6 Reads of Unexpected Horror

My sisters and I used to have an ongoing competition to see who could scare the other two the most by jumping out at them. I never begrudged them whenever they would win, because it meant that I had been scared. That game was how I got my original horror kicks.

Nowadays, I’m a little less spastic (not really, I keep the legacy alive with my husband and daughters) and far more cultured about my love of horror. I love horror in art, horror movies, and of course reading horror. While movies spoon feed it all to you, seeing and reading it involve a little more on the part of the viewer/reader. Art requires you to create a story in your head, consciously or subconsciously, that makes it horror to you. You fill in the blanks the artist left behind. Whereas when reading it, you’re given the story and you make up the rest with the images dancing in your brain. It depends so heavily on the writer’s skill, their understanding of fear and fearlessness in employing that understanding.

Below, you will find a little reading list of horror in surprising places. Because what better time is there to scare yourself as we approach Halloween? None, I say.

Horror in Middle Grade (MG) Fiction

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The Nest

It’s not that I think it isn’t possible for a children’s book to be scary. I started my avid reading career in Goosebumps, okay? But I became physically uncomfortable when reading this book, squirming throughout most of it. On the surface the premise might seem innocuous: A boy worries about his sick newborn brother and develops a complicated relationship with the wasps building the nest outside his bedroom window; I assure you, the novel is anything but. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. Extremely original and skin-crawlingly creepy.

Horror in Young Adult (YA) Fiction

My Best Friend’s Exorcism 

Yes, it’s shelved as horror.  But I have read plenty of horror novels I enjoyed but that didn’t scare me. You know what I mean? It’s hard to do.

In this post last Halloween, I recommended this book as quirky horror. And it was. But I have to be honest, there were a couple scenes in this 80s-centered novel that terrified me more than any Stephen King scenes.

Horror in YA fantasy

The Raven Boys

If you’ve been following me on Twitter or have read my most recent post, you know I’m obsessed with this series. On the real though? My body broke out in chills while reading The Raven Boys, and I had to stand up away from the book to pace while my husband politely listened to my hysterical string of curses. The horror was intense, and it’s not even marketed as horror! This author does atmosphere so well, so when she wants to scare the shit out of you, she’s pretty damn successful. Also, it doesn’t stop with this book. It’s strung throughout the series.

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Uprooted

A note about horror in YA and MG: I would never recommend these books to anyone looking for “lite horror”. When I say unexpected horror, that’s exactly what I mean. These novels scared me, and I didn’t expect it. When reading this novel, I experienced utter physical discomfort and psychological…interruption.

Do not let that cover fool you. This novel was stunning, but it has an inky darkness made all the blacker beside the life and love it struggles to consume.

 

Horror in Poetry

Satan Says 

There were some lines, shit, entire poems in this collection that grabbed me by the throat and still haven’t let go (I reread the first poem in this collection for this blog, and it was even scarier because I unlocked a little more of its meaning). I’ve also talked about Sharon Olds here. Poetry is a perfect way to inject your Halloween with atmosphere. This article on Lit Reactor has more fantastic suggestions.

Horror in the Classics

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Dracula

Now I knew going in that this novel is horror. I guess I just wasn’t expecting…well, horror. I feel like Hollywood has desensitized me with jump scares and Frankenstein creations of mismanaged lore and urban legend. But Dracula reminded me vampires can be scary, that they actually ARE monsters. Which makes sense, since Dracula is the OG of the vampire myhthos–as original as we’re getting in this post anyway, and most everything after are watered down reinterpretations.

Parts of this novel lured a visceral reaction from me. The narrative structure definitely makes it a work of psychological horror, which always sticks fast with me (House of Leaves, Bird Box, A Head Full of Ghosts).  The narrators’ heads, as they face down the monster, are our landscape and it’s just as rich as the physical landscape.

Have you read any of these novels, and were you at all surprised by the horror? Feel free to leave additional suggestions for books or poems that gave you unexpected chills.

I hope everyone has a safe, horror-filled Halloween, and at least one evening curled up with a blanket and a scary read in hand.

Excuses and Updates

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Wow. It’s been a long time since I updated. But I have a really good excuse: Twins! Having a baby–let alone two, at once!–really messes with your sense of time. So apologies for my delay. I have been in the ambiguous and surprisingly fast-moving state of ‘baby time’, which means very little time for oneself in the first few weeks…er, months. No, years. The first 18 years. When the baby either of us is holding at a time sleeps or if the heavens open and both are sleeping, we are torn between addressing our essential needs (food, bathing, relieving bladders), doing something for ourselves like reading a few pages or god, listening to music–I realized how much I missed that in the first couple weeks and promptly added some daily dancing/singing time to my time alone with the babies–or just passing out ourselves. So it might be a little longer than I had anticipated for the feature updates to my blog.

