Horror Writers Association Blog

Halloween Haunts: How the Application of Corn Starch Prepared Me for Novel-Writing by David Annandale


Halloween taught me the virtue of suffering for one’s art.

Right. That sounds insufferably pretentious. That’s because it is. But there is a grain of pragmatic truth I’d like to try to tease out of that statement, if you bear with me for a little bit.

Horror stories and monsters have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. My first Halloween costume consisted of a plastic Frankenstein Monster mask (and I was still too young to have even heard the word “Frankenstein”), along with a crepe-paper crown and cape my mother had fashioned for me. I called myself the King of the Monsters (and no, I had not yet heard of Godzilla). My reign was short-lived, as an early snowstorm was blanketing the neighborhood. Holding my father’s hand, I trudged through drifts that went past the knees of my tiny self, and within minutes, my crown and cape had dissolved. But my memories of this first night of trick-or-treating are entirely fond. I wasn’t frustrated. My artistic vision had been realized, and the brevity of its existence didn’t matter.

Flash forward to early adolescence, and I have my hands on a kids’ guide to monster makeup. For two consecutive Halloweens, I go for broke. The first year, I’m “Dripping Face” — essentially a junior version of The Incredible Melting Man. If memory serves, the mixture I slathered on my face was made up of corn starch, flour and unpopped popcorn. It took me hours to get that mess off, but that was a small sacrifice to make. The following year, more corn starch, plus layers of paper towel and paint, turned me into “Reptile Man,” complete with egg-carton cups for eyes. I couldn’t see a damn thing, and walked right into a tree, losing one of my “eyes.” There more hours of removal afterward.

It was all so worth it. Not because of the reactions I received, though they were tremendously gratifying. But I don’t remember any in particular, or any at all in case of my first (dissolving) masterpiece. And I only saw how my work looked very briefly. The fact that the costumes existed was enough. That existence was the point, and it was what justified the hours of preparation and the late-night labor of removal.

I have long since learned that my artistic strengths do not lie in the visual media. The only existence my monsters have is in the printed word now. I’m not there to see if my words scare anyone. I sometimes heard about it after the fact, and that’s a pretty special feeling, but the expectation of such a reaction is a poor reason to spend a year writing a book. And once the book hits the stands, I don’t re-read it, just like I didn’t stand in  front of the mirror for hours after applying the makeup. As before, what matters is that the book exists. The process of forging that reality is a lot less physically uncomfortable than those costumes, but it sure does take a lot longer, and the cursing and sweating to get the damn thing right is just as real.

Is that suffering? Of course not, not in any sense that doesn’t do a horrible injustice to the people who really are suffering. But what I’m trying to get at, past the pretension and the hyperbole, is that there is something about the coming-to-being of a story that not only justifies all the screen-staring that led to it, but goes a long way toward obliterating even the memory of that effort.

So that all I want then, is to do it again.


DAVID ANNANDALE teaches at the University of Manitoba, lecturing and writing about film, literature, comic books and video games. His horror fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. Gethsemane Hall, his first horror novel, has just been released by Snowbooks in the UK (https://snowbooks.bibliocloud.com/webs/488#nav=0 ) and by Dundurn Press everywhere else (http://www.dundurn.com/books/gethsemane_hall ). He is also the author of Crown Fire, Kornukopia and The Valedictorians, thrillers featuring rogue warrior Jen Blaylock, and he writes Warhammer 40,000 fiction for the Black Library. His Space Marine Battles novel, The Death of Antagonis, comes out in February 2013. Follow David at his website, www.davidannandale.com, and on Twitter @David_Annandale.


Read an excerpt from GETHSEMANE HALL:

In the dream, he was back at St. Rose’s Church, going through the funeral again. He knew he was dreaming because he felt the pain of repetition, sensed the sadism of a force that would make him experience ritualized loss once again. Knowing that he was dreaming didn’t diminish the pain. The anguish pressed him down, a granite weight, as he tried to stand for the hymn. The injustice of the re-enactment was colossal and could only be for the benefit of a cruel deity’s amusement. Something was laughing at him. He looked up. Standing above the altar was a large wooden crucifix, its Christ bigger than life. The Christ was laughing at him. Now he was looking at the face in close-up, was staring into its wide mouth, could see where the red paint of its throat had chipped, saw lips peeled back from tree-ringed teeth. He couldn’t see Christ’s eyes. He couldn’t see anything but the laugh, the maw of red disappearing to black. The laugh itself was looking at him, the mouth so contorted with mirth that the very expression had become sentient. He tried to yell back at it, to give back his hatred, but the laugh was too huge, too strong, visible even when he closed his eyes. The laugh grew from howl to tsunami roar. Its register climbed hysteria’s ladder, from exultation to frenzy, and finally it was the scream of the heart of the universe.



2 comments on “Halloween Haunts: How the Application of Corn Starch Prepared Me for Novel-Writing by David Annandale

  1. I love this post! It doesn’t seem pretentious to me at all; I totally get what you’re saying. Really cute stories about your childhood Halloweens, and great tie-in to writing. Well said!

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