This past week, I went on the hunt for the best spooky story I could find to mark this Halloween season. Disclaimer: I’m not claiming to be a horror aficionado. In fact, I tend to avoid horror because I hate being scared. I am a massive scaredy-cat, and never understood the thrill of fear. However, for some perverse reason, I occasionally find myself drawn to the thing I detest most. This happens about once a year when, out of the blue, I’m struck with a curiosity for the macabre, and will risk a brief foray into the realm of horror. Usually, I will put on a paranormal film, watch the opening sequence, realize I’ve made a horrible mistake, and turn it off after the first ten minutes when my heart-rate hits 180bpm. This seems to satisfy my annual quota. However, this year I was curious what literature had to offer in this genre.
Naturally, I started off with the King of horror and selected Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. In hindsight, this wasn’t the best idea, given my cat has a murderous affect on his best day. Case and point:
I am now terrified of my own cat, and highly suspicious of his nighttime activities. My experience reading Pet Sematary was mixed. For all I’d heard about Stephen King’s bone-chilling stories, I found the majority of the book slow and drawn out. However – and this is a testament to King’s skill as a writer – I still felt a subtle, apprehensive lure beckoning me to keep reading. Without it, I might have given up and missed the spectacularly horrific ending. I suspect this is one of the reasons King has been so successful – he keeps you hooked, even when there isn’t much going on and then brings a nightmare to life after 400 pages (or more).
Next on my docket came recommended from a Barnes and Noble list titled 25 of the Most Terrifying Horror Books Ever, and that was Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. This one was a disappointment, and I didn’t actually finish it, primarily because it just wasn’t scary. Granted, discovering your child is a mass-murdering psychopath would be anyone’s worse nightmare, but the story itself, told in retrospect and weighed down by extensive explanations, self-reflections and musings about society and politics, just didn’t have that skin-crawling vibe I was looking for. I also found Shriver’s writing heavy, and chuckled when I later heard people refer to the book as We Need to Talk about a Thesaurus. So, moving on…
Next, I decided to revisit some of the classics I’d studied during my degree, including the gothic romantics: Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. These books have stood the test of time, and for good reason. Bronte’s description of Bertha Mason in Jane’s wedding veil took up permanent residence in my head:
“It seemed, sir, a woman, tall and large, with thick and dark hair hanging long down her back. I know not what dress she had on: it was white and straight; but whether gown, sheet, or shroud, I cannot tell…presently she took my veil from its place; she held it up, gazed at it long, and then she threw it over her own head, and turned to the mirror. At that moment I saw the reflection of the visage and features quite distinctly in the dark oblong glass.”
“And how were they?”
“Fearful and ghastly to me—oh, sir, I never saw a face like it! It was a discoloured face—it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!”
“Ghosts are usually pale, Jane.”
“This, sir, was purple: the lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed: the black eyebrows widely raised over the bloodshot eyes. Shall I tell you of what it reminded me?…Of the foul German spectre—the Vampyre.”
“Ah!—what did it do?”
“Sir, it removed my veil from its gaunt head, rent it in two parts, and flinging both on the floor, trampled on them.”
“It drew aside the window-curtain and looked out; perhaps it saw dawn approaching, for, taking the candle, it retreated to the door. Just at my bedside, the figure stopped: the fiery eyes glared upon me—she thrust up her candle close to my face, and extinguished it under my eyes. I was aware her lurid visage flamed over mine, and I lost consciousness: for the second time in my life—only the second time—I became insensible from terror.”
I know I’d become insensible. What it is about women with long dark hair wearing white gowns that makes it such a pervasive image of horror? It’s hard to determine the origin of this ‘woman in white’ trope, given that nearly every country in the world has some version of the legend. Japan has the onryō, the Philippines has the kaperosa, Brazil has the Mulher de Branco. All of these ghosts tend to be vengeful spirits of young girls or women who have died by suicide, violence or childbirth, and can inflict harm on the living. I tend to think that the source of their horror is the juxtaposition they present between innocence and malevolence, and that there is something innately disturbing in the perversion of the former. I flatly refuse to watch The Ring. The mere mention of that girl crawling out of a well has me running for the hills.
