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?