Twenty-five years ago this week, I was plotting the death of my best friend. It was a difficult thing to do. It took me three tries across two months before I had the final solution. His mother, his brother and at least half a dozen denizens of Helen Keller Junior High School fell victim to my number two pencil as I wrapped up the final draft of A Note of Hunger. That short story about a boy and his man-eating trumpet (yes, you read that right) holds a special place in my heart. Reading it back a quarter of a century later, I have to say it’s a bit heavy handed, but not bad for a thirteen year old budding horror writer.
My friend Dave actually did play trumpet in the band. Unlike almost all the other students, he owned his trumpet rather than rent. The trumpet was old and a bit beat up. It obviously had a history and my fevered imagination provided it one (I’m assuming here) that was more interesting than its real one. I joked about his man-eating trumpet as we drove home on the bus together and finally decided to try and write down my ideas.
How does a trumpet become a man-eater? You just don’t expect that kind of behavior from brass instruments. I had just read Night Shift, a book of short stories by Stephen King. The Mangler was one of my favorites. It told the tale of a piece of laundry equipment that – through a rather unlikely set of circumstances – comes to life. My feeling was if a multi-ton, steam powered ironing machine could pull itself from its concrete moorings and rampage through town, how difficult could it be to awaken a trumpet’s desire for blood and revenge? Well, it turned to be quite difficult to understand the trumpet’s motivation. The other challenge was to keep the human characters in the dark about the trumpet’s true nature. It couldn’t just eat Dave on page two; there would be no page three. I was stumped for weeks. I remember finally having an epiphany in the early evening right after Daylight Savings Time ended. It solved almost all of the problems I had with the story: the trumpet would only come to life when someone played “Taps”. From there, the rest of the story came very quickly.
There was one aspect I never even tried to write about: how does a trumpet eat someone exactly? I’m sure Stephen King would have been up to the challenge, but I cheated. The trumpet tends to pick its victims when they are alone and at the moment of truth, the writing cuts away abruptly. Interestingly enough, it never seemed to be an issue. The writing seemed to flow and no one ever questioned me on the logistics of the situation. I guess the details were best left to the imagination. I do remember thinking about the story in cinematic terms. I had been saving up my allowance at that point for about a year and a half and was about four months away from buying my first video camera. I had an idea that A Note of Hunger could be made into a movie. Dave and I actually shot a trailer for it in my garage in the spring of 1984. I was realistic enough to know Hollywood might be able to spend millions on some special effects trumpet that would realistically consume a person, but I wasn’t going to be able to do that on my allowance.
In my original draft, the characters were named after people I knew in school. In the second draft I changed everyone’s name. I remember looking in the phone book for likely last names. However, in the third draft, the real names were back in. While the characters in the story really don’t match the real people in their behavior, I felt the real names made everything more believable. I continued to add a little “reality seasoning” to almost all of my fiction, even when the story itself could only be taken with a grain of salt.
In high school, I worked on a sequel to A Note of Hunger. The malevolent spirit of the original trumpet was able to detach itself and spread from band member to band member like a social disease. The main character worked to trap the spirit back in the metal as the “possessed” band members did their best to do him in. I have yet to find a draft of Tones of Death in my basement archives, but I think I might spend some winter afternoon rummaging through my yellowing spiral notebooks and crumpled typing paper. It’s been at least twenty years since I worked on it and – frankly – I’m curious as to how it ends.