Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark...

On Halloween, I was part of a lively discussion at the New York Public Library about scary stories. With some heavyweights, like Marvin Kaye, the editor of Weird Tales, Leanna Renee Heiber, the author of 20 novels, including Victorian horror, Michael Ransom, author of The Ripper Gene, and Carol Goodman, the author of 17 novels including the most recent, The Other Mother. So, some smart people. We had a good audience, too. Filled the basement room in that mighty edifice of marble, guarded by lions Patience and Fortitude. We had some good questions--and no manifestos or statements from the audience, a first--and one question, from Ms Goodman, stuck with me:

Can you write stories of the supernatural if you don't believe?

I was the only author on the panel who said they didn't believe in the supernatural at all. Ms Heiber is a licensed ghost tour guide; Mr Kaye regaled us with several encounters with hauntings. We each had to tell a scary story that had happened to us. Mr Kaye's were mostly "feelings" he had when in old spaces, that were confirmed by others. Ransom drove past a group of bloody young men on a country road one night. My story is true, and happened when visiting part of Massachusetts known as The Quabbin, where H.P. Lovecraft set some of his stories, most notably "The Dunwich Horror." I've been to the hollow where the less comely Whately brother was dispatched, but it's just a pretty waterfall with one of the numerous beehive caches found around New England, nothing scary unless you imagine Nyarlathotep's offspring.

Nearby however, is an abandoned village where the houses were razed, when the government planned to flood the area to expand Quabbin reservoir. The cellar holes remain, as do street lamps and cemetery gates, with most of the stones intact. As in Poltergeist, they didn't remove the bodies. If you hike past that, you come to an abandoned farm with a small cemetery with a child's grave that is supposed to be haunted, but we didn't find anything out of the ordinary. And if you venture even further, you can find a crashed fighter jet from the '50s, which was our ultimate goal. We found the wreckage and lingered too long, poking through it. The avionics gear and engines were taken by the Army, so it couldn't fall into Soviet hands, but it was still interesting to see. And the trees had grown up in the fifty years since, so you couldn't tell it had crashed through them.

It took us longer to get back than we anticipated, but the trails were wide and easy to follow in the moonlight, so we didn't regret forgetting to bring flashlights. Not at first.

This was nearly twenty years ago now, but I still had a cell phone, being an I.T. goon. And as we walked the path home in the dark, my phone went off. An odd sound in the woods, one of those tinkling ringtones from back in the flip phone era. A sound that did not belong.

We realized this when the woods around us crackled with life. Some things were out there, prowling in the leaf litter in the trees.

"Dogs," we said. But there were no barks or howls. Just enough rustling in the brush for us to realize that we were flanked on both sides of the road by something bigger and braver than the chipmunks we saw in daytime. I've hiked woods in the East a lot, from the Appalachian trail to lost, winding trails that led me onto the ice of a lake that wasn't supposed to be there on my map, where I thankfully only fell through to my hips. I've been tracked by dogs and deer before. Bucks usually stamp and snort at you, and you can hear dogs panting. We heard neither. Just the rustling, on both sides of the road, matching our steps. Stopping when we stopped, walking when we walked. The road was dirt, so we weren't hearing our own footsteps. I tried to use my phone to get some eyeshine and see what was there, but we never saw a silhouette or a reflection. I always take a knife with me in the woods, and I kept that drawn until we neared the road, and the rustling stopped.

I don't know what that was, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't the ghosts of the people left in the Quabbin cemetery. I love writing about the supernatural, because it is what scares me. Terrifies me, I should say. People and their behavior horrify me but I'm not afraid, more disgusted than anything. But the unknown.... that tickles my lizard brain and sparks my vivid imagination. When I think of what lurks just outside the light of a campfire, waiting to gnaw my limbs to stumps, it is usually resembles some large skinless creature with the rotting skull of a horse, with those big chomping teeth.
Somewhere between these two...

I think the human brain fills in the blanks, and much of what we think of as unexplained is caused by our brain misinterpreting sensations. There's a reason every horror movie uses low-frequency sound, because it sets us on edge. These are the same sounds old wooden buildings make as they creak, and some of it is subsonic, so we feel it but don't hear it. That's not as exciting as feeling the echoes of past atrocities, but it's what I believe. And I've been to the sites of massacres both ancient and recent. I've walked the Paris catacombs with six million dead, I've put a pebble on Anne Frank's mass grave, I've been in houses where people were hacked to bits. I feel things, knowing what happened there. I wish there were life after death, I want to see my grandmother again. But I don't believe in it. We want it to be so, but that doesn't make it so. They live on in our minds. How much of reality is created by us? As you age, you begin to see how unreliable memory can be. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously faulty, and everything we experience is eyewitness testimony.

That's why I laugh when writers scoff at unreliable narrators. The only reliable one is omniscient, and even then the writer can be fooling themselves (and often are, when they think they are writing objectively. But that's another discussion).

The stories I've written that have made the biggest impression with readers, the ones they talk about, are horror stories. "The Summer of Blind Joe Death," about a two boys who meet an Appalachian hoodoo man. "Truth Comes Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind," about an archaeological dig that unearths a sacrificial tomb, or something much worse. Sometimes the supernatural is ambiguous, and other times there is no other explanation. Whatever suits the story. When children witness the supernatural, they are less likely to rationalize it away. At least in my stories. You can read about Joe Death in Life During Wartime, and learn the secret of the Hexenkeller Death Pits in Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block.

I love being scared, and most recently the book that did that most effectively was The Elementals by Michael McDowell. Best known as the screenwriter of Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, he wrote one of the most terrifying Southern Gothic haunting novels of all time. Valancourt Books reprinted it recently, and I highly recommend it:

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