Eating Things

red and white mouth plastic toy and food plastic toys
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Agents of Destruction)

Monsters. They come in all shapes and sizes. Amorphous blobs, oversized insects, scaly reptiles, hairy beasts, underwater phantoms, undead humans, shape-shifting tricksters, killer robots, and hodge-podge creations. Some of them come straight at you, slow and meandering; some of them lurk behind you in the shadows, and still others fester right inside your mind.

Clearly there is a great variety in our literary depiction of monsters, yet there are a few things that remain consistent. Or at least mostly consistent. Each of the patterns I am about to mention surely have their exceptions, but they do hold as general rules.

  1. Monsters are mindless. It isn’t just that you never see a monster making a painting or working through a mathematical equation, it’s that they seem incapable of any sort of creative expression. They might be cunning, it is true, but never for the purpose of inventing something new or advancing their understanding.
  2. Monsters are evil. A villain can be sympathetic, but a monster cannot. To be a monster means that it serves no virtuous purpose. It is never engaged in an act of compassion or kindness, even to others of its own kind. A monster is commonly described as “menacing,” by which we mean it has evil and violent intent.
  3. Monsters want to destroy you. The two above principles combine into this one. We began by saying that monsters are mindless, but perhaps we should instead say that they possess a single-track mind: one of violence. They want to destroy and that is all. And it is that monomaniacal thirst for destruction that makes us identify them as evil.

Monsters are therefore the antithesis of ingenuity and creation. They are pure agents of destruction. They are often used as an archetype that stands opposite to the creativity of the hero, and most often are defeated by that creativity. Think of Jaws, where the titular shark is defeated by the ingenuity of the hero using a tank of compressed air as a bomb.

 

Grim Reapers)

Monsters are, of course, also associated with a specific form of destruction: death.

In the animal kingdom we have two states that define the endpoints of a creature’s life. There is the birth, which is an act of creation. Then there is the death, which is an act of destruction. We rejoice in the first, and assign to it feelings of love and peace. We agonize over the second, and assign to it feelings of hatred and fear.

Death can come peacefully, but inherent in all of us is a fear that it might not. There are few things that terrify us more than a savage end. A fear we not only share universally as a people, but with the entire animal kingdom. Every creature shows intense fear for its own demise. It is not a vain fear either, nature is full of those that seek to bring early and violent ends to every form of life. Nature is full of hunters. Which brings us to our next point: in the world of nature, death is almost always followed by eating.

 

Many Teeth)

Almost every monster we conceive of has some fascinating mode of ingesting others. In fact some of the most common characteristics among them are many pointy teeth and oversized mouths.

This act of a predator eating its prey is a true horror, but also a fascination. It couples something we dread with something we enjoy. Eating provides us our daily sustenance, after all. It is an experience we take sensual pleasure in. Psychologists have long been aware of the satisfaction of hand-to-mouth movements. To not eat would be to die.

Eating, then, is the nexus by which one entity’s death becomes the life-sustenance in another. Moments of contrast, such as this, are always the ones that grip our curiosities most strongly. It creates in us a strange mixture of feelings, one where we find pleasure in the very thing that horrifies us. We don’t want to watch…but we do want to.

 

The Loss of Self)

But what exactly gets eaten? Certainly the body in the simplest of cases, but our imagined monstrosities have become incredibly complex over the years. We have invented monsters to feast upon any component that we feel defines us. So the dementors swallow the soul, the zombies feast on the mind, and the one ring consumes the will. The soul, the mind, and the will; these are all things that we define our individuality by, and therefore things we fear having taken from us. Perhaps that part of us is destroyed, or perhaps it is assimilated against our will. In either case that core life force is taken from us and given to another.

Which leads to another interesting correlation between monsters and their preferred food. Many times the creature wishes to eat that which they are forever absent of, meaning they are an abyss that can never be filled. The dementor that sucks out the soul has no soul of its own. The zombies are defined by their own lack of any rational mind. The one ring is an inanimate object, and so has no personal will. Their sole function is to take what they cannot have, a ravenous hunger without end.

