Reaching for books that go bump in the night

Why do we reach for dark stories in dark times?

Reaching for books that go bump in the night
Credit: natalia_maroz/Shutterstock

I read multiple genres all year long, mixing poetry and nonfiction with novels and short stories as I please. The lone exception is October, when I read one genre and one genre alone: Horror.

 

I want books that go bump in the night, leave me terrified to sleep with the lights off, convince me that someone’s lurking in the linen closet. I want prose powerful enough to raise goosebumps on my arm. I want stories that linger long after I’ve closed the covers (or buried under them).

 

Scary movies, horror books, creepy TV shows, I love them all. But when I confess this love to others, I often get the same shuddering reaction: “Oh, I can’t do stuff like that. Too scary.”

 

Which, of course, is a pretty understandable response, right? Who would willingly spend their free time knee-deep in a case of the heebie-jeebies?

 

So why do fans keep coming back to horror? What makes a person want to be scared?

 

What drives a person to spend their leisure time in a fictional hellscape? Why do we seek the dark, and what do we hope to find there?

 

I think about it a lot, especially in an age where the headlines contain enough horror to last a lifetime. What drives a person to spend their leisure time in a fictional hellscape? Why do we seek the dark, and what do we hope to find there?

 

Part of me knows it provides a temporary escape from everyday anxiety. It’s hard to fret over that upcoming root canal when flesh-eating zombies are on the loose. I know it’s also a path to explore all the larger things in life that haunt us. (Is The Shining about ghosts, or is it about addiction? The wise reader answers: Why not both?)

 

Still another part of me craves art that creates a physical response in the reader. If an author can use the English language to make me audibly laugh, tear up, or shiver in my chair, that’s a damn fine piece of writing. So I want books that make my heart race. I want language that gives me chills. I want to feel something when I read, and horror promises I’ll feel vividly alive from start to finish.

 

Fiction is a lie, plain and simple, but oh, how much of it is spent convincing the reader that it’s the truth.

 

But I think one of my favorite things about horror is how much earnestness exists at its core. Fiction is a lie, plain and simple, but oh, how much of it is spent convincing the reader that it’s the truth. And ghosts, goblins, and ghouls are all a much harder truth to sell than a troubled marriage or murder case – and one humans don’t have any good reason to swallow. We want to laugh, so we flock to comedy. We need to understand death and pain, so we relish tragedy. But humans don’t have much of a good reason – socially or biologically – to admit a work of art makes us afraid. Showing fear implies weakness, insecurity, a loss of control. So we cross our arms. So we jut our jaw. And we say: You think that’s scary? That’s not scary.

 

That’s stupid.

 

That’s why it’s easier to make a horror-comedy, with fake-blood hijinks and campy zombies. So we laugh at the things that should scare us. But how brave, how confident is the author who will stand in front of a crowd, that swarm of crossed-arm skeptics, and say: I am going to tell you a story that will scare the living daylights out of you.

 

And you’re gonna love it.

 

That’s the kind of confidence I want to see in an author. That’s the kind of confidence I want to see in fiction, period.

 

So come November, I’ll welcome all my cheerier genres back with open arms. But for the rest of this month, you’ll only find me in the dark.

 

Nicki Porter is the senior editor of The Writer.