Storytelling and Fear

or, Franz Kafka meets Dr. Seuss

Ian over at Upper Fort Stewart in The Scariest Books I’ve Read says:

There’s two days left till Halloween. If you’ve got any scary stories yourself why not blog about them and link back here so we can read them or post a comment. I can’t be the only guy around still afraid of Morlocks can I?

. . . and though our family has very mixed feelings about this particular seasonal festival, I thought I’d take a stab at it (so to speak).

Mystery, Thrill, Aggression, Shame

Poe's Maelstrom

The first scary stories that come to my mind are classics by Edgar Allen Poe (The Fall of the House of Usher, The Telltale Heart Descent into the Malestrom, The Raven) and H.P. Lovecraft (The Dreams in the Witch-House, At the Mountains of Madness, etc.I made a project in high school of reading every single one of his stories). These are tales that bring you face to face with terrifying mysteries, things that are larger and more powerful than us, from which we cannot escape unscathed. Whether in the human heart, in the events of human life, in the natural world, or in an unnatural, fevered imagination, it does us good to remember and acknowledge that we are dust, and can be swept away.

Less cosmic but no less classic, and more hauntingly beautiful for me was Ray Bradbury’s October Country. Bradbury’s fear is lyrical and personal, the kind of experience that takes over your whole body and forcibly lets you know you really are alive. You plunge in and are lost, and then you come out the other side, into the sunlight, and are glad to find yourself there.

Yet other horror stories are neither literature nor lyricism, but just pure aggression. They take their characters by the throat for no particular reason, and won’t let go. What these stories treat as worth the telling is not the human situation in an inhuman universe, nor the personal experience of fear, but the power of the villain (and the author) to shock, dominate and terrorize. “I know what the devil looks like,” said a pastor’s kid I once knew. “He’s ugly and he wants to kill you.” I don’t read much of this, but I’ve run into it in graphic novels (Hellblazer, for example, and various vampire & zombie rags) and some fantasy (Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series). I think the point of these is to use storytelling to work through trauma; these stories speak to the traumatized. And most of us have felt that way at one time or another. The trouble is, if you relive emotional trauma in a fantasy life, do you really face and cope with it? Or do we just end up idolizing and imitating our oppressor?

And some stories have a little of all of these, like the exquisite Sandman. In the end, though, the best horror lets us bring some courage back to the real world. “That person is brave,” writes Josef Pieper, “who does not allow himself to be brought by the fear of secondary and transient evils to the point of forsaking the final and authentic good things, and thus of taking on himself the ultimate and unlimited horror. . . . Fortitude presumes to a certain extent that a man is afraid of evil.”

And last, to take a cue from Ian, there are some stories that just made me feel bad as a kid. Though they were not meant to do so, they stunted my spirit in some way. Nothing happens to Ping except that he’s late and gets smacked for it; in the meantime, he is threatened with death, and can’t do a thing about it. He is let loose on a whim, and still punished. In The Diggingest Dog, the protagonist is pitiful in his failure to have any developed talent, and when he does finally let loose, it’s a disaster. One reviewer called it, “Franz Kafka meets Dr. Seuss.” (Said Dog does eventually find a useful life by the end of the story, but by then I had already absorbed the message: “Your talent is a shame and a disaster waiting to happen–and so is your lack of talent.”) This is the horror that I hope not to pass on to my children.

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