Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Best Book That Really Was Scary.

October Is Book Month continues!

Note the actual title of this nomination. It's not The Best Scary Book, it's The Best Book That Really Was Scary.

When I watch horror movies (hang with me; I'll get back to books in a second) I have a couple of rules: Lights have to be off. No stopping the movie for any reason. And I don't leave the movie, at all.

I started those rules because I tried to watch The Exorcist on regular TV, with commercial interruptions, while the kids were home. And it was not scary at all. Nothing says "Don't be scared" more than a Tide commercial.

I also tested those rules, with Oldest. When I told her that The Amityville Horror was the scariest movie I'd ever seen, she doubted me, so we watched it and I made her watch it my way -- no lights, no bathroom breaks. And she was scared, even though the special effects in that movie are essentially some Christmas lights and chocolate syrup.

I watch horror movies that way because horror movies require, to really scare a person, that the person not break the spell. More than special effects, horror movies are about getting your mind absorbed in the story and the feeling and the mood, and anything that breaks that feeling and mood causes a re-set of the whole process. So seeing flashes of scary images and a little girl crabwalking down the stairs, and then suddenly cutting to teenagers with drools of cheese wanging around while a 1980s modern rock song plays, and then back to the crabwalking, equals not scary.

Which is, in a nutshell, the problem with scary books, something I struggle with all the time because I like to write horror stories. Books need to be read, which means that a light needs to be on. And books are read while sitting on a couch, or on the bus, or an airplane, or at the kitchen table. And, books are (for the most part) not read in one sitting, so by definition you break the spell the author puts on you.

That, I think, is why some excellent horror stories, while being excellent, aren't as scary as movies and even TV shows -- because the spell gets broken. If I read Heart Shaped Box, a horror story I'd give a 7 out of 10 to, it's got some scary scenes and a great premise and it's interesting and well-written and moves right along, but it took me two weeks to read it and in between reading scary scenes, I was giving the twins a bath and having them get excited by the "Supercold" water and I was going to the office to "work" and so I had to keep getting in and out of the mindset that's required to be scary. Whereas, if I watch a one hour episode of "Masters of Horror" and don't interrupt it and watch a girl battle off some kind of ogre-thing in a largely unexplained but still creepy setting, the scares settle in and don't leave.

That's too bad, and also very good. It's too bad that scary books can't be read in one sitting in the dark, preferably on a windy, blustery, October night when the tree branches are crackling and the leaves are rustling and the moon seems to give off even less light than usual even though it seems larger than usual, too -- a Madeleine L'Engle kind of night-- too bad because books, as I keep saying, engage your imagination, and everyone knows that there's nothing more powerful than your own imagination, and if you doubt that for even a second, stay in a stranger's house in a bad part of town and then listen to the noises the house makes at 2 a.m. -- and once you hear the noises, imagine for just one second that the noises are a pack of demons breaking into the house to come get you. Then come back and tell me your imagination isn't better than any special effects ever created. After you get defibrillated.

It's very good, though, that scary books can't be read in one sitting because people still try to write scary books and writing scary books requires doing more than having some water dripping from the ceiling in a New York apartment building or a little girl getting sucked into her TV; writing a book that really scares the reader requires getting under the reader's skin and into their mind and then knocking some things around; it requires that the writer do the equivalent of those 2 a.m. sounds-and-wonderings, and that's tough to do.

So tough that I can only think of one book that ever did it successfully -- a book that I'm still scared of, today, 18 years later.

A quick aside: This is not to say that there are not other great horror books out there, books that have scary moments and books that are creepy and books that are well worth reading -- Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz and A Good And Happy Child by Justin Evans are two that spring to mind right away -- it's just to say that only one book really and truly and actually scared me and still does.

That book was Stephen King's The Stand.

I'm creeped out just thinking of it right now, and it's broad daylight outside.

In 1990, I lived in an apartment with a high school friend and worked at a Subway shop while taking a semester (okay, four semesters) off from college. One Sunday night, I came back from a day of making turkey & bacon subs and watched some TV and then got bored but I wasn't tired, and I had no money plus, it was Sunday night and all my friends had classes the next day. But I had nothing new to read, so I borrowed the book The Stand from my roommate, who wasn't home to keep me from borrowing it, and began reading it at about 8:00 at night.

I didn't stop until about 3:00 a.m. and even then I only stopped because I had to be at work at 9 a.m. the next day. (No, I don't know why it was necessary to open a sandwich shop at 9 a.m., either.)

I went to work and worked that day and came home and began reading again, and I did that each day for the next three days, four days total to read over a thousand pages, but I couldn't stop.

