Scared Shitless?

Does this title refer to my feelings about the Ironman?  Well yes, it probably would do so if I actually allowed myself to think about it.  However, I’m studiously ignoring the fact that I will be doing anything out of the ordinary in September.  In fact, I’m ignoring the inconvenient truth that 2010 even contains a month called September.

No, this describes my program of holiday season self-improvement.  A while back the Washington Post ran an article where they asked a bunch of writers to name the story and/or author whom they had found the most scary.  Since they were limited to works of fiction no one mentioned DC’s rumored football team, but Lemony Snickett did sneak in this gem: “Anything by Charles Krauthammer. Just about all of his commentary has a madness and a menace that H.P. Lovecraft couldn’t top.”  At any rate, it looked like a pretty interesting list.  So I thought to myself, what better way to celebrate the holidays–for most people, after all, the prospect of a last minute assault on the mall in preparation for their annual oblication with the rellies is a source of blood-curdling horror and spine-tingling terror–than by working my way through as many of them as I could?

Oh, there were countless things I should have been reading instead.  Stuff actually relevant to my ongoing writing and research projects.  Books and articles on gaming, new media, educational applications of information technology, composition and rhetoric, nineteenth-century drama.  But nothing says “holidays” like denial and avoidance of personal responsibility.  So, as a public service, I offer you the results of my investigations so far.  Those of you who aren’t triathletes will no doubt have the spare time to enable you to enjoy some of these; those of you who are triathletes will be comforted by the thought that someone actually has spare time.

“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs.  Meh.  I’ve had scarier trips to the bathroom.  However, if you read this story you’ll see where Stephen King obviously got the idea for his classic Pet Sematary.

The Lottery, and Other Stories.  A collection of tales by Shirley Jackson (not to be confused with Shelley Jackson, another innovative writer whom I admire).  “The Lottery” is perhaps Jackson’s best-known story simply because of the controversy it engendered.  Published in 1948 in The New Yorker it produced a torrent of invective filled letters and numerous subscription cancellations.  Peter Straub, in the Washington Post article expressed his admiration for her story “The Demon Lover” and it is indeed a great one, a story where you seem to be drawing close to the solution to a mystery but which leaves you simply baffled.  My favorite, however, was “Flower Garden,” a story where a kindly, sympathetic protagonist gradually persuades herself that an African American man and his son bring upon themselves the town’s bigotry that she is unwilling/unable to resist.  It is one of the best stories about the creeping effect of unspoken, unacknowledged racism I’ve ever read.  Some of Jackson’s work is mildly creepy, but a lot of it is disturbing simply because she is brilliant at showing the many small ways people delude themselves into thinking that the world makes sense and their lives have purpose–in the face of a mountain of contrary evidence.

The Haunting of Hill House, also by Jackson.  Wow.  This novel achieves the seemingly impossible: it is at once overwrought and subtle.  In contrast to other horror stories where the reader knows more than the characters, or vice versa, Jackson only gives you exactly as much information as the characters possess.  You are left to try and make sense of events in exactly the same fashion as they do, and you end up similarly baffled as to why this is all happening.

The stories of M. R. James.  The Post article liked “Count Magnus” but I found it a yawnfest.  Many of James’ other stories, however, are nicely creepy.  A couple even make you feel vaguely yucky, as if you’ve stepped in something unpleasant, tried to wash it off, but now have the uncomfortable feeling that you are tracking it round the house.

Pretty Monsters.  A collection of short stories and a couple of novellas from Kelly Link.  If I were grateful to the Post article for no other recommendation than this it would be enough.  Turns out several of the tales in this collection have won either Hugo and/or Nebula awards for sci-fi/fantasy writing and it is easy to see why.  Quite simply, you probably won’t have read anything exactly like them.  Nobody seems quite sure how to classify these tales.  I dug the collection out of our library’s “Young Adult” collection, but while the stories have a relatively straightforward surface appearance they are disturbingly adult in their content and language.  They are, however, always creative and original: characters never do or say anything that you expect them to, and the stories never go where you think they might.

In a Glass Darkly.  A collection of short stories by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.  This wasn’t on the post list, but was the result of the kind of web serendipity where one article talks about so-and-so who turns out to have been influenced by whathisface. . .  Le Fanu was a hugely popular writer of gothic fiction in the mid-nineteenth century.  However, few of his works remain in print and he tends to have been eclipsed by other writers such as Wilkie Collins (author of The Moonstone and The Lady in White).  I really enjoyed this collection for two very specific reasons.  First, most of the stories are set around the turn of the previous century (late-1700s); Le Fanu is clearly fascinated with the language, customs, clothing, and technology of that period and he will move heaven and earth to get his characters to use terminology from that time period which would have been a little strange even to someone from his own time.  It is like reading an informative lecture by a benevolent antiquarian–except that he is writing about some seriously messed up shit.  He is also fascinated by multiple narrative frames.  Typically, he will present the story as being told by a narrator, who found the story in some old papers, and the papers contain an edited version of a story heard from someone else who was trying to recollect events that happened many years before. . .  It all sounds a little convoluted, I know, but what it allows Le Fanu to do is to allow you to glimpse the original horror, while also demonstrating the way in which each layer of narrative plays its part in gradually trying to cover up and diminish the reality of the horror.  It is very smart work, and I’m looking forward to reading his novel, Uncle Silas.

None of this, however, scared me shitless.  So what does scare me shitless?

Biking in snow.

Apart from that, however, one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read is still Marianne Dreams.  Nominally written for kids, no right-thinking adult would ever give this book to a kid unless the kid was dumb as a post and could be relied upon not to think about it at all.  It is a very aware, psychologically astute, portrayal of the world from a kid’s point of view: hostile, alienating, threatening, with inscrutable means of communication, full of alien rules but also disturbingly responsive to a child’s whims and desires.  The book was adapted for the film Paper House which didn’t really get the book at all.  A much better adaptation was a 1972 ITV series called Escape into Night.  As a kid, that scared me shitless.  In fact, the same was true for all my friends who saw it.  The funny thing was, this only emerged years later when, in adolescence, we would be talking about the scariest thing we’d ever seen, and someone would say, “You know, there was this series when I was a kid, and I don’t remember much about it, but there were these stones. . .”  At which point the rest of us would blanch, and say “Oh my god, the stones, I remember them, when I wasn’t hiding behind the couch. . .”

The only other thing I can recall offhand that has really terrified me (and I’m a veteran of horror films: everything from splattering carnage to the creepy little girl in The Ring) is the film Event Horizon.  If you haven’t seen it, don’t.  Gross-out films are, on some level, too over-the-top to be taken seriously by our subconscious.  But when you get a gross-out film predicated on a serious idea (what happens to humans when they are confronted by the fundamentally disturbed nature of the universe) you are in deep trouble.

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