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October 24, 2013

Throwback Thursday: Are YOU Afraid of the Dark?

Posted by emily

Welcome back, boys and ghouls! Halloween is in the air (and every pop-up costume shop up and down Manhattan), and we're so excited we couldn't wait until next week to do our special, spooky Halloween-themed Throwback. The 20SomethingReads staff was eerily eager to revisit the books and stories that scared our bedroom lights on when we were kids (and, let's face it, adults). So consider yourself warned: From classic horror stories to bone-chilling book covers to buried biblical allegories, this week's TBT is not for the timid or the faint of heart. If you're brave enough, join us as we walk (um, race) through the dark, haunted corridors of our memories. 

Nicole: “The Lottery”
In no way does “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson make your skin crawl with the first few sentences. In fact, the story is harmless for almost its entirety...until the last few paragraphs when you learn that the "winner" of the lottery will be stoned. Not that kind, but the kind that hurts. POST SPOILER ALERT, SPOILER ALERT. “The Lottery” is a little bit like the movie Saw --- you never expected the "dead" guy in the middle to actually be alive in the same way that you never expected the ending to be what it is. And while after your first time reading it or watching it, the surprise will never be a surprise does not detract from its impact. “The Lottery” initially appeared in The New Yorker in 1948 and readers strongly reacted negatively. Over time, the story became a classic American tale touching upon the themes of small-town life and the fear of conformity and acceptance in the face of social immorality.  While the story is very much a commentary on the population growth spurt during the late 1940s (when the war had ended and couples were starting families), it's also a story of a future: a future where the sense of control has taken control and the potential for humanity to harm itself is significantly greater.

This story isn't necessarily scary by the standard definitions of scary. It is a psychological thriller that speaks about the possibility of a future reality in which "population control" may actually manifest in societal practices. In my personal opinion, psychological thrillers (i.e. Donnie Darko) are always more horrifying than true horror stories (i.e. Hellraiser) because they bring to the surface all the fears buried not deeply enough in your subconscious.

Emily: Christopher Pike books
I know I should probably pick one book to write about specifically, but I was kind of a scaredy cat when I was a kid, so I avoided horror books the way I avoided the evil spirits I was convinced lived in my bedroom closet (to this day, I won’t sleep with any closet doors open). That isn’t to say I didn’t have a perverse fascination with them in the bright, unhaunted light of day. I would often tiptoe into my brother’s room (the stealth may have been a bit unnecessary, but it definitely made the whole thing feel more transgressive and exciting) and peruse his Christopher Pikecollection, my heart pounding loud enough in my chest to raise the dead. Pike was a master of horror, and his books --- with their pulpy covers that featured attractive teenagers in menacing backdrops and that lurid neon font --- were just twisted enough, just heavy enough with the promise of real, paradigm-altering fear. I probably never read any one of them all the way through; I would sample them in bits and pieces --- a chapter here, a paragraph there, a murderous ex-boyfriend, a girl who could hear the voices of the dead --- just enough to experience the dark existential terrors they contained. I didn’t even like touching those covers, and would leaf through the pages with the book pressed firmly to the blue-carpeted floor, as if the characters could somehow pull me in to their demented reality if I let my guard down for just one second. And when my game of spook-the-chicken had gone far enough, I would shove the book back into its place on my brother’s bookshelf and run out of his room, slamming the door shut behind me. As if a mere shut door could keep me safe from hell-bent lurking spirits…

While DUCK & GOOSE, FIND A PUMPKIN appears to be a simple children’s story, it is actually an allegory for the Fall of Man. The book begins with the eponymous characters admiring a pumpkin belonging to their friend Thistle. In Genesis, shortly after the Fall, God says to Adam: "Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee.” The ground is a symbol for the material realm which Adam and Eve have bound humanity to through their transgression. Having broken their covenant, mankind is denied the knowledge of spiritual perfection. Further, humanity is now condemned to experience life through physical senses. This is an agonizing fate, for the “thorns and thistles” suggest sharp, constant pain that clings to the body. Having been ensnared by Thistle, Duck and Goose must find some manner of relief for their suffering. However, having lost their understanding of God, they decide to seek an earthly cure, represented by the pumpkin. Pumpkins are most frequently associated in western culture with Halloween, a holiday that stemmed from pagan practices. On this day, pumpkins are often carved into jack-o-lanterns, a term that developed from an earlier phrase, will-o-the-wisps, which were mysterious bog fires reported by late night travelers. The Latin term for this phenomenon is ignis fatuu, “foolish fire.” The term foolish suggests that the fires are illusion, and that those who report them are lacking in wits; in the case of humanity, this is the pursuit of earthly cures rather than seeking the spiritual cure God offers. With the knowledge of the term jack-o-lantern’s origin, it becomes clear that the jack-o-lantern, the pumpkin in the book, is merely a distraction. As representatives of mankind, Duck and Goose seek a false relief from the spiritual emptiness they are tormented by. This is further supported when the folktale behind a character known as Jack of the Lantern is examined. After making a deal with the Devil (forsaking God) to avoid going to Hell, Jack’s soul is bound to travel Earth for eternity. He carries with him a carved turnip, vegetables used as jack-o-lanterns before the discovery of pumpkins in the New World. Like Jack, Duck and Goose are doomed to dwell in a material rather than spiritual plane, a land in which they will experience pain. Even when they discover a pumpkin it will only be a fleeting joy, forgotten after the holiday, and Duck and Goose will be left searching for a cure (inevitably a false one) to their spiritual wounds once again.

