Weird Tales: John Kirk on Geliophobia

Writer: John Kirk
Weird Tales Story: The Talion Moth (Issue #349, March/April 2008)
Writer Bio: John Kirk is a screenwriter and a member of the Writers Guild of America, west, in Los Angeles. He’s worked as a staff writer and story editor for several TV shows in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres, including Roar and Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda. His story Nestor among the Antelopes was a finalist in Glimmer Train magazine’s Very Short Fiction Competition for 2007.


We’re a phobic species. There may be some folks out there perfectly adjusted to life in this world – no cringing at thunder or hiding from parrots – but I’d say those people are about as rare as tabletop fusion. Thanks to their universal presence phobias have always served as ideal inspiration for tales of horror and wonder. As Cat Rambo points out in an earlier blog, to create a body of work that today enjoys worldwide acclaim, H.P. Lovecraft constantly dipped into that barrel of fear he hauled around strapped to his back.

Don’t misunderstand — I’m not throwing stones. I’m dragging my own barrel (more like a bucket, but it’s got the drag of a barrel) through this life, and I’ve ladled out plenty of that murky soup to save me from staring at blank pages. Still, there is one phobia of mine I’ve never used to inform a story… until now.

I suffer from geliophobia, which the online DSM-IV-TR  defines as “the fear of laughter.” Mine is a strange form of the condition, strange because I fear the laughter of only one person: my grandmother.

When I was about eight, my parents asked my grandmother to watch my sister and me while they spent a long weekend visiting friends in Cheektowaga, New York, a suburb outside Buffalo. My sister was six then, an asthmatic, curly-haired girl whose favorite pastime was to follow strangers around in supermarkets, all the while making fart noises by pressing her hand to her mouth and bratting air against her palm.

Grandma let us stay up late the first night watching television. She hated being alone in any part of the house at night and wanted our company until she was ready to sleep. We ate pizza and drank bottles of Pepsi, those sixty-four ounce cudgels marketed back then as The Boss. My sister and I spent the night sitting on the floor; elbows on the coffee table, eating and drinking like dwarf Vikings. Grandma sat on the couch, a long and low piece, covered in green felt, with legs and frame of sharp-edged maple. A late movie started. I have a shapeless memory of Doris Day flashing her freckled calves on a boat with a glass bottom.

Grandma laughed so hard during the movie that she wet herself. The stream left barely more than a dot on the tail of her nightgown, but through some quirk of hydrodynamics I’ve never understood, created a stain the size of a pizza on the couch. Thanks to pH levels and conflicting pigments, the stain looked like a deep bruise, gradations of purple with a hazy yellow border. My sister and I helped Grandma in her many shots at cleaning the mess, but each time the stain got worse, eventually leaching through to the other side of the cushion. “So much for the flip trick,” Grandma said, thinking she might have bought some time, maybe order a new cushion on the sly and pull a switch later on.

My parents returned on Monday, looking stern and without gifts, expecting complaints about our behavior, positive that we had shamed them in some way. My mother spotted the soiled cushion right off and demanded to know what had happened. My grandmother turned to my sister and told her to go to her room and shut the door. My sister did as she was told. Once my sister’s door clicked shut, my grandmother pointed at the stain and said to my mom, “Your daughter peed on the couch.”

My mother sat on the clean cushion with her knees together and cried. My father took off his coat, let it hit the floor, then lumbered through the house to my sister’s bedroom. He opened the door, his eyes bulging, his lips drawn back over dry teeth — a look we saw quite a bit back then. He walked in and shut the door behind him. I was surprised at how many minutes passed before I heard my sister cry.

My mother wiped her face and looked at me from the couch. “What do you have to say for yourself?” Before I could think of an answer, my grandmother said, “John made her drink a whole bottle of Pepsi. One of those big bottles.” Without even looking at my grandmother, I went to my room and shut the door. Sat on my bed and waited my turn.

For the remainder of my childhood, whenever my grandmother laughed without restraint, I packed my bags for Covenant House.


  1. says

    this is brilliant! if it’s true, this seems almost as archetypal to me as the original Oedipus myth, something any honest kid could probably relate to without necessarily having experienced the exact same thing; if it isn’t, then cool, it’s an amazingly insightful imaginative construct. er, not to make light of your trauma if it *is* true. just saying, you know, if it was made up…but if it wasn’t. erm. hope you’re over it.

    *pulls foot out of mouth–a necessary preliminary step to slipping quietly away*