And, equally important, I couldn't stop thinking about it.

From the first line -- Hapscomb's Texaco sat on Number 93 just north of Arnette, a pissant four-street burg about 110 miles from Houston -- to the [SPOILER ALERT!] last line -- Life was such a wheel that no man could stand upon it long. And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again.-- I was hypnotized by it.

I couldn't shake it off. The story, if you don't know, has to do with a virus that gets accidentally unleashed and kills off pretty much everybody in the world, except a few who are immune to it. Those few wander through what's left of the world, slowly gathering in one of two locations: some are drawn to the side of good, and some to the side of evil, as they try to recreate society according to the vision of their respective leaders.

Evil is embodied, in The Stand, by "the Walkin' Dude," possibly the greatest bad guy ever if only because Walkin' Dude still sometimes haunts me like this: people will say "Walking" and for a moment, every now and then, the words Walkin Dude pop into my mind and I get a little chilled. (Walkin' Dude had a name, Randall Flagg, but I prefer Walkin' Dude because it manages to be creepily 70s-ish).

Other words that can do that include Trashcan because of Trashcan Man, and references to Boulder, Colorado -- where much of the book takes place.

Those words stayed with me, those feelings stayed with me, for 18 years, just as they stayed with me the entire time I was reading The Stand -- a feeling not just of being scared, which was in there, but a feeling of being morbidly depressed and saddened and fearful; The Stand, in the best possible way, seeped into my skin and became a part of me. At work, walking to and from work, eating dinner or lunch, in the back of my mind all the time was a feeling of ... despair.

When I finished reading The Stand, it took a few days to shake off that feeling, and I never quite totally did it -- as you can tell, because it still is freaky to me, the story and the feelings and the images and the ending and the whole process.

There is very little of the jump-out-and-go-boo! in The Stand; horror books rarely work that way because they can't; there are, in fact, very few creepy or scary images altogether (although the ones that are there, like the walk through Lincoln Tunnel, are seriously scary). What is scary about The Stand is what Stephen King does so well in so much of his writing -- the deeper level of scare, the psychological torment that people go through, the slowly-setting-in, numbing horror of just how bad things are.

Other Stephen King works (the movie The Mist springs to mind immediately) do this, too, but The Stand did it better, and what The Stand did better is this: The surface horrors -- corpses and evil guys walkin' around and shootings and stuff -- lay over the underlying, more terrifying threats, like a rotting frosting over a decrepit cake: Look at the outside, and it's gross and disgusting, but cut a piece out and it'll haunt you forever. So while reading The Stand and getting creeped out and rooting for the good guys to please win, all the while, the beneath-the-surface problems and facts are slowly sinking in: there's nobody left. 99.4% of the human race is dead. There is evil walking the earth. Could I survive in this? What if they didn't let me into Boulder? Would I want to survive in this?

It sure made working in a sub shop seem a lot more tolerable.

That's what it takes to make a book scary; not just conjuring up a ghost or a vampire or some demon... it has to make your mind begin working and working and working, churning things over and mulling them and then the more it does that, the more your mind wants to go back and work on the problem and try to make it turn out good but the more it does not turn out good, and the problem has to be something that could affect you in real life, where you will never actually meet a woman who eats people in order to trick the demons into sparing her soul, but you might meet people who want to kill you because you don't believe in their way of life, and you might meet people who would betray you because they thought they loved you and found out you didn't love them, and you might meet those people -- it's possible -- after 99.4% of the rest of the world has died.

The plot of the book is too sprawling, the characters too complex and numerous, to really spell out in detail... and that's a shame, too, because to say "Creepy end-of-the-world/good-vs.-evil book" doesn't do it justice.

What does do The Stand justice is to say that if you read it, you will never forget it and it will forever creep you out. That's excellent, and that's what makes The Stand The Best Book That Really Was Scary.

Here on TBOE,
October is Book Month!

The Best Book I Want To Re-Read Over And Over Again!

The Best Book To Teach Kids That Monsters, and Books, Are Nothing To Be Afraid Of.

The Best Book To Read If You Were A Kid Who Pretended To Be A Superhero.

The Best Song That Is About Writing, or Being In, A Book.

The Best Book That I Think of When I Think of The Words "The Best Book."

The Best Author I Have Exactly 39 Reasons For Liking


Do you like sports? Do you like Gisele Bundchen? Do you hate sports blogs, though? Then read Nonsportsmanlike Conduct! -- the sports blog for people who love sports but hate sports blogs.


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This is really weird stuff

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