I’ve been working on a short story recently in which a married couple with a young son invite another married couple round to their house for a meal and to stay over for then night. When they decide to turn in, the visiting couple, who are childless, are put up in the son’s bedroom while the son himself sleeps in a travel cot in his parents’ room. In the middle of the night the couple who are hosting are awoken by a conversation. They can hear it coming through the baby monitor, which they’ve left switched on in their son’s room. Their friends are talking about them, revealing exactly how they feel about them, unaware that every word they say is being heard. And then they move on, talking of even worse things.
I say I’ve been working on it but I’ve yet to write down a word. I’ve been trying to figure out in my head what it is I want this story to do, what I want its function to be, its purpose.
But I now know. It came to me late last night. Like the couple in my story I was awoken – for no discernible reason in my case – and assailed by the nagging clarity that can come to those deprived of sleep. Ultimately, I saw, what I want from this story is for it to simply frighten. It can comment on relationships, on social mores, on privacy, but only if it first and foremost unsettles the reader.
Perhaps this isn’t such a revelation. Most of the stories I write tend to give a prominence to their darker elements, and are often supernatural or at least hint at such things. And although making the reader frightened isn’t usually my main goal when composing a story it’s nonetheless something I keep in mind, a handy workbox tool: a frightened reader is a compelled reader.
But where does it come from, this compulsion to fear – not just seeking out the experience of being frightened but in attempting to take up its reins, to use fiction to provoke that experience in others? Somehow, a writerly usefulness doesn’t quite cut it. Is it a power thing? A self-esteem thing? A Freudian thing?
These were the niggling questions I asked myself as, now resigned to being awake, I slipped out of bed and quietly went downstairs.
I have recently moved to a new house. Although only a few minutes’ walk from our previous place – a terrace just off a busy main road in Manchester whose streetlights made night-time darkness impossible –our new house has a middle-of-nowhere feel about it, concealed as it is in a quiet and unlit cul-de-sac behind an overgrown garden. I made myself a cup of tea and sat at the dining table in the dark. I looked out of the window and as I did so I tried to make myself scared, tried to imagine that out in the blackness of the garden there was a prowler lurking in the untamed shrubbery, that the quiet creaking in the floorboards above me was the tread of some malevolent presence, that out there the night sky was awash with spirits. And yet I found myself unable to guide my thoughts away from more practical anxieties. What would we do with the floors? Would we knock through the kitchen? How much would it all cost? All so drearily grown-up.
I decided I would sort through one of the many unpacked boxes of books and turned on the light. As I sifted through the titles I noticed something. Amid the author names like Kadare, Kafka and Kertész there were others: Ketchum, King, Koontz. Over the years horror fiction is something I’ve periodically been drawn to, rejected as too adolescent, then been lured back into, only to steer away from once again, an uneasy push-me-pull-you between literature, so-called, and its gauche and grisly counterpart.
Many of these paperbacks were books I read as a boy. When talking with those who enjoy horror – in fiction, in film, wherever – I’ve often found that there’s a powerful streak of nostalgia at work. You can see this play out in cinema: in the late 80s and early 90s there was a nostalgia for the late 50s and early 60s (Stand by Me, Christine), and in the late 90s and the 00s a nostalgia for 70s and 80s (Scream, The Cabin in the Woods). I guess this is chiefly because most filmmakers (indeed most creatives) tend to venerate the aesthetics of the eras they grow up in. But it’s also true that our relationship with fear has a direct childhood connection.
For most of us, if we’re lucky, the majority of the terror we go through takes place when we are young. Take you, for instance. If I were to ask you to single out the time when you experienced the strongest fear of your life it would most likely be something that occurred to you when you were a child. With horror, there’s undoubtedly a yearning to confront whatever demons beset us when we were young and lacked the psychological resources to combat them, but stronger I think is a desire to return to a time when the world was different: when beyond the familiar were vast, wild territories of the unknown, populated with inscrutable mystery, hostile forces and endless glinting possibilities.
I sipped my lukewarm tea and turned over a paperback titled The Funhouse, its spine creased beyond all legibility, the silver ink from the embossed author’s name worn from the cover. My younger self had stayed up late to absorb this novel in a single rapt sitting.
I opened The Funhouse on the first page and began to read.
