How a nerdy teenage obsession can help you write literary fiction
I’m very much a method writer. When I experience any extreme emotion, whether it be grief or anger or happiness, the lizard-like part of my writer-brain crawls out. Good, good. Take notes. Write down what it feels like to have the snots of sadness run out of your nose or quakes of anger tremble through your fist.
Point being, even sucky experiences can be positives because everything winds up on the cutting room floor of the creative mind.
So when I first thought about incorporating Weird N.J. elements into a short story, it not only made sense to flip through a dog-eared Weird N.J. magazine. I needed to. I needed to conjure the person I had been while reading it. That bespectacled, greasy-haired, quiet teenager, also often described as ‘weird.’
Yes, talk about scraps on the cutting room floor. I had wanted to leave that lonely person I used to be down there, forgotten. It was excruciating, putting myself back in those pathetic, worn out shoes to write a similar character.
Let me put it this way. I was not a teen to be envied. Even with my newly minted driver’s license, it was hard to firmly attach myself to a social group. That is until I found Mark Scheurman’s and Mark Moran’s combination of a roadmap and bible. Weird N.J. became both an itinerary and a religion.
But above all, it provided a sense of belonging and purpose which had been lacking in my life. Suddenly, that driver’s license was worth its minuscule weight in ectoplasm since I could transport similarly ‘weird’ minded people to the Zombie Mansions or Devil Trees. Because one thing was certain. You didn’t go to these places alone.
So, much like the bonds forged in the trenches of war, Weird N.J. pulled me closer and faster to this newfound friend group than any amount of microwave-able-snack-scarfing or video-game-playing ever could. We didn’t know if we’d be chased off the property of an abandoned slaughterhouse by a demon horse, or more realistically terrifying, the cops. We didn’t know if the horror we’d find would be supernatural. Or banal, like tetanus and ticks.
Community is something every person needs in order to grow, and it just so happens that I’ve got Weird N.J. to thank for mine. Because, for once, I wasn’t the only one attracted to or classified as ‘weird.’ There was something rooted in all of us juvenile explorers. A need for urban-spelunking. Or a need to speculate in the beyond and breathe in the past that colored these sites so vividly. Or to just be cool, on our own terms, for once.
Weird N.J. was also a source of empowerment. I realized ‘weird’ was just another word for the unconventional. The interesting. Suddenly, that deprecating term which had haunted me since the fourth grade had an edgy richness. There was something fascinating about the places I read about, the places I could be at. I too, could explore ghost-ridden graveyards and Cold War era tunnels. I too, could be a badass. As long as I had the wingmen and women to come with me.
With every boarded-up mental hospital we stepped into, with every leaf-strewn, witch-haunted wood, we gained confidence. I found I didn’t care if the girl sitting next to me in class had perfect skin or a perfect body or a perfect pink life. She hadn’t conquered the terrors of the infamous Marlboro Slaughterhouse. She hadn’t survived the waters of Round Valley Reservoir. She could never do what I did. Her friends would never risk life, limb, and sanity, let alone confrontation with the homeless, to go where I went on a Friday night.
And sure, Weird N.J. had some history, but it made the vegetables of nonfiction taste good. Horror often needs history, and Weird N.J. supplied us with an already written and vetted backstory, another sense of connection. We were free to live out whatever adventures and sometimes, horrific conclusions—damn you, rusty nails!—were waiting for us in such a thrilling place as our own backyard, the dubiously named Garden State.
All this material wound up on my mental cutting room floor, material that still obviously haunts me—oops, I mean, is useful—today. And all these adventures put me on the cracked-gravel path to my current self, resulting in the much more confident, better groomed, (although still sometimes bespectacled) person I am today. So thank you, Weird N.J. I owe you a lot.
But you owe me a tetanus shot.
“Roser and the Guide to the Inexplicable” by Samantha Pilecki is one of several stories in First Came Fear: New Tales of Horror, available now in paperback and ebook.
Samantha Pilecki works as a librarian and therefore has typical librarian interests, namely caring for rats, collecting dead bugs, and smoking cigars. Her work has appeared in El Portal, The Fable Online, A Prick of the Spindle, Typehouse, and other literary magazines.