Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.

SIGN UP FOR SNEAK PEEKS OF MY NEXT BOOK + NEWSLETTER-ONLY UPDATES.

Send in the killer clowns

I wonder whose brilliant idea it was to have clowns entertain children. Is there a child alive who actually likes them?

Clowns have always made me uncomfortable (as have mascots, but that’s a different story). When I was little, I’d cry if one got too close to me.

When I heard about John Wayne Gacy, I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised. Of course a serial killer who preyed on young people would dress as a clown.

pennywiseI’ve often wondered if Stephen King was thinking of Gacy when he wrote IT, featuring the terrifying clown Pennywise. I suspect Gacy has inspired many horror stories – the man was a serial-killing clown politician. Can’t get much scarier than that.

Gacy started molesting young men in Illinois when he was twenty-five. In 1967, he spent some time in prison for his first offence, but this barely slowed him down. A year later, he was again charged with sexually assaulting a teenage boy.

Like other killers before him, he soon figured out that the best way to satisfy his depraved urges and stay out of jail was to get rid of the witnesses. His contracting company gave him access to a seemingly endless supply of young men, and he continued to put on a happy face while he abused and murdered them. He was a successful politician, a prominent member of the Jaycees, and even posed for a picture with First Lady Rosalynn Carter in 1978.

Rob Piest

A brilliant sociopath, Gacy didn’t arouse many suspicions until he got a little too comfortable. Still in ’78, Gacy was chatting with the owner of a pharmacy in Des Plaines when he mentioned he hired teenage boys. Fifteen-year-old Robert Piest overheard, and rushed out to tell his mother–who was waiting to drive him home–that someone wanted to talk to him about a contracting job.

“I’ll be right back,” he promised. It was her forty-sixth birthday, and she’d delayed her party until her son was finished work.

She never saw him again.

This time Gacy had gone too far. Robert’s co-workers were able to tell police who had last been seen with the missing boy. It didn’t take much digging for the investigators to discover two of Gacy’s young employees had also disappeared, or that he’d been convicted of assaulting and sodomizing other teenagers. As the net tightened around the serial killer, he continued to joke and laugh with the police officers, once telling them, “You know…a clown can get away with murder.”

Not this clown. Not anymore.

As the police investigation resulted in more and more evidence, Gacy’s home was searched. An officer who used the killer’s bathroom detected the distinctive aroma of rotting flesh coming from the heating ducts. Gacy eventually confessed, showing police where the bodies were hidden. He is believed to have murdered at least thirty-three young men, twenty-six of whom were buried in his crawl space.

Gacy learned to paint during his fourteen years on death row, creating masterpieces that resemble Stephen King’s worst nightmares. Some people purchased his paintings just to burn them.

Gacy's masterpieces

Gacy’s masterpieces

The portly killer was finally executed by lethal injection on May 10, 1994.

His final words?

“Kiss my ass.”

If clowns are your scare of choice, you’ll love L.L. Soares and G. Daniel Gunn’s Nightmares in Greasepaint, which is part of the Childhood Fears collection. I’ve seen a few reviewers guess at how Soares and Gunn worked together to co-write such a creepy novella–since the book is told from two points of view, the common assumption was that each author took charge of one. The truth is far more interesting.

L.L. SOARES: Dan Keohane (aka G. Daniel Gunn) and I have had pretty good luck working together.  Our first collaboration, the short story “Mermaids,” was in Cemetery Dance (the first time either one of us were in that magazine).

When I first met Dan at a convention in 2000, we hit it off right nightmare-in-greasepaintaway, and when we talked about what we were working on, he mentioned a story he called Billy and the Clown that he was having fun with but hadn’t finished. In subsequent years, I’d ask him how Billy was doing, and if I could read it, but the story always seemed to get pushed onto the back burner. Never finished. So around 2008 I said to him, “Hey, if you can’t finish the story, send it to me and I’ll finish it.” So he did. Originally, it was a short story that took place in the course of one scary evening, as a father, wife and son were terrorized by a supernatural clown. But, working together, we expanded on it, gave all the characters a backstory, defined more clearly who the clown was and what his powers were, introduced the mythology of a mysterious amulet, gave it a new title, and had it all culminate in that spooky night when the clown comes back to his family home.

G. DANIEL GUNN: I wrote the original story in late `80’s and it was my very first horror piece, what got me hooked on writing horror in the first place. I had worked on it and worked on it, and then it was stuffed in a file drawer for ten years until I met Lauran (L.L. Soares) at Necon. At that point it was a fond memory of my earlier writing days. But the guy kept bugging me. Somehow he knew just from the description that it was something he could have fun with. So he gets a printed (no disk copy) copy, scans it in and a while later I get it back with five thousand new words and a complete back story for the clown and father. Well, after back and forth between us for another two years and 14,000 more words (!) , we had Nightmare in Greasepaint. I’m really happy with how it came out.