In the meantime, I’ll be working on some posts for a type of diary as a mom of multiples (Look at all these promises I keep making. I have every intention of following through, I just don’t know how long it will take). With this diary, I want to help the other people like me out there who had no idea what they were going to be facing. And hopefully it will give some good laughs to anyone who’s just curious. I have to write something, and since these girls consume most of my hours in a 24 hour period, what better subject matter? Also, I want to remember everything about this time. Thus, followers of my blog will be privy to tales about my twinkies at some vague point in the future. Look, I can’t make any promises on a timeline when I don’t even know when I’ll be able to fold the laundry. 😉

For now, here are links to some of my more productive friends’ blogs. Annie is hosting an ‘All Hallow’s Read’ giveaway and will be posting some deliciously dark poems throughout the month. Carie has some eerie stories about subbing and nine Halloween-related posts from last year (she is kind of a Halloween expert with her birthday being on the very same All Hallow’s Eve).

And from an era where time was more plentiful, here are some of my own fall/October/Halloween-related posts and things:

Thank you, readers, for bearing with me during this time of so little time.

A Theory on Fear

Art by pishchanska.deviantart.com

First of all, Happy Halloween! With the season and all, I have been indulging in some creepy pastimes. Being the painfully inquisitive person that I am (no, seriously, people hate my incessant question-asking), I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the source of my giddy pleasure with a well done horror movie or a book that gives me bone-deep chills. Why am I drawn to this genre? What is the meaning behind it? How does it benefit people for me to write about it?

While listening to Stephen King’s Danse Macabre on audio book, I laughed out loud, furrowed my brow in confusion to some of his references, and nodded my head with his salient points as I drove to and from work. But mostly, it really got me thinking about the core fear that all horror taps. In Danse Macabre, King claims that

“Horror appeals to us because it says, in a symbolic way, things we would be afraid to say out straight…it offers us a chance to exercise (that’s right; not exorcise but exercise) emotions which society demands we keep closely in hand. The horror film is an invitation to indulge in deviant, antisocial behavior by proxy—to commit gratuitous acts of violence, indulge our puerile dreams of power, to give in to our most craven fears. Perhaps more than anything else, the horror story or horror movie says it’s okay to join the mob, to become the total tribal being, to destroy the outsider.”

This justification for horror is a fine argument as to why the genre’s valuable, but it doesn’t seem like enough. Aside from a voyeur enjoyment, there is some living, breathing code at the core of every horror story, some universal language that speaks to us all, even if our fears all differ.

This might be reductive, but what if the basis of ALL of these fears track back to one: fear of the ego’s destruction, the dissolution of self? If you go by Descartes’s philosophy, that thinking necessitates your existence, then would not I, as a signifier for ego, be the most vital, precious thing to me? It’s a logical necessity, leading into and from ‘I think, therefore I am’, just as the ouroboros consumes its tail. Nature even granted us endowments of self-preservation (fight-or-flight) which help us to avoid obliteration and validate that fundamental fear of any self-aware being. The horror genre allows us to indulge in our most basic fear: the end of me. Whether that is by seeing ourselves in a hooded figure, face entirely blacked out—nonexistent as it were—stalking our every move (in the movie When a Stranger Calls, the psycho ventriloquist killer’s face is painted black), or a masked, single-minded murderer (Jason, Michael Meyers), because for one to turn into that murderer is to lose his or her self to the mindless repetitive action of an automaton. And to be on the receiving end of that killer’s ax/knife/machete/shank, well, I don’t need to explain how that relates to the fear of the self’s obliteration, right? Other horror stories that play into the root of all fear are being trapped in the bottom of a canyon, not another soul around for hundreds of miles, starving, dehydrating, essentially eroding out there in the elements along with the wind-shaped rock formations (127 Hours), or learning that your house  wants to destroy/consume you (The Haunting, a movie based on Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, The Amityville Horror, Mark Z. Danielewski’s literary horror novel, House of Leaves).

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Eleanor being tormented by Hill House in The Haunting, 1999

When you indulge in these horrors, and, facing the possibility of the ego’s destruction, see that you survive, it reaffirms your instinct toward self-preservation, therefore helping you attain a kind of self-actualization as a self-aware being.

In Alien, a sci-fi horror, Ellen Ripley must sacrifice everything to ensure the alien doesn’t get back to earth. In this case, her heroic archetype is raised above the most basic fear of the ego’s destruction, because she puts the preservation of humanity above her own life. In cases like this, the horror of the thing becomes more of a thriller because we are swept away by the hero’s heroics. But I still think it’s there, that fear of destruction, waiting with a partially open maw, acid drool sliming off jagged teeth.

