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How to write scary, by Donald Hounam

When I was a child, my parents bought me a collection of M.R. James’s ghost stories for Christmas, and one, Lost Hearts, has haunted me ever since. Its climax is the apparition of the ghosts of two murdered children:

Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands clasped over her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing, raised his arms in the air with an appearance of menace and of unappeasable hunger and longing. The moon shone upon his almost transparent hands, and Stephen saw that the nails were fearfully long and that the light shone through them. As he stood with his arms thus raised, he disclosed a terrifying spectacle. On the left side of his chest there opened a black and gaping rent; and there fell upon Stephen’s brain, rather than upon his ear, the impression of one of those hungry and desperate cries that he had heard resounding over the woods of Aswarby all that evening. In another moment this dreadful pair had moved swiftly and noiselessly over the dry gravel, and he saw them no more.

When I read this as a child, it scared the hell out of me. Now I realise that James’s stories are compromised by their minimal psychological insight. His ghosts and apparitions may be famously dusty, decayed and malevolent; their victims, sadly, are mere cardboard.

Far more scary, it seems to me, is Shirley Jackson.

In The Haunting of Hill House (1959), four people undertake to spend a period of time in a notoriously haunted house. One of them, Eleanor Vance, is soon woken in the night by the sound of something banging on the doors along the hallway outside her room.

It sounded, Eleanor thought, like a hollow noise, a hollow bang, as though something were hitting the doors with an iron kettle, or an iron bar, or an iron glove. It pounded regularly for a minute, and then suddenly more softly, and then again in a quick flurry, seeming to be going methodically from door to door at the end of the hall….

“Go away,” she shouted wildly. “Go away, go away!”

There was complete silence, and Eleanor thought, standing with her face against the door, Now I’ve done it; it was looking for the room with someone inside.

Hill House itself is famously, as the novel’s opening paragraph states, “not sane”; but that insanity is of the ostentatious “Look at me, I’m mad, I am” variety. It is Eleanor who is truly, profoundly and terrifyingly disturbed. The supernatural forces unleashed by the house are merely the wind that causes her body to swing wildly on the rope that she has tied round her own neck. And since we’re inside her head, we swing with her:

“You can’t get in,” Eleanor said wildly, and again there was a silence, as though the house listened with attention to her words, understanding, cynically agreeing, content to wait. A thin little giggle came, in a breath of air through the room, a little mad rising laugh, the smallest whisper of a laugh, and Eleanor heard it all up and down her back…

Jackson doesn’t even need supernatural manifestations to scare us. In a short story, Paranoia, a man, on his way home with a birthday present for his wife, encounters a stranger with a moustache, wearing a light-coloured hat:

Funny looking guy, Mr. Beresford thought, lightly touching his own clean-shaven lip. Perhaps the man thought Mr. Beresford’s almost unconscious gesture was offensive; at any rate he frowned and looked Mr. Beresford up and down before he turned away. Ugly customer, Mr Beresford thought.

That might seem to be the end of the matter, but the stranger keeps popping up with increasing improbability and relentless malevolence. More and more, complete strangers seem to be part of a city-wide conspiracy directed at the hapless Mr. Bersford. He takes refuge in a store, but his nemesis follows him in and, when Mr. Beresford tries to leave, the store clerk blocks his way…

Mr Beresford realised that he was being forced to step backward as the two men advanced on him.

“Easy does it,” the man in the light hat said to the clerk. They continued to move slowly forward.

“See here, now,” Mr Beresford said, with the ineffectuality of the ordinary man caught in such a crisis; he still clutched his box of candy under his arm.”See here,” he said, feeling the solid weight of the wall behind him.

“Ready,” the man in the light hat said. The two men tensed, and Mr. Berseford, with a wild yell, broke between them and ran for the door.

Moran-Shirley-Jackson-200

I think Jackson succeeds in being scary because, wrapping us up in the precise elegance of her prose, she takes us deep inside the head of the scared person. We identify with Eleanor and Mr. Beresford. Their fears become our fears — not just of the immediate, perceived threat (something banging on doors, a stranger in a light hat), but for our own mental stability.

Jackson is writing about our terrors of physical dissolution, mental disintegration, and extinction. And those — not some unlocked door banging in the wind, or apparition in a white sheet — are the terrors that wake us up in the night and clutch at our hearts.

That’s her genius: she puts us in a place where we really don’t want to be. Reading Paranoia, I find myself murmuring, in the trembling voice of a child, “I don’t like this… it’s scary.”

 

DH mugshot


Donald Hounam

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Donald Hounam grew up just outside Oxford. He toyed with medieval history at St Andrews University, and wrote a PhD thesis on apocalyptic beliefs in the early Crusades. He threw paint around at the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford, then found himself in Dublin where he threw more paint around and reviewed films until his flatmate set the building alight one Christmas, whereupon he scuttled back to England and started making up stories.

He is guilty of two novels featuring forensic sorcerer Frank Sampson: Gifted (2015) — published in the US as A Dangerous Magic
and Pariah (2016). He is currently taking a stab at a ghost story…

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