December 9, 2014

The Horror of an Unfamiliar Genre

By Bethany Taylor, Library Assistant

I do not like horror anything as a form of entertainment. I could be grumpily realistic/arrogantly lofty here and say that as there are more than enough terrifying things—climate change, Ebola, economic collapse, falling in love, being judged by busy strangers for college admissions, etc.—in reality for me to bother going out of my way to scare up some fictional ghosty goblins or gory ax-murderers or mutant bloody aliens or violent alternate demonic personalities seeping into one’s being.

The truth is that I have far too active an imagination to cope with the aftermath of a horror movie. I watched Poltergeist in middle school and spent the next year or so convinced that every door I opened might have a creepy devil man behind it, or that the noises in my parents’ house were poltergeists, not our acrobatic cats cavorting around an old farmhouse. Similar bouts of hyper-tension, jumpiness, sweaty-palmed stabs of fear and imagined terrors followed with various viewings of X-Files episodes, The Exorcist, and so on until I was confident enough to say “nothankyouIhavetobeanywherebuthere!” to horror as a genre.

Fast forward about fifteen years and I am spending a lot of time in libraries. The public library where I worked before BB&N had, I think, every Stephen King book ever written, and they still whipped on and off the shelf nearly as fast as Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games. Because this was an old library in a small town in New Hampshire, it was naturally rumored to be haunted. As such, I managed my time so I was never shelving Stephen King books when alone, after dark, in the haunted library.

Fate does not need such temptation.

However, now that I spend more time in a more modern and better lit atmosphere, and also find myself spouting off banal educator one-liners about “trying new things” and “exploring what is out there” and “every genre has merit,” it was starting to seem a mite hollow that here was an entire type of book that I was not reading, without trying it, like a little kid avoiding brussel sprouts (which are delicious.)

So I decided to stop being a narrow minded ‘fraidy-cat, hike up my big girl panties, and read me some horror. On a friend’s recommendation, I selected Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. And I waited until a somewhat dark and stormy night to start reading, because what is the glee in doing something half-way?

Friends, it was so much better than I thought! Because apparently I am a big book snob, I assumed anything as popular and wide-reaching as Stephen King would just be engaging, but poorly written with just a lot of blood and cheap fear sloshing around. I thought it would be like a romance novel, but with absurd scary and violent scenes replacing highly over-written and ludicrous sex scenes.

Not so. Certainly, the story is dated, and it read a little bit like a parody of a horror movie, but the writing itself is wonderful. The town of ‘Salem’s Lot is extremely well drawn. A regular day is run through by checking in with various characters at different times of day. It’s like Act One of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (my favorite play), but with the daily life being supplied by a full orchestra of major and minor characters, giving more layers and textures and personality to the town. While some of the characters are predictable and one dimensional, there are others who have rich inner lives and come into play with deep inner strength that is—if not entirely believable in the context of staving off evil in the kitchen of a small town in coastal Maine—enormously compelling and a little heartbreaking.

The creep-factor crept in slowly, and then all at once. There are so many characters, and you never get more than a short segment of their story at a time that, as the stories build in themselves and on each other, a net is being woven tighter and tighter until the reader is caught. It is brilliant story-telling, enough so the absurdity of the main premise itself is swallowable. The rooted yet wavering Christian faith of the priest, the quaintly sweet and creepy homogeny of the town, and the dichotomy between good and evil, all of these perspectives on the stories we believe and take faith in and build our lives around was fascinating from a philosophical side. And the strange epidemic that grips the town, how a town caves in on itself with a sort of infection…well, here we are back at Ebola and pandemics and real things to be scared by.

I read the whole book, cover to cover, in two nights. And I don’t know that I’ll read more—it’ll always depend on how creaky a house I live in, how close creepy haunted seeming mansions are, or about three hundred other factors, but I’m pretty happy to say that I’m not fully avoiding the genre. Here’s to expanding horizons and confounding personal prejudices! Hooray for libraries and books that make such experiences easy and possible!

(Horror movies, though... Heck no. That is something new that I have no need to test my anti-snobbery about. I need to sleep sometimes.)