I tried to follow this pattern with my “void” monster in last week’s story Cael: Darkness and Light. Here the monster was a massive, undulating cloud, devoid of any specific form or definition. It crept forward and consumed all forms that it encountered indiscriminately, folding them forever into its nothingness.

Now I would like to that same idea again: create an entity that is devoid physical form and have it consume all other things that are better defined. This time, though, I am going to incorporate one final theme of monstrosity into it.

 

We Are Our Monsters)

A common interpretation of monsters is that they are our own worst parts, which if not kept in check will consume/ingest the good. Dr Jekyll gradually has all his kind qualities overtaken by the cruel Mr Hyde, and eloquent Larry Talbot transforms into the drooling werewolf.

In some ways this might be the loss of self that we fear most of all. And we feel it is not a quiet, peaceful loss either, one that can only occur by our worse nature violently taking the reins from our kinder spirits. Once that defeat occurs, all the goodness we once knew becomes fuel for the ravenous beast to grow on.

On Thursday I will present the first half of a story where damning character flaws create a conflict. Then, in the second half that conflict will give rise to a mindless entity that represents karma and reciprocal cause and effect. The actions of the main characters will lead to its perpetual increase to the literal point of bursting. Come back then to see how it turns out.

 

Free Cleaning Service: Part Two

close up photo of rotary telephone
Photo by Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

It was the next afternoon and Jim fumbled with the lock on his old apartment door. The deadbolt finally slid back and he took hold of the knob, pulling upwards as he also swung the door inwards. He and his family had learned that this was the only way to prevent the bottom of the door from scraping across the floor, and there were little arcs carved on the tile from before they had this solution. Jim had promised that one day he would fix both the door and the tiles, but that day still had not arrived four years later.

His wife switched off the vacuum she was pushing across the old living room carpet and looked up to him in surprise. “You’re home early, I thought you said something about staying late today.”

“Unfortunately not,” he sighed, placing his hat and coat on the rack.

Unfortunately,” she repeated accusingly, her dark brows furrowing together. “You mean you’d rather not be home with your family?”

He opened his mouth to give an explanation, thought better of it, and instead shook his head and murmured “That’s not how I meant it.” What exactly was he supposed to say? ‘Unfortunate’ because a warrant didn’t come through and a homicidal maniac is roaming our streets for another day?

Sarah didn’t press the matter. Her eyes had just settled on the two casefiles in his hand and a grim look of understanding shadowed her face. She had learned during the first years of her husband’s career the significance of two files. One file meant a murderer, two meant a killer. The difference was subtle but significant. A murderer existed only in a brief, singular moment. A murderer’s work happened and then stopped. Most people became a murderer without even meaning to. A killer, on the other hand, was deliberate. It was a profession. A way of being.

Jim followed Sarah’s eyes and he winced. She hated whenever he brought the nasty trappings of his work home, but he had honestly forgotten the files were in hand when he left the office. They both stood there in heavy silence, and after a moment he broke eye contact and shuffled off towards the kitchen for a drink. Jim dropped the casefiles on the counter next to the mail, then filled a tall glass of water and took it down in large gulps. It was too cold and it stung his parched throat, but after a hot and muggy day he rather enjoyed the pain of coldness. He heard the vacuum start up again in the living room again and shook his head. It seemed Sarah vacuumed every day, no matter how many times he told her it wasn’t going to help. The fabric was too shallow and the stains were too deep. Her vacuum would never clean it, and his salary would never pay to replace it. It simply was what it was and had to be accepted. The last drops of water trickled out of the glass and he set it down as he scooped up the casefiles, a single paper falling out of one of them and resting on the pile of mail. Jim didn’t notice though, and he went to the bedroom and shut the files in his nightstand drawer, hiding them from view.

“Dad?” he heard his son’s voice call from the bedroom down the hall. “Is that you?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Hey, could you come read through this essay with me? It just doesn’t feel right but I can’t tell how come.”

“Uh, well see, I was going to catch the–” he paused as his eyes fell on the nightstand clock. 4:15 pm. He had forgotten, coming home early meant there weren’t going to be any games on the television yet. “I’m coming” he sighed in defeat, rubbing his weary face, and then lumbering down the hall to help his son.

