Welcome to Spooktober!
I love Halloween. There’s something about the way the light changes at this time of year that makes me feel like anything is possible, that there is still magic in the world: even if the magic isn’t always something you’d want to encounter.
Now that October is upon us, and since I’m not rational in my love for all things Halloween-y, I thought it would be fun to talk about some of my favourite scary stories over the next month. I’m hoping to cover one a day, and I haven’t decided if I’m going to allow examples from media besides prose fiction (so many video games…), so I guess we’ll have to see what happens.
Anyway, since we’re already two days in, I’ve got some catching up to do, so for today, I’ve jotted down some thoughts about two of my favourite horror stories. Let me know what you think!
1. Carrie by Stephen King
Alfred Hitchcock once observed that “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.“ Fear doesn’t come from jack-in-the-box jump scares, but from the effect that it has on our nerves, the fraying sense that at any moment Something Will Happen.
The beauty of Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie, is that we can all see the tragedy coming.
Using a quasi-epistolary format— cribbed interviews and newspaper clippings that hint at an awful tragedy that hasn’t happened yet. The tension builds and builds as teenage outsider Carrie White is bullied by her peers, terrorised by her fundamentalist mother and neglected by her teachers, while at the same time developing her mysterious powers of telekinesis.
The book makes no secret of the fact that something terrible is going to happen at the prom. The story seems to unfold in slow-motion, like watching a car crash: we wish we could stop it, but there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
Carrie is a novel that has only become more relevant in an age of cyberbullying and school shootings: one of King’s great strengths is his capacity to root horror in the mundane. His characters are real people, real specimens of the human condition: King roots horror in the human condition: no one is innocent, and most of his characters are despicable, yet relatable. It’s far too easy to see ourselves in Carries’s teachers and classmates, whether we want to admit it or not: the horror becomes all too personal when we have to ask ourselves if we would have behaved any differently.
It’s this mundanity that gives Carrie its edge. If you were to lift out the supernatural elements from Carrie and it still works as a terrifying object lesson in how not to treat people, a chilling account of a young woman finally snapping under pressure. After all, if the horror’s of today’s society have taught us anything, it’s that no one needs psychic powers to become a monster.
2. The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe
For the most part, Edgar Allen Poe eschews cheap scares in favour of tension and uncomfortable meditations on the dark side of the soul. There’s a lot to talk about in The Fall of the House of Usher, a remarkable feat given its short length: how Poe uses macrocosm and microcosm to reflect the mindset of his doomed characters, the metafictional elements, the subtext of psychological decay and hypochondria. But there’s something more specific that made the story stick in my head.
The Fall of the House of Usher is the first instance I can remember reading a jump scare in a book.
There is a moment towards the end of The Fall of the House of Usher that just clicks, where everything in the story comes together and the reader finds out exactly what is going on, and why Roderick Usher is so disturbed. I won’t give it away— it won’t take long to read, and it’s readily available in the public domain— but it’s always struck me as remarkable that Poe was somehow able to make me leap in my seat without all the tools that visual media like film has at its disposal
The scare feels all the better for feeling earned: it works because the author has built up to it, and understands that one good scare is all a story needs, that it’s enough to simply leave the reader in anticipation of the next fright without ever delivering a knockout blow.