If I could write a scary story as perfect as Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," I could die happy.
Poe is at his most brilliant: Niter drips. Damp oozes. Dark seeps. Webs gleam amid flickering flambeaux.
And murder lurks. That final dank hole in which Fortunato's bells jingle their last? Perfection!
How did he do it?
"Poe was on drugs, so he hallucinated a lot," said my friend Ron Ross.
Ron, star of "Engineer Ron" (my favorite childhood TV show), former Ballet West dancer and much, much more, is an aficionado of horror. His voice is a vibrant mix of high and low notes, trained to quiver and wail on command. When Ron says "Woooooooo!" in a dark alley, the hairs on your neck rise.
Ron is a huge fan of Poe, Bradbury and Lovecraft. In homage to their genius, Ron writes a spooky Halloween ditty every year that he leaves on friends' answering machines.
How does he write them?
"First of all, you have to have the vocabulary," he said. "Which means you're going to read a lot of H.P. Lovecraft and Poe."
Words like dank, dreary, chilled, crying, keening and wailing are your friends.
"When I wrote this," Ron said, brandishing his paper, "I thought of a keening wind. What's keening? It's biting, slicing.
" 'The full moon shudders,'" he read. "Now, full moons don't shudder. But I was looking for something with trepidation."
About those words: "You don't read them silently," Ron said. "Read them out loud because you feel the words and you get the sound of them.
"Speaking is a combined act of the entire body. And you read these with a dictionary, because you have to understand what the word means when you say it. Then you can say the word 'ghoul,'" and he simply said it, flat and bland.
"Or you can say 'GHOUUUUL!' " in a long, drawn-out wail. "Then you say what the word is like."
What to write about?
Kill someone, of course. Or scare them to death. That's the easy part.
The hard part is scaring or killing them in a way that sends your listener or reader hiding under the bed. Poe almost sliced a guy in half in "The Pit and the Pendulum," but anyone can slice a guy's gut. The terror is in the dank pit with creeping rats amid ominous, dark, clanking unseen noises and that blade -- "Woosh!" -- an inch closer on each pass.
Evil basks in transitions. Look for uncertain weather, anticipatory darkness. The reader must never know which way to run. Ray Bradbury set "Something Wicked This Way Comes" in October because October is neither summer nor winter, hot nor cold, day nor night.
Ron recites and writes. Recites and writes. Again and again.
If your phone rings tomorrow and nobody answers, this is what you may hear. Be sure to turn down the lights:
"When a keening wind unfolds darkness within darkness, and the full moon shudders past witches zooming, zooming, joyously dancing, whisking above flaring arched-back black cats: BEWARE!
"Beware of ghouls shuddering astride gravestones while emerging from a year's moldering rest.
"Beware of streets with few lights and long black shadows where spirits linger. Where did the dark night begin -- with ancient mummies? Perhaps a Druid priest, or a gargoyle of France?
"In Mexico with El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead?
"It's all Hallow's Eve, when troops of strangely costumed children beg for treats. Be ready and ...