Join editors Kim Winternheimer and Sadye Teiser as they discuss what works in scary stories and what doesn’t, as our celebration of October fiction continues.
K: You and I love October so much because it’s the season of scary stories. And generally we try to focus our content on literary fiction that scares, disturbs, disgusts, or keeps us up at night. This month is particularly exciting because our Fall Fiction Contest is open for submissions and is being judged by one of literary horror’s best: Brian Evenson. I feel like I have to mention here that he wrote a really creepy story called “Room Tone” for us last year, and anyone interested should check out his very dark collection, A Collapse of Horses, which will not disappoint horror-lovers. This year we have new fiction by Jac Jemc, whose story “Hunt and Catch” is also spine tingling. I’m so thrilled we have our own library of fiction that services scary stories, but more broadly I want to talk about why these kinds of stories are so appealing to us. Jac’s story is about a creepy garbage man and an unreliable world, Brian’s is about a dark obsession worth killing for, and “Linger Longer,” one of our Fall Fiction Winners from Jeff Vandermeer’s year, is about ghosts and the boarders between the real and unreal. Why are these so fun to read? Why do we like to be scared?
S: I think that scary stories offer a way for us to address fears that are just too difficult to tackle outside of a fictional lens. No one wants to sit down and think about death, or the violence that one human can exert upon another, or the secrets that the people we love most can keep from us. But we love stories about ghosts and zombies, horror stories, stories with the unknown lingering in every corner.
We have also published two, very different, ghost stories that I really like. In “Double Exposure” by Megan Giddings, two young women move into an apartment where the rent is cheap because of one crucial fact: it is haunted. In fact, the downstairs neighbors are ghosts. As the women become friends with their neighbors, the line between the living and the dead is blurred in unnatural ways. You are not, after all, supposed to date a ghost, and you are not supposed to envy one. In “Clean Hunters” by Lena Valencia, a husband and wife, who both have the Sense that can detect spirits, find it hard to bridge the widening distance in their marriage.
What are some of your favorite ghost stories? What do you think makes for an effective ghost story?
K: I have so many. As a kid I loved the Alvin Schwartz collection, Scary Stores To Tell In The Dark, particularly the ghost stories, and the truly gruesome illustrations only deepened the horror (and the pleasure) of reading them. As an adult I love the classics like The Haunting of Hill House, The Turn of The Screw, and Stephen King’s, The Shining. I also love “The Emissary,” by Ray Bradbury. What makes a ghost story effective, for me, is the suggestion of something scary and the suspense that comes from realizing, over time, that what you hoped wasn’t true has its hand on your shoulder or is standing just behind you, its reflection visible in the bathroom mirror. Ghost stories haunt all kinds of literary corners, but I think the most effective ones have what Henry James says are, “connected at a hundred points with the common objects of life.” I really don’t think there is anything scarier than your normal life being infiltrated with the horrible, especially a supernatural power that doesn’t abide by the rules of our physical world. Our lives are so governed by physics, when you are dealing with an entity that operates outside of those rules, well, nowhere is safe.
On the whole, and from a craft perspective, good ghost stories unveil ghosts and our interactions with them, with impeccable timing. Generally, suspense is being built from the suggestion of something scary to the full realization and occupation of that scary something, the apex of that interaction being the story’s climax. Most good ghost stories also ask questions about psychology and stability. It’s almost impossible to have a ghost story and not have a character ask: am I going insane? And lastly, I think a good ghost story evokes a strong sense of place, particularly a scary or unnerving atmosphere.
We recently took a closer look at Marjorie Sandor’s essay on the uncanny. Can you talk about the highlights of this essay and how it pertains to telling an effective scary story?
S: I love Marjorie’s essay so much, and I am glad that you brought it up. You mentioned that the scariest stories are the ones in which the terrible unknown emerges from the dear and domestic, from the most everyday parts of our lives. This ties in well with the idea of the uncanny, as Marjorie describes it. She writes: “The sensation of uncanniness is, at its core, an anxiety about the stability of those persons, places, and things in which we have placed our deepest trust, and our own sense of identity and belonging. And what’s exciting about this for writers of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, is that it invites us to practice uncertainty.” There is nothing more terrifying than the familiar becoming strange to you, or the strange seeming eerily familiar.
