The Oxford dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm” and “the likelihood of something unwelcome happening.”
So, what are you afraid of?
I’m sure I’ll regret sharing this later, but for this writer the possibility of the existence of aliens (I’m not one for involuntary medical experiments!), home invasions, spiders, snakes and episodes of Total Bellas are high up on my list of fears. For author/pro wrestling journalist Dan Murphy, who has just self-published his first novel which just so happens to be a horror novel entitled The Thing in the River, he immediately joked that he’s scared of his girlfriend but then got serious and said his biggest fear is being unprepared. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Murphy has also contributed articles to Slam).
“Just in general, when something happens and you’re just not ready,” elaborated Murphy, who pro wrestling fans will recall has written several non-fiction books on the squared circle and was a freelance writer for Pro Wrestling Illustrated (PWI) from 1997-2019, in a phone interview with SlamWrestling.net. “And you just have to act, you have to do something, because the moment suddenly is on you. And when that happens, if that ever happens in my life for some reason, just will you be prepared? If you’re in a situation where you need to act quickly to do something, are you going to be able to do it without thinking?”
Fittingly, Murphy also explores these fears/questions in The Thing in the River. While this reader didn’t find the book particularly scary, with the exception that because of it I no longer wish to ever attempt kayaking, it is an intriguing and haunting tale with a gut-wrenching ending. The book can also be described as a love letter to Murphy’s hometown of Buffalo, New York. (And as a lifelong horror fanatic, this reader was beyond excited to be required to read a horror book as part of my job!) The story revolves around the character of Randall McKenna dealing with the tragic and unrelenting aftermath of a childhood kayaking accident over 30 years later. The accident had a then 11-year-old Randall capsized underwater where he encountered an evil presence that he could not fully describe. The accident also claimed the life of his younger sister and for every night since it happened has haunted Randall’s dreams and waking moments. Randall also feels the entity is calling him back to the river to end his own life. To cope with all this turmoil, Randall has turned to alcohol. One day, while at his favorite bar, Randall sees Amber Burke, an officer with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, on the news ranting about seeing something in the river after witnessing the drowning death of her colleague. Randall feels if he finds Burke, he could finally have an ally in his misery and maybe the two of them could find out more about what exactly is “the thing in the river” and stop it. (Bonus: for pro wrestling book fans, there is an Easter egg/nod to Murphy’s fellow pro wrestling authors Pat Laprade and Bertrand Hebert that can be found in the novel!)
Murphy says he decided to go with horror for his fiction debut as he finds the genre “the hardest thing to write” and because when he reads “a good horror story (such as his favorite horror book Ghost Story by Peter Straub) I feel it and you remember it!” The inspiration for the plot came to him after he flipped over for the first time while kayaking one summer on the Niagara River.
“So, I was startled, I’m under water for a second wearing a life jacket,” remembered Murphy. “I pop up and there’s the panic of the cold water and being in the kayak one second and you’re in the water the next second. There’s nothing underneath you, you’re in a river. And you have to try to figure out, well I gotta swim to the shore. I gotta try to grab my boat. How do I figure this out? And I had that idea shortly after I got out of the water that the confusion, the sense of confusion and feeling unsafe, vulnerable in that moment, I just thought if I were to write a horror novel, I’d like to begin with that. And started with that sense in what if somebody had a life changing moment in that moment. And that kind of became the impetus for the thing, which then allowed me to kind of touch on in a way depression, alcoholism, possibly suicidal thoughts and alienation. These other topics that kind of grew out of that one moment.”
Added Murphy, “I’d like Randall to be a character that makes them (the readers) think. You know, this person who had a kind of a tragic thing and had this calling of this thing that may or may not even exist, maybe it’s just in his head. But how he was able to cope with depression and grief and circumstances, whether he did it the right way or the wrong way and whether there’s other things he could have done. I’d like that to be something that people can think about outside of the book and outside of the monster. (When it comes to Randall) was he a damaged or broken person, or was he coping the best way he could? And how can that be a lesson to me?”
Murphy’s passion for prose began in high school. Funnily enough, he was also the captain of his school’s wrestling team. (Can you say foreshadowing?) Fast forward to his time at Canisius College where Murphy initially thought he would pursue something in the realm of sports medicine, but he ended up majoring in English instead. Murphy says he got a job as a journalist right out of college and things just progressed from there.
Murphy’s love for pro wrestling emerged with the dawning of the first WrestleMania and watching his childhood hero, Kevin Von Erich, on World Class Championship Wrestling. As a teenager he began reading PWI as many a wrestling fan before him has been known to do. While working as a sports reporter for a weekly newspaper, Murphy called up the PWI editorial office and pitched covering an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event to then editor/publisher Stu Saks.
“I think the third UFC event was going to take place in Niagara Falls,” offered Murphy. “And at the time, the New York state legislature didn’t want it to happen. They didn’t want to have it in the state. And what they tried to do is make it as boring as possible by over regulating it. So, the fighters had to wear headgear. Some strikes weren’t allowed and some other things that they had.”
Upon reaching Saks, Murphy continued, “I said, ‘I know that you don’t normally cover UFC, but because this is such a unique photo op of these guys wearing headgear and everything, I can get press credentials, would you be interested?’ And he said he’d consider it so he kind of gave me the green light or yellow light maybe?”
