Childhood terrors spark the dark heart of Vancouver’s Michael Slade

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, OCT. 16, 2003

By Steve Newton

The first story I ever wrote for Fangoria was a profile of Vancouver criminal lawyer-turned-horror author Jay Clarke (aka Michael Slade), who’d won me over with his 1984 debut novel, Headhunter. Over the years we’ve become horror-lovin’ buds, going to the odd scary movie and rock show together. Here’s a story I did on him just after he’d released his 10th novel, Bed of Nails.

Jay Clarke is the kid in the candy store. He’s standing at the far end of Granville Mall’s Golden Age Collectibles, gazing into the locked glass case that holds dozens of comic-book figurines. “My God, is that Plastic Man at the back there?” he blurts out. “I think it is! And look at the Green Goblin—that’s pretty cool.”

We’re pretending it’s Christmas, and the 56-year-old Clarke gets to pick any one action statuette to take home. He can’t decide for sure until his roaming eyes fall on the slimy-jawed creature from Alien, viciously bursting from a space pod. “That’s the one I’d take,” he concludes, but of course there could be no other choice for the driving force behind the series of horrifying Michael Slade “psycho-thrillers”.

Since the first Slade novel, 1985’s Headhunter, the pseudonym has actually stood for various teams of writers. For the last three books—including his latest, Bed of Nails (Penguin Canada, $35)— it has been Clarke and his 25-year-old daughter Rebecca, for whom he dropped “500 big ones” in this very store to purchase the boxed set of the complete Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror comic-book reprints.

But the dark heart of Slade beats strongest in the elder Clarke, and has ever since, at the age of six and in the feverish throes of a bad flu, he came upon a men’s magazine in a Winnipeg drugstore. The lurid cover portrayed decapitated heads of South American Indians stuck on poles mounted in dugout canoes, and young Jay was transfixed.

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“I was hallucinating,” he recalls after hunkering down with a decaf at a nearby java joint. “I thought I was sitting in the boat about to have my head hacked off. And my dad came and turned the cover around and said, ‘Look, that’s how you deal with horror. If it ever gets too intense you just turn it off.’ ”

A few years later, after moving to Vancouver, where his father was a pilot for Trans-Canada Airlines (later Air Canada), Clarke ran into another horrifying magazine cover—done by the same artist—while venturing into the comic racks. “Because of the profound effect of the first one, this one just hypnotized me, but again, my dad turned it over. And then he just went missing.”

In the winter of ’56, Clarke’s father was piloting a DC-4 North Star from Vancouver to Calgary that slammed into the eastern face of Slesse Mountain, near Chilliwack, during a fierce storm. The crash killed all 62 aboard, including members of the Saskatchewan Roughriders football team.

“The plane went missing on December the ninth,” says Clarke, “and it wasn’t found until May. So during that period, nobody knew where it was, it was just out there somewhere. And he could have been found alive. You know, living off caribou, mountain goats, or whatever.”

Shortly after his father’s plane was lost, the young Clarke encountered a third magazine cover similar to the first two, but this time there was no one there to quell his fears. “I got all caught up in the psychology of ‘My dad’s never gonna be around again; he can’t protect me from this.’ And that’s what caused me to run out of the store.”

Nowadays, Clarke parlays the experiences of childhood terror and tragedy into graphic, unflinching novels that have been translated into eight languages. In 2001 he attended the World Horror Convention in Seattle as guest of honour, a position previously held by such bestselling scribes as Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, and Peter Straub. At that event he also took part in the keynote panel, which was titled How to Write a Horror Bestseller: Is There a Demon You Can Sell Your Soul To?

“That demon is you,” Clarke explains. “What you do is you plumb into your life, and you come up with whatever the scariest things are. Now, I don’t know, maybe your parents lost you in the woods. Maybe Uncle Charlie took you out and sexually assaulted you behind the woodpile. Maybe you drowned and had a near-death experience.

“It will be different for every single person,” he adds, “but there’ll be something in your life which you have to carry with you and you’ll carry with you till the grave.”

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