scholars and rogues

WordsDay: the creeps, and where to get them

Forget politics for a moment.By Ann Ivins

Forget terrorism, torture, genocide, mad dictators, the fate of the world, the state of your IRA, that fleeting pain in your left arm, the whereabouts of your daughter every time she leaves the house.

Let’s be afraid… for the fun of it.

In honor of Hallowe’en – and not the Harvest Hop or the Fall Festival or some other eye-gougingly inane euphemism, the real Hallowe’en – a murder of Scrogues share with you the stories, books and poems that first terrified them as children, or the tales that make them shiver in their intellectually elitist boots today.  Because let’s face it: the boogeyman doesn’t care about your voting record, your political views or your rhetorical skills.

He wants to know when you’re going to turn out the light.

Chris “Maniac” Mackowski

The first thing I read that scared the bejeesums out of me was a black and white horror comic some kid in the neighborhood had. I don’t remember the title of the comic or of the particular story, but there was a fat kid who loved to pull the wings off flies. By the end of the story, some mad scientist-type had exacted reveng by turning the kid into a human fly kind of thing. One of the last panels was of the fat kid slumped against a wall, with saliva (or maybe it was vomit) dripping out of his mouth, flies buzzing around him… I was in middle school, I think, when I read my first “grown up” novel, Stephen King’s Cujo. The fact that Cujo was a big rabid dog – something that could actually be real – scared the crap out of me. But what scared me most, honestly, was the fact that the protagonist had had a torrid affair that was tearing her family apart. It hadn’t really occurred to me at that point in my life that people would do that to each other.

I lived just outside of King’s hometown of Bangor, Maine, at the time, so King became a popular reading choice, although I can’t say I particularly love his stuff these days (The Stand, IT, and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon are all fantastic, though). I enjoy Stoker, Shelley, and Wells far more.

Ann here. I think the best things King ever wrote after The Stand were his collaborations with Peter Straub, The Talisman and Black House. Of the two, Black House is the more classic “horror” novel – a physical location is a repository of evil and no one quite knows why.

Dr. Denny “Tatas of Terror” Wilkins

I was a child of the ‘50s. What horrified me — and enthralled me — were comic books. Take, for example, this “House of Mystery” cover from December 1959 in which humans become “Prisoners of the Robot Factory.” Or the May 1952 cover of “Black Cat Mystery” depicting the “Last Man on Earth” after a nuclear holocaust.

The comics of the ‘50s flayed the mind with terror, horror, nearly naked wimmin and plenty of gore. Similarly, for a young lad barely a teenager and just beginning to sense the stirrings of hormones, comic book covers teased. We all remember Wonder Woman, but who remembers Jann of the Jungle (who also had long, dark, wavy hair, a strapless top, tight boy shorts and a weapon at her waist)?

But the horror, apparent lasciviousness, sexual imagery and blood and gore were not good for us, adults decided. In 1954, Sen. Estes Kefauver, a Tennessee Democrat, convened hearings. Among those who testified was the apparently uptight Dr. Frederic Wertham, who later that year published “Seduction of the Innocent,” in which he contended comic imagery of violence and sex was a root cause of juvenile delinquency.

Well, there was the time in 1956 when I was a firebug … but juvie records are sealed.

Me again. If you have a yen for illustrated nightmares, Ben Templesmith is the illustrator/writer for you, whether it’s his art for other writers (30 Days of Night) or his own dark and funny series, Wormwood.

Russ “Yog-Sothoth” Wellen

My horror writer of choice isn’t original — he’s Stephen King’s favorite — but it’s heartfelt (despite the author’s rampant anti-Semitism). H.P. Lovecraft was not only a master of horror, but of suspense. His “tricks” were actually the result of hard work: meticulous attention to detail and taking the drawing-out of build-ups to a climax to excruciating lengths.

In 2006 Phil Baker reviewed HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life by the the respected French literary novelist Michel Houellebecq, with an introduction by Stephen King for London’s Observer. For Houellebecq, “Lovecraft’s ‘magnificent’ tales ‘vibrate like incantations’ … One of the things that makes Lovecraft so distinctive is the horror he finds in the idea of infinitely deep time and space and the knowledge of a monstrously indifferent universe alien to our little world of humanist values. Contemplating it offers ‘sublime’ thrills, in the old sense of the word: the sort people used to get from gazing at mountains, and now get from reading the likes of Stephen Hawking.”

