The Very Witching Time Of Night
posted at 1:34 am on October 30, 2009 by Doctor Zero
Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.
– William Shakespeare
I’ve always loved horror stories. I had a memorable introduction to horror at the age of seven, when my father picked me up from Catholic school and somehow managed to slip me into a showing of The Exorcist. Several days later, after I stopped shaking, I found myself wondering why the movie had scared me so much more than those spooky grade-school story books floating around school in late October. William Peter Blatty had a lot more than man-eating school buses and ghostly gym teachers on his mind when he penned his masterpiece. I wanted to understand how his dark magic worked.
I was soon gobbling down chapters of Carrie, and asking astonished librarians to bring me Lovecraft books, because Stephen King had praised him. Every kid my age found a way to see Jaws when it became a worldwide phenomenon, but not many were hauling out the novel during fifth-grade lunch period. I enjoyed the stories, as what King fondly calls a “Gentle Reader,” but I was also studying the subject matter and technique, fascinated by the challenge of writing a book or filming a movie that could truly frighten people.
Fear is a remarkably subjective emotion. Ideas and situations that terrify some people are amusing to others. Everything fearful is at least mildly absurd, which is why some of the funniest moments in popular culture occur as tension-breaking comic relief during horror movies. Nothing is universally terrifying. Authors sometimes discover their personal demons don’t rattle the audience as much as they hoped. Many of Stephen King’s Gentle Readers have reached the end of It and been disappointed to learn the author is much more frightened of spiders than they are. You may know people who don’t find The Exorcist all that scary. I know brave men who will leave the room if they hear the theme song.
Some of the best horror stories are turbocharged by perfectly capturing the spirit of the times. John Carpenter’s Halloween was a splash of ice-cold water down the spine of families raised in the controlled comfort of 70s suburbia. The Exorcist combined the post-Vietnam quest for spiritual meaning with the fear of increasingly complex and menacing medical science – the scenes of baffled doctors doing horrible things to the little girl in sterile hospital rooms are a splash of modern needle-phobia gin, added to the vermouth horror of the ancient evil lurking within her. A generation of families emerged from Jaws filled with second thoughts about that weekend trip to the beach… and lingering anxiety over foolish public officials who refuse to see the severed limbs floating ashore, because it would spoil tourist season. The 70s ended with the exuberant fantasy of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars… and then Alien came along to remind them that extraterrestrial life might be interested in something besides friendly hand signals and five-note messages of peace.
Horror is a marvelously versatile genre. Its tales can be set in the modern era, or they can be period pieces. Horror stories can be woven from the fabric of epic fantasy, science fiction, or high adventure. Horror stories can be visceral and gory, or subtle and haunting – its toolbox includes both bloody knives and spiderwebs. The problem with the more brutal flavor of horror is that it quickly numbs the audience, particularly in films, where increasingly vivid special effects strangle the imagination of the audience.
Fear is the wellspring of imagination, the primal force that motivates us to wonder what lies beyond the edge of the firelight, or makes the strange noises rolling beneath a winter moon. Arthur Conan Doyle said, “Where there is no imagination, there is no horror.” The reverse is also true. Everything exciting contains at least a dash of fear, and great stories are rarely told about boring subjects. Even the mundane can become fascinating, with a dash of apprehension. The sight of a rubber ball bouncing down a stairwell in the sleeper classic The Changeling is more frightening than all the knife-wielding madmen of the slasher films.
The horror author has a unique challenge: his work may fail to engage the audience if it’s too effective. There’s a fine line beyond which a creepy tale becomes too unpleasant to enjoy. The “torture porn” craze of recent years often suffers from this problem. The more grisly forms of horror fiction are always on parole with the reader or viewer, deploying artistic merit or layers of deeper meaning to justify their most terrible passages… and hopefully avoiding the moment when the audience wonders why it should force itself to read any further, or watch any longer.
Short horror stories are a favorite pastime of mine. Horror stories are among the purest examples of short fiction. They have a very specific purpose: engage the audience just long enough to drop the hammer of a shocking twist or intense climax, and leave them with a satisfying chill. There is no room for dead weight in a great horror story, as digressions or indulgences can easily break the tension. It’s tough for a long novel to have a satisfying bummer ending – it’s frustrating to spend six hundred pages getting to know characters, then watch them all die or go insane at the end. The short story has no such limitations, and can stitch itself closed with giddy malevolence. Writing good short fiction in the horror genre is like solving a puzzle.
It has been my habit, for many years, to write a horror story on Halloween and send it to my friends. This year, I thought I would share my annual Halloween story with all of the new friends I’ve made through Hot Air. It has a little bit of violence and bloodshed, mostly implied, if that sort of thing troubles you. The link below will open the story in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format.