Frankenstein wasn’t nearly as frightening as I would have hoped – primarily because I found myself feeling sympathy for the monster. The horror of that story lay in witnessing the twisted and misguided actions of Frankenstein himself, first when he embarked on his experiment, and subsequently when he was scrambling to rectify what anyone in their right mind would know was a very bad idea. Build a monster? What high-grade Peruvian peyote are you smoking, you ejjit? Can someone be that stupid?
Among the classics, Bram Stoker takes the cake. He plays with the same theme of the perversion of innocence I mentioned previously to horrific effect. Take the notorious scene of Mina drinking the blood of Count Dracula:
“With his left hand he held both Mrs. Harker’s hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare breast which was shown by his torn-open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink. As we burst into the room, the Count turned his face, and the hellish look that I had heard described seemed to leap into it. His eyes flamed red with devilish passion; the great nostrils of the white aquiline nose opened wide and quivered at the edge; and the white sharp teeth, behind the full lips of the blood-dripping mouth, champed together like those of a wild beast.”
Here, we can see the role of Mina as the archetypal feminine ideal, forced to perform a gross reenactment of a suckling child which Stoker compares to a kitten drinking milk, both of which are very innocent, pure images, distorted into a scene of wicked depravity. Granted, these scenes were undoubtedly more accosting to the sensibilities of people in 1897 when the book was first published than they are today, especially with the increased popularity of vampirism in romance. I can’t help but read this and expect Dracula to sparkle in the sunlight. As such, it didn’t unnerve me as much as I was hoping.
Lastly, I turned to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House which was published in 1959. After the briefest of prefaces in which Dr. John Montague sets the stage of his investigation into the haunted locale, we get introduced to Hill House, a place that makes the Banff Springs Hotel look like a playful wonderland (the Banff Springs Hotel is located a mere 100km away from where I live, and has earned a rank on Most Haunted Places in the World listings). The fact that Dr. Montague manages to convince not one, but two people to stay there with him, along with a member of the owner’s family, is dumbfounding. Have they never heard the phrase curiosity killed the cat? Then again, if these characters had any sense, there wouldn’t be a story, and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy (is enjoy the right word? Endure might be a better one) this creepy narrative. Thus far, it has been the most frightening of my horror reads, possibly because I find the paranormal so much more frightening than psychopaths, misunderstood monsters, vampires and zombies, but that’s just me. Take the scene of Eleanor and Theodora in their room on the second night in the house:
“It started again, as though it had been listening, waiting to hear their voices and what they said, to identify them, to know how well prepared they were against it, waiting to hear if they were afraid. So suddenly that Eleanor leaped back against the bed and Theodora gasped and cried out, the iron crash came against their door, and both of them lifted their eyes in horror, because the hammering was against the upper edge of the door, higher than either of them could reach, higher than Luke or the doctor could reach, and the sickening, degrading cold came in waves from whatever was outside the door…It had found them. Since Eleanor would not open the door, it was going to make its own way in. Eleanor said aloud, “Now I know why people scream, because I think I’m going to,” and Theodora said, “I will if you will,” and laughed, so that Eleanor turned quickly back to the bed and they held each other, listening in silence. Little pattings came from around the doorframe, small seeking sounds, feeling the edges of the door, trying to sneak a way in. The doorknob was fondled, and Eleanor, whispering, asked, “Is it locked?” and Theodora nodded and then, wide-eyed, turned to stare at the connecting bathroom door. “Mine’s locked too,” Eleanor said against her ear, and Theodora closed her eyes in relief. The little sticky sounds moved on around the doorframe and then, as though a fury caught whatever was outside, the crashing came again, and Eleanor and Theodora saw the wood of the door tremble and shake, and the door move against its hinges. “You can’t get in,” Eleanor said wildly, and again there was a silence, as though the house listened with attention to her words, understanding, cynically agreeing, content to wait. A thin little giggle came, in a breath of air through the room, a little mad rising laugh, the smallest whisper of a laugh, and Eleanor heard it all up and down her back, a little gloating laugh moving past them around the house, and then she heard the doctor and Luke calling from the stairs and, mercifully, it was over.”
After reading this, I needed to pour myself a glass of scotch and watch the Disney channel just to wash the residual chill from my own body. For now, I think my quota for horror has been adequately met. Until next year…