As the two of them mulled over the essay Sarah finished the vacuuming and took a moment to stare back at the floor in complete dissatisfaction. She placed the appliance back in its corner, then made her way to the kitchen to start something stewing for dinner. She put a pot on the stovetop and started it heating, then pulled various leftovers out of the fridge and placed them down on the counter. She mechanically reached for the mail and her face brightened as she read the first item, a flier promoting a new carpet cleaning business. Free Cleaning Service. A slight smile crossed her lips and for a moment dinner was forgotten while she reached for the phone.

*

It was the middle of the night, yet sleep only came to Jim in small waves, each throwing him back onto the shores of wakefulness. He couldn’t recall the last time he had had a full night’s rest. Though he craved the slumber, he dreaded the idea of relinquishing all vigilances for hours on end. He couldn’t help thinking of how helpless it left him, paralyzed and exposed to the mercy of an unmerciful world. Jim turned his nightstand clock to check the time, but its face was blank. The power was out. He kneaded his brow with his palms, then swung his legs out of bed and exited the room.

It was remarkable how the darkness in the house seemed thicker than on other nights. As he groped about like a stranger he realized how much he depended on little things like the microwave’s clock face and the television’s indicator lights to serve as anchors, waypoints that helped him to map out his orientation in the home. Now, though, it felt like a thick sheet was smothering all of his senses, and he softly cursed as he walked full-on into a wall.

Finally staggering his way into the front room he found the sofa and dropped onto it. He almost reached for the television remote before he reminded himself that there was no power. So instead he paused and just listened. There was nothing. Not even the chirping of crickets or rumble of cars out on the street. The more he sat in the emptiness the more it unnerved him. Somehow the world just didn’t seem right in this moment. He kneaded his forehead again, pressing the palms firmly against his eyes until little fireworks appeared against the closed lids. He was so tired, so weighed down, so tainted by association. He opened his eyes and still all they saw was darkness. Shouldn’t they be adjusted to this already?

Rising to his feet he stumbled over to the deck’s sliding glass door and pulled back the curtain. Nothing. All the other apartment porchlights were out, so were the streetlights. The sky was cloudy again and the moon and stars were too weak to break through them. It was not a cool night, rather the air was warm, stagnant and clammy. It added to the sense that he had been plunged into a suffocating ink and there was nothing in his power that he could do about it.

Jim leaned forward and rested his head on the cool glass. That, at least, felt nice. He swayed slowly on the spot, closing his eyes, letting his mind rest. He lost track of time. One minute. Two, three. Though standing, Jim’s mind was beginning to stray into the subconscious. As his mind sunk from the present moment he had the sensation that he was slowly falling down and backwards. Down towards something that was reaching up for him. Something malevolent stretching up higher… folding around him… closing… and…

Jim snapped his head up and turned to face the opposite direction, his eyes fixated on the front door. Every hair on his body stood on end. He hadn’t heard anything, he hadn’t even imagined anything, but somehow it was as though he had sensed a rift. Even as he stared at the dark door the sensation was continuing to mount within him, finally breaking in a shiver that traveled the length of his spine. Without knowing why, Jim held his breath and moved as silently as possible across the room. He could feel his heart thudding in dread and beads of sweat were forming along his brow. He reached the entrance to his home and pressed an unblinking eye up against the peephole.

A man stood immediately on the other side of the door, staring back at him. The form was tall and broad, entirely shrouded in darkness save for the two glistening eyes and a row of white teeth popping into view along a widening grin. Jim had the distinct impression that somehow the man knew Jim was looking at him, was watching him watch him. Jim’s heart didn’t race anymore, it entirely skipped its beats. His mouth opened to call but only a vague rattling of air escaped his throat. His initial horror was broken with another as he realized that the doorknob was turning beneath him. Instinctively he gripped it with both hands and tried to hold it secure. Even so, the force at the other end was not to be denied and the metal rubbed slowly but surely under Jim’s sweaty palms. A weight was brought to bear on the wood and the door began to push inwards. Jim threw himself against the barrier, kicking his feet against the ground for extra force, yet the door continued, slowly but steadily inwards, the low bottom scraping along the floor now, wood and tile vibrating together in a long shuddering scream.