Like Russ, I love the creeping unease in Lovecraft’s work, the carefully built realization that there is a vast and dangerous mystery all around which we will never fully grasp. Lovecraft never shows you the “why;” just the fragments of “what” at the edge of the abyss – “The Rats in the Wallsgave me terribly vivid nightmares.

Wendy “Dystopiarama” Redal

1984 by George Orwell. Mind you, I read it in high school in the late 1970s when the Cold War was still very much with us. However, my fears were not of what my own Room 101 might hold if there were a Communist takeover, but of the potential for the erosion of freedom in seemingly rational societies through the twisting of language, and the use of language to establish an environment in which fear was created and fostered. That may have been the genesis of my eventual long road through graduate school in which I became consumed with the power of symbols and seeing that power made manifest through the ability to manipulate them.

A more recent scare came with Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. The scene in which the swordboat pitch-poles as it tries to slide up the face of a 100-foot monster wave, then founders, with the drowning deaths of its crew rendered in straightforward biological detail…well, just say that I vowed I’d never cross the Atlantic in any sort of boat, including a giant cruise ship, after I read this one, despite having worked aboard such ships in the past.

1984 didn’t affect me much as a teen – too involved in navel-gazing, I imagine – but a few years later Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale terrified me with its matter-of-fact first person narrative of an easily imaginable and absolutely horrifying future. She did it to me again in 2004 with Oryx and Crake.

J S “The Conqueror Worm” O’Brien

My own story is from Mrs. Wright’s sixth grade class (elementary school for me in that place and time, so I had only one teacher all year).

Some days before Hallowe’en, she had us pull the shades over the enormous windows of our Boydton Elementary School classroom with its 14-foot ceilings, turned off the overhead lights, and proceeded to read Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” To this day, I can still hear her making the heart sounds and almost hear the panel grating in the lantern. With a class already traumatized but begging for more, she turned to “The Pit and the Pendulum,” which introduced me to the Inquisition in a particularly rat-eaten way.

I have loved Poe ever since, but to this day, the hair on the back of my neck stands up when I think of that day.

Poe for me is more about the poetry – madness in verse, chaos in measure – but I read him voraciously and thoroughly before my brother made away with my Complete Edgar Allan Poe.  And yes you did, Jason.

Dr. Sam “No Nightlight” Smith

I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding horror lit and film. I know other people get a jolt out having the bejeezus scared out of them, but when I need a case of the running terrors I watch a few minutes of “Good Morning America.” That’s aplenty.

Not only that, but I have kind of an odd relationship with darkness. I find beauty in the dark, not horror. I recall reading “The Eve of St. Agnes” in Jim Booth’s English V class at Ledford High School in 1978, and while I know that wasn’t supposed to scare me, I also don’t know that I was supposed to see it as the most staggeringly compelling, gorgeous thing I’d ever read, either. Or maybe it was – hard to say with the Romantics.

All that said, there’s no denying the shivers Poe sent up my spine. “Tell-tale Heart?” Yeah, that one was chilling, and “A Cask of Amontillado” messed with me, as well. Hawthorne had his unnerving moments, too, I suppose.

More recently, our friend Ubertramp gave me House of Leaves, and by the time I realized that it was going to mess with me I was already hooked.

Browsing through it at the bookstore, I thought House of Leaves was going to be a lame, gimmicky takeoff on Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Bought it anyway. Took it home. Read it straight through and began physically shaking near the end – I was that unnerved.

Brian “Rising Beast” Angliss

I’m not a blood and guts horror fan, so I’ve never really enjoyed the gruesome stuff that Stephen King writes. That said, however, when I first swiped The Stand from my sister’s bookshelves as a young teen, I was entranced. Not only was it not King’s standard “blood and gore upon the floor and me without my spoon” fare, the horror was essentially intellectual – science and technology destroyed the world and yet ultimately provided the ironic means by which it was saved.

