10/10/13 – WHAT MAKES FICTION TRULY SCARY?
’Tis the season for “goulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night.” And from all such creatures, the Cornish Litany implores, “Good Lord, deliver us!”
We may indeed need to be delivered from ghosts, vampires, aliens from other planets, monsters, zombies, and other strange beings. Such fiends have long been the staple of horror stories, tales told ’round a campfire, and movies that send people screaming from the theater. But I believe the scariest stories hit much closer to home. Although I never read books classified as “horror,” I’ve been plenty scared by some of the novels and stories I do read.
As a teenager, I was shocked the first time I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I mean, how could those people do what they did? If there’s anybody in the world who hasn’t read this fabulous story, I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but I will say it involves a lovely town filled with lovely people simply celebrating a town tradition. And it gave me chills.
Recently, I read Sister by Rosamund Lupton, a psychological thriller with no supernatural beings. In fact, the people in this novel are folks we all know—corporate types, free-spirited artists, doctors, pharmacists, students—but one of the beauties of the story is the way in which Lupton reveals who these people really are beneath their exteriors. Beatrice, the cool, aloof, know-it-all older sister finds out how much she loves her sister, Tess, when Tess’s body is discovered in an abandoned public bathroom. She also learns how much she’s willing to sacrifice to prove Tess’s death wasn’t a suicide. But not everyone has a core of goodness, and it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys until the very end, which is what makes this book so frightening. It underscores the evil that walks among us.
To find out if other people find similar books frightening, I asked a few friends to tell me about scary books they’ve read, and I got some interesting answers. Martha Newland, from North Carolina, was also shaken by the evil close to home. She mentioned The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield “because it reminded me that some people are truly evil” and Anna Quindlen’s Every Last One “because it put into words the horror of the worst thing that I as a mother could ever imagine.”
Marilyn Ostermiller, from New Jersey, pointed to the organized evil of The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. According to Marilyn, the novel, which takes place in contemporary North Korea, is “a macabre tale of the depths of degradation a totalitarian regime can perpetrate on its captive citizenry.” In the beginning of the book, published in 2012, the protagonist practices for a state-sponsored kidnapping mission by trapping and then killing random victims. “Initially I thought I misunderstood what I was reading. But, I hadn’t,” Marilyn said. Then, in August of this year, “news reports surfaced with North Korea admitting that it had, over the years, kidnapped people from Japan, including a teenage girl, with the goal of using these people to train North Korea spies.”
For Morris Bradshaw, from Atlanta, fear came from awaiting an inevitable fate from a man-made disaster. In On the Beach by Nevil Shute, a nuclear war has destroyed the northern hemisphere, and radioactive dust is drifting toward southern Australia. “The most frightening aspect for me concerned the survivors waiting on the radioactive cloud that would finish them,” Morris said. “At the time of reading I was horrified at such an end. There was no ‘what next?'”
So this Halloween season, if you want a good scare that will stay with you for a while, I recommend putting aside books about ghosts, goblins, gremlins, vampires, and zombies. The really scary stuff is caused by people.
Have you ever gotten a good scare from a book you didn’t expect to be frightening? Which book was it?