A Portrait of the Horror Writer as a Teen

My entire adult writing life has been about writing adult horror. Creepy, atmospheric locations to set the tone. Plenty of blood and gore, as the story allows. Strange and unusual twists to set the reader off-kilter. it’s what I like to read, and what I love to write.

But it hasn’t always been that way. I had to start somewhere, and that somewhere was in a high school English class.

Okay, so I wrote short stories before then (though I’m not sure my story about a talent show for aliens back in 7th grade would make the cut), but it was an assignment in one of my high school English classes that had a big influence on me.

Our teacher introduced us to a book called The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by  Chris Van Allsburg.


If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a picture book with intriguing illustrations, each accompanied by a title and one-line blurb. In class, we were each handed a random photocopy of one of the images and instructed to write a story.

I ended up with “Mr. Linden’s Library” and wrote a fantastical tale about a lost world, intricate vine tattoos, and a pair of middle schoolers with a unique connection. Even though it was more fantasy than horror, it definitely whetted my appetite for telling tales that, I hope, make my readers just as curious and enthralled.


He had warned her about the book.
Now it was too late.

The funny thing is…the current book I’m revising is about tattoos too, which is what made me think of that class assignment and how we can sometimes be inspired by the smallest tidbit of conversation, a random encounter with someone or even just by an interesting image that piques our curiosity. How those formative influences can start as a seed in our early writing lives and continue as we grow and explore.

I liked the process so much that I also wrote stories inspired by “The Harp” and “The Third-Floor Bedroom”.

Heck, even Stephen King has written his own tale  inspired by “The House on Maple Street” illustration, which you can find in his most excellent collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes.

If you haven’t seen this cool book, I encourage you to grab a copy or seek it out at your local library. There’s also a collection of stories inspired by the illustrations called The Chronicles of Harris Burdick (though Stephen King’s tale is not included in the collection).

Now you know! Sometimes, we authors are inspired in the most peculiar ways! And whether you write horror or fantasy, MG, Adult or some other genre, you can still make your stories creepy-cool!


  • Faith McKay
    April 16, 2017

    I love this post, Mary! I feel like I know you better now. <3

  • Amelinda Berube
    April 20, 2017

    OH MY GOD I remember that illustration! I think I was given a similar writing exercise at one point. Going to go buy that book now!

    • Mary Rajotte
      Amelinda Berube
      April 21, 2017

      That’s cool! I think it was a popular thing in English classes. I for one loved it! If you do pick up the book, I hope it inspires you to write something, too!

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