Sunday, October 31, 2010

Terror, A List of Those Few Special Scenes

I don’t think that horror is defined by fear. Atmosphere, yes, certainly, but there’s a difference between atmosphere and fear. For me, atmosphere is the creeping sensation that the story’s real, that it’s inescapable, that it’s all around you. It’s what makes you believe in everything the author says and swallow every loathsome idea whole and unexamined.

Pure terror, though, is something rarer. Anyone who loves to read is obviously changed to a greater or lesser degree by what they’re reading at the moment, but to have that change become the dominant portion of your existence, for words on a page to push the fight or flight reflex to such extremes that you’re ready to beg for your life, well, that takes talent. So no, I don’t think that terror is the point of horror, but I definitely do think that it’s evidence that the author’s doing something right.

This is a Halloween list of those few books that have managed to terrify me, that made me forgot all about it just being a book, that had me on the edge of my seat with one hand gripping a the armrest so hard that my knuckles were turning white, frantically wondering how I could flee the room before It got there. Most of these scenes are not the climaxes of their respective books. Sometimes, they’re almost a throwaway. Yet, without exception, they all scared the shit out of me. So let’s take a look.

Before do, though, a warning: the following has spoilers for all books discussed.

To some degree, I think we all fear being helpless, and I’m damn positive that Evenson was thinking of that when he wrote one of the opening scenes in the second novella of Last Days. Kline is grievously wounded and under guard at a hospital. It starts: “Mr. Kline,” said the voice. “We’re coming for you.” And then the line went dead. (p. 113) There is nowhere for Kline to go, no way for him to get there.

He wakes up as his guard is killed, and then the assassin is standing over his bed. What follows is a game of wits, with one player feigning sleep the entire time, the whole struggle between them one of stealth, with near certain death hanging over every action. Unpredictability is the name of the game, and careful plans are devised, enacted, and abandoned, all without the other party ever knowing about their conception:

Inverting the syringe, she tapped the air out.

Now, he thought, tensing slightly, she will bring the needle close so as to inject it into my arm. When she does, I’ll plunge the mirror’s stylus into her eye and will kill her did.

Only it didn’t work quite the way he imagined. Instead of coming close and injecting it into his arm, she simply injected it into his IV bag.
(p. 116)

Gripping, original, and paralyzing in its strength; this is how you write a horror scene, as far as I’m concerned.

In my review I said that the hypnosis scenes were horrifying, but it’s hard to really understand just how much of a betrayal it is to watch your own vicariously inhabited and completely trusted body go insane, to watch it betray everything it holds dear:

Stop her, said the only voice left in the world, and as she lunged past him, Judge saw himself catch her hair in one first and snap her head back. She was wretched off her feet. Judge pivoted and threw her down. The furniture jumped when she hit the floor. A stack of CDs on an end table slid off and crashed ot the floor without a sound. Jude’s foot found her stomach, a good hard kick, and she jerked herself into a fetal position. The moment after he’d done it, he didn’t know why he’d done it.

There you go, said the dead man.
(p. 114)

Powerful and painful, Hill’s writing leaves you feeling complicit in an act that never happened.

I first read 'Salem's Lot quite a few years ago, on a Sierra Club hiking trip with my family. We’d just gotten back from some six mile uphill monstrosity, and I sat down in the lodge to read. I opened my book, and the two boys within decided they were going to walk through the woods to get to their friends house. As they walked, the woods creaked secretively around them (p. 115), and I started to get a little on edge. A branch snapped somewhere behind them, almost stealthily. (p. 115) Alright, more than a litte. Another branch snapped off to their left. (p. 115) A lot more than a little. Another branch snapped. Well, wait, calm down, Nat, they’re just kids. Nothing bad’s going to happen to the kids, right? Not quite right, as it turns out:

“In just a minute we’ll see the streetlights and feel stupid but it will be good to feel stupid so cunt steps. One…two…three…”

Ralphie shrieked.

“I see it! I see the ghost! I SEE IT!”
(p. 116)

I skipped the next day’s hike, in case you were wondering.

But why was the scene so scary? I’m not sure. On reread a few weeks ago, it was still powerful, but nowhere near as horrifying. I think that the excellence was in large part derived from my situation – being a kid of roughly comparable age to the protagonists, in the woods – but the scene is still perfectly developed. The reader, of course, knows that there’s evil afoot well before it takes place and sympathies far more with Ralphie’s whining than his older brother’s rationalism, but the way the atmosphere gradually builds as branches snap, the way that (even at the end) the older boy is convinced they’re at least being hunted by a human foe, the way the scene climaxes in disorientation and uncertainty, it’s all great writing and Stephen King at his chilling best.

This is the first book that I read that scared me, actually. I’d read Cell before hand, and Needful Things, but both were more entertaining than upsetting. This one, on the other hand, dripped atmosphere. We’re a third of the way through, here, and Danny’s investigating Room 217. He goes into the bathroom, and sees the expected corpse in the tub. Well, duh. It’s a horror novel, after all. The woman was sitting up. (p. 326) Oh shit, that wasn’t supposed to happen. Danny runs, reaches the door, but The door would not open, would not, would not, would not. (p. 328) Shit. Double shit. But it’s okay, because Danny figures out how to get clear, so it’s all gonna be fine:

His eyelids snapped down. His hands curled into balls. His shoulders hunched with the effort of his concentration:

(Nothing there nothing there not there at all NOTHING THERE THERE IS NOTHING!)