The same cannot be said about the post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach by Nevil Shute, a book I read with my parent’s permission at age 13. I remember being struck by how fatalistic it was, how these people would euthanize each other and then suicide rather than live another day even afflicted with radiation sickness. I credit this book, along with many other “end of the world” books I’ve loved over the years, with giving me a “rage against the dying of the light” mentality.

There are two books of the Bible which influenced me strongly as I was growing up: Job and Revelations. Job I read my senior year of high school, and it was one of the catalysts that led to my finally abandoning Catholicism and Christianity two years later. Revelations is some of the most awful (in the “full of awe” sense) writing I’ve ever read. The images of the opening of the seals and the release of the four horsemen, the dragon, and the rising of the beast still make my jaw go slack.

And finally, I discovered H.P. Lovecraft when I was about 16, and as a smart, mathematically-inclined student, I fell in love with his short story “Dreams in the Witch House.” The idea that a mathematician could probe the same strange and blasted dimensions with his mind that a witch and follower of the mad god Yog-Sothoth could discover with her intuition appealed then – and still does.

Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories also follow a scientist investigating the natural laws of the supernatural, and his ghost stories are sublime, particularly “The Wendigo” and “The Empty House.”

Back to me, and I’m not even going to try to come up with a silly name. As a child, I reveled in science fiction, horror and mystery. Alfred Hitchcock’s anthologies introduced me to authors I read to this day, and still, one of my favorite things to do is to dive into every new The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, the glorious brainchild of editor Ellen Datlow, now in its 21st year.

What scares me now is what has always scared me: the unknown, or more specifically, the unknowable, touching the edges of our lives and leaving us shaken, even destroyed, without ever fully understanding what has happened.  M. R. James, Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell are masters of the ghost story; Patricia Highsmith, Gahan Wilson and Roald Dahl combine the macabre and the everyday wonderfully and well; Ray Bradbury’s “scary children” stories (“The Small Assassin,” “The Veldt,” “Zero Hour”) are gems of paranoia justified; but the two most unsettling, beautifully written and perfectly paced novels I will ever read are unequivocally Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

And now I will go make sure all the doors are locked before re-reading House of Leaves.

Happy Hallowe’en.

image credit: Ben Templesmith from 30 Days of Night

Categories: scholars and rogues

8 replies »

  1. Thanks for the shoutout on YBFH but I have to admit it was not my brainchild. Jim Frenkel, our packager recruited me and Terri lo those many years ago, and then –with my help, recruited Kelly and Gavin to take over for her.

  2. Yes, King has written his share of blood and gore, but there’s a lot more there than his offhand critics think. (No, I don’t necessarily mean Angliss) I can think of very few instances (aside from “Christine”, and even King hates that one) where the violence was not in service of a good-to-very-good story. And few if any contemporary writers manage characterization that even comes close to his. Even when he lets himself go, as he did with “Cell”, the gore of the first few chapters was exactly what it had to be to make the story have the impact it had.
    Personally, I’ve always been a big fan of the short story, and he’s got those down, as well. If you get a chance, find the collection “Just After Sunset” and read the first story, titled “Willa”, as well as “N”. No blood. Actually, only “N” is written to be scary. And my current all-time favorite King short story has got to be “Room 1408” from “Everything’s Eventual”. Just stay away from the goddam movie.
    Speaking of movies, I have to get in plugs for my favorite two genre films: If you want werewolves, rent “Dog Soldiers”. If it’s vampires, and you feel the need to scrape off all the sparkly, wussy, just plain perversions of the concept, check out a much younger Kathryn Bigelow’s “Near Dark”. After you’ve watched it a few times, you can amuse yourself by counting all the actors who are destined for future roles in James Cameron films. :-).

  3. To Brian Angliss-

    *asshole mode on* I believe you mean “Revelation”, not “Revelations”. *asshole mode off*

    Sorry, man. It just swept over me.

  4. @Chris Mackowski, thanks for letting me know that others were creeped out by that fly story as kids. I have a very similar recollection, down to it being a neighbor’s comic! And I’ve been going crazy trying to track it down the last year or so. My search has finally panned out, turns out it was written by Gerry Conway of all people, and this site posted the whole story…!