***

The power, and horror, of dreams comes from their ability to portray a world that is convincing and real to us, but then seamlessly interweave manifestations of the intangible: emotions, ideas, fears. You may well have a conversation with greed or literally chase after happiness. By this method they help us give voice to that which we could not speak and understanding to that which we could not think. My purpose with this story was to write a story that felt like a nightmare from the heart.

As I said in my most recent post, it was not my intention to shoehorn this story to fit a particular genre or trope, I really wanted to let it just be its own thing. As I’m sure became evident, this isn’t actually some hard-boiled detective mystery, it is a tale of being haunted by oneself, a fear of conjuring up an evil that will sooner or later come into your most inner places. The use of its main character and setting were selected not to follow some tired cliché, but rather for the way they naturally lent themselves to the central themes of danger and invasiveness.

Of course, writing a quality haunting tale is difficult to do, and at the end of the day I’m still not sure if I succeeded or not. There was an image I had in my mind of what I wanted this story to be, and there is a chasm between that and what actually has made it into the final draft. I remain convinced that what was in my head was terrifying, but how much of that was lost in translation? This is a quandary every writer will face, and I imagine one that never wholly dissipates, no matter how much experience you have. On Monday we’ll dig into this topic a bit more. Until then, if you missed out on the first half of Free Cleaning Service you can go to this page to view the story in its full form, and you can also go here to see every story that I’ve posted on this blog. Have a wonderful weekend!

 

Free Cleaning Service: Part One

silhouette of a man in window
Photo by Donald Tong on Pexels.com

Jim Morgan ducked under the police tape and pulled his coat tighter against the wind. He moved with hurried steps, little splashes of muddy rainwater billowing around his ankles. He gave a final glance upwards to the dark, cloudy sky, then pushed through the creaky wooden door to the cozy diner within. The layout of the place was extremely basic. A dozen circular tables crowded around the floor, with a cashier’s counter fronting a kitchen along the left wall. Across the back wall was the occasional window offering a view of the neighboring Main Street, or at least they would have been under fairer weather. On a stormy night such as this, the interior lights overpowered the external darkness and the windows became large black mirrors. Jim was drawn to the image of his duplicate in the glass, watching him come in from the cold, cup his hands to his mouth, and blow into them for warmth.

“Sir?” a police deputy stood up from his chair and approached him. The officer couldn’t have been older than twenty-two, and the way he nervously loitered around made it clear he had no idea what one was supposed to do at a crime scene.

“Detective Morgan,” Jim gestured to himself, but didn’t trouble to pull out his badge to prove it. “Let Barry know I’m here, if you will.”

“Barry?” the young man repeated, confusion wrinkling his brow.

“Detective Barton,” Jim clarified and comprehension dawned on the deputy’s face. “He phoned that he wanted to see me here.”

“Yes, sir, of course,” the officer said, yet he remained on the spot, shifting his weight around uncomfortably. “It’s just that—well, he’s occupied with the crime scene presently.” The young man started to turn his face in the direction of the kitchen doors, but he halted halfway through the motion and instead jerked his thumb over the shoulder instead. Now it was Jim’s face that broke in comprehension.

“You haven’t been in there yet, have you son?” he asked bluntly. The deputy dropped his gaze to the floor and shook his head. For the first time Jim paused to look at the man’s badge and read his name. “There’s no shame in not wanting to see, Ellis,” he said compassionately. “And I’ll tell you right now there’s no special trick to stomaching that sort of stuff, it’s just hard. Always is.” Ellis looked back up and Jim held eye contact for a few moments, trying to remember a time when his own face had been that innocent. Still, if the man was expecting to be let off the hook, he was about to be disappointed. “But that’s the job,” Jim said flatly. “Go tell Detective Barton that I’m here.”

There was a firm finality in Jim’s tone and Ellis didn’t try to argue the point, instead exhaling slowly and dejectedly shuffling off towards the kitchen door. Meanwhile, Jim turned and walked deeper into the diner, making his way to the dark mirror of a window where he could peered closely at his own reflection. To be sure, there wasn’t any of that old innocence left in him now, and not even the miles of tracks under his eyes did justice to the distances he had traveled for this job. He was tired. Tired in ways he couldn’t begin to explain. His blinked, then so did his reflection.

