So it’s been a hell of a month, huh? It’s been a hell of a season, year, couple-of-years. You know what I mean. For the first time in recent history, I imagine that almost everyone on Earth has some idea what I mean. Give or take.
You tired? I’m tired.
It’s been a lot. It’s still a lot, and there’s a lot more coming. That’s true in every sense – whether we’re talking outside, where the world continues to slowly pull itself together (or not), or even just October, which is almost halfway over somehow. Hallowe’en is coming up fast! I wish it would take its time, I haven’t even made it out to Spirit Halloween yet.
It always seems like Hallowe’en is a million miles out until it arrives, huh? Ain’t it just the way. Then we’re all stuck in November, and what on Earth will we do then. But let’s not think about November yet.
Never think about November if you can help it.
There’s still plenty of Haunting to do.
Tonight, let’s do something a little different: it’s the tenth entry of the Long Hallowe’en and the 13th of October, so call it a third of the month down. A lot of these entries have been extremely long! I haven’t written this much since University, and certainly not for fun. If this were NaNoWriMo I’d be humble-bragging about word-counts on social media and generally bothering everyone in my little circle. And maybe I will, once the time comes, but that’s beside the point. We’ve earned an intermission.
So tonight, the thirteenth of October, let’s talk Scary together.
As critics, there’s an tendency to explain and over-analyze Horror, I think. It’s something I definitely fall prey to myself; look how many of these entries are little discussions on microgenres, or deep-dives into the lives of directors. We love to see the machinery behind the monster, it helps remind us that whatever’s hiding back there is a work of art, and not an active threat. It makes it safe. This is the mental scaffolding that allows me to really enjoy getting creeped out in the first place: I’m obsessed with the craft of it, the way directors, writer and other artists play off our deepest anxieties to use the audience and their reactions as a canvas. As a teenager, it meant that I would spend countless hours poring over Wikipedia plot-summaries. It let me appreciate the craft of the poison with none of its venom – I’m sure I’m not the only one that did this.
Also, I was kind of a weenie. I still am.
Horror is an art form, but there’s no scares without an audience willing to play along. It’s what makes found-footage Horror so powerful. It’s like the inverse of a documentary: the more real it seems, the more uncomfortable we are as an audience. The more inclined we are to believe it, the more susceptible we are to its power. It’s a dangerous relationship!
We aren’t getting into found-footage Horror tonight, that’s later this month. But all Horror fiction operates on the same principle: the less we can peek behind the curtain and know that something is artificial, the more potent its effect can be. There’s a reason realistic Horror gets to us so bad.
So let’s get into Short Fiction instead.
Horror Fiction turns on a dime, it has to. Horror Cinema (naturally) grew out of the written tradition, but to see it now it almost doesn’t seem that way: the writing has to maintain tension, it has to cut from image to image in a way that tells a story but still manages to shock a reader. It has to surprise without being able to move. It demands a sense of pacing that can be incredibly difficult to achieve with the written word – and seems to come across so naturally in the snap-cut pacing and audio roar of something like last night’s Blood Quantum. There are writers who stretch out and terrify gradually by degrees (Poe might be the most famously sleepy example), but I’ve always been most impressed by those writers than can do it at the drop of a hat. We’ll get to some of the others later this month, but the golden rule is: the fewer words the better, the less you give away. The more concentrated the dose, the more powerful it is.
Brian Evenson’s No Matter Which Way We Turned is four-hundred and forty-two words long, from end to end. It’s one good scroll on your phone screen. It fits on a PC monitor, no problem. This blog entry is already over six hundred words (but I’m notoriously wordy, so bad example). It is as airtight and shocking a piece of Horror as you’re ever going to find, and you can read it end to end in under three minutes. Every single word is a pivot-point to a new image or idea, no space is wasted. It is a 100-second episode of The Twilight Zone and it gives you nothing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll read it over and over again trying to figure out how Evenson does it.
It’s an exercise in the craft.
No Matter Which Way We Turned comes from an online publication called People Holding…, which prompts writers to tell stories around images of people holding anything at all. In this case, what is held is a young girl with her face obscured by her hair. That’s the photograph up top, it’s real. The story feels real, too. It can’t be.
I’m not pulling the curtain back an inch further, but read this one with the lights off.
Content warnings follow after the gap.
This has been entry 10/31 of The Long Hallowe’en 2021!
Content Warnings for tonight’s pick include the implicit distress and death of a child, abandonment and cosmic dread. It’s short, but it’s potent! Reader discretion is advised.