The 'Rolling Darkness Revue'

The Rolling Darkness Revue is a pet project of two horror novelists in California. Glen Hirshberg and Pete Atkins have taken to the road in the weeks leading up to Halloween, joining with local authors at bookstores to entertain audiences with scary stories, spooky music and sound effects.

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The Rolling Darkness Revue employs a new spin on a very old tradition, using storytelling to build a community. But instead of sitting around a campfire, two California writers are traveling to bookstores. There they share their favorite and seasonally appropriate genre, horror stories, with local authors, musicians and readers.

From member station KUSP, Rick Kleffel reports.

RICK KLEFFEL: A synthesized overture greets the crowd, clustered in the upstairs room of Mystery and Imagination Books in Glendale, California. It's a chilly evening in early October. Horror novelist Glen Hirshberg and Pete Atkins have resurrected the practice of reading ghost stories and tales of terror to enraptured adult audiences. As the Rolling Darkness Revue, they're on their third annual tour of bookstores, driving up and down the California coast.

At each stop, explains Glen Hirshberg, they'll be joined by local writers and musicians to create a community-oriented horror storytelling experience.

Mr. GLEN HIRSHBERG (Writer): The idea was always to go and light a metaphorical campfire at the neighborhood bookstore, and then using only your voice and your words, and some manmade fog - if we could find some - and the time of year, and people's enduring hunger for this kind of entertainment, see if we could cast this particular spell, because it just seems like so much fun to us.

KLEFFEL: His partner, Pete Atkins, agrees.

Mr. PETE ATKINS (Writer): It's really about fostering that sense of community.

KLEFFEL: It's the community of readers who have come here tonight; readers who want to share the experience of hearing horror fiction read aloud.

Mr. HIRSHBERG: I crouched down, and I guess my sucky insect repellant was wearing off because there were bugs crawling up my legs. What made you think of the Eskimo, I asked? He's slapped the mosquitoes dead on my neck. I always think of the Eskimo, especially lately. He was the only one who - he was my best friend, and he never went up there unprepared. He was always careful. He knew the ice. It's been three years, and I still don't understand it.

KLEFFEL: Hirshberg and Atkins' storytelling tour this year will take them from San Diego to San Francisco and conclude in Tempe, Arizona. Their journey towards becoming the Rolling Darkness Revue began when Hirshberg attended the National Storytelling Festival.

Mr. HIRSHBERG: By far the highlight of the festival for everybody was the night - the ghost story night where everybody goes down to the river and there's a lit up pavilion and the storytellers are telling ghost stories. And I've always thought, God, if we could tap into that. It's such a great experience.

KLEFFEL: Hirshberg and Atkins have done much more than tap into his experience. They've turned it into a personal quest to bring horror fiction to eager audiences. But this isn't just fear for fear's sake. According to Dr. Leslie Ellen Jones, a professor of Folklore and Mythology Studies at UCLA, horror fiction is moral fiction intended as a tool for teaching, as well as entertainment.

Dr. LESLIE ELLEN JONES (Folklore and Mythology Studies, UCLA): There is a very distinct genre of folklore that folklorists call warning fictions, that mothers and other older people tell children so that they won't do things that are dangerous.

KLEFFEL: But the reasons we enjoy horror fiction as adults and find it so memorable are as much physiological as they are sociological. Dr. Leslie Ellen Jones.

Dr. JONES: Fear and other emotions seem to be located in the amygdala. Memories are located in the hippocampus. But when something frightening happens, both of these parts of the brain are used almost simultaneously. So the emotional, really, energy of the fear that is aroused in your brain, makes the memories much stronger and much more specific.

KLEFFEL: Often when we turned to horror fiction, we find ourselves immersed in violence. Writer Pete Atkins explains the appeal.

Mr. ATKINS: People want to read about violence. It's a lot easier than having it practiced upon you, or practicing it upon others. People want to read about (unintelligible). We want to know what colors are inside us, and we don't want to have to slice ourselves open to find out.

KLEFFEL: But Glen Hirshberg says that the stories you'll hear at the Rolling Darkness Revue are not limited to tales of gore and violence.

Mr. HIRSHBERG: What you're really holding onto is this fundamental sense that wonder and mystery are a joyful part of living. And that they're part of the rich experience of being alive, and fear goes with those things.

KLEFFEL: Pete Atkins expands on this idea.

Mr. ATKINS: We are drawn to this stuff because we don't want to believe this is all there is. Now, there are other methods by which people can get to places where they realize this isn't all there is.

Mr. HIRSHBERG: Probably healthier ones.

Mr. ATKINS: Probably healthier ones, but not necessarily as much fun or as messy.

KLEFFEL: This is metaphysics for the masses, a re-enactment of a sacred rite on a Saturday night.

Mr. ATKINS: She turned to him and smiled a heartbreaking smile of farewell. She looked beautiful in monochrome, in the subtle tones of the moon that had claimed her for its own. Not drained of color, but richly re-imagined, painted in shades of silver, and gray, and black, and delicate lunar blue...

KLEFFEL: The ancient rite, the art of storytelling, continues through the ages and wears different faces. Tales told around a Neolithic campfire and in the confines of a suburban bookstore serve the same purpose: to bind us, to take us through fear to that place where we find ourselves listening to a story.

(Soundbite of applause)

KLEFFEL: For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.

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