MIND MELD: The Scary Stories That Made Us Lose Sleep
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It’s Halloween time and what better way to celebrate than with a terrifying tale? So we asked our panelists the following question:
Here’s what they said…
I was fortunate to read the book as the manuscript was written, so cliffhangers were real for me. I had to wait for the next chapter to be written rather than simply turning the page! King has created an almost unimaginably terrifying, implacably evil character in Rose the Hat, and as always it’s not difficult to believe such a person could exist. King has said love is necessary for real horror—in other words the reader must “love” a character to live in fear for them as a story progresses. Who doesn’t feel an affinity for little Danny Torrance? And few readers will not identify with Abra Stone (the major character Rose the Hat sets her determined, oh so vicious, gaze on). I was literally terrified for Abra and for Dan, and contemplating their fate did keep me awake far later into the night than normal!
The world’s obsession with zombies refuses to die, and I’m glad. I love zombie stories because they essentially strip away all the trappings of being human, leaving bare the basest, often most animalistic, elements…and that’s just talking about the survivors. Zombies, on the other hand, are monsters in your truest sense. They make no qualms about their cravings, so it comes as no surprise that the last novel that kept me awake at night is full of the vicious undead.
The Remaining by D.J. Molles takes the classic zombie “what if” scenario and amps it up a hundred decibels. It takes place in a current-day world where a flu-like virus transforms its victims into violent monsters incapable of reason or compassion. Yes, it’s a great zombie romp, but the part that kept me awake was the stark realism of the story. You see, I’m one of those logical sorts who annoyingly overthinks a story and will be the first to call foul on a plot twist in a book or movie that couldn’t possibly happen in the real world. Well, I tried to do that in The Remaining, but I simply couldn’t. Molles clearly thought through his plot. The more I thought about the premise and plot twists, I realized that, however remote, each was eerily feasible. And the idea of what comes after a devastating pandemic is downright scary.
I read Louis L’Amour’s Haunted Mesa when I was young and it absolutely terrified me. I read it again last year, and it was no different. It’s about a man who notices strangeness in the desert. Shadows scurrying across the road. A haunted kiva that leads to another plane of existence. As somebody who grew up in a desert town, I know exactly what he was talking about when he mentions nighttime desert eyes and fleeting shadows. The area is so alive that it takes no time to work yourself up into a genuine, primal sort of fear. Everything is so old. So much bigger than you. The world is made of rock and bone. If you ever want to feel small, spending a couple nights alone in the desert will do it for you.
Rereading it as an adult, I noticed some things that I hadn’t as a child. L’Amour has a tendency to repeat himself and ramble a bit. But I still found the story to be as chilling and disturbing as I had when I was younger. It scared up ancient feelings in me that usually lie dormant.
I’m rapidly becoming a fan of this son of Stephen King. I’ve read all three of the novels he’s published to date, and while N0S4A2 and Horns were both extremely good stories, it was his first, Heart-Shaped Box, that cost me sleep. At first, it seems just to be a well-told revengey ghost story: selfish aging rocker Judas Coyne buys the eponymous box and is haunted by the father of a discarded groupie who committed suicide. And the novel delivers some heart-trippingly creepy and desperate moments along Coyne’s wild journey of redemption. But (not that I’m going to give anything away) in the last third, the novel ejects a lot of narrative baggage and starts moving faster and faster. Some things aren’t what you thought they’d be, and others are much, much worse. Hill writes action and visceral terror like a daredevil clown juggling daggers on a luge. I couldn’t stop reading, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it afterwards.
Of course, I halfway wish you had asked what was the next-to-last sleep-stopper. I know it’s just supposed to be a kids’ book, but I found Neil Gaiman’s Coraline way creepier than my kids did. They enjoyed it and then shucked it off. I kept thinking about the Other Mother for days. And nights.
There’s not a lot of stuff that keeps me awake at nights, except taxes, and that’s definitely horrific. If there’s one book I think is scary, it’s probably The Haunting of Hill House. It’s gorgeous and unsettling. I’ve read it more than a dozen times and I have probably owned more editions of it than any sane human should.
Another oldie that still works is The Shining. It works more for me now than before. Now that I am a parent I can completely get this in a very different way than when I was younger. And it’s super scary because I identify with the crazy father. Not that I’m thinking of killing my family with an ax, but sometimes it feels like I am going nuts. There’s so many obligations to be met (money, childcare, work, etc) and snapping like that doesn’t feel that far-fetched. The dysfunctional family is a lot scarier than the actual ghosts and haunting in the hotel because it is raw and real.
The newest thing I was reading that kept me up late at night, because I just kept reading the next story, is Miyuki Miyabe’s Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo. It’s a short story collection and if you are looking for something different, it fits the bill. It’s a book of Japanese ghost stories and much of the fun is seeing how a different culture does ghosts, since we are so used to the European or American Gothic tradition.
