The most frightening self-inflicted experience of my life was when I developed an unfortunate taste for horror fiction as a teenager living in the middle of nowhere, California. I snuck The Oath, by Frank Peretti, out of my grandparents’ library and read it in the evenings, when I was supposed to be taking care of the horses.
For those who’ve never read the book, it’s about an impossibly powerful monster preying on a small town. Normally this wouldn’t have been an issue, but I was reading it after dark, in an ancient barn, in an area that gets a lot of wind. The ambience of deep shadows, creaking wood, and whining wind left a deep mark on my psyche and my visualization of horror.
When it comes to creepy American settings, the deep South is probably the first one thought of, with its swamps and old racial divides, its cryptids and devils. Sweltering, plagued with storms and poisonous reptiles and too many insects, the South certainly has its place in the American nightmare.
I lived in the South for a number of years, and understand why it is such a rich setting for horror–driving through the pouring rain in the early hours of the morning, the road crowded by kudzu and devoid of human life, it feels like some awful other planet, with monsters surely lurking just around the bend.
And yet it never had the sharp edges that I was used to.
I grew up in the foothills of Northern California, just outside of Sacramento. Colloquially referred to as ‘Calabama’ for its deeply conservative culture, the area has more than its share of infamous serial killers, mass murderers, and other horrors. Everyone owns multiple guns, knows at least three conspiracy theorists, and can probably tell you of at least one haunted building in their town.
My homeland is Gold Rush country, stained with vast amounts of blood, riddled with collapsing mines, and trying to reconcile a deeply independent, pioneer spirit with the growing pressures of modernization from the coast. My family came from the central part of the state, where the drunken perfume of orange blossoms warred with the rotting scent of stagnant canal water in the spring, and the pall of smoke from the heaters needed to keep the citrus trees alive blanketed the region in winter.
The California I know is a barely-tamed land, full of danger and contradiction. As a kid, growing up in the country, the cackle of coyotes and the screams of mountain lions became normal. While most people only have nightmares of monsters, I tended the deep claw-marks on my horse after a mountain lion attack and struggled with a deep paranoia of attack after a couple of joggers were attacked by the huge cats. Rattlesnakes were a common fear, too, nesting beneath rocks and in brush piles, while coyotes would lure dogs out to kill. And, if that wasn’t enough, the biggest economy of the area was drugs. Between meth labs and Mexican/South American cartels, it was wise to learn the signs of a place you should avoid at all costs. When I was a kid, some transients shot the neighboring ranch’s foreman in the back of the head and stuffed him down a well because he tried to chase them off the land. The local ranchers rode with guns on their saddles after that.
When I was 18 months old, my family got caught in the mountains by an early snowstorm. Miles from their vehicles or civilization, they had to finish the hike to get back to safety. We regularly went to Death Valley, too, where you can suffer heat stroke in the day and freeze to death at night. People die there every year because they didn’t bring enough water or shelter or common sense. Go west, to the northern coast, and it’s riptides, sharks, and treacherous cliffs.
The landscape of horror, to me, is barren, rather than lush, filled with the babble of coyotes and the whining wind rather than the sound of rain. Hungry oceans, mines full of restless ghosts, and forests of poison oak, manzanita, and crumbling oaks.
It was this background that inspired my current project, Strange California. Jason Batt and I were talking about our backgrounds in California–I was a native who moved away for a while, he was a transplant–and our fascination with the endless weirdness and wild spirit of the state. We both had dozens of stories, and it got us to thinking about the contributions California has made to science fiction, from Bradbury to Robinson, and its inevitable contributions to its future, as well.
The stories we got introduced me to so many new elements of my state’s culture and history, and rekindled my fascination with it. Tales of Russian sisters outwitting trickster magpies, Mexican girls facing off with Spanish witches in the orange groves, surfers chasing a transformation on the waves, Gold Rush ghosts, and magical rollercoasters are just the beginning.
I may have cut my teeth on traditional fantasy, but it was California that gave shape to my voice and dreams, and I owe it a debt for shaping so much of the science fiction and fantasy that I love.
About the Author
Jaym Gates is an author, editor, and publicist. Her anthologies include War Stories, Genius Loci, Upside Down, Broken Time Blues, and more. She recently Kickstarted Strange California: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jasonbatt/strange-california-a-speculative-fiction-anthology