I really recommend reading the whole essay, since Marjorie traces the evolution of the term uncanny, and discusses its uses as they pertain to fiction. But one of the examples she uses, which is taken from Freud’s famous essay Das Unheimliche (The Uncanny), is: “The commingling of the familiar and the strange.”
In her essay, Marjorie explains how writers can harness the power of the uncanny in their own fiction, in order to generate new material. She also discusses the uncanny as it relates to setting, the manipulation of fictional time, and point of view. Finally, she addresses how writers can convey the uncanny on the level of the sentence. The uncanny is woven into the latticework of so many unsettling stories, just waiting for you to perceive it.
I was not at all surprised to see Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals” included in the anthology Marjorie edited: The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows. In that story, which is a cult favorite, a family moves into a new house in the country. The items of their everyday lives begin, slowly, to betray them: everything from a toothbrush to the family cat becomes haunted. It is a story that perfectly and thoroughly illustrates the “commingling of the familiar and the strange.”
What are some of your favorite scary stories that are set in the home? There are so many variations of the “haunted house” story.
K: I love a haunted house story. So many have been written, but there is always fresh material to expose, primarily because there is always something scary about the safety of your home being undermined. By ghost, by intruder, or even by someone you know with nefarious intent. One of the best haunted house stories I’ve read recently is Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It, out this year from FSG. It is a classic haunted house story: a couple buys a new home and slowly discovers its dark past. In this haunted house story the house itself is possessed, not so much by a specific ghost, but the home itself is evil, alive. The story is told so cleverly by toggling points of view between the husband and wife, revealing each of their own independent psychologies and how they are together, yet separately, slipping away from reality as a result of the home. What I loved so much about this novel was how it uses form to give an old idea fresh blood (pun intended). The success of the couple’s survival is contingent on their coming together. However, the issues in their marriage prevent them from being honest with each other and it is this classic relationship issue—honesty in a marriage— that makes the haunting so much worse, and puts so much more at stake.
It reminds me so much about what makes a scary story successful and also, why so many fail. Ellen Datlow, in an interview with us a few years ago, discussed that what a person thinks about as “horror” in the movies, isn’t really good horror. Good horror stories reveal or expose higher themes. A bad scary story is visceral: relying solely on scary tropes and cliches to generate suspense or excitement. A good scary story builds fear out of a real issue and pushes that vulnerability into the realm of a scary story, whatever the genre: slasher movie, ghost story, haunted house.
I love that we have writers who submit work in these genres. What are some scary stories we have seen come through the slush pile that need a few tweaks/what common pitfalls are there when writing a scary story of your own?
S: I always am excited when I see that someone has submitted a scary story, whether it is a ghost story, a scary and surreal tale (probably the most common), or a literary horror story. Often, I will be really into the spooky elements of a story, but something won’t quite “click” for me, and it will take me awhile to figure out why.
I remember one surreal scary story that, among other things, made a piece of rotting fruit supremely creepy. I remember a variation of the haunted house story that included a spooky neighbor, who had unnatural access to the protagonist’s home. I remember a short piece in which bodies were entombed in trees. The visceral images in all of these stories stuck with me. But I think that they all needed to develop more of an emotional core, to tie these scary elements to “higher themes,” as you described. After all, the most unsettling unreal elements grow out of characters’ real lives: the anxiety in a relationship (as you discussed), the terrors of coming of age, dark secrets. Often, the bridge between these human elements and the horrific elements of a story is not formed as thoroughly as it could be.
Whenever I have an idea for a scary story, it is usually the climax—the moment of shock and horror—that I think of first. I feel like it is like that for a lot of writers. But, like any story, scary tales need scaffolding to hold them up: character work, plot points, tension, themes. It is not enough just to present one super creepy image. Though, with the right support, that image can be incredibly powerful.
I have so enjoyed discussing the craft of frightening fiction with you. Happy Halloween, everyone!