I’ve been working on a novel over the past year. It’s a literary novel, but it wants to be a horror novel, too. At least, I think it does. It seems to want to be a scary story, one with beasts and maybe even the supernatural or a dose of gore. The problem with the project is that I have a difficult time knowing what’s scary.
You see, I’m very tough to frighten, at least when it comes to art. I could set myself up in dark basement on Halloween with old Tricky records playing, some Bosch paintings lit up to gory effect, The Exorcist streaming on a full screen, and somebody reading Poe to me, and I’d be a happy little camper. (Now in life, I’m a little more jumpy. Turbulence on a plane is enough to convince me I’m about to die. But that’s another story.)
You might think that somebody who grew up the way that I did–sheltered beyond reason from anything juicy enough to warrant watching or reading, that is–would be easily creeped out. I never saw The Wizard of Oz when I was a kid (witches were forbidden territory), or Alice in Wonderland (I think the Queen was deemed too creepy). I was forbidden to read Goosebumps. There would be no B.F.G. on my bookshelves. So when I began to make my own aesthetic choices as an adult, I was disappointed to learn that what I’d held up in my mind as Really Good Stuff (The Omen, Event Horizon, and the like) was really, well, goofy. Nothing could be as great as what I’d built in the fortress of my hopeful little expectations.
In order to work on this story, I have to calibrate my sense of what’s scary; it became abundantly clear to me that I’m not on the same page as most people when I first heard my husband shriek during a horror film while I was busy chuckling at the silliness of the plot and snacking on a big vat of popcorn. To better attune my senses, I’ve been making it a project to read the books that scare normal people. Red Moon, okay. A good werewolf caper. Night Film, a little discursive. White is for Witching, stylish. Come Closer, a fun read. But I’m still looking for the scare.
It was over a decade ago that a friend introduced me to House of Leaves–the first and last horror novel to truly knock me out. This book was everything I’d been after in a good creep-out, and so intense that I actually had to sleep with the lights on for a couple of nights after finishing it. I let my laundry pile up for a few days just to avoid going into my own basement. House of Leaves is the kind of book some people might wish they’d never read, but I only wish I could read it again for the first time. It might be my only model, my only true yardstick for what I’m trying to do in my own story. Maybe, if I’m lucky, my novel will make for a second volume in the Limited Pantheon of Deeply Scary Fiction.
But, in addition to trying to find the elusive scare as I read book after book that doesn’t quite do it for me, I return to the question why. Why am I so hell-bent on finding something that dredges up the most primal fear possible? Stephen King’s “Why We Crave Horror Movies” says that scary stories are equivalent to
“…lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath. Why bother? Because it keeps them from getting out, man. It keeps them down there and me up here.”
I’ve always liked that apologia for horror as a genre. Maybe my alligators are hungrier than the average reptile. And I think I know why.
(Part 2 next week.)