However, I have to say that the really horrific thing that has kept me awake in the past few days has been the Uzumaki Deluxe Edition that came out a few days ago. It is…disgusting, beautiful, memorable and horrific all at once. If you have not heard of it, this is a manga of (slightly) interconnected stories set in a cursed Japanese town. The connecting thread is spirals and madness. There’s a lot of body horror and creepy stuff, and I’d say if you are a Lovecraftian you should enjoy this. I honestly wish I could get some parts out of my brain. I’ve had nightmares after reading it. It’s very good, though.
I guess I cheated a bit there because I mentioned two novels, one short story collection, and a manga, but I am a total cheater!
I love all kinds of horror but when it comes to really scaring the bejesus out of me, well-written cosmic horror gets me every time. When I was a kid, I was a voracious reader and read anything that I could get my hands on. I remember finding an old paperback collection of Lovecraft tales and reading the stories, which included “The Call of Cthulhu,” late at night in my bedroom. I recall trying to go to sleep after finishing a few stories, and being so scared lying there in the darkness that I literally couldn’t move.
Barron’s writing is the closest I’ve come to that overwhelming feeling of helplessness—I’ve called him the next coming of Lovecraft for good reason.
The Croning—like Lovecraft’s masterwork At the Mountains of Madness—blends together elements from folkloric fantasy, mystery, and cosmic and psychological horror to create a story that is simultaneously epic and intimate. It is a grand-scale nightmare that grows and darkens as the story unfolds. Largely centered around absentminded geologist Donald Miller and his secretive anthropologist wife Michelle, certain unexplainable events in Miller’s past come in question as he discovers incredible information about his wife, her frequent research trips to remote areas of the globe, and her mysterious family heritage. But the truth, once uncovered, threatens to drive him to the brink of total insanity…
A fantastic novel by an incredibly gifted writer.
The vast majority of my reading, like my writing, is in the area of short stories. And I can’t say that I remember any fiction keeping me awake at night. (Well, not since I was quite young. The whole Sesame Street “There’s a Monster at the End of this Book” thing was, in fact, rather traumatic for five-year-old me.) But if I’m allowed to stretch the definition of horror at least a bit and if I’m allowed to stretch the definition of “kept me awake” to “painted a vision of a world that I found utterly appalling and which we seem to be closer to in some ways than I would have ever imagined possible when I first read the book,” I’d say Stephen King’s The Long Walk. For those not familiar with it, imagine The Hunger Games but a lot grimmer. A whole lot grimmer. One hundred teenagers (the novel, originally written in the 1960s, has them as all being boys) set off on a walk. Once they start, they keep walking until all but one are dead. And as the walk progresses, more and more people throng alongside the road where it takes place to watch the Walkers go by. To watch the Walkers die. You can find in The Hunger Games elements of romance and hope, but The Long Walk is a bleak, bleak march forward. (Maintaining, of course, a speed of at least four miles per hour at all times.) It’s a powerfully told story and one I can’t imagine I’ll ever forget.
I’ve read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House multiple times through the years. The last time, there I was on my bed, 11 a.m., sun pouring through the windows, the cats dozing contentedly… And the bedroom door opened without warning, and I screamed and threw the book across the room. That’s the power of the spell that is this novel.
As someone who writes an awful lot of horror and has been reading and watching horror since elementary school, I’m probably a bit jaded when it comes to being scared by a book. There are a lot of books out there today that I really have enjoyed, but truly frightened enough to stay awake at night? The last time that happened was in college, when I read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary for the first time. I bought the book on a Saturday afternoon, and by 8 p.m. I was so engrossed with it I skipped going to a party. Then, as I got deeper into it, I found myself actually stopping at certain points to turn more lights on in the apartment and get something warm to drink because I had chills running through me.
For those who don’t know it, Pet Sematary is about a man who suffers several losses, ranging from patients in his medical practice to the family cat to family members. But behind his house is the Pet Sematary, a place of dark magics where things that are buried don’t always stay that way. Needless to say, the first time something comes back from the dead, that’s when my chills started! The image of his cat at the front door…wow. King at his best. There have been many books and movies since then that gave me a chill or a start, but none that made me not want to close my eyes and go to sleep.
From Clive Barker’s short story collection In the Flesh, “The Forbidden” is the story of the mythical monster Candyman, and tells the tale of college student Helen Lyle and her thesis on urban myths and legends. After hearing the murderous tale of the Candyman, a vengeful spirit who will appear and kill you if you repeat his name in front of a mirror five times, Helen begins to delve deeper into the legend, becoming mildly obsessed with discovering the origins of how the story came to be. Although skeptical at first, Helen is unnerved by the certainty of the residents’ belief in the monster of the mirror, and her skepticism is soon turned to terror when Candyman reveals himself and declares that he is going to prove to her just how real he is.
