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The Cheesy Trunk of Terror
By Scott Nicholson

There was a wonderful downtown store called The Curiosity Shop that closed its doors this year. The Curiosity Shop sold gifts and collectibles, some new regional books, and assorted paper goods. At the back of the store, a set of creaky stairs led to a loft where used books, mostly paperbacks, were sold at half off cover price. In many cases, of course, the books weren’t sold at all. Especially those in the horror section.

The store owner said that nobody bought used horror paperbacks. The selection was pretty good, and by trading in some hardcovers I sampled the work of some writers who were new to me. Of course, most of the available titles were by V.C. Andrews, Anne Rice, and those fellows you may have heard of named King and Koontz. I also found the early work of people like Douglas Clegg, Ramsey Campbell, and James Herbert. But there were some of the newer Leisure titles as well, already in the second-life stage despite being less than a year old. The section also contained a couple hundred of those forgettable, seemingly-interchangeable horror novels from the 1980’s.

But that wasn’t the best part. What really made prowling that dusty loft a joy was the "Cheesy Trunk of Terror." That’s where the lousy paperbacks went to die. The trunk was one of those old reinforced cardboard things many of us trundled off to college, with the corners frayed and the fake brass worn. The store owners had so little respect for the books, they scrawled "25 cents" on the cover in thick black magic marker. You could get an armful of them for the cost of a Big Mac.

The trunk always seemed to replenish itself, as if there were a secret compartment in the bottom and the books leaked through from some strange subterranean source. Most notable was that the trunk wasn’t exclusively the domain of John Coyne, Ruby Jean Jensen, and Lisa W. Cantrell. If the store had more than three copies of any horror, mystery, or suspense book, the extras went into the mix as well. John D. MacDonald, Patricia Cornwell, and H.G. Wells appeared there. Even King and Koontz were no strangers to the trunk.

As a reader, the trunk was a treasure trove. As a writer, though, the trunk took on an entirely new meaning. The first time I stood over that trunk, I realized the implications of my own dedicated dream of having my words bound between covers. No matter how much I gave, no matter what amount of sacrifice, no matter my degree of success, my work was ultimately headed for the Cheesy Trunk of Terror.

The feeling was a bit humbling and discouraging. I even made a remark to the owner as I brought my selected pile to the checkout counter, something to the effect of, "Well, I wonder how long it will take for my first novel to wind up in there."

"When’s it come out?" he asked.

"This summer."

"Then probably by fall," he said.

I gave the Cheesy Trunk of Terror a great deal of thought in the days that followed. Every writer believes that his or her work will resonate for centuries and will always appeal to audiences, no matter how far society may stray from the era of the book’s copyright date. Every writer believes the work is worthy and special. We hope our books will continue to reach new readers, even in those resale circumstances where we receive no additional royalties. In short, we never want to be classified as "cheese."

After my discouragement faded, a different type of emotion dawned. The Cheesy Trunk is no more limiting for a book than a graveyard is for a human soul. It’s not the product itself that matters, though most writers want to be paid for their work. Most important is the very act of dreaming, the pleasure of probing and tasting and sniffing this thing we all call existence. It’s the job of milking a cow and making cheese if you’re a writer, or consuming that cheese if you’re a reader.

Sometimes we take everything too seriously, especially the "horror" label, which has been alternately maligned and defended in far more sentences than were ever penned toward the genre’s greater glory. Some refuse to acknowledge a horror book that doesn’t have "horror" brazenly printed on its spine, while others turn up noses at yet another reeking mound of innocent cheese. Some want dark fantasy and some want psychological suspense. Some want to abolish horror sections in bookstores. We’re all different in our tastes and needs, yet we’re all the same in our pursuit of emotional truth.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer selling a million copies or a reader who argues that horror requires supernatural elements. It doesn’t matter if you’re a critic who measures each new slot paperback against the literary classics or an Internet gusher who proclaims every new writer the "future of horror." It doesn’t matter if you have ten Stoker awards on the shelf or a library full of expensive limited editions. It doesn’t matter if you mechanically crank out gore as if grinding sausage or if you hide your genre reading material behind academic hardcovers.

It’s about doing the best you can with what talents you have, showing up day after day, reading what you want without justifying it to others. Give it whatever name you favor, call it dark fantasy, the H-word, terror, suspense. The labels may decay and the pages eventually crumble to dust, but that doesn’t take away from the simple magic of a work’s existence. It’s about the words and it’s about the feeling. It’s about being there.

In the end, we’re all in the cheesy trunk together. And the trunk is never empty.

(Copyright 2002 by Scott Nicholson. Originally published in Hellnotes, Dec. 14, 2002)

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