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What is fear, anyway?

September 23, 2010

My current reading matter is a book I picked up recently from Save the Children, for 50p – that’s a whole 5p inflation on its original 1973 asking price. The title of this book is ‘The 8th Fontana book of great ghost stories’ and it comes complete with foxed pages and a kitsch cover illustration of a pointing, hooded Reaper in tones of orange. Anachronism aside, this is also the scariest book I’ve read in a very long time.

Modern horror generally doesn’t do it for me. Usually it’s either good ol’ traditional blood and gore or it’s the calculatedly twee oh no, it’s a creepy ‘Victorian’ ghost child holding a possessed dolly type of tale. I guess the more stories are published, the harder it is to come up with something genuinely disturbing that people haven’t just heard before. That’s why, I think, older horror still has more power – the plots might by now be hackneyed but at the time the authors really believed in them and they were written as something fresh and terrifying.

The one story that has particularly stuck with me (emphasis on the stuck with me) from this book is ‘The Red Lodge’ by H. R. Wakefield. Even the title dates this tale which comes complete with a perky narrator who is probably named Wooster. He rents a spiffing holiday home with wife Mary and young son Tim and then when events take a turn for the sinister and he has to do his manly duty and protect his family, he turns to advice from Sir William who is an old hand at these matters.
This story should probably be an entertaining read that makes you smile – it’s certainly got a period flavour to it, but more than that it actually freaked me out. No amount of alien spiders and zombie dismemberment can compare to the terror that the sentence “The green monkey won’t get me will it, Mummy?” has instilled in me so that I’m even now (literally as I type) glancing behind me and shutting doors firmly in my own house, something I haven’t done since I watched the Japanese horror film Ju On for the first time!
Out of context I can imagine that the quote I just typed looks a bit comical. Maybe different people have different experiences of horror – this book I can barely look at now without feeling watched (something that only usually occurs with books from my childhood!) might leave someone else cold or at least amused by how incredibly ’70s it is. With this in mind I once compiled a list to try and analyse what is scary. I came up with various theories – things human yet not human; insectoid things, mannequins – but nothing seemed to really get to the bottom of the problem. Again, I held a bit of a poll amongst my friends: what is it that scares you in stories? The most popular answer that came back to me was that the most terrifying stories came about when an author wrote about what genuinely scared them the most. Bearing this in mind, I wrote my story ‘Spend a Penny’ and I think that similarities in tone between that and ‘The Red Lodge’ might explain why that tale has had such an effect on me. It’s the denial of fear – the attempt to rationalise away what you know, logically, must all be in your imagination, but which refuses, despite your efforts, to leave you alone.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to go and put some music on as the house is unnervingly quiet!

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