick up the landline phone and, never dialing, would have lengthy, detailed conversations with imaginary lovers about his various failures and shortcomings as a man and as a husband, right there in front of him.
He eventually managed to both divorce her and get her therapy.
That one was an “A” paper in its first draft. But I probably reread it a dozen times anyway.
Those phone calls - such a surreal, utterly nasty thing to do.
I tried several times to write a mainstream piece based on this, and I could never get it to work. It took me a while, but I finally figured out why - I didn’t want to plagiarize the student. Mainstream was … well, too close to reality. It felt kind of skeezy to more or less outright copy what happened.
So when C. Dennis Moore and David G. Barnett invited me to their extreme horror anthology Into the Darkness, I figured out I could use this material that refused to leave my head - but I could exaggerate it, make it even worse.
Yeah, the experience was pretty awful for my student.
But it’s much worse, both in physical and supernatural terms, for my characters.
Gore has its place in horror. Humans really do fucked-up shit to other humans and bad, bloody things happen to good people, but I’ll balk the minute it’s gratuitous.
The bigger question I asked myself: Is it fair that I make a fictional story of my student’s pain?
To which I answer: Would you know of his pain if I hadn’t?
Would I know and empathize with the twisted crap he had to deal with?
And do you think maybe he felt some sort of therapeutic effect having to confront this episode in his life by writing about it in my class?
Wheels within wheels, within racks upon racks of pain.
We increase the amount of empathy, sympathy and compassion in this world by sharing what’s awful in humans and their psyches.
If you’re revolted or you cringe, good!
That’s what horror fiction is for.
We explore our anger, pain, anxiety and revulsion with others and grow, or it’s useless.
"Phone and Games originally appeared in the Into the Darkness Anthology, Vol. I, edited by C. Dennis Moore and David G. Barnett.
It is now available in my collection Dark Truth, which is out in ebook, print and audio editions.