It wouldn’t be a week of Halloween themed posts without a piece about the master of the horror genre, Stephen King.
Just his name is enough to evoke a chill down the spine. For some of us, it’s enough to make us quicken our step when we’re walking home alone in the dark; enough to make us take that quick look behind us (always fatal in the movies) to check there’s no one stalking us. And if his name alone doesn’t do it, the books do . . . for that matter, not only have his fifty novels inspired terror in readers, his work has prompted more than fifty theatrical releases, more than thirty TV series, episodes or TV original programmes, and fourteen stage plays. There is clearly something in his work which reaches out from the page and plants a seed of horror in us. One that lingers, and which grows. That’s a scary idea in itself.
But it’s also – sorry – a fruitful idea. It points to something the most successful horror does when we read it: not only does it scare us at that moment, it also plants an idea which is capable of scaring us later as well. The idea that Carrie can take her telekinetic revenge on someone who has hurt her contains its own frightening power… but Carrie has become the most-banned book in US high schools because the ideas about pain, hurt and revenge are sharply enough observed and contain enough truth that they take root in the reader. We carry the fear away with us. I blame IT (as I suspect do many others) for my inability to look into storm drains and gutters… I have a deep, irrational fear that one day I will see a pair of eyes looking back at me. Worse, I have a fear that whatever it is will come out of that gutter in order to drag me in. Would I have that fear if I had never read IT? Possibly. Would it be so strong? I doubt it.
Whenever I’m in a hotel corridor alone, checking the numbers, heading for my room, the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck start to rise. I know why I’m spooked – hotels are places designed for people (like theatres), and being alone when they are quiet and still is an eerie, isolating experience. I also know that if I hadn’t read The Shining I wouldn’t need to hurry past room 217, and I probably wouldn’t feel as if I was being chased around those corridors. For that matter, I wouldn’t be torn between closing the door sharpish behind me, and checking that there isn’t something horrible in there with me first.
The fears of being alone, being trapped, being chased are all natural and human. But they’re always exacerbated by the memory of a master horror writer playing on them, tapping into that innate, natural fear and making it bigger, scarier, more frightening than it was before. But where King has always excelled is in the knowledge that less is more: we are scared by the idea of a creature coming from hell and dragging us down into the fiery pit. But how much more frightening to be afraid of the creature under the pavement, every time you walk past a storm drain, who will drag you into the darkness forever. It’s frightening to chased around a hotel by a supernatural entity – how much more frightening to be chased by a flesh and blood human being, beyond reason themselves, from whom you are unable to hide. By using less of the supernatural, by using mundane situations and (enhanced) human motivation, King intensifies how scared we are.
It’s never the ghosts, demonic spirits or things that go bump in the night that frighten us. The real horror of a King novel always, magnificently, terrifyingly, lies in the people…
If you’re looking for a King-shaped scare this Halloween and you’re feeling brave, we recommend In The Tall Grass . Jointly written by Stephen King and Joe Hill , this short story is liable to make you hurry past fields for the rest of your life…