L.L. SOARES: Me, too.

***

If you’re interested in getting your own copy of Childhood Fears, which includes the story Nightmare in Greasepaint, it’s available at all online retailers, including  iTunesBarnes & NobleKobo, and Amazon.

1 part newsletter, 1 part unnerving updates,
2 parts sneak peeks of new projects.

32 Comments

  1. This story is just chilling.

    I wasn’t particularly scared of clowns as a kid, but I didn’t necessarily like them either. But after reading King’s IT? Forget it.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Madeline. I always try to avoid clowns whenever possible!

      Reply
  2. That real-life story is a horror! That is not human…

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome back, Shadow! Glad you returned.

      And yes, Gacy definitely represents the dark side of humanity.

      Reply
  3. I had to study up on serial killers this month, but this story slipped under my radar. Yikes! Never did like clowns. Like them even less now.

    Reply
    • JH

      Ooh, that sounds like an interesting research project. Now I’ve added another one to your list. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting, Crystal!

      Reply
      • Thanks for traumatizing me further. 😉 This was a fascinating read.

        Reply
        • JH

          Thanks! I’m glad you…um, enjoyed it. 😉

          Reply
  4. John Wayne Gracy was always a serial killer I thought was interesting because of the fact he dressed up as a clown. It’s such a contrast, but also at times cliche.

    Reply
    • JH

      Perhaps he started the cliche…

      Reply
    • JH

      Alex! You popped by on your holiday–that’s awesome.

      Yes, he definitely was.

      Reply
  5. I’ve never liked clowns and I grew up in Detroit where ‘Milky the Clown’ was a daily staple. Enough to make me want to not drink milk. Clowns are just creepy.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yikes, Milky the Clown? Haven’t heard of that one. Sounds creepy.

      I don’t get why clowns are ever used for anything except distracting ferocious bulls.

      Reply
  6. Clowns are weird. I never really got into them nor did I find them scary but they are used to great effect in horror books and movies. I hate that Gacy has the first 2 names after one of my favourite actors. Gacy is plain evil and his pictures are as well. Actually there was an excellent mini-series done about this SOB starring Brain Dennehy. I will never forget a scene where Dennehy’s character zones out as he looks at a young boy and then tells him to get the hell out. Dennehy played that brilliantly. It was very eerie.

    Reply
    • JH

      I remember than mini-series, Birgit! It was great, and Dennehy did an awesome job. So many of the older true-crime mini-series were fantastic. I loved The Deliberate Stranger too.

      Reply
  7. I didn’t know he dressed as a clown! That’s spooky. And I wonder if the fear of clowns started with him. Soon evil clowns were appearing in fiction and new generations were terrified. But I’ve known kids who are terrified of clowns, and those kids wouldn’t know clowns have been murderers in fiction.

    Reply
    • JH

      Clowns are just creepy in general! I’m so excited I was able to share a fact about Gacy that was new to you, as I know you’re very interested in this stuff as well.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  8. I’ve never been really disturbed by clowns for any reason (except the intentionally spooky/scary looking ones but, come on, that’s intentional) however Gacy has always been one of those individuals that made my skin crawl. I couldn’t even tell you WHAT stands out about him. It’s just every article and little memento I’ve seen from Gacy set off instant alarm bells in my head.

    Reply
    • JH

      He was a very disturbing man. I think the fact that he was able to “pass” as an upstanding member of society for so long is what really unnerves us. I once read an account of a teenager who interviewed Gacy in prison. Gacy wrapped his hands around the kid’s throat and said something like, “I could kill you before anyone could stop me.”

      Reply
  9. I’m not afraid of clowns but killer clowns are super creepy.

    Those are some epic final words.

    Gacy was a truly horrible human being.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, he definitely was. I thought his final words really expressed his personality.

      Reply
  10. Gacy was certainly one of the most prolific and bold serial killers in the US. I’ve never quite understood the fear of clowns, but I recognize it’s prevalence. In fact, my upcoming novel features a killer clown, hiding in an Eastern European traveling circus and preying on children. Fun times! LOL!

    Reply
    • JH

      Ooh, creepy! Sounds like a scary book.

      Reply
  11. Great story – I remember this guy and all the hype that went with his exploits. No wonder people are terrified of clowns.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, JWG certainly didn’t help matters!

      Thanks for commenting, Christine.

      Reply
  12. This is just about as creepy as it gets, and as to clowns…No. Do not bring in the clowns!

    Reply
    • JH

      Well, maybe just for Halloween? Then they can zoom off into the night in their clown cars.

      Reply
    • JH

      Paranormal scares with puzzles? Not sure I’ve heard of that combination before. Can you give me an example?

      Reply
  13. Clowns don’t really freak me out, although they are a bit creepy. Gacy as a person, on the other hand…

    Reply
    • JH

      He was terrifying, especially the fact that he was able to “pass” as one of us for so long.

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *