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.