Let’s go back to the early 1970’s. I came home from work with a fresh, crisp paperbound copy of Deliverance by James Dickey.
I had stumbled upon Dickey in the public library and had read his first three volumes of poetry. Then he showed up for a reading at the university and I got more of a sense of what he was like: something that helped me understand his poems a little better (later I would drive across western Virginia and see the oceans of kudzu which also helped understand certain poems).
For whatever reason, I have never responded to Horror genre fiction (at least not since Zacherley’s Midnight Snacks). When we stayed up to watch Chiller Theater on Saturday nights, those classic Universal horror movies were fresh and downright scary. Of course after seeing The Mummy for the sixteenth time, it loses some of its fright factor. It’s interesting that I once found movies scary but it never seemed to work in literature. The last book I read that had me in a sweat was James Dickey’s Deliverance which was almost as scary as James Dickey.
So is it any wonder that I don’t find anything of value in Stephen King? He’s boring and not good enough a writer to make me forget how silly his narrative is. I did read the first Anne Rice—Interview with the Vampire— with some interest. But then I made the mistake of assuming the author was onto something and agonizingly slugged my way through the first half of her second vampire novel before fighting off the horrid writing and casting it into the pit under the sink. I haven’t done a scientific study but I believe Rice mentions blood more than Rowling mentions quidditch … but it’s close and could go the either way.
I have read and reread the standards of horror—Frankenstein, Dracula, House on Haunted Hill, Tales of Cthulhu, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Rosemary’s Baby, The Day of the Locusts, and various copies of the Fortean Times—all without a shudder or a grimace. They all remind me of a very silly joke that went around when I was in fourth grade: “Do you want to hear a dirty story?” [the audience moves in close and begins to pant] … “A boy runs around the corner and falls in a mud puddle.” [groans of disappointment]. Horror stories have a similar effect on me.
So I’m trying to make a list of the books I read that I found even moderately scary. Did I mention Deliverance? I’m stuck … any ideas?
Is there a book that scared me? Well, I remember being assigned to have Joyce’s Ulysses read in three days back in an undergraduate survey course: I’m not sure I was scared; maybe a little apprehensive.
I imagine if you read and study literature for a good part of your life, you have a tendency to concentrate more on the writing than on the story. Also, the more you read, the more you realize there really aren’t that many unique stories and most novels are variations on writing that has gone on before. It’s like those wonderful slasher movies: when a bloody guy with the hedge-trimmer jumps out from behind the azaleas, are you really scared or are you just following a convention and, like riding a roller coaster, a scream is acceptable and expected. I would posit that in my experience, any book I read which was expressly written to scare me, didn’t.
There are books that held me in suspense in such a way that you might call scary. One was James Dickey’s Deliverance. I remember reading this book one evening all alone in a dark apartment and when Ed was pressed against the side of the cliff trying to get a shot off at one of the evil locals I could feel the tension in pulling back that bow in preparation to killing a man, even if that man was intending to kill all the city-boys. I think any relentless danger was effective on me, especially in movies where mere bullets could not stop the monster (or the Terminator) or in novels like the early Robert Ludlum thrillers that read like an endless cycle of running, fighting, betrayal, and then more running and fighting. But I still can’t call it being scared.
As an aside: there is nothing scary about Stephen King. I recommend watching the movies, if you must, and not waste the time it takes to read such crap. Also, if you haven’t read Interview with a Vampire, do; and then run far away from anything else Anne Rice has written.
The next challenge question asks me to pick a book that made me sick. Well, I have been sick in the middle of reading a book and I have stayed home in bed when sick and often passed the time reading a book, but did a book ever make me sick?
I’m going to say “NO” for this one. First, I’m not sure what the question in targeting. Recently another reader indicated that the perversion exhibited in Nabokov’s Lolita made him sick? Really? I have always had an aversion to severed heads and strangulation using a convenient bloody intestine, but that is in life. I don’t seem to have the same reaction in fiction. I think it’s because I know it’s fiction and don’t make the common but still reckless mistake of treating fiction as if it is life. That’s why I don’t need to identify with the characters or muse about having a beer with a character or consider how much a character reminds me of my Aunt Peggy; that’s also why I don’t get all weirded-out by disembowelment, decapitation, or pederasty in fiction: I know it is fiction!
Those that know me are aware that I have a tendency to gravitate towards fiction which, as Kafka once said, wounds me. I prefer transgressive literature and I often judge my reading by the volume of bodily fluids that adorn the pages. Now I don’t read too much trash fiction (the kind that populates the wire rack down at the drugstore) but there are many titles that end up in my reading inventory that at one time were unacceptable to society (like Le Marquis de Sade) but later are discovered to be rich with history and philosophy, in addition to the bodily fluids.
There is one novel that seems to get the nod for making readers sick: American Psycho. I think this is funny because the level of disgust generated by the novel is directly proportional to the inability of the reader to understand the fiction. I consider American Psycho is one of the best contemporary novels written recently. I’m not that keen about Bret Easton Ellis otherwise, but in this one novel, he was amazing. A similar novel that is easily misunderstood is Theatre of Incest by Alain Arias-Misson which you can review in my post.
Here is one of my favorite quotations, again from Kafka:
“If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it? Good God, we also would be happy if we had no books and such books that make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. What we must have are those books that come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”