When I was a kid in the early eighties, my bedtime prayer went as follows:
"Dear Lord: please make it so that there are no bugs in my bed and no vampires come to get me. Amen."
The bugs were easy to explain: we'd just moved to Florida from New York, and the insects among the leathery palmetto terrified me from the moment a scorpion lurking in a warm laundry basket stung my sister in the armpit.
The vampires...well, that's something else.
If there had been a watch list at the Englewood Elementary School Library, I'd have almost certainly been on it. While the other little boys in my class took home books about motorcycles, sharks, snakes, and football, I carried off the dustier tomes about missing people, UFOs, ghosts, vampires, and other weird phenomena. At eight, I knew all too much about the disappearance of Judge Crater, the mysterious abduction of Barney and Betty Hill, and the ravages of Vlad the Impaler.
I read them all with total credulity, not only suspecting but expecting that vampires could easily round the peninsula of Florida to the Gulf Coast, land in total darkness at the Venice Jetty, and then make their way to me. Perhaps my early addiction to Pepsi made my blood more delicious than most. Maybe I was the lost ancestor of some Eastern European landowner on whom vengeance must be wrought. Whatever the cause, they were coming for me--if not the vampires, then certainly the aliens or maybe Bruno Richard Hauptmann.
What can I say? I also went looking under trees in the neighborhood for gnomes. My head wasn't altogether bolted on.
As a kid, everything was mysterious and magical and dangerous. It helped that I hadn't yet developed a bullshit detector capable of discerning the difference between, say, my math textbook and one of Daniel Cohen's books about ghosts for young readers. There it was, in print: it all made sense to me.
I can even identify the story that made me weird, the turning point into the life of mystery and magic and danger that I still try to lead today. It's called Lord Dufferin's Tale, and it was originally in an anthology of odd phenomena stories, possibly by Frank Edwards.
Here's how it goes:
You're a Victorian aristocrat, visiting your friends in the country. After an evening of brandy in the drawing room, everyone retires to bed. You arise in the middle of the night in search of a glass of water. On the second floor, you pass along a long series of tall windows that overlook the garden. You gaze down upon the moonlit grass and see to your surprise a strange beetle-like creature trundling across it. Looking closer, you see it is a hunched man carrying an enormous box upon his back. You refuse to believe it is a coffin, but you cannot imagine any other purpose for the oblong crate. You watch transfixed as the man creeps across the yard. Then he stops and looks up at you, leering from beneath the shadow of the coffin with a terrible expression of hate or lust or something else. You recoil from the window and return to bed, though now unable to sleep. Of course, when you ask your host the next morning about his gardener, the host shakes his head and says he has none.
Years later, you've all but forgotten the incident. One day you're waiting for an elevator, and when its doors open, you see the same twisted gnome-like man again, this time wearing an elevator operator's uniform. He leers at you again, spittle glistening on his lips and huffs of breath whistling through his brutish nostrils. You stumble back, shaking your head, and the elevator doors close without you inside.
Moments later, you hear a terrifying snap and the dull squeal of iron as the elevator plunges to the bottom. You later discover that no elevator operator was found among the bodies.
Now THAT, friends, is a horror story. It scared the shit out of me, and I tried very hard not to look out windows in the moonlight afterwards. In just a few words, that story implies a bizarre and inexplicable order to the universe that doesn't quite jibe with our own understanding, and we're left wondering just what it means about the nature of reality. Does it seek to harm us? Does it protect us? Does it care at all?
We are left, in other words, with cosmic mystery--a trait all but missing from so many works in our current generation of horror.
In crasser terms, I'll call it a "what the fuck?" moment: a skull-cracking epiphany that changes everything you think or hope about the world. I like to think such moments were common in the early sixties when families would sit down to watch television just to see a woman of incurable beauty in a world of the grotesque, or a man meeting the devil in a European monastery. I like to hope that those people in their horn-rimmed glasses and neatly-pressed skirts arrived at the end of every episode of The Twilight Zone with wide eyes, looking around the room and saying, "What the fuck was that?"
Oh, how I miss that feeling. I get it so rarely from fiction these days, partly because I'm a writer but mostly because I'm just a jaded reader. I think we're all jaded, so bombarded by data all the time that our bullshit detectors now have a hair-trigger to eliminate all we can.
We've all grown up and gotten incredulous. Worse, there's no going back to innocence, no matter how hard we try.
The onus, now, is on the writers who can do three things with greater skill than ever before to crack our slick carapace of world-weariness:
- Hoax us with such intricate detail that the story almost certainly is true.
- Imply something so inexplicable yet genuine about the world that we're left with something strange enough to be true.
- Write with such subtle yet courageously weird conviction that the story had better be true, or else the writer is insane.
Many writers of the past could do all three well. H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James were detail-oriented hoaxers, describing not only their horrors but even the origins of their manuscripts as found objects. Robert Aickman's ghost stories are unapologetically weird: each seems to say, "Here's something odd that happened that probably means something. Good luck figuring it out." L.P. Hartley's stories, including "The Travelling Grave" which is essentially about a deadly ottoman, are also mysterious and all but belligerently obtuse. Shirley Jackson's small town New England is as terrifying as R'lyeh--and all the more convincing.
Among more recent writers, probably Kelly Link is the current master of the "what the fuck?" story that leaves you with more questions than answers and absolutely no intention to help you. Glen Hirshberg is also an excellent hand at pulling a fast one with words, implying mystery and wonder by explaining just a little less than necessary. M. Rickert, Theodora Goss, Margo Lanagan, and Adam L.G. Nevill have also recently given me that same existential thrill I once got from those old ghost stories and UFO books, with human insight as well.
When the world gets cynical, we've got to get more convincing and flamboyant with our strangeness so as to trump the real horrors all around us. Knives and chainsaws and serial killers aren't going to--pardon me--cut it anymore: I want stories to make my world weirder (good luck with THAT). I want them to resuscitate the gasping corpse of wonder and awe that twitches inside all of us. I want to lie awake at night wondering when the vampires are going to come.
Now get on that, will you?
Will's story "In Search Of," a fictional and entirely more entertaining discussion of his topic here, will appear early in 2008 in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. You can learn more about Will in the meantime at his website, www.will-ludwigsen.com.
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