What makes us afraid? I don’t mean what objects make us feel fear, like needles, heights, ghosts, and guns. I mean, why do we feel fear? Where does fear come from?
Fear is an old emotion; according to one author the oldest that we have. Fear is deep in us from our roots way back at the dawn of the world when the dark was alive with things that could catch us and eat us. It’s no wonder so many stories told to scare kids end with “or you’ll be gobbled up!”
Today, with all the lights we’ve flooded the world with and all the guns we’ve filled our homes with, it’s hard to remember why we feel fear. Fear has become a first world annoyance. “I’m afraid I’m going to run late.” “I’m afraid I won’t get that promotion.” “I’m afraid my stocks will dip.” “I’m afraid I can’t get him on his phone.” Few of us encounter the old fear except in the direst of circumstances.
Stephen King wrote that we read horror stories to practice for our own death. Horror stories are our way of reacquainting ourselves with fear. They allow us to live through the fear we used to feel without being “gobbled up” at the end.
With the world getting colder and the sun going down earlier, it’s that time of year again to celebrate fear, both in fun jest, with masks and candy, and in serious study, with shadows and stories.
Here’s a few textbooks on fear that will give you some good practice:
House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
Home. It’s where you’re safe. Where you can be absolutely sure that everything is in its right place and nothing can happen outside your control. The windows are secure, the doors are locked… but where did that extra door come from? That wasn’t there before!
House of Leaves is a maze. It is the story of a family and their house that begins to change… made into a film that was lost for years only to be rediscovered… by a man who lived in terrifying isolation and tried to write down what he learned before his death… whose work was found by a traumatized soul being hunted by something.
In House of Leaves, terror is not in a blood soaked monster filling the door frame of your bedroom. It’s in the quiet, nagging uncertainty that maybe, just maybe, your bedroom is a little bit bigger than it used to be. It’s in the quiet dread that maybe, possibly, you aren’t in control after all.
The King in Yellow by Roger Chambers
A collection of short stories, The King in Yellow is most remembered for its first four stories, and for very good reason. Centering around a strange play, also titled The King in Yellow, these stories rapidly devolve into the weird, strange, and otherworldly.
Each story is different and features a different cast of characters, but all focus around the titular play, which, if read, will drive the reader to madness or despair. Ever present in the background is the nagging “Yellow Sign,” a haunting, mysterious emblem of unknown import.
The King in Yellow is weird. It shows an artistic world with a dreadful atmosphere, where things are just a little off. And everywhere, there hangs the unsettling question: “Have you found the Yellow Sign?”
The Terror by Dan Simmons
In 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin went on an expedition in the icy waters above North America to find the Northwest Passage, a sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean. He did not succeed, and his two ships along with their entire crew were never seen again. What happened to them is a mystery still unanswered.
Dan Simmons provides an answer and it is The Terror. Named, fittingly, after one of the two ships on the expedition, the HMS Terror, Simmons’ novel is oppressive and chilling. Intimately researched and detailed, Simmons buries the reader in the midst of the long, lightless, freezing Arctic winter, with a crew of men starving, weakened by disease, driven mad by isolation… and hunted by something out there in the dark.
Despite its oppressive atmosphere and terrifying settings, there is something of the adventure story in The Terror. Its crew are average men, with families, histories, and loves, striving to survive against all odds. In that struggle, we see some of them at their absolute best… and some at their most monstrous. The Terror is not only a story about the things lurking in the dark. It is about the dark in us as well.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
What parent has never felt that touch of fear when their child is sick, or that dread that perhaps something may be wrong with them or that someone may intend them harm? In The Exorcist, William Blatty amplifies this fear by showing us a mother whose daughter is not sick but taken over.
Made into the classic 1973 film, The Exorcist is well remembered for its visceral horrors. Spinning heads, levitating bodies, vomiting pea soup. The real horror of the story, though, is underneath these gory surface details. The terror is witnessing an innocent child become a monster. The terror is watching a mother stand by, unable to do anything to help her child. The terror is having your faith put to the test against a force of utter malevolence.
Though the roots of its ideas are quite Christian, The Exorcist is a story that is universal in the fear it invokes. Whether you believe in demons or not, whether the idea of possessions frightens you or just makes you laugh, this is a story that reminds us of what it means to be helpless against a force we don’t understand and cannot defeat.
Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft is regarded as a master horror author. His stories about ancient monsters, distant planets, and the dreadful unknown have terrorized and inspired readers for decades. But one set of stories often overlooked is his Dream Cycle.
Unlike stories such as The Call of Cthulhu or The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle does not focus on the horrors that lurk in the dark, the unknown that we cannot comprehend, or the ancient mysteries from before the dawn of man. The Dream Cycle is, instead, about one man, Randolph Carter, and his journey through the land of dreams.
The stories are not terrifying, but instead quietly familiar and unsettling. They take readers through places that we have all seen in our own dreams, places that are at once delightful and dangerous. The fear lurks beneath the fantastic, in the uncertain divide between sleep and wake. If you want the stuff of dreams, and nightmares, try this one.
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts is a collection of short stories. Unlike The King in Yellow, these stories are not interconnected. There is no overarching plot like Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle. This one is good old-fashion, sitting-around-a-campfire, horror stories.
Joe Hill is both as modern and as classical as they come. His stories are about normal people, everyday men and women in bizarre, strange, and dreadful situations. His stories are simple, like the works of Poe or Bierce, each intended to affect the reader in its own way. There are no tricks, no hidden messages. Just the reader and a story fit for a dark night in the rocking chair with a single lamp on.
If you’d like to read something in the tradition of the campfire tale, the urban legend, and the ghostly rumor, give 20th Century Ghosts a try. It’s a collection of stories as simple, and creeping, as the title.
Happy Halloween everyone!