Michael Dahl, the author of the Library of Doom and Troll Hunters series, is an expert on fear. He is afraid of heights (but he still flies). He is afraid of small, enclosed spaces (but his house is crammed with over 3,000 books). He is afraid of ghosts (but that same house is haunted). He hopes that by writing about fear, he will eventually be able to overcome his own. So far it is not working. But he is afraid to stop. He claims that, if he had to, he would travel to Mount Doom in order to toss in a dangerous piece of jewelry. Even though he is afraid of volcanoes. And jewelry.
We are lucky enough to have Michael join us on this day before Halloween, to answer some questions related to our spookiest holiday, and the recent scary book he's written for Capstone, Frightmares: A Creepy Collection of Scary Stories.
Hi, Michael! Tell us, what inspires you to write scary stories? Where do you get your ideas?
I get most of my ideas from my childhood. As Flannery O’Connor once noted, anyone who survives to the age of 10 has plenty of experience to draw on for stories! My family has always loved telling scary stories, or watching spooky movies and TV shows together.
It also helps that my aunt's house was haunted by a poltergeist, in a modern Minneapolis suburb! A local police officer and his wife had lived there previously, and they had to move because the wife kept seeing the spirits and had a nervous breakdown. Other relatives (and siblings) have had experiences with ESP, visions, angels, demons, UFOs, you name it. I guess I was born into the right family!
And I get a lot of inspiration from friends and colleagues. I’m lucky to work with so many imaginative and talented people. They spur me on to think in new ways, to be more creative, to work harder and not settle for second best.
Have you ever seen a ghost or spirit?
Several times. I once saw a shadow person watching me from a partially lit alley. The shadow took a step back and totally disappeared.
I hear that you live in a haunted house. Tell us more!
When I was purchasing my house, the people selling it told me there was a ghost! The house was build 100 years ago by one of the first judges in Minneapolis. His niece, Helen, was born in the house, lived their all her life, and finally died in the house. Helen does not want to leave!
I had been in the house for only a week. One night I was upstairs, stepping out of the bathroom (which is a vulnerable position to be in during a paranormal experience), and I saw at the end of the hall, which is only 12 feet away, a dark silhouette standing in front of my bedroom door. I don’t know how to explain it but to say that it was as black as ink, yet I could still see through it. As I stood there, in the bathroom door, frozen to the spot, the figure slowly and smoothly glided into my bedroom. I slept on the sofa downstairs that night.
What are some of your biggest fears?
I have acrophobia — the fear of high places. So why am I always flying everywhere? Because I don’t want my fears to diminish my life; that would really tick me off! I have claustrophobia, a fear of guns, monkeys, raisins, and that one day I will be hit in the head by a stray golf ball while driving next to a golf course.
Are any of your stories based on real life?
A few of the stories in my scary story series, but I shouldn’t tell because the people involved might read this!
What's your favorite scary movie?
THE HAUNTING, about these two clairvoyants asked to spend the night in a haunted mansion. It’s in black and white, very atmospheric, but you never SEE the ghost. You only hear it or, in the spookiest scene, the phantom knocks on the living room door to come in! The wood bends and warps with the shape of the phantom’s hands! And this was long before CGI.
What is your favorite scary story that you've read?
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado. I was in middle school when I first read it. I was at home, alone, in broad daylight. And even though there are no ghosts, no monsters, no blood, nothing paranormal, I was freaked out! Poe’s language was like nothing I’d ever read before. Ornate, otherworldly, bizarre, complicated, serpentine. Now I can’t get enough of him.
It’s always hard to pick a favorite. It keeps changing. But right now I really like the short story "Blink", in The Voice in the Boys' Room anthology. The title came from Doctor Who, but the story came from a visit to the eye doctor’s when I was in 7th grade.
What is the hardest part about writing stories in the horror and scary story genre?
Coming up with the ending. Even though the story might have a frightening or creepy element to it, it needs to have a good, strong ending. Scary stories demand a good ending. You need to leave your reader shocked, gasping, laughing, shaken, or covered in goosebumps.
Who is your favorite author in the scary genre?
That’s tough to decide. I like Stephen King (Salem’s Lot: aiieeeehhhh!), Dave Lubar, John Bellairs (who taught English in Winona), H.P. Lovecraft, and a terrific writer from the 70s, Robert Aickman. Incredible! His stories are literate, disturbing, suspenseful, and rather tricky. Someone once called him “the weatherman of the subconscious.”
If you could meet one character from a scary story, who would it be and why?
I’d love to meet Dr. Frankenstein. He would be interesting to have dinner with, and maybe he’d even show me around his lab.
Do you have a Halloween costume picked out? If so, what is it?
I don’t. I’ve been toying with the idea of Lex Luthor, Superman’s archenemy, but I will be traveling on Halloween, so I wouldn’t be able to wear it on the plane. I’d probably end up detained by security.
Thank you, Michael, and Happy Halloween!
— Eliza Leahy, Associate Editor