Unfortunately, the UFC event ended up getting moved to Alabama, but Saks still asked Murphy to send him some clips of his work and as a result ended up giving Murphy his first official assignment for the magazine. Murphy’s first story had him covering the debut of second-generation wrestler Prince Iaukea (Michael Hayner). Murphy would go on to be a central figure for the magazine’s annual, popular and much debated PWI 500 ranking of pro wrestlers and he pitched having a ranking for the women wrestlers which began as the Female 50 and grew to become the Women’s 100.
With being a freelancer for PWI, Murphy also had other employment at the same time. He worked in public relations, sales, was a dog control officer and naturally a reporter/editor for various newspapers. And fun fact: Murphy has also wrestled in 25 matches. As Grappler X for Empire State Wrestling (ESW), Murphy even has one victory in the record books!
While acting as the booker for ESW, Murphy decided to literally learn the ropes. “I started working out with the guys, teaching them some of the things that I had learned in amateur wrestling and I was doing kickboxing at the time,” shared Murphy. “And the idea was I learned how to bump. I trained with the guys and learned how to take all the falls because I, as a wrestling writer, I wanted to understand all the technique that was involved so I could write about it accurately. But as a booker, I wanted to know how to do or take any moves that I was asking my wrestlers to do.”
But it was a job that Murphy held in college and for several years afterwards that would launch his career as an author (and also play a part in his first novel’s plot!) While working as a deckhand for his uncle, who ran a tour boat business on the Erie Canal, Murphy got the idea to write a book that would answer the questions he was peppered with about the canal from tourists to have in the company’s gift shop. The result would be 2001’s The Erie Canal: The Ditch that Opened a Nation. In 2003, he would write his first pro wrestling themed book, Bodyslams in Buffalo: The Complete History of Pro Wrestling in Western New York followed by Western New York 101: The 101 Greatest Moments in Buffalo History (2007), Nickel City Drafts: A Drinking History of Buffalo, NY (2010) and Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling (with Pat Laprade in 2017). Murphy edited Kamala Speaks by James Harris and Kenny Casanova and A Star Shattered: The Rise & Fall & Rise of Wrestling Diva Tammy “Sunny” Sytch by Tammy Sytch. He has also ghostwritten two children’s pro wrestling books: World Championship Wrestling: Grappling Greats and World Championship Wrestling: Mighty Match-Ups.
In 2019, Murphy left PWI which was a shock to many readers. Murphy says the decision came about after he found he “was no longer enjoying wrestling” and what it had become.
“I remember one year, I think (it was) 2019 watching WrestleMania and just being so bored with it and thinking I really never want to watch this again,” Murphy stated. “I mean WrestleMania was always such a big deal and I had gotten so kind of jaded. And it wasn’t the kind of wrestling I like to watch. And it was so long and overblown and predictable. And it was the first time that writing for PWI and having to write this WrestleMania feature that I did every year, it just felt like work. And I realized I can be the guy who just criticizes what wrestling’s become and rails against everything I don’t like or I can step aside and let the guys who really still like it have that spot. And I thought it was just kind of fair to wrestling and fair to those other guys to do that and try to do other things myself that I did enjoy.”
But readers do not have to fear living in a world void of Murphy’s wrestling writing. He plans to continue to add more wrestling book titles to his library of work. Murphy shared that he is currently working on a biography of Ed Don George, also a Buffalo resident and a three-time, three-time, three-time world champion wrestler and former Olympian. He is also releasing The Wrestlers’ Wrestlers: The Masters of the Craft of Professional Wrestling in April of 2021 with Brian Young. According to Murphy, he and Young, a boxing writer/Jack the Ripper expert, met in college and have known each other for about 20 years. Their resulting collaboration is a book, simply stated, about the favorite wrestlers of your favorite wrestlers.
“We interviewed a lot of people,” explained Murphy in this sneak peek of the book. “And asked them, who are the guys that you like to work with? Who are the guys that if you were to talk to a student say this is the guy you need to watch on videotape and why? And it talks about the nuances and what they did, so it’s really about the craft of wrestling. We talked to maybe 45 different wrestlers from Terry Funk and Kevin Sullivan all the way up to Luke Harper. I got a couple quotes from him as well. Generations of different wrestlers about the guys that they really liked working with and why these guys are the true masters of the craft of pro wrestling.”
Murphy will also be using his time to continue to mentor his fellow writers/journalists. For aspiring pro wrestling journalists, he has the following sage advice: “Learn etiquette. Learn the history. And what I was told when I got into wrestling, and it’s kind of a little bit different these days, when I got in, it was all about (and it is) similar to (other forms of) journalism: the story is not about you, the story is about them! Your personality should be pretty much invisible. And I think that what we have now in wrestling journalism, between online and podcasts and everything, is everyone’s trying to kind of get themselves over and become a personality themselves as a writer. And I think that’s a shame! I think that a lot of people don’t know a lot about me because I focused on the writing not (on) myself.”
He concluded, “So for incoming wrestling writers, I would say to make the stories about the people you’re covering and not yourself and to learn the history. For writers in general, just continue writing! I taught a community (education) writing course for a few semesters a couple years ago. And I just encourage people even if you have a lousy day of writing or you set something aside for a few months, or however long, you can always pick it back up and you can keep going. It’s one of the few things that we’re able to do from our teenage years to our 80s or 90s. So, if you want to write there’s always time, you just have to make the time to do it!”