“Something Wicked This Way Comes,” one of my favorite Ray Bradbury stories, floats into consciousness like the drifting leaves this time of year. October is a ghostly month and never fails to bring out my closeted admiration for the thrill of a fine, haunting story. Ghost stories instill a sense of mystery in me as large as death and as horribly fascinating as the tiny microbes feeding on compost in the big black box out back. After all, things are dying out there. They’ve been doing it forever; we’ll join everything else eventually and so perhaps should sit up and take notice. Writers and artists owe it to themselves and to their audiences to honor the darkness that grows long with the shadows in the fall of the year.
Horror is often an under-appreciated form of storytelling. One can see why by observing the scary story’s evolution at the theater. “Halloween 1, 2, 3, 4, etc” and the infamous Jason capitalize on gross visual and sound displays. Not that I don’t admire a really good screamer; I do. Think of Hitchcock’s shower scene in Psycho. I simply prefer my blood to be thick with meaningful content. Raw gore and guts have slowly replaced the elements of surprise, mystery, setting, and the silent scream stifled in our breasts at certain unspeakable thoughts.
Do literary snobs frown on the likes of Stephen King? Of course they do. He’ll never win a Pulitzer, but I’m sure he could care less as he banks another few million from books like Carrie, Salem’s Lot, or The Shining. His early works were some of the most terrifying tales I’ve ever read, and several of the screenplays created from his stories even did his writing justice. He also wrote a wonderful book for writers called On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Anyone who has read him must admit that he is a master storyteller, has a genius for characterization, and tops a long list of authors in his chosen genre.
Yet, no writer explodes full blown from the publisher’s brain. We form a long line of inspiration and are always reaching back to grasp the hand that held the pen before us. King hails from a most honorable gallows of thrill-seeking writers. Mary Wollstonecraft created Frankenstein from the fragments of a dream. She was challenged to pen her story by a group of writing friends including her future husband Percy Shelly, Lord Byron, and John Polidori as they swapped ghost stories during a winter’s rain around a blazing fire. I’m sure King, like many authors, was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, civil war veteran Ambrose Bierce, British author Algernon Blackwood (whose scary nature stories top my list of favorites), and Bram Stoker who brought the living dead to life.
Count Dracula was so real to me as a seventh grader that I had to put a bible on top of the book before I could go to sleep at night. He was a vampire’s vampire before they became fodder for teen movies, leading simple everyday adolescent lives full of affection and sweet teen sex. Stoker gave me a taste for blood and every year at Christmas, a book of horror topped my list of wishes. I’m sure Santa was slightly horrified, but I got my book of stories by Alfred Hitchock and Twilight Zone shorts written by authors who were unafraid of the dark, or were at least willing to face their fears in order to make us shiver.
This year, read at least one ghost story or novel that will scare the wits out of you. Read it a second time in order to study how the author managed to elicit such a response. If you think reading such material is a negative way to spend your time, I dare you to compare the scariest fiction with the present state of the world or the ongoing presidential election. Now that is frightening! Haunted tales are a great way to shapeshift us out of the mundane. They sharpen our powers of observation and imagination, and remind us that there is more to life, and death, than meets the eye.