THE MACABRE MOTHER : After Her First Horror Novel, Who Knows What Evil Still Lurks in Cheery Author's Imagination?

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Waters so cold, im so cold . . . a long way out now, i can rest, put my face down and take a long deep breath, let my lungs fill up . . .

Mitch opened her eyes, heart hammering, tasting brine. A suicide, somewhere off Crystal Cove. Nothing she could do. Nothing.

More impressions rushed in. A baby stillborn at Hoag, a pickup overturned on Crown Valley with an old man and his dog in back . . . that other thing . . . out there in the darkness . . .

So what's a nice person like Maxine O'Callaghan doing writing creepy stuff like that?

"That's my favorite line," she said with a little explosion of laughter. "But some of the nicest people I know write this stuff. I find that horror writers have a marvelous sense of humor. They're much less stodgy than, say, mystery writers. Horror writers are so off-the-wall. They're very, very imaginative people."

But can you qualify as truly off-the-wall when you're the mother of two, live in a tract house in Mission Viejo, raise orchids in the back yard and became a grandmother just a few months ago?

Use this as a yardstick:

She woke up the next time because something tickled her cheek. Lizzie, playing games. No, God, no, of course not Lizzie. Something crawling . . .

Wide awake, she screamed and jerked her arm down, bringing an avalanche. The movement set off explosions of pain in her broken arm, her leg, her bruised ribs; her head throbbed violently, but all she could think of was that slithery, crawly something inching its way down her face.

It helps the image along a bit to know that the woman in this scene is trying desperately to crawl out of a grave after being buried alive by a deranged murderer and is suddenly faced with the paralyzing fear of being eaten alive by worms.

The scene is from O'Callaghan's first horror novel, "The Bogeyman," published 1 1/2 years ago. It raised enough goose bumps among her colleagues in the National Horror Writers of America to prompt them to recommend the book for the group's Bram Stoker Award for best horror novel of the year.

Even though the book didn't make the final cut in the award nominations, its success prompted O'Callaghan to write another spooker, "Dark Visions," (excerpted at the top of this story) which is set in the county and scheduled to be released in early June. And, O'Callaghan said, it's stranger and bloodier than her previous offering.

"It's about a clairvoyant woman who moves from Memphis (Tenn.) to Laguna Beach," she said, "and everyone who dies in the area, she experiences their deaths while she's asleep, actually lives their deaths. And she lives the death of a woman she knows has been murdered."

She smiled with a mixture of bemusement and delight. "Is that gruesome or what?"

It seems all the more bizarre coming from a woman as sunny as O'Callaghan. Still, a quick examination of her publishing background makes things seem a bit more logical.

Before "The Bogeyman," O'Callaghan was best known for her pair of detective novels, "Death Is Forever" and "Run From Nightmare," both starring the hard-boiled Orange County private eye Delilah West. While she was waiting to buy back the rights to a third Delilah West book, she took a chance on a romance novel, "Dangerous Charade," written under the pseudonym Marrissa Owens. The publisher bought the book after looking at the first 20 pages, O'Callaghan said, "so I was stuck doing the rest of it."

She said she didn't like writing to the romance genre formula, but one thing, at least, made "Dangerous Charade" more palatable: The heroine is a detective.

"I'm really grounded in writing mysteries," she said, "but I've always been interested in doing a lot of different kinds of books. Some people do one kind of book and get successful at it and end up doing just that."

So, for the sake of variety--and with the help of a newspaper clipping--she dreamed up a chilling little girl's world that is haunted by visions of a hideous "bogeyman," visions that eventually become ghastly and all too real to the girl's mother.

"I didn't sit down and say, 'I'm going to write a horror novel today,' but I had seen this story, I think it was in a Florida paper, about this woman being buried alive," O'Callaghan said.

"The woman ended up with amnesia and couldn't remember how it happened, but it really stuck in my mind. It seemed so terrible."

"The Bogeyman" radiated out from that idea, she said, in which a real-life phantom kidnaps Lizzie, the little girl, and buries her mother alive.

A friend remarked that the clairvoyant woman in "Dark Visions" was "like Lizzie grown up," O'Callaghan said.

There is a similarity between the two books, she said, in that she considers both to be less horror stories than "psychological terror. Horror is very hard to pin down. It's really in the eye of the beholder.

"I went to a writing seminar where they were talking about horror, and they said it was a step up from suspense, into anxiety and terror. It isn't necessarily monsters or devils or the occult. 'Psycho' was a horror movie, and I think 'Fatal Attraction' is too."

Like many writers, O'Callaghan said she has trouble pinpointing the source of her ideas; she simply knows that they're out there in the ether, ready to be plucked and nourished.

"It's probably the most difficult question to answer," she said. "Half the time I think I don't know where they come from. You pick up things here and there from many sources, bits and pieces of ideas. God knows there's plenty of horror on the nightly news.

"But sometimes you think of something and you wonder, 'Geez, where did that come from?' "

Sometimes, she said, putting gruesome ideas on paper, plunging her heroines into terrible trouble, can unsettle her.

"When I was writing about Joanna being buried alive," she said, "it was like climbing down into the grave with this woman. Writing like that doesn't come easy, and I would be a little bit afraid for myself if it did."

She is collaborating with her son, a film projectionist, on three screenplays, one of them an adaptation of "The Bogeyman." The other two, she said, are "a post-nuclear holocaust action-adventure film and a police drama."

And she is working on a new horror novel "set in, of all places, Arkansas. I've never seen it done" in that locale.

She also wants to write a thriller set in Arizona, the home state of her daughter, who is a professional violist.

Writing with county locales, however, is O'Callaghan's meat and potatoes: "Orange County has suddenly become a kind of an 'in' place for writers to set their books, in particular because of 'Laguna Heat,' " T. Jefferson Parker's best-selling novel, set in Laguna Beach.

"And there are a lot more writers here who are being recognized. I think if this keeps going, there's going to be national recognition. We're going to have a core of writers here who will be recognized as being separate from writers from L.A.

"At least now editors don't call up anymore and ask you dumb questions about the locale. In fact, when I was writing the Delilah West series, I wanted to take her to Hawaii, but my editor said, 'Don't do this. Keep her in Orange County. People are interested in what's there.' "

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