Beverly K. Sheline
August 9, 1947 – January 10, 2015
Miss Beverly Sheline was an English teacher at my high school. She taught my first creative writing class. I was fourteen, still painfully shy, and a serious bookworm. Now most writers read voraciously when they’re younger, but I was still using books to hide from the social anxiety of dealing with too many other people. By the next year I’d begin to force myself to break the prison of my shyness by joining speech team and drama, but that year I was still very much letting books be my shelter. I mean, if you’re reading people are much less likely to try and talk to you, so you don’t have to worry about talking to them. I was still very much in hiding, and only decided that summer that I wanted to be a writer, but not just a writer, I wanted to write horror, dark fantasy, and heroic fantasy. I was this shy kid from the middle of Indiana farm country that had decided she would be a horror writer as her profession. Can you imagine how badly that could have gone if I’d gotten the wrong teacher at the very beginning? But Miss Sheline was very much the right teacher.
She let her students write whatever type of story they wanted without judging the worth of the topic. I would get a lot of judgement on the fact that I wrote genre fiction in college, but in that first precious class there was no judgement, no classifying of one type of story being morally superior to another. That was a gift, to just let her students fly and be who they were as writers, a gift that far too many creative writing classes don’t give their students.
I’d been writing since I was twelve but had only finished a story beginning to end that summer. It was a horror story, a mystery and slasher flick really, because everyone died horribly except for the baby who crawled away into the woods with the implication she would starve to death with no one to care for her. My Uncle Monk, who I think was the only one I gave it to for reading, did the best thing possible. He patted me on the head, said it was good, and didn’t get all freaked out that I was writing about torture and dismemberment. It was the best reaction he could have given, I think. The year I was thirteen- fourteen was a very big turning point for me creatively. I discovered Robert E. Howard’s short story collection, Pigeons from Hell, which solidified what kind of writer I wanted to be and I’ve never wavered from that decision. It led me to find other horror authors to read including Stephen King and Anne Rice, which would both influence my own writing, especially Salem’s Lot and Interview with the Vampire.
I wrote my very first vampire story for Miss Sheline’s class. I’d grown up watching the old Hammer vampire films, had read Salem’s Lot, Interview with the Vampire, and I think all that helped me be ready to write that first story. The other ingredient was a friend I rode the school bus with let me have the cover off her Teen Beat magazine. It was a picture of Parker Stephenson who played one of the Hardy Boys on the then TV show. Yes, I had a crush on him, but it was the image, not the crush, that made me want the picture. I couldn’t explain it to my friend, but I knew it was important for me. I told her I’d use it in a story, she was dubious, but she let me have it, making me promise to show her the story afterwards.
I used that picture to base my first master vampire on, but the main character of the story was a petite, black-haired vampire herself who had made friends with a human girl that the charming but evil vampire had seduced and killed. The main character used a crossbow to kill the other vampire and avenge her friend. I no longer have a copy of that story, but I remember it in startling detail all these years later, and yes the first shape of Anita was in that main character. The vampire loosely based on Parker Stephenson’s picture never showed up in my stories again; strangely dead is dead for me with characters.
It never occurred to me that Miss Sheline might be disturbed by my subject matter. It would only be years later that I realized how differently it could have gone, but instead she read it, gave it an A, and said, “You scared me.”
I’d scared a grown up! I’d scared a teacher! That was heady stuff and just the kind of ego boost that I needed to keep me going forward with my dream.
I learned just two days ago that Miss Beverly Sheline died of cancer recently. She is being laid to rest today and family and friends are gathering to say goodbye. If I’d been thinking more clearly I would have sent flowers, but it hit me strangely harder than I thought it would, and I didn’t think about flowers, I thought about writing. I thought I would write about the teacher who helped start me on my way to being a writer. There were other teachers at Oak Hill High School that were influential on me as a writer and a person, but I’ll save those stories for another day. Today is about Miss Sheline. I did tell her, and say in my very first newspaper interview which was for the local paper where I grew up, how much she had helped me. She read the interview and she and several teachers that I’d mentioned came out to the signing at the local mall. I’m doubly glad she knew that she’d made a difference to me and that I got to tell her in person years ago. Good teachers inspire, lead, but sometimes the best thing they do is to let the students know they matter, and that their first efforts are rewarded. I still remember the thrill I got from her words, “You scared me.” Now, I scare people professionally, but few moments have been as important to me as that first one. Thank you, Miss Sheline.