Alien: Isolation, the game
from Alien: Isolation, the game

King explores four recurring archetypes in horror in Danse Macabre: The Vampire (Dracula), the Beast Within (Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde) the Creature Without a Name (Frankenstein), and the Ghost (The Turn of the Screw.) He says pretty much every monster in horror comes down, in some form, to these four archetypes. King argues that we fear monstrosities because they represent a lack of order. But even fear of things that upset order finds its roots in fear of the ego’s destruction. To know is to be (getting Cartesian again), so anything that disrupts what you’ve come to know disrupts your sense of self, your perspective. Anything lacking order poses the threat of a systematic destruction of the self by overturning its previously held convictions and ideologies, whether you try to outrun that threat or face it head on. Even the fear of the unknown is a fear of ill-preparation to deal with something in order to control it and thereby reign over it so that it does not threaten you. And we’re not just talking basic fear of dying here, we’re talking about fear of dying by whatever means—fear of madness, fear of extinction. You name it, we got it. Because it’s all encapsulated in that one seemingly maintainable and certainly natural fear.

My novels, which arc over many genres, have this common ground. There is always some element of horror present in my work, the whisper of the innermost source of all fear: the dissolution of the self. My main characters all face the threat of their death in some way or another, of the body, mind, and soul. In my completed work, What’s Inside, and my 2014 NaNoWriMo project, Mad Dance on Roseridge, I explore the horror of madness, a strain of that fear. In The Prey and the Predator and its sequel, The Seer, I explore the primitive draw to power that many a villain has followed, but what happens when the protagonist turns to power as a result of these threats? Worse, what happens when she acts on it all to save him or herself from destruction at the hands of the villain?

So the question is, if everything traces back to fear of an event that we have a biological repulsion to, why in god’s name would we be so drawn to it? The answer: A horror film gives you the same almost terrified exhilaration of imminent destruction that we get riding a roller coaster or walking through a haunted house. It arouses; that is, these events put people in a “state of heightened activity in both our mind and body that makes us more alert”. Not only do we “[use] fictional (and sometimes supernatural) events to help us understand our own deepest real fears”, as King claims in his “What’s Scary: A Forenote to the 2010 Edition,” we also write about it to universally appeal or read it to relate to others.

What do you think? Is my fear theory whack? Are fears each separate in their own right? Is all horror, depending on genre and tropes, tapping into something different for each person? Or could all fears, in some way, necessarily root from the fear of the ego’s destruction?

Why I Love Fall

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I’ve been in such a good mood lately that I’m weirding myself out. I’m stopping to enjoy things I already like even more. Like the comforting sound of a new audio book (The Night Swimmer is so attuned for this weather), revisiting a favorite classic read (the tales of Edgar Allan Poe), the warm, cuddly feeling of needing a blanket while watching a movie on the couch or reading outside at night, and the mingling of hot coffee and sweet pastry. So what makes me love these things even more than I already do? The title did not deceive you—fall. Fall is why I can appreciate these luxuries and little treats to a higher degree. It’s like the antithesis of seasonal depression.

Halloween used to be my favorite holiday as a kid. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve lost some of the holiday spirit but the love of all things spooky remains, and more specifically, my love of the subtle shift in the weather this time of year, first in the dead of evening, and then, that dropping temperature creeps outward from the deepest night like an ink spill until it finally reaches the day to dampen our raging summer sun.

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I hope to remind you all to stop and appreciate the things that make fall wonderful. Here are a few reasons I love fall. Please leave your reasons in the comments!

I love the way fall makes me happy to wake up in the morning, the way it sates that feeling I’ve had all summer, an inexplicable yearning.

I love the smell and chill in the air. I don’t even mind the little bit of frizz in my hair (okay, a lot of frizz, and I do kind of mind).

I love fall-scented candles of cinnamon and pumpkin spice, and warm, hearty meals with names that end in surprise.

I love the impending month of letting all fears go in a sprint to 50,000 words and going, perhaps, a little insane.

I love breathing in scents of rain, and after rain, and before rain.

I love reading on the porch at dusk or dawn, long sleeves brushing arms, and soft scarves made of yarn.

I love the changing of the leaves—seasonal barometers—from green to red, yellow, and brown, and driving with the windows down.

I love hot cocoa, hot tea, and all manner of toasty treats in between. Apparently, everything I love about fall revolves around eating. So be it.

 

Here are some other awesome fall and Halloween related blog posts. A little something for everyone, I’m sure.

WOW! (Women On Writing) Guest Post

I am very excited to present to you all my guest post on The Muffin, 5 Reasons To Tell People You’re A Writer. I’ve been holding this post back for some time, waiting for the perfect home. It appears today as part of The Muffin’s Friday Speak Out! series.

You can read it here. Obviously women writers will relate to my point in reason #2 to tell people you’re a writer, but I like to think there’s a little bit for everyone. 🙂 Feel free to continue the discussion or leave your own reasons writers should declare themselves in the comments on WOW! or here on my blog.

Also, they are looking for more guest bloggers. You can check out their specs here.

On a more horror-related side note, the Horror Writers Association (HWA) is hosting a campaign to further awareness and appreciation of the horror genre: “Horror Selfies” allows fans/creators of horror to send a selfie having to do with the genre. Here’s mine. Whether you write darkly, read eerie, or appreciate the creepy, especially during this time of year, submit yours too!

-A. B. Davis