I love scary books.
I always have, right back to that Dr. Seuss story about the pale green pants with nobody inside them. Among all the effects a book can have on me, there’s none I adore like that particular kind of tension that gets you burrowing a little deeper under the covers with a shiver or even a little whimper of delighted fear. Any book that can make me do that will have my heart forever.
So naturally, as a writer, inflicting that on my hapless readers is one of my chiefest ambitions.
I’m endlessly fascinated by the question of how a book – or any piece of media, really – achieves scariness. Especially because something that terrifies one person can leave another utterly unmoved. Just like with tearjerkers, really. Everyone has different things that “get to” them.
That’s the key to scariness, really: to get to people, you have to get past their armor. We’ve all had to harden ourselves against the onslaught of media just to cope with the day to day non-fiction world. I think what we’re looking for in a scary book is something like exposure therapy – something that creates a manageable distance, a protective shell that lets us explore dark and frightening depths without the risk of drowning. Something that lets us study the sharks without getting eaten. Maybe it helps us be better equipped to face the world, our own hearts, and all their terrors.
If we get too much distance, it bounces off our armor, our cynicism, our irony. If somebody’s going to be scared by something, they have to get a little vulnerable, whether they’re persuaded to care about or identify with the characters or to suspend disbelief in the plot. If the moving parts are too obvious or formulaic, their scariness suffers: we’re reminded that this isn’t real; we’re reminded that we know how this goes. It might still be fun, but it’s not scary.
If we don’t get enough distance, though, we shut down, we nope out. Everyone draws this line in different places. Plenty of people can’t read scary books at all: the effect is too real, too unpleasant, too close to the sharks. Personally, babies or small children in danger is where I stop enjoying myself. I can tolerate it, in small doses, in books; on TV, where there’s a lot less distance, it will make me break up with a show right quick. (Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, I’m looking at you.) It’s the difference between the scary dream you wake up screaming from and the scary dream that leaves you thinking “damn that was cool,” even though your heart is racing.
The fascinating nightmare is the sweet spot.
My theory is that part of finding that sweet spot is a balancing act between following and breaking rules and conventions. Get too rule-bound (e.g. a classic ghost story, a formulaic slasher) and it ceases to be scary; throw rules out the window altogether and it stops making sense as a story, which makes it hard to invest belief in it. To feel a threat, there has to be a sense of transgression, blurring boundaries, unpredictability, not-rightness. But we need some kind of coherence, too.
It’s interesting how this plays out for different people. There are those who find concrete, real-world, bad people with knives much scarier as villains than supernatural creatures because they’re more realistic. Personally, I’m exactly the opposite: bad people with knives, by and large, just sound like the news to me, the kind I mostly wall off emotionally. I can think of one time a real-world story of a bad guy with a knife really got to me, but I haven’t, so far, encountered fiction that managed to capture that feeling. #MSWL.
I find the supernatural much more effective – not because I believe it’s real, but because it’s uncanny, startling, transgressive enough to smuggle that scary feeling past my armor. Maybe I can let myself get emotionally engaged because I know it’s not real. And I find supernatural books are especially brilliant when they do that in the service of a point: when they use ghosts, for example, to give real teeth to our collective fears of death, guilt, time, or women’s rage.
To pick a few examples: Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn and by Pam Conrad are two books I read in my early teens that have stayed with me as the shining holy grail of what ghost stories can do. I encountered Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, ostensibly a middle-grade novel, in my late 20s, but it was so scary I couldn’t sleep for a while after reading it. And Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge involves, about 40 pages in, one of the best “whimper of delighted fear” moments I have ever read.
I set out to write my debut novel, The Dark Beneath the Ice, thinking that I wanted to write that kind of story. A ghost story. Something with Canadian roots, for preference. So my first stop for inspiration was “true” ghost stories from Canada. Most of what I found didn’t really suit my purposes: either they were neat, traditional, moral stories that gave too much closure to really feel scary, or they simply related brief encounters and didn’t offer much to go on.
The exception was the story of Esther Cox.
What set this famous case apart was the palpable, inexplicable hostility of the ghost – its violent invasion of this girl’s home and life. It slapped and pinched Esther, wrote threatening messages on her wall, dropped lit matches out of thin air, even stabbed her once. Whatever it was, it hated her. Why? What was it, and where did it come from?
And how interesting, I thought, that in all the commentary about the case – almost exclusively from men, by the way, and some of it downright obnoxious – there’s no word from Esther herself. That turned out to be true for every other poltergeist case I read about. I think part of the narrative purpose behind that omission is to keep the “victim” a little mysterious, ambivalent, and scary themselves; maybe they’re the ones behind it all.
I tried to make The Dark Beneath the Ice the kind of book I love to read, a fascinating nightmare: scary and thinky in equal measure. You’ll have to tell me whether or not I’ve succeeded. It might not hit your scary buttons at all.
But I hope it does.
And because I always need more scary books as a reader, I’d love to hear your recommendations in comments or tweets: what books have scared you, and how?