Time passed. And he was just beginning to relax, just beginning to realize that the door must be unlocked and he could go, when the years-damp, bloated, fish-smelling hands closed softly around his throat and he was turned implacably around to stare into that dead and purple face.
(p. 328)

No. God damn it, no! That wasn’t supposed to happen. These things just aren’t supposed to. The kid doesn’t get taken by the monster. He was okay, god damn it, O fucking kay! For about thirty seconds, I was determined to never read another word of The Shining. Then I decided that, if I did that, I would never know what had happened, and that would be far, far worse. So I finished and loved the book. But that scene scared me a hair’s breadth short of badly enough to make me give up on horror, and it did much the same thing on reread.

I think the reasons it’s so effective are fairly obvious, here. The investigation of the disturbance is something that we all know, and we play along with King for a bit when he first shows us the monster. Nice description, cool special effects, etc. Then it sits up, and the stakes raise a bit, but it’s okay, because Danny’s running to the door.

This is where the scene goes from entertaining to brilliant. See, here, horror comes from hope. Danny’s going to be okay, if he can just get to that door, except that it won’t open. Alright, fine, we expect the first attempt to fail, but there is a way out, there certainly is because Danny’s found it. And then King snatches that hope away, and it’s far more painful to have your chances dashed before your eyes than it is to have never had a chance.

The Ash Tree builds up its story of witchcraft and vengeance in an engaging but not revolutionary manner. Your average horror reader will no doubt be able to guess that when the rest of the party wishes Sir Richard a better night, his odds aren’t too great. Things happen exactly as you’d expect. What you probably won’t expect, though, is the friendly, inviting way in which the tragedy is told, the amiability of the words multiplying their effect tenfold:

And now we are in his bedroom, with the light out and the Squire in bed. The room is over the kitchen, and the night outside still and warm, so the window stands open.

There is very little light about the bedstead, but there is a strange movement there; it seems as if Sir Richard were moving his head rapidly to and fro with only the slightest possible sound. And now you would guess, so deceptive is the half-darkness, that he had several heads, round and brownish, which move back and forward, even as low as his chest. It is a horrible illusion. Is it nothing more? There! something drops off the bed with a soft plump, like a kitten, and is out the window in a flash; another – four – and after that there is quiet again.

“Thou shalt seek me in the morning, and I shall not be.”

As with Sir Mathew, so with Sir Richard – dead and black in his bed!
(p. 48)

The simple, unadorned language, the easy candor of the words, all of it lures you in to the easy confessions of a friend. Instead, you’re treated to the writhing monstrosities that cover a sleeping, a dying, man’s form.

Lovecraft is unmatched when it comes to atmosphere. A Shadow Over Innsmouth builds up a rich tapestry of history and weaves a palpable feeling of unease. Still, Lovecraft stories are more cerebral than visceral, the ultimate horror more philosophical than emotional. Or, at least, that’s true of every story besides A Shadow Over Innsmouth. Because, see, while I was getting drawn further and further in by the view from the window, something was coming up the stairs:

I was irresolutely speculating on when I had better attack the northward door, and on how I could least audibly manage it, when I noticed that the vague noises underfoot had given place to a fresh and heavier creaking of the stairs. A wavering flicker of light shewed through my transom, and the boards of the corridor began to groan with a ponderous load. Muffled sounds of possible vocal origin approached, and at length a firm knock came on my door. (p. 842)

That knock broke all the rules. Lovecraft stories were about approaching elder gods, about learning horrible truths, about realizing that some cosmic force was about to crush your world without ever really knowing it was there. A Shadow Over Innsmouth, though, climaxes with a chase scene. All of a sudden, the cosmic force was right fucking behind you, and you were running for your life. The descriptive language that drew you so far into the story is suffocating, trapping the character in a world of sludgy details.

I read this story in a sitting at an airport, and I didn’t look up once until I was done. If I’d gotten there a few minutes later, I would’ve missed my plane without noticing until I’d turned the last page. As it was, I was practically shaking when I took my seat.

Sandkings is the story of a horrible thing happening to a horrible person. No big deal, right? Sucks for him, we laugh, move on, etc. Well, not quite. Because this bad thing is an army of sandkings all over every inch of his house. And those things are freaking terrifying, no matter who they’re directed at. It’s impossible to appreciate how much of a crescendo this tale builds to without reading it. The sandkings are everywhere and unstoppable, and the specialists called in to defeat them are slaughtered. The main character runs and…well, the twist in the final sentences is just yet another break breakingly awful thing about this story. Unfortunately, no quotes here, as I’ve been meaning to reread Sandkings for a while now, and I don’t want to dilute the effect by rustling through it a few days beforehand.

Banquet for the Damned’s opening is filled with little dream sequences. To crib my own review:

Throughout the first quarter of the narrative, we find ourselves inside character after character’s heads. They are not in their beds. They do not know how they got where they are. They have been suffering increasingly disturbing nightmares for days on end. Within a few pages, they will be dead. The inevitability of these sections is horrifying, and I found myself reading as fast as I could, sometimes having to force myself to not skip whole paragraphs, because growing acquainted with these pre-damned characters, understanding their thoughts and what makes them tick, was simply too painful. And, since this is horror, I mean that in the best possible way.

Horror can come from hope and from hopelessness, and this was definitely the latter. Disorientation begins the scenes and death ends them, the same every time, and you’re left watching as yet another sleepwalker is ripped to shreds. It’s a night empty of cloud and as still as space (p. 1), and the reader’s all too aware that it will end with death.

So, readers, what're your special scenes?


  1. The only book that ever scared me was Silence of the Lambs.

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