The real genius of the story lies not in the presentation of the killer himself, but how he uses Helen to re-establish the belief in his name. As he begins to torment and destroy her, Helen begins to edge closer to madness. These moments are when the story really turns terrifying for me as it steps away from the typical genre tropes and presents something much darker and more psychological, mixing the supernatural (a brutal ghost-monster that appears behind you when you call his name in the dark).
Thank you for offering me a chance to tell you and your readers about my scary book nemesis. Actually, most books don’t tend to keep me awake at night, except when I can’t put them down. However, when my daughter was in pre-school, many moons ago, I was a carpool mom. This illustrious job exposed me to three germy little humans every day, and those germs finally caught up with me when the girls all shared the chicken pox. Once the first spot showed up on the girls, it was too late for me. I was done for.
The little monsterettes each suffered a few spots and a mild fever, but I wasn’t so lucky. I was covered from head to toe, and ran a fever for a week. It was during this time I decided to read Stephen King’s IT—I must have been delirious. Between the fever, the mad itching, and King’s terrifying clown, Pennywise, sleep came fitfully, and my dreams…well, let’s just say, they were nasty.
I can still see that clown and his razor-sharp teeth grinning out from the storm drain. In more recent years, the movie images solidified that horrid picture in my mind. And the kids in the story, I was so worried for them. King was masterful at creating that worry, that empathy…the fear. IT is truly the stuff of nightmares.
Back in those days, before I was writing horror myself, I used to wonder what on earth was wrong with Mr. King. How could he write such horrible things? I truly judged the poor man, thinking he was deeply twisted. And as life often has its sense of humor, people now say the same kind of things about me.
“I can’t believe you could write something like that. What’s wrong with you?”
In the end, I have learned that Karma truly is a bitch.
I’ve read many, many “creepy” stories. Most aren’t scary. The one story that really freaked me out, I mean open-the-door-and-check-the-hallway-freak-you-out (or in this case it was a tent flap) was H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House“. There were several truly creepy elements at play here, and Lovecraft rotated them like a master. First, you had the witch. A witch? No big deal, right? No, not really. The witch (Keziah) had figured out how to manipulate higher dimensions through advanced mathematics, turning the tale into science fiction horror, which is always creepier than typical horror. Oh, and Keziah’s got a friend. A “familiar,” actually, and his name is Brown Jenkin, a rat with a human face. It is said that Brown Jenkin was known for “nuzzling people curiously in the black hours before dawn,” and has the ability to speak all languages. Lovecraft makes great use of Jenkin, and you know things aren’t going to end well when the frequency of “freshly chewed holes in the wall” increases. I do always get a kick out of the use of “nuzzling,” which makes Jenkin at times seem like he’s just trying to get warm or show affection.
The protagonist (Walter Gilman, a college student) moves into a housing unit once occupied by Keziah, and specifically into an odd room, with walls formed in strange ways. The longer Gilman stays in the house, the worse things get. Each night in his dreams, Gilman sees a vague figure in the room with him. And each night the figure looms closer, just standing there, watching him. Not lunging at him, not brandishing claws or a knife…just watching. Soon the figure begins to crystallize, and turns out to be Keziah.
Deeper into his dreams, Gilman floats into an abyss, never able to glimpse his limbs, propelled by combination of involuntary and voluntary movements. Occasionally in the abyss, odd shapes take notice of him. One of those is a multi-dimensional sapient trapezoidal figure, which Gilman assumes is Keziah’s true form.
At that point you realize that there’s a sort of billiards hall across the universe for the worst of the worst. Cheery, right? Surely a super hero exists amongst the odd matter in these time and space truck stops?
In all of this Gilman catches a fever, a friend tries to help, and the intensity of the piece increases: “congeries of iridescent, prolately spheroidal bubbles and a smaller polyhedron of unknown colors and rapidly shifting surface angles” follow him in the abyss dreams. Gilman is being hounded in a creepy house and throughout time (he wakes not remembering all the details, but feeling like he did far more than his mind reveals). Terrifying. Lovecraft isn’t just going for the creep show in the closet. True, polyglottic rats and mathematical genius witches are creepy as hell. But that’s not enough for Lovecraft. A house can be burned down, a haunted well filled in. Axe-murderers and conventional witches can be jailed or executed. But Keziah and Jenkin have it over us “up there,” too, manipulating space and time. It’s hopeless. And that’s the scariest thing of all.
Tagged with: David Lomax • Fran Friel • Jack Fisher • JG Faherty • Kathe Koja • Mercedes M. Yardley • Michael Haynes • Michael Hodges • Mind Meld • Paul Goat Allen • Rachel Aukes • Rocky Wood • Silvia Moreno-Garcia
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