Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The lure of the scary story

with 4 comments

Edgar Allan Poe

With the death of the neighborhood video store, we’re also witnessing the end of a childhood rite of passage that I suspect a lot of people my age can remember: the trip through the dreaded horror aisle. It always stood in its own section of the store, just a few steps away from the comedy or drama shelves, and it had a terrifying fascination of its own. If you were eight or nine years old, you had to work up your courage just to walk past it, even as you couldn’t resist stealing a look. Back in the day, I definitely spent a few scary minutes staring at those video boxes, and I can still recall being freaked out by the covers of the likes of Pumpkinhead or The Unnameable. I don’t think kids these days will ever have quite the same experience—maybe browsing through the horror titles on Netflix gives them a similar illicit thrill—but I have no doubt that they’ll still find their own ways of scaring themselves. Having just finished judging the third, fourth, and fifth grade entries in the annual scary story contest held by the Chicago Sun-Times, I’m impressed all over again by how shrewd a child’s sense of horror can be: dark, gruesome, and often surprisingly funny.

In fact, the best horror stories often have unexpected affinities with jokes. Both a joke and a scary short story are written expressions of an oral tradition, possibly the oldest ones we have. They tend to be brief, punchy, composed with an eye to economy, and every word counts, especially near the end. Both are marked by an escalation of tension that reaches a cathartic punchline, but their resolutions are very different: the joke surprises us, casting the previous situation in an unexpected light, while the horror story offers us the realization of all our darkest fears, which turn out to be even worse than we expected. Both have an uneasy relationship with the first-person point of view: few if any good jokes are told in the first person, and it’s a problematic choice for all but the greatest horror stories. And neither are particularly amenable to being analyzed in the way I’ve been doing here. To take apart a joke is to kill it, and to attempt to explain away the dread a scary story evokes destroys its magic, although not always its elemental power.

Stephen King

This may be why horror, like humor, is so subjective. Either you find something funny or scary, or you don’t. One reader may be terrified by a story that another dismisses with a shrug, and good luck convincing either of them otherwise: it’s a reaction that has little to do with aesthetic merit and everything to do with the sparks the story sets off in the reader’s imagination. That may be why the best horror stories leave so much to implication. Like a painting, or a haiku, that seems all the more vivid because it captures only the evocative core of its subject, a good horror story is as notable for what leaves out as what it includes. This takes skill and experience, and one of the hardest things to master is knowing when and how to end it, ideally at a moment that leaves us with the maximum of dread. Poe was a master of this: his stories open in a leisurely fashion that has dated badly—I dare anyone to read the opening pages of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” without skipping ahead—but his endings are crisp, brutal, and utterly modern, which goes a long way toward explaining why his stories have lasted.

My own favorite scary short story is H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,” which I’ve revisited on an annual basis without ever getting tired of it: it’s one of the rare Lovecraft stories in which the baroque language fits the characters and themes, and it remains wonderfully atmospheric and horrifying. Next would be the best tales from Stephen King’s two great early collections, Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, especially “The Boogeyman,” “Strawberry Spring,” “Gramma,” and “The Jaunt,” and his late masterpieces “Dolan’s Cadillac” and “The Ten O’Clock People.” A few more random favorites: Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” Donald A. Wollheim’s “Mimic,” Michael Bishop’s “Within the Walls of Tyre.” These are all very different stories, with some skewing toward fantasy or science fiction, but all manage the difficult trick of ending at just the right moment, leaving us with an impression of dread that’s impossible to shake. (This is one reason why my own stories don’t qualify as horror, even if some of them, like “The Boneless One” or “Kawataro,” are clearly indebted to the genre: Analog generally doesn’t go for dark endings.) If you’ve never read them before, you might want to seek them out now. There’s no better time than tonight.

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2013 at 9:41 am

4 Responses

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  1. The written word can always frighten me more that a movie. I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream is a marvelous piece.

    Reviews with Andrea

    October 31, 2013 at 1:20 pm

  2. Absolutely—I don’t think I’ve seen a movie that scared me even a tenth as much as my favorite horror stories, at least when you’re talking about a lasting impression.


    October 31, 2013 at 9:13 pm

  3. Christopher Priest’s “The Head and the Hand” is one of the horrible-ist things I can recall. Not quite scary, more Grand Guignol. Monstrous, even. I certainly dreaded the ending, whatever it was going to be…


    November 1, 2013 at 3:53 am

  4. I just looked up the plot summary for that one—yikes.


    November 1, 2013 at 9:11 pm

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