In the last section of Covalent I introduced a new threat, a river that congealed part of itself into thin strands, and then stretched those strands out to grasp and throttle all other forms of life. This created a sinister image of finger-like tendrils reaching through the soil, feeling for our heroes to snuff out their lives.
Of course, a couple chapters ago I had just introduced another enemy, this one was a tall beast, with a head and body like a giant clam shell, and four long, spindly legs extending from the back. This one had been large and imposing, but I feel like the dark river strands are more unnerving.
For worse than brute strength is the sinister unknown.
The Fear of the Unknown)
It is often said that the thing we fear the most is the unknown. I believe there is a lot of truth to that, but why? Why would the unknown evil be worse than the known one?
I would suggest it is because when something is unknown we tend to assume the worst. The vague, undefined form becomes a placeholder for all the things that we are most afraid of. When I hear something go bump in the middle of the night, I am not afraid because it is unknown, I am afraid because being unknown, I then jump to the assumption that it is a madman who has broken into our home and is coming for my children, the thing that I most fear.
Thus I could try to guess what your worst fear is, and then write exactly that into a story. But if I were wrong, then you would not be as frightened as you could be, and if I were right, then it would be the scariest story for you only until your worst fears changed. For as we grow, the things we love change, and the fear of losing them shifts as well.
And this is why I escalated from a clear and imposing threat to a more vague and mysterious one. What do those icy hands feel like when they grasp a human victim? Well, I’m not ever going to describe that. I’m going to leave that up to the imagination of each individual reader, to conjure up the most terrifying sensation that they are capable of.
Legends of Fear)
One of my favorite spooky stories, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, is very aware of this dread of the unknown. Throughout its tale there is a consuming obsession with the strange and the shrouded. Myths abound of ghosts and phantoms, who sometimes are there and sometimes aren’t, whose rules of operation are inconsistent and disputed. Most famous of all are the legends of the Headless Horseman, a decapitated soldier who still wages battle on moonlit nights.
Enthralled by all these stories is Ichabod Crane, the local schoolteacher and protagonist of the tale. He is also enthralled by the daughter of a wealthy farmer named Katrina Van Tassel, and spends much of his time trying to woo her. This brings him into competition with the Brom Bones, the rough-and-tumble hero of the county, who also has his eyes set on Katrina.
One fateful night, Ichabod Crane finds himself riding through the woods alone. He is full of tales of ghosts and goblins, and feeling extremely unnerved about his situation. He mistakes the wind blowing through the branches for a whistle, the rubbing of boughs for an ethereal moan, and a scar in the tree for some white, hanging phantom. As I mentioned before, he is perceiving these unknown sights and sounds, and they become placeholders for all his worst dreads.
But then, most terrifying of all, a huge and silent rider, enshrouded entirely in black comes up alongside him. He says not a word, his intentions he keeps to himself, and so the reader is left to imagine all manner of malice hiding within that rider’s cloak.
But then, one solitary detail of the rider is made abundantly clear. Ichabod notices that there is no head upon the person’s shoulders, rather he is holding it down at his waist! With that Ichabod bolts and an epic chase ensues! Ichabod making for a bridge that legend states the Headless Horseman cannot cross. By the skin of his teeth he makes the other side, but upon turning back he sees that the phantom has thrown his own head through the air, crashing it into Ichabod’s cranium!
And then…well…we never actually find out what happens. The next day the local townsfolk find Ichabod Crane’s horse wandering around by itself, and the schoolteacher’s belongings strewn about the road, and a pumpkin smashed to pieces off to the side. Ichabod, however, is never seen again.
The story states that Brom Bones seems suspiciously knowing of the events that night, but neither confirms or denies that he was actually involved. And so, at the the end, there are several possibilities for what transpired. Was Ichabod menaced by Brom Bones in disguise, or was it the actual Headless Horseman, or was it just his own overactive imagination? If one of the former two, was he run out of town, or was he actually killed by his foe?
All of the story’s unknown elements leave it up to the reader to assume their own, personal, worst-case scenario. Which idea frightens you most? Being driven from your home, going crazy, being murdered by a member of your own society, or being claimed by an actual phantom of the night? The story is a placeholder for whatever fate you dread most.
One final detail from the story: in its last paragraph in mentions that Ichabod Crane has, fittingly, becomes another part of the local legends, his story now being recounted at all of their social gatherings. There are those that even claim to have heard his old, familiar tunes being sung by a melancholic voice from the remains of his old schoolhouse. In the end has he become a part of the strange unknown.
Continuing Into the Dark)
As I continue with Covalent I will keep these principles firmly in my mind. I might unveil more of how the river’s strange, dark tendrils operate, but rather than provide a better understanding, each revelation will only serve to make the menace more of an enigma, a placeholder for the deepest fears of the reader.