“Jim?” A voice called him out of his reverie and he spun around to see Barry emerging out of the kitchen. Barry had barely cleared the door before Ellis followed behind him, much paler in the face now and moving with nervous, rapid footfalls. Barry strode the rest of the way to Jim with a few giant paces, and the two shook hands with a well-practiced familiarity.

“Hello, Barry,” Jim said, thus concluding the formalities of their greeting. Now they could get to the heart of the matter. “You said you wanted to see me?”

“Right. And you brought the file I asked for?”

Jim nodded, pulling the manila folder out from the dryer confines of his overcoat and handing it to Barry who began thumbing through its contents. The folder was aged, but the case was not. In fact it was so recent that Jim’s thumb still bore a black mark where he had smudged it against the freshly-typed details of the case, details that were similarly smudged across his mind.

Harold and Ava Harrison, both in their late sixties.
Both retired.
Found dead in their apartment, by the landlord who had responded to a neighbor’s report of loud shouting.
No sign of forced entry.
Little sign of struggle.
All in broad daylight, yet with no one having seen the perpetrator.

Those last details were a bit uncommon, but not enough to make the case particularly stand out. Thus far Jim had made little progress on the investigation, but that was how many of these went.

Barry had gone directly to the section for evidence. Jim knew there wasn’t much there. A couple statements, the phone records, and some stray pieces of mail taken from the home. Barry selected one of these and held it up in its plastic bag. Jim squinted at the paper. Free Cleaning Service.

“The new carpet cleaning business?Jim asked, remembering the advertisement.

Barry nodded.

“Yeah…come to think of it, that was one of the bits you helped me follow up on, wasn’t it?”

Barry nodded again. “That’s why I remember it.”

“Sure…what was it they said to you?”

“Not much. Was just a one-man operation, said he didn’t keep track of names or addresses, just went to people when they called. Asked if he had been to the Harrisons, he said no, said sometimes he had to turn people down because of conflicting schedules.”

Jim nodded, memories of Barry’s report trickling back. At the time it had been buried like one drop of data within a stream but now, when it stood on its own, it did seem a bit odd. “Strange for a one-man operation to be sending out free services. Seems like he’d never be able to keep up with all the calls.”

“That’s true. Of course, you didn’t know that when you sent me there. Was there something else that made this flier stand out to you.”

Jim closed his eyes and called back the remembrance of that day. “Yeah,” he said finally. “I was trying to piece together why it would’ve happened in the middle of the day and with no forced entry. A service-man just made sense for it.”

“Good thinking,” Barry agreed. “It would also explain an owner found dead in his diner, again with no forced entry but this time in the evening… after closing hours.”

At last Jim was seeing the connection, and the reason why Barry had called him down here. “You found another flier.” It wasn’t a question.

Now it was Barry’s turn to reach a hand into his overcoat, pulling out a plastic bag with an identical Free Cleaning Service flier in it. “The owner was holding it.”

Jim closed his eyelids and exhaled slowly. As if things hadn’t been bad enough already… A part of him wanted to resist agreeing with Barry, simply because he didn’t want to face the conclusion that stood at the end of this this line of reasoning. But that was the job. He opened his eyes and blinked them back into focus. “Alright, we’ll work it together from here on. I can go back to the office and fill out for a warrant on the cleaner’s place. If we get it before end-of-day tomorrow then maybe we can wrap it up in a hurry.”

“Works for me. Tell you what, though, I’ll go back to the office for the warrant. You can head home, or else have a look around here if you want to see.”

Jim scoffed derisively. “No one wants to see, Barry,” his eyes glanced briefly back to Ellis who had sunk back into his chair from before. “But yeah, I’d better go check it out. See you tomorrow.”

Barry nodded, handed Jim the casefile he’d been putting together, then left out the front door. Ellis looked up as he left, then back to Jim, evidently uncertain of which detective he was supposed to remain with.

