When David Annandale was in Grade 3, he was shopping at a Winnipeg Zellers when his eye fell on a book called A Pictorial History of Horror Movies.
As a kid who loved monsters and was obsessed with dinosaurs, he couldn't take his eyes off the images of Godzilla. The book changed his life.
"I got this book, even though there were some pictures in it that scared me. I read it and read it and read it," recalls Annandale, a mild-mannered professor of film and literature at the University of Manitoba who specializes in the horror genre.
"It opened up the world of classic horror films to me. That was the gateway drug. From Grade 3 on, the obsession with horror films was there."
The young movie nerd started devouring classic ghost stories at about the same age. He became as fascinated with creepy fiction as with spooky cinema. His PhD thesis at the University of Alberta was an attempt to define horror in both literature and film.
As a writer, he's had short stories published in horror anthologies such as Northern Frights. He has also released three novels (Crown Fire, Kornukopia and The Valedictorians) in the past decade with Winnipeg's Turnstone Press. He describes them as "thrillers with a heart of horror."
This week, the 45-year-old reached a personal milestone with the publication of his first true horror novel, Gethsemane Hall (Dundurn, $22.99). It has a launch at McNally Robinson Booksellers at 2 p.m. on Sept. 8.
Already published in Britain earlier this year, the book is a haunted-house tale set in present-day England, amid high-tech ghost-hunting equipment and lurid tabloid media coverage.
It centres on the long-absent lord of a centuries-old manor house. He is devastated by the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter. That loss coincides with the suicide of a CIA agent/ghost hunter who's been studying the house as a reputed haunted site.
A group assembles at the hall, determined to uncover its secrets. They represent the spectrum of belief: a devout Christian; a believer in spirits and her assistant; a magician who's an expert in illusions; a scientist who's a professional debunker; a CIA agent dispatched to clean up scandal; and the troubled lord himself.
It that sounds like a familiar premise, Annandale says he deliberately used a framework that's a staple of the horror genre. "I've always loved those haunted-house stories with the investigative group. I adore them so much, I wanted to do one of my own."
The moated manor house in Gethsemane Hall is inspired by Ightham Mote, a stately house in Kent dating from the 14th century. Annandale first saw it as a child on a trip with his family.
Annandale and his two siblings grew up in St. Norbert with a French-professor father and teacher mother who often took them to Britain and Europe.
The family belonged to an Anglican church. These days, he harbours no religious or supernatural beliefs. "In the real world, I align myself with the skeptics," he says. "I'm a very hard-core rationalist."
Still, he loves the sensation of being scared. "One of my earliest movie memories is Fantasia. When the Night on Bald Mountain sequence came, with the demon and the ghosts, I was just curled up in a ball...
"Today, I am delighted beyond words if a film manages to frighten me even a little bit."
He's often asked why horror has such a grip on him. It could be because of the "profound normality" of his horror-free life, he says with a laugh. But horror stories, he says, have always been an ideal vehicle to explore "the big questions of mortality, morality, the nature of existence, faith, what lies beyond."
Annandale has been married for three years to former CBC radio host Margaux Watt. It was partly through Watt's two almost-grown children, who got him hooked on video games, that Annandale became as interested in the "complex and rich art form" of video games as he is in movies and fiction. He teaches a course at U of M called Video Games and Theory.
The busy Charleswood resident tries to maintain a schedule of writing 1,000 words per day during the academic year, and 2,000 words a day in the summer. He has another book coming out in February -- a military science-fiction novel called The Death of Antagonis.
He writes commissioned novels for The Black Library set in the universe of the futuristic table-top fantasy game Warhammer 40,000. He plans to write more thrillers following the rogue-warrior heroine of his first three books. And he says Gethsemane Hall is just the opening act of "a very sweeping tale of epic horror."
As he heads into a teaching year that includes a course on horror director David Cronenberg, he hopes readers will be nervously leaving the lights on as they tiptoe into the shadows of Gethsemane Hall.
"If at any point I cause someone a sleepless night," he says, "I will be a very, very happy writer."