Whenever she thought about being pregnant, she got a hollow, cold sensation in her chest. Afraid of what she would have to face in the days ahead – the humiliation, her father’s disappointment, her mother’s fury – she shivered. Several times during the evening, Jerry saw her shivering, and he thought she was just bothered by the draft from the gymnasium’s air conditioning. She was-
A sudden sound caused me to jump, dropping the book. It was a shriek which had come from the baby monitor. Unlike the set-up in my story, we keep our listening-in monitor downstairs. My two-year-old daughter had cried out in her sleep, a single croaky cry followed by a billow of static, then silence and then a further cry, her voice illuminating the monitor’s LED volume register from green to red. She cried a third time. I remained where I was – bristling, listening – waiting for her to fall back to sleep.
Here was the most effective portal to fear: parenthood. Who knew that as a father I would spend a good deal of my time plainly dwelling on the foulest, most harrowing things that can possibly happen to a child? Now I imagined poison gas leaking from some unchecked pipe; a balaclavaed lunatic at her window; a malign poltergeist swirling darkly above her cot. To say such thoughts just pop into one’s head and become impossible to dislodge is true but there’s more to it than that. There’s a kind of nonsense logic to the notion that envisaging terrible things somehow reduces the likelihood of them occurring. Or, in the event that they do occur, one’s capacity for shock will have been supplanted by a schooled readiness for the situation. I thought: I shall stopper the gas leak with a plug fashioned from some handy Play Doh and open the window; I shall knock the masked intruder from the ledge and bludgeon him with a wine bottle from the recycling bin; I shall banish the poltergeist by simply opening a window and wafting it out with a towel. To those without children this thought process may seem like a mild form of insanity but to other parents I’d wager it’s familiar and, for all its absurdity, holds the same curious, faintly primal importance. Opening the door to the devil’s dark room, runs the reasoning, is the only way to let in some disinfecting light on his negatives.
My daughter continued crying out, each wail less croaky and more wakeful. I climbed the stairs, taking my tea with me, and slipped into her bedroom. I turned on the bedside lamp.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘It’s all right. Did you have a bad dream?’
‘Yeah.’ She was stood in her cot, made timid and snotty by whatever it was that had upset her.
‘Would you like a cuddle?’
I seated myself in a chair by the bed, lifted her out and sat her on my lap. Dreams are perhaps where adults have the strongest connection to childhood fear, where that long-deserted world of mystery resurfaces. But what had her nightmare consisted of?
‘Would you like me to read you a story?’ I said.
She curled up as I set my mug down beside me, reached into the bookcase and pulled out a book at random. Coincidentally, I’d selected Funnybones by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Funnybones is the story of two skeletons and a dog skeleton who go for a walk and decide to find somebody to frighten. Unable to find anyone, they end up frightening each other. All very silly of course, but I wondered whether it was the right choice for a young child who has just been woken by a bad dream.
‘This is how the story begins,’ I read. ‘In a dark, dark town there was a dark, dark street and in the dark, dark street there was a dark, dark house…’
The subject matter didn’t seem to bother my daughter who sat sucking her thumb and gazing at the pictures. Still, as I read I again found myself trying to puzzle out why we do it. Knowing how punishing fear can be – in this minor instance it had robbed two people of a night’s sleep – why do we aggravate it? Why don’t we use storytelling to give ourselves some respite from those things which cause us to be afraid? I thought of the phrase people like me hear often: Why don’t you try writing something nice?
Why indeed? I suppose the key word is ‘storytelling’. Even a children’s story about two singing skeletons and their pet dog has a whiff of the campfire when read aloud at night. Horror – a term within which I’d include the gothic, the ghost story, the uncanny tale, the urban legend – frequently feels like the closest fiction gets to its elemental form, working as a collaboration between a writer’s imagination and his or her reader’s, united by the creation of uncertainty and unease.
United, I thought, looking down at my daughter, now asleep, and possibly even protected. ‘If I think of somebody telling a story,’ John Berger once said in an interview, ‘I think of a group of people who are huddled together and around them a vast space… somewhere for me in the very idea of the story there is something to do with shelter.’
I had reached the end of Funnybones. I poked it back into its shelf, took a mouthful of cold tea and looked at the slim, colourful spines of my daughter’s book collection all lined up together. Maybe, I thought, the purpose of storytelling is to try to create some sort of bulwark between ourselves and oblivion. Not in the physical books we hope will survive us, but in the lighting of a flame in others’ minds, and the hope that its fire will be passed on, handed baton-like from our generation to the next.
I carefully settled my daughter back into her cot for a final hour or so of sleep and stood up to leave the room. Beyond the curtain I could hear birdsong. These thoughts which had woken me would fade with the day and disappear. The night was now past, the sun was on the rise and everywhere shadows were shrinking to shade.