“Go call the morgue to come for the body, I won’t be long,” Jim told him. “Then go ahead and get home, I’ll wait here for them.” As the young man enthusiastically left his perch for the phone, Jim swallowed something back that had been rising in his throat and strode towards the diner’s kitchen.

*

Jim held the kitchen door open for the morgue workers as they shuffled out, each carrying an end of the black bag. When they were through he hurried ahead to do the same for them at the diner’s main entrance. They thanked him as they progressed to their hearse and he grunted in response. He stepped back into the empty diner and gave it one last sweeping glance, then strode to each of the room’s chandeliers to turn them off. The thought occurred that it was a strange thing to do, seeing as there was no living owner to thank him for the gesture. Still, courtesy even to the dead, wasn’t that right? Courtesy especially to the dead.

He approached the last table, the one set underneath dark window he had used for a mirror before. He peered back at his reflection and asked himself what he saw there. Was he imagining things, or had a new line appeared under his eyes that very night? His reflection blinked, then so did he.

Jim turned back to the last chandelier, reached up, and turned it off. With the last light doused, darkness swept through the room and the light within the diner no longer overpowered the blackness without. Now visible for the first time was a man outside, staring in through the same window. The man was tall and thin, his hair a motley mess of dark strands, framing a shockingly pale face. His eyes were open in a wide stare, glistening as though they bore unshed tears. His lips were curling back and opening, exposing his teeth in a broad grin. Jim’s back was already turned though, and he remained oblivious to the watcher as he walked to the opposite wall, out the front door, and into the night.

***

As I said in my post on Monday, a good horror story should take residence in the core, fundamental fears inherent to the human condition. My purpose in this story was to focus on a few, such as the fear of innocence lost, the fear of being watched, the fear of being our safe places being made unsafe, and the fear of being powerless. The first two of these you can see in the first half already, and the other two will crop up in the conclusion next week.

One thing that I debated when writing this story was the portrayal of Jim Morgan as the gruff and jaded police detective. I felt that that was such a tired trope, and I didn’t want to be going that route just to follow some trend. As I thought about it, though, I felt that within the context of this story it was essential for his character be this way. At his core, Jim fears that he has been tainted, that he has walked through a dark mist and now wherever he goes a part of it might be following him. It is a fear we all have experienced in our moments of guilt, and I could think of no better way to establish it than to write him gruff and tired.

This question of whether your story decisions are being motivated by its needs versus just shoehorning it to match a certain trope or genre deserves further examination, though, and next Monday I will discuss the point further. I’ll see you then.

Shadowy Corners

grayscale photo of chair inside the establishment
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For my profession I work as a software developer, so it’s not much of a surprise that I find the technology sector fascinating. I’m always interested in new developments, hardware and software alike, so when virtual reality first came on the scene I was anxious to give it a try. For the most part, the showings there have felt lackluster and halfhearted, but a few standouts have been quite exceptional and remained with me for a long while since. One of my favorite experiences was a short-film called Sonar, which placed the viewer at the helm of a small space-faring craft, following the trail of a crew that went missing some time ago. The story began with a sense of intrigue, soon became ominous, and finally concluded in utter terror. I loved every second of it. Repeated viewings of the piece still held the same punch, due to both the quality of the work as well as the extra immersion made possible by the VR medium.

Now, in general, I am not a fan of mainstream horror stories. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for suspense, I’m a sucker for intrigue, I relish foreboding and tension, and I’m always up for mounting dread. But more and more the genre has lost touch with those core tenets in exchange for just increasing the amounts of violence, gore, and jump scares. True fear is not the same as queasiness, and none of these cheap parlor tricks hold a candle to a truly terrifying encounter. In contrast, consider the last great nightmare you had, one that brought you to a point of terror so profound that your mind revolted and snapped you back to consciousness before the scene could be completed. Now that’s true fear.

