I’m just about to belatedly finish reading The Shining by Stephen King and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I’d been reading other tales of horror and the supernatural alongside it: M.R James Collected Ghost Stories and Haunted Castles by Ray Russell; it dawned on me- sneaked up behind me cloaked and murderous- a stabbing realization…
I love to be scared.
I have a really strong memory of sneaking downstairs when I was very young and hiding behind the sofa whilst my dad was watching The Amityville Horror. It must’ve been 1985 or 1986. Perhaps the first time I’d felt feeling that adrenalin rush of terror. Firstly there was the tension of controlling the trembling muscles in my legs as I tiptoed down each step, slipping through the crack of the door into the darkened room to crouch in suspense behind the sofa. I’d convinced myself that this was life or death. It was so exciting. There I was, the forbidden late night TV in front of me!
And then I began to watch the movie.
I had no conscious understanding of plot but I knew quite quickly that there was a reason I shouldn’t be watching. What it was about the film that disturbed me so much I can’t remember but I didn’t watch for long. It suddenly wasn’t a joyful thrill anymore. I remember a deep sinking feeling of dread and horror as I crawled back out into the hallway and made my way back upstairs to bed pulling the covers tightly around me and gazing fearfully around my blackened room until I passed out to sleep.
If you know me, you’ll know I have zero memory. I can’t tell you what I had to eat yesterday or things that have been said to me. This lack of recollection often gets me into trouble but sometimes it’s great because I can re-watch films and re-read good books and get re-surprised. So why do I remember this so memory so vividly? I can remember the layout of the bedroom of my eight year old self, the feel of the carpet, the thickness of my pillow, the Superman bed spread and the Optimus Prime on the window ledge BECAUSE of this fearful experience. If I need to remember the shopping list I should perhaps add an element of danger to the experience.
At University I learned that the sensations of horror and terror are feelings that link to the ‘sublime’, where we experience something so intense it that affects us beyond our control and rational understanding or perceptions. Spirituality is another way many people experience the sublime. People love being scared or exposed to sensations that remove them from the ordinary. Of course fear heightens awareness by flooding the body with the adrenaline needed for that inherent fight or flight mentality. I crave the sublime. It’s addictive. Fear is my drug.
I have to admit, I’d seen Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining years ago and always thought I’d known the story of Jack, Wendy and Danny; I really loved the movie. I think it might’ve even been the first scary movie I’d seen all the way through. The novel is much more intense. Jack is a much more likeable character so his descent into insanity is much more tragic. His inner frustrations and anxieties are shared only with the reader through internal and later external monologues that drives the tension and underlies his dialogue with Wendy with a sarcasm and passive aggression that boils with frustration and anger. Before the ghoulish goings on in room 217 we are already tightly wound. A suggestion here, a hint of the unusual there. When the supernatural appears our resolve is already weakened and the horror is magnified.
It’s the craft of the writer that brings us fear. The careful manipulation and pacing of events and exposition of character that contrives to accentuate the tension. It’s why I’ve struggled to enjoy most modern ‘horrors’ lately. There’s too much focus on the diresome denouement – the gruesome set pieces with no real regard for the psychology of fear.
So I’ll keep reading. It’s the English summer so I’m sure there’ll be an overcast day around the corner to set the appropriate ambience. I aim to post some book reviews on this blog so now you’ll understand why most of the material I read and the material I write is linked with my craving for the sublime.