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Cover story

The skeleton crew

Terror under the palm trees? You might not guess it, but some of the darkest minds in scary stories live right here -- maybe even next-door.

October 28, 2004|Robert Masello | Special to The Times

Howison, 51, notable for his mane of long white hair parted in the middle and matching mustache, set about creating the perfect refuge. His store is easy enough to find at 4213 W. Burbank Blvd. (the life-size Frankenstein statue outside should help). But it's once you're inside, past the walls covered with murals of teetering tombstones and haunted houses, surrounded by the posters and book covers of classic horror titles, that you realize you have entered the inner sanctum.

Dark Del, as it has been known to its aficionados for the last 10 years, is perhaps the only "All Horror Book and Gift Store" in the United States. And it is, indisputably, the unofficial clubhouse for L.A. horror writers, the place where they can meet fans, sign books and bump into their ink-stained compatriots whenever they too happen to stumble, blinking, into the light of day.

I have met many of the most successful practitioners of terror there, including Tamara Thorne, an amateur investigator of the paranormal with an unquenchable taste for the macabre, whose many novels often twist the local landscape into strange and forbidding forms. Thorne, who lives in the shadow of Mt. Baldy, just over the San Bernardino County line, grew up well aware of the dark side of the California dream. "When I was a kid, we'd frequently drive to Griffith Park, and at the time there was a 'trash can serial killer' on the loose, who was leaving body parts neatly wrapped up in black plastic in garbage cans throughout the park. That made such an impact -- looking out the car window, experiencing a thrill of horror as we passed each can. To this day, I have a sort of Pavlovian response to trash receptacles in Griffith Park."

When she wasn't touring the park, she and her dad were visiting gloomy old hotels, like the Ambassador, or the Bradbury Building downtown, with its endless shadowy staircases, the Inglewood Mausoleum or the famed La Brea Tar Pits. "I continually wondered what got buried in those pits besides the dinosaurs," she says. "It was absolute heaven to me, spooky and titillating."

Her books tend to take place in made-up burgs on the edge of L.A. proper. The town of Santa Verde, in "Bad Things," bears a suspicious resemblance to Redlands, which too was once the weekend home of many Hollywood stars. The eponymous village of "Moonfall" is an awful lot like Oak Glen, where many Angelenos go to pick apples at this time of year. "Thunder Road" takes us to a scary high desert retreat that calls to mind the Calico Ghost Town, halfway between L.A. and Las Vegas on Interstate 15, which was restored by Walter Knott -- the man whose amusement park is turned into Knott's Scary Farm every Halloween.

"My natural mind-set is bound to Los Angeles and the Inland Empire," Thorne admits, "and in my books I like to use history and folklore from the real places."

The haunted streets

Richard Matheson, the man who terrorized us with everything from "Hell House" to "The Incredible Shrinking Man," has generally made a point of using his actual home for the setting of his stories. In the case of the vampire tale "I Am Legend" (which became the movie "The Omega Man") or "A Stir of Echoes" (which wed a murder mystery to a ghost story), that meant using Gardena.

"I even gave the right street names," Matheson says. "When I write, I have to use the actual physical environment I'm living in, or I can't keep everything straight."

Today Matheson lives in Calabasas -- in the same house, as it turns out, also inhabited by the protagonist of his suspenseful novel "What Dreams May Come."

"I describe the house as it is in this life," he says, "and as it might be in a hellish afterlife." For "Hell House," which was meant to take place in a veritable palace, a hulking monstrosity of unimaginable size and scope, he traveled to San Simeon and used Hearst Castle as his model.

But if you know what's good for you, don't ever use the word "horror" around him: "Even when I'm writing scary material," Matheson huffs, "it's not horror. Horror is blood and guts and people rotting in front of you: It's the creature exploding out of John Hurt's stomach in 'Alien.' A better word for what I do is 'terror.' Horror is visceral; terror is cerebral."

For Pete Atkins, a Los Feliz resident by way of Liverpool, England, the decision to move here was largely pragmatic. "I make most of my living from my screenplays, not my books," he confesses in a lilting accent that makes you feel you've got a Beatle on the line. "Despite all the smog and traffic, you can still catch ghostly glimpses of the paradise this place must have been a century ago."

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