Shannon: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”
This short story by Joyce Carol Oates inspires the kind of fear that you get when you realize you’ve made an awful mistake that’s put you in danger and there’s no going back. The premise is simple enough: a young girl named Connie, overshadowed by her seemingly perfect older sister, spends her weekends flirting with boys at a local restaurant. One day, she catches the eye of a boy named Arnold Friend. At first, Arnold seems like a lost puppy in love, doting on Connie and complimenting her beauty. Then, Connie begins to notice some strange things about him --- like the fact that he doesn’t seem 18, even though he says he is, and that he’s always dropping expressions in conversation that have long been out of style. He also knows a lot about Connie and her family, including where they are and when they’ll be home. Worried yet? Yeah. Arnold seems like a charmer, but when he shows up on Connie’s front porch and demands she come for a ride with him, things get scary. It’s never really clear who --- or what --- Arnold is (though the fact that he won’t enter Connie’s house seems like a pretty big clue to me), but he’s definitely not the friendly guy he claims to be. Either way, this story brings on the shivers you feel at the thought of tangling with the wrong stranger, and the sinking feeling when you know you’re in way over your head.

Taylor: “The Turn of the Screw”
For someone who watches any and all horror movies through her hands and thinks that an episode of Pretty Little Liars is scary, I actually love cuddling up during Halloween season and losing myself --- and quite possibly my sanity --- in a good ol’ scary story.

In my opinion, THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James is one of the scariest pieces of literature out there. Written as a short story and published in 1898, James has been terrifying his readers with THE TURN OF THE SCREW for over a century.

The story takes place at a country home named Bly, and opens with the arrival of a new governess to take care of two children, Flora and Miles. Not long after, the governess begins to see people, ghostly figures around the house, the grounds and even in the lake. Scared out of her wits, she confronts her master, Mrs. Grose, about these figures. As it turns out (get it? --- turns out, turn of the screw?) these figures are the ghosts of previous employees who died at Bly --- and these ghosts are trying to take the children. The governess tightens her watch on Flora and Miles but in the meantime, these ghosts are making her lose her own grip on sanity.

Full of enough vivid imagery to make your skin crawl and a gripping denouement that you won’t see coming, TURN OF THE SCREW is a Halloween classic. So lock your door, turn on the lights and grab a copy --- you’ll be sorry if you don’t…then again, you might be sorry if you do.  

You know that house from your childhood? The one all the kids were scared to go near? It was dark and creepy and those weird people lived there. They kept children in a basement dungeon or ate stray cats who crawled into their garden. Rumor was they were ghosts or witches or dentists. Chilling. Well, did it ever occur to you to investigate how it became so full of witches and eaten children and dental floss? In Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE, Merricat Blackwood tells the journey of how her house becomes that house. Merricat and her sister Constance live with their rambling, confused Uncle Julian. The town hates the Blackwoods and makes no secret of it. They gossip about how Merricat and Constance came to be orphans, and the children sing rhymes about what happened to their family as Merricat is walking by. Their parents, Julian’s wife and their younger brother were poisoned with arsenic at dinner one night, and Constance was put on trial. Acquitted, she remains afraid of the outside world and sends Merricat to run errands. Merricat despises the town as much as they do her, often gleefully envisioning horrible, violent deaths for the individuals she meets. She may not always be a sympathetic character, but she makes up for that with wit and charisma. Jackson puts a lot into this creepy, unsettling, well written story. Sympathetic magic, domestic horror, guilt and personal cruelty are all themes that lurk throughout the novel. The tension builds throughout the novel until it reaches a fantastic conclusion that leaves the sisters in the house children dare each other to go near. You just might want to strike them from your trick or treating route this year.