I saw Arnold Friend today. Not really, but I saw a guy who could have been An Old Friend. I was taking a walk with my wife in our neighborhood, which is surrounded by wide country roads. The houses are a quarter of a mile apart or more with dense, wooded areas in between. A rare car was coming up behind us, so we moved over to give the car room to pass. It didn’t. It stopped right along side us, and the driver jumped out. He was short and sturdy with curly blond hair. His back seat was full of stuff, glass bottles and tin cans, probably other things, but I didn’t want to look for too long.
“Morning,” he said.
“Morning,” I said back. And the usual kinds of thoughts flashed through my mind: he’s going to take a rifle out of the trunk and start shooting. He’s going to grab my hair and try and pull me into the backseat with all those bottles and cans. I gripped the set of keys in my pocket and took a quick, mental survey of all my best boxing moves; I decided, though, that a quick kick to the nuts was probably my best bet.
Turns out, though, he wasn’t in the market for gunshot victims or kidnappees that morning. He simply opened the rear driver’s side door and rummaged around in the back seat. My wife and I kept walking. Maybe there was something rolling around back there, annoying him. Part of me felt a little silly, but a larger part of me felt justified. He probably was planning something, but then changed his mind. Plus, he did look an awful lot like Arnold Friend.
I’ve always been a bit of a scaredy cat. Afraid of the dark, or afraid the devil was going to possess me. Afraid someone was going to break in and kill me, or at least torture me. I’ve had panic attacks while lying in my bed at night, to the point where I had to actually get up and turn on the light. I was convinced that someone or something was in the room with me. I often make my wife walk around our house at night, checking all the nooks and crannies and closets for unwanted guests and ghouls. And as with the Arnold Friend incident this morning, my imagination is easily triggered into scenes of violence and gore. It has always been this way, and I can’t help but invoke the old chicken or the egg question: am I like this because I’m a writer, or am I a writer because I am like this?
Arnold Friend (for those who don’t know the old fiend) is a character in Joyce Carol Oates’ well-known and much anthologized story, “Where are you Going? Where Have you Been?” Character is probably an understatement. For me, he has become an archetype, a symbol of all that is seemingly harmless, but ultimately dangerous, and often fatal. Another interesting thing about A. Friend is that according to most critics’ readings, he’s actually satan, or at least a symbol of satan. Another interesting thing about An Old Friend is that he was, to some extent, modeled on Bob Dylan–at least physically. The last interesting thing that I’ll mention about the Arch Fiend is that to a lot of people who read the story, and to almost everyone who has seen Smooth Talk, the movie adaptation with Laura Dern and Treat Williams, he’s not really that scary. He could even be characterized as slightly silly and goofy, which works for our satan analogy since in the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, Eve was never actually afraid of satan.
There was nothing obviously scary about the guy I saw this morning. As I said, he was small in stature. It’s even possible that I had a few pounds on him. He had this goofy, blond curly hair, and said, “Morning.” He had all this garbage rolling around in the back of his car. But I was afraid. Why?
I grew up reading Stephen King, who has had a lot to say about “the psychology of terror” in some of his non-fiction works and essays. Check out Danse Macabre and On Writing for starters. I also grew up watching a lot of TV and I saw horror movies that I was probably too young to see. The problem, though, really came after the movie. Somehow, what my imagination did with the movie was so much worse than the movie itself. Comical and campy horror figures like Freddy Krueger, Jason, and silliest of all, Chucky, would turn from clowns to deadly fiends in my imagination. And as a result, I spent a pretty major part of my childhood trying to NOT fall asleep.
One of the first stories I ever wrote was about a group of friends, one of which gets kidnapped by the devil and taken to hell. The other friends have to band together to rescue the kidnapped one. I don’t remember all the details, but I know there was a pretty intense fight between the main protagonist (probably a fictionalized version of myself) and the devil. Somehow she ultimately defeats him with love. “I love you,” she calls to her kidnapped friend. Satan, who can’t stand to hear those words uttered, finally releases him and he is able to return to earth with his friends.
These days, I almost never write about anything too scary. No murders, no rapes, no hauntings, no fist fights, even. Just typical, screwed up human behavior. As for reading, books like Gone Girl and The Likeness are good representations of my scariness limit. The last really scary book I read was Cell by Stephen King, and I regretted it. Not because it wasn’t a good book, but because for weeks and possibly even months after I finished the book, I lived in fear. There was always someone or something in my backseat and I’d grip my steering wheel in terror all the way home. Just as I was about to open a door or a closet, I’d have this flash that there was a dead person on the other side. I’d see serial killers walking towards me, trying to blend in with the crowd. All this fear actually becomes quite burdensome after a while, which is why I simply stopped reading and watching things that were scary.
But I still have this imagination. I still see Arnold Friend from time to time, along with the occasional dead person on the other side of the door. Truthfully, I probably always will no matter what I watch or read. The interesting thing, though, is the more I write, the less afraid I am. I honestly think the chicken or egg question is kind of pointless. The important thing, at least in my perspective, is that writing seems to be a way of exercising those old fiends.