Originally, I intended this post to be about science-fiction authors, and how writing in the field seems to be good for an author; I may still write that post, but it got me started thinking about something else. That tends to happen. Anyway, let’s head off this digression at the pass. What I want to talk about now is scary stories.
Like many of you, I enjoyed a good horror story growing up (still do). Novels were great, but what I really liked were scary short stories. I dug them the same way that many folks dig samplers: you can scarf down a whole bunch quickly, and get any number of tastes satisfied in a short time. I also admired anybody who could compress a good scare into a short number of words, especially if done artfully. Over time, though, I started to realize that what scared me had changed. Monsters alone weren’t enough, if they ever really were, but it wasn’t because of belief or disbelief. No, monsters stopped being scary because I started to understand that being a monster, at least in the sense of being a werewolf or vampire or some globulous thing, didn’t make something evil. A rabid dog may rip and shred and kill the flesh of whoever it comes across, but that’s not a choice on the dog’s part, nor is it something the disease wants. That’s simply what it does. From that point on, monsters weren’t enough. There had to be something in the mix capable of causing fear in the reader, which meant there had to be something evil, or at the very least, deeply misguided. That meant something capable of making a choice, which almost always means people.
And now, let’s talk scares. There are any number of great scary stories out there, written by any number of authors who understood how to generate fear, terror, horror and disgust. If you have any reading in the field, you can think of any number of writers with this skill and knowledge. A moment’s reflection calls up Joyce Carol Oates, Richard and Richard Christian Matheson, Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, Steve Rasnic Tem, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Robert McCammon, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and a dozen others. But, for my money, the scariest short story I can ever remember reading is a little ditty called “Vengeance Is,” by the wonderful Theodore Sturgeon. It’s not the best constructed story he ever wrote, nor does it necessarily have the best twist; that honor would have to go to “Some of Your Blood” or another favorite, “Talent.”
What makes this story so frightening to me is that it shows, in small steps, a good range of monstrous behavior, and how motivations and the desire of revenge can cause monstrous repercussions. The basic plot is presented in flashback: One character is telling another about how a pair of brothers, a couple of world-class turdsicles, basically ran riot over their hometown, terrorizing the populace repeatedly over several years. I don’t remember why nobody ever gave them a lead salad, but it likely had to do with being part of a prominent family or some such. Anyway, one day, they stop and harass a nerdy little fellow and his statuesque wife who were passing through, and the turdsicles get it into their heads to sexually assault the wife. However, the husband encourages his wife to screw these louts, and the spouses get into a heated argument over it, much to the brothers’ amusement.
I won’t say any more about the plot, except to point out what is obvious: the husband possesses information the brothers don’t, and how it plays out is what makes this tale horrific. I’ll tell you this, it ain’t pretty, and despite a construction that’s surprisingly awkward for Sturgeon’s skill, the story gets into your head. It did for me, and I believe the awkwardness was on purpose. I think the subject matter, and what he ended up saying about human nature, caused him to pull back a bit.
Even with the narrative remove, though, it’s still there. That’s what is so frightening. When I think of all the stories and the books that have truly given me the shivers over the years, that’s the common factor: somewhere in the story, some person chose to take that walk into darkness, in some cases knowing full well what it would entail, what it would cost. To me, that’s truly horrifying, and that’s what makes a good scary story beat and resonant, long after the sun rises and all the shadows flee. Of course, as always, your mileage may vary.