Just as magical as the words on the page, a book has the ability to transport a reader across time, space and reality into someplace more. Whether the author chooses to use that ability to make their audience believe in love, death or fear depends on the gift of the storyteller many used their cursed pens to move us to a place where the scary thing isn’t in the closet. It’s in your husband’s eye. It hides in the sweet little old lady at the post office. It lurks in the hearts of men, truly the scariest place of all. Two of the greats in the land of heebie jeebies have got to be Stephen King and Shirley Jackson, both capturing the imaginations of generations with the strange, the twisted, and the horrifyingly mundane.
Shirley Jackson writhed in depression, social inequality and saw first-hand how awful people can treat each other. Not surprisingly, thus neutered in real life, she struck out at the conformity that leashed her in her writing. It’s said the line between genius and madness is a thin one and Jackson danced the line with stories like “The Lottery.” Although she was banished from Canada, attacked by her peers and driven to alienation, no one can contend that her stories didn’t make them feel something. She scared them because she removed the mask they hid behind, called a monster a monster, and painted the entire horrible picture in a setting so comfortable that readers wanted it to have a happy ending.
Like real life, Jackson didn’t give you the ending. You had to figure that out for yourself.
Most gothic horror, true gothic, leaves that dangling carrot, covered in maggots, for the reader to find. Neil Gaiman, author of gothic merit himself, interviewed Stephen King throughout his lifetime and became a fan of the genre as a child when he cracked open Salem’s Lot. “(King) has elements of horror, but they exist almost as a condiment for something that’s partly a tightly researched historical novel, partly a love-story, and always a musing on the nature of time and the past. (Gaiman 27) “
Like Shirley Jackson, King’s work has often been mislabeled as the book version of junk food. King himself labeled his work, “The literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” But if the goal of the writer is to make the reader feel something, not just be entertained, King’s work is going to outlive him by as easily as Poe’s have survived the test of time. What makes it truly horrifying, and makes those trying to describe him start yanking out adverbs, is exactly what Gaiman noted. Both King and Jackson managed to tell a lovely story, riddled with all the tropes that we as human beings identify with. The summer is one we remember, having lived it. The characters are all familiar since we know people just like them. The tastes and smells are all comfortable as a pair of worn out socks but then the story twists, the familiar becomes strange and we are forced to look at ourselves and the possibility of evil in the mirror.
It’s that little bit of madness in the common that makes these stories impossible to put down. Who hasn’t sat in their home, blanket of night snuggled warm around us, smells all the same as any other night, and rolled over and looked at our lover, our child, our pet and wondered, just for a moment, what if? By playing off that what if, these authors make the tiny hairs on our arms raise, shivers kick in, and we let, for a second, that cloak of safety—that makes us think everything will have a happily ever after—slip and are forced to comprehend that bad things really do happen.
Worse, they could happen to you.
In Duma Key, Stephen King follows the mold that made him so utterly popular for so many years. He takes the normal, a contractor from Boston, and injures him in a work accident. Then he allows madness to seep into the gaping wound left behind. Slowly tearing the man from family, from reality, and placing him firmly into the world of the paranormal, the shift from what we expect to read to what actually happens is so subtle, the reader is left believing things that otherwise might seem impossible.
If not for the very mundane start to the story.
If someone told you they could paint pictures that changed reality, perhaps you would think them crazy. But when King presents it, relying on isolation, a secondary cast of believable characters and the very tastes and smells you’ve come to know, it becomes harder not to shiver in fear.
All storytellers must transport their readers to a place beyond words on paper. The gothic writer has to not only transport them off the page; they have to drive the reader out of their mind.
They make you fall in love only to lose the love to a demise worse than a mundane death.
They make you reminisce only to make you realize that the past is coming to get you.
But by triggering these primitive responses, by making us relive the days in caves where the darkness might actually have teeth and claws, maybe we remember what it is to feel really alive.
Gaiman, Neil. “The King and I.” Sunday Times Magazine 8 Apr 2012:27-32. Print.
Jackson, Shirley. “The Possibility of Evil.” 1965.
King, Stephen. Duma Key. New York: Scribner, 2008. Print.
King, Stephen. “Stephen King Quotes.” Goodreads. Goodreads,Inc., 17 June 2010. Web. 02 July 2012.