Of course these sorts of sleeping horrors are, by their nature, unpleasant experiences, yet it is worth considering what value there is in that unpleasantness. One does not need to be a sadist to appreciate that nightmares are some of the richest dreams we ever have; the images are so very vivid, the immersion is so very deep, and the emotions are so very, very real. Beyond that, though, the fact is our core fears are, well, core to us. Frightening experiences, therefore, have the ability to help us to better understand our own selves. Our basic fears influence much of what we do, think, and believe, and coming to learn the names of these fears is our first step to gaining closure with them. On the one hand, understanding these fundamental worries helps us guard against the tragedies which we can prevent, and on the other it helps us to gain acceptance for the ones which we cannot. In this sense there is a degree of interest in fear that can be healthy, when we face them with the intention to see our own souls.

Of course, good horror authors know and utilize this when crafting their wakeful nightmares. They understand that the extreme and unrealistic dreads we hold, the mythical and supernatural terrors we conjure, all of these are only the personifications and exaggerations of the basic fears at our cores. Deep down we don’t really expect to be mutilated in some horrifying way, but we are afraid of pain, particularly of pain that is greater than our ability to bear. We don’t really expect to be murdered or devoured by a beast, but we do dread being in another’s power, of losing control in our lives. We don’t really know many people who have been possessed by demons or mind-controlling aliens, but we do see the reality of loved ones losing their higher cognitive processes and sense of self. As such, the good author does not try to scare the reader with a monster, they scare them with what the monster represents, with the way it speaks to and provokes a reaction from the fundamental fears that are common to all humanity.

Washington Irving was one author that certainly grasped this concept. In his classic tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow he presents a monstrous being, one that is supernatural and terrible, and one who relentlessly pursues the protagonist with forces of inhuman evil. Yet in its closing moments we realize that this monstrous being was actually a fabrication. The headless horseman in all his dreadful glory was nothing more than common human envy dressed up once in Brom Bones’ costume and clothed a second time in Ichabod Crane’s superstitious imagination. The revelation that the villain of the story is a mere mortal who menaced and murdered Ichabod does not make the tale any less ghastly, though, if anything it only makes it more so. This speaks to an evil that is far more sinister because it is far more common and believable; the evil of what jealous men will do to secure their own interests.

Another excellent example is in the theatrical production Wait Until Dark. Here we have a heroine, Susy Hendrix, who is menaced by a group of hardened drug dealers and thuggish con artists. These dangerous men mean business, and a number of lives are lost before the final curtain falls. None of that is where the real terror is, though. What is truly frightening is that Susy Hendrix is completely blind. There is something horrible in the audience’s being able to see the obvious dangers which are shrouded from her in eternal shadow. Men are laying traps and drawing weapons right in front of her and she doesn’t even know it. The reason why this is so affecting is because it speaks to a core fear we all hold, a fear that even in broad daylight there may be unrecognized threats lurking right before us.

In fact, both The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Wait Until Dark can be considered as examinations of that same core fear: the fear of disguised danger. If we tally all the things we do to keep danger at bay, we realize that safe-living is a truly herculean effort. We lock our doors, buckle our seatbelts, look both ways, check expiration dates, phrase things carefully, wear thick boots, apply mosquito repellant, put the cover on our pool, discharge static electricity, turn off circuit breakers, signal each turn, apologize quickly, brush our teeth, back away from stray animals, have regular check-ups, stretch before we run, and so very, very much more. And we do all of this before anything bad has even happened. Even so, there lurks in all of us the sense that there are dangers we cannot account for. We realize that no matter how vigilant we are, threats remain in every place and every hour, things we do not see, forces we cannot quell. We become paranoid, consumed not by a fear of what is lurking in the dark, but simply of what might be. However, with the help of stories that give us insight to this unpleasant aspect of our lives, we may come to accept the uncertainty of life. That reality may still unsettle us, but it does not have to paralyze us. We can just live, and let come what may.

Truly frightening tales will always have a unique quality of being as fascinating as they are unnerving. Next Thursday I’m going to take my own stroll down a haunted path and hope you’ll be willing to join me for it. My purpose will simply be to draw out a root fear or two that applies to all of humanity. If I am able to succeed, the story will be discomforting in how it holds a mirror to the most basic human fears. Whenever this happens, it leaves a sensation that the tale somehow knows each one of us on a personal level. So you’d better watch out, those monsters aren’t just going for Mina Harker and Dr Jekyll, they’re coming after you!