Friday, 16 September 2011

RIP VI: My musings on scary reading

In a recent post, Susan at You Can Never Have Too Many Books mused about reading horror stories. The questions she asked herself were picked up by Emily at Telecommuter Talk, and comparing their thoughts on the subject naturally led me to consider my own reasons for reading dark and scary tales. So I too have taken the questions Susan asked as the basis for my own musings on why I embrace RIP every year with such enthusiasm.

Why do I read scary stories?
Now, it has to be said right at the start that Susan is way braver than me when it comes to this sort of thing – I can’t really say that I read horror stories, or at least, not very often, and I’m really hopeless at horror films, but nonetheless I enjoy a good dark fantasy. One of my problems with horror is that often the bad things seem to happen for no reason, so a fantasy world in which demons or whatever are part of the fabric is more satisfying to me. I guess for many the breakdown of order in our familiar world is enough of a raison d’être, but I channel my need for this into crime fiction, which usually offers a logic for the eruption of disorder into everyday life (or enough of one for me).

Do I like being thrilled? 
Almost all my favourite books from childhood involve magic, with the characters overcoming great obstacles to win through in the end. I graduated early to H.P. Lovecraft, finding one of his collections on my parents’ bookshelf, and to M.R. James. I prefer my thrills Victorian. Or, even better, rooted in the folklore that I began to feel was an essential part of myself. 

Do I like being scared, safely in the comfort of my home? 
Yes, and I think it’s immensely important for children to learn about dealing with the sense of fear in these safe circumstances. Why else are our oldest stories full of darkness and threat if not to warn us of the real dangers of the outside world, while at the same time reassuring us that resourcefulness will get us through? (Of course, this is often demonstrably untrue, but if we didn’t believe in ourselves to some extent, we’d never leave the house!) I think A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok is going to address this, and I’m looking forward to seeing how she does so.

All that being said, I usually used to watch Dr Who from behind the sofa, and once spilt an entire cup of tea over myself when a door was opened to reveal a cyberman and I jumped violently – I knew it was behind the door, but I couldn’t help myself. So I don’t watch anything too frightening (younger son makes the decisions for me) although I have a bit of a soft spot for the sillier end of the Japanese horror spectrum. Said son has nerves of steel, apparently, and can watch the most ghastly things and gleefully murders monsters by the legion (but he was upset for days when he ran over a rabbit).

Do I like that eerie frisson of chill running over my skin when I read a particularly scary line or scene?
An early addiction was the passage in T.H. White’s The Queen of Air and Darkness where Morgan le Fay creates a magical spell in order to seduce the young Arthur by cutting the outline of a man from a corpse. I read and re-read it compulsively, with a sense of thrill I’ve rarely found anywhere since. Even then I knew that it didn’t matter whether or not the spell actually worked – what mattered was the sheer evil of doing it, both the will to dominate and the contempt for the dead man. There’s a difference, though, between reading about an evil act in a real-world setting and a supernatural one: the first produces a feeling of revulsion, and perhaps anger or grief, depending on the degree of vicariousness; the second can evoke the delicious chill, because it’s safely distanced, even when we’re deeply involved in the book or film. It’s important that we don’t really believe it can happen – and we all – except, it seems, my younger son – know how genuinely unpleasant it can be when we’ve gone too far, reading alone in the house at night, and find ourselves too frightened to sleep, and jumping at every sound. Where one draws the line is a very individual thing, I suppose: I avoid anything really frightening if I'm alone but, tucked up in bed with a hotwater bottle and secure in the knowledge that my menfolk and dogfolk (though they are even bigger cowards than me)* are to hand, it's remarkable how comforting a bit of a chill can be.

 ...tucked up in bed with a hotwater bottle? 
(with thanks to Gustave Doré)

* the dogs, that is, not the chaps.


  1. What a great post. I tend not to like the out and out horror films like Haloween etc, but do like horror moments like the chestbuster in Alien. In my reading, I can cope with any amount of gore and undead beasties it seems, but still I usually avoid the 'file under horror' genre again - but make it a dystopian horror or give it a SF setting and I'll read it. Does that make sense?

    Patrick Troughton was my childhood Dr Who - and there was a story with Yetis in the London Underground - traumatised me for years of trips up to town!

  2. Everything you wrote is braver than I am! I can't take any of it. I quit a Scandinavian mystery the other day because it was so creepy. I think I'm especially creeped out by showing the killer's point of view, or his backstory. But horror, never. That said, I am, as I may have told you, going to try the new Chris Bohjalian. We'll see.

  3. Yesterday my husband asked me why I like scary stories after I'd written about reading Life Support by Tess Gerritsen for the RIP challenge, so I've been trying to sort out why too. I can't stand to watch horror films at all or blood and gore in TV thrillers. But reading somehow seems to set it at a further distance and I can read scenes I could never stomach watching. And reading about evil and crime in the real world is definitely horrifying, producing feelings of revulsion as you said - I'm thinking of Raoul Moat!

    I like creepy though, and anything magical.

  4. Very well put, and I especially agree with what you wrote under "Do I like being scared, safely in the comfort of my home?".

  5. LOL, Gaskella, me too! We most unreasonably didn't have a television until 1967, so I'd only seen the William Hartnell Dictor at friends' houses.

    Nan, I usually hate anything from the killer's POV so I can't bear "psychological" thrillers, but I do rather like a sympathetic view of vampires and similar creatures.

    Margaret, I'm often struck that books you are reading are much more grisly than I can manage.

    Librarian, sometimes I have to go out in the dark to shut the chickens up, and I suddenly regret scaring myself!

  6. I saw this post last Sunday when you put it up, and I couldn't get back to thank you for writing about why you read horror, until now. Thanks, Geraniumcat! I loved reading your answers. you put a lot of thought into why you read horror, and enjoy being scared. You gave me some things to think about again, so I think I'm going to follow up at my blog, and link to your wonderful post.

    I agree with much of what you said, by the way - and I love that you need something alive (the boys, say, or your husband) in the same house while you are reading, to feel safe. I am exactly the same! I also like what you said about how reading mysteries fulfill a need to make sense of the fear we have in the world breaking down. That's a really good point to make. I think that's why I read mysteries too.