Storystorm: Scarystorm Edition

29 October 2013 on Blog, Storystorm   Tags: , , , , , ,

To celebrate Halloween, I've asked some writers I admire to pick their favorite scary essays, stories, poems, or songs. So sit back, give into that bag of candy corn, and enjoy this scary edition of Storystorm.

Josh Weil

Perhaps it's because, one dusk, searching for a place to pitch my tent in a land not too dissimilar to the North African setting of "A Distant Episode," I found myself watched from afar by a gathering gang of men; perhaps it's because I've hitch-hiked with a Mongolian man who reached to his throat and pinched the skin and made a slicing motion to show what he feared would happen to me where I asked to be dropped off; perhaps it's because I've crouched in the dark, clutching a staff sawed from Slovakian birch, and listened to drunkards crashing close through the brush; whatever it is, Paul Bowles' story scares the crap out of me. I suspect though, that it has little to do with anything I've experienced, and much more to do with the way the author builds terror at a slow burn (Don't go down in that dark quarry, you think) and then, with a fury sudden as the dogs that lunge out of the dark, straining for our protagonist's throat, lets that terror loose. This story starts quietly (a professor bumbling among the native populace in a marketplace) and takes a turn towards violence so fast that the reader doesn't have time to catch her breath any more than does the professor, beaten and taken captive by a band of nomadic tribesman.  That would be bad enough, but Bowles has an almost perverse knack for digging into the darkest corners of his characters' minds and unravelling their sanity bit by bit, horror after horror. It's that—even more than the mutilations, the degradation—that makes this story so haunting.

Josh Weil is the author of The New Valley, a New York Times Editors Choice that won the Sue Kaufman Prize from The American Academy of Arts and Letters and a 5-Under-35 Award from the National Book Foundation. Weil's other writing has appeared in Granta, Esquire, One Story and The New York Times. A recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, and Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers' Conferences, he has been Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bowling Green State University and Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. His novel, The Great Glass Sea, is forthcoming in 2014.

Roxane Gay

It varies but right now my favorite scary story is Deliverance by James Dickey. The tension in Deliverance is so finely honed. The language is so sharp that the book literally feels like it was carved from something terrifying. You have these suburban men, flinging themselves into the wilderness, these men who really have no idea what to do when they go beyond the reach of creature comforts. They encounter another group of men, who know the wilderness all too well. What befalls everyone is terrifying because what men are capable of doing to one another is plainly revealed.

Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest. 

Meghan Nesmith

I was a nervous child; I am a nervous adult. I don't read scary books, never watch scary movies, my reasoning being that the world is basically drowning in terror (large dogs, bicycles, submarines) as is. When I was 12 I forgot how to sleep. I spent my nights waiting for the fire that would burn my family whole in their beds, or for the intruders to kill them in their sleep. It wasn't a great year. I had a lot of stomachaches.

But my dad used to play the guitar, so I had lullabies, which helped. A lot of charmingly hacked up James Taylor. Folk stuff. And then "Puff, the Magic Dragon,” by Peter, Paul and Mary, based on a poem by the truly sadistic Leonard Lipton.

‟Puff” has a gentle, limp melody. But listen: this thing is insidious, soothing before slapping you with the criminal understanding that, oh hell, we are all, ultimately, alone. Puff has Jackie Paper—a friend, a soulmate—and they have these beautiful adventures, and then that soulmate gets sort of bored by him, the way soul mates do, and Puff is so bereft his goddamn scales start falling off. There is something almost vulgar about what happens to Puff, something so awful that to consider it is like looking at an open wound. Later I heard the song was about drugs, which, blasphemy, because what I know to be true is that Puff—pure, steadfast, wasted Puff—is still alone in his cave, scales cracking from his mammoth, aching body like flecks of old paint, waiting for Jackie to come home.

But I couldn't tell my dad to stop singing, because seeing as this was likely his last night on earth (the fire, the murderous burglars), I wanted him to leave with good memories. Plus—and here it is—part of me wanted to get close to that knife-edge, to feel my guts clenching against the knowledge of that aloneness. That's what true terror does: asks you to consider the worst, if only to learn how you might steel yourself against it when it comes.

Meghan Nesmith is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work can be found in Wigleaf, The Toast, and The Billfold, among others.

David Bersell

Laura Bramon Good's ‟First Year” has stayed with me since I read the essay as an undergraduate. Not the plot or characters, struggling newlyweds. It's the haunted feeling of their apartment that gets me. That tone, dark and beckoning, I've ripped it off, tried to, numerous times. (Thanks, LBG!)

Now, rereading the essay, I'm reminded of the details: bloodstains on the walls from previous tenants, a neighbor's domestic violence.

Stories don't have to be fully known to be scary.

Or it's what we fill in ourselves that make them scary.

Or it's the longer we carry them.

That's what makes them great.

David Bersell's essays are forthcoming in Carolina Quarterly and Soundings Review. He is a former Barnstorm columnist. 

Erin Somers

It's got to be "Sea Oak" by George Saunders. A male stripper (he works at ‟Joysticks”) is living in squalor with his sister and cousin, when their Aunt Bernie dies. See, Bernie's had a terrible life—she works at a DrugTown for minimum wage, she never had any kids of her own, the one time she travelled, a bus trip to Quigley, Kansas, she was robbed. Still, in life, Bernie's optimism is saintly. But after Bernie dies, she returns as a surly zombie and proceeds to boss around her family. To our stripper protagonist: "You, mister," Bernie says to me, "are going to start showing your cock. You'll show it and show it.” Meanwhile, body parts are falling off her.

It's very funny, of course. And the ending, wow. Bernie comes to the protagonist in a dream:

"Some people get everything and I got nothing," she says. "Why? Why did that happen?”

Every time I say I don't know.

And I don't.

If we're talking actual fear and dread, your family members leading lives of emptiness and suffering is up there. It's at the top of my list, anyway.

Erin Somers is the editor emeritus of Barnstorm. She lives in Brooklyn.

Amy Sauber

"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates.

It's Arnold Friend marking Connie with his ‟X in the air.” His wig-like hair, his boots, or the ‟tiny metallic world in his glasses slowing down like gelatine hardening.” There is something so menacing in the subtle, gradational shift of our perception of Arnold Friend. At first he is seemingly harmless or familiar; he is suspicious, but we are unaware of just how dark he will become. Slowly, he morphs into someone dangerously off kilter and frightening: his awkward wobble, his stuffed boots, the ‟slight rhythmic lilt” in his voice. JCO is the master of psychological tension, revealing his re-visioned actions and images at just the right moments. So carefully she controls this power play through the simplicity of the screen door, the only barrier between Connie and her ominous future. As we realize the severity of Friend's freak creep intentions, we cringe and ache as Connie's fears (and our own) intensify on every page. Oh she is so trapped. A classic story, brilliantly terrifying.

Amy Sauber is the editor-in-chief of Barnstorm.

Emily Lackey

Horror works best when it contains an element of reality. This is why horror movies always claim to be ‟based on real events” and horror stories often include elements of the real—newspaper headlines, police reports, photographs of the crime. What is most terrifying in a good scary story is the threat that the things that haunt the pages could be—maybe even are—real.

I grew up two towns away from where Shirley Jackson lived and wrote. Similar to the town in ‟The Lottery,” the threat of violence and harm were distant things in my life. The story relies on this normalcy, this close proximity to something we recognize until we don't. It is uncanny, and it makes the story far more chilling than a more obvious horror story with blood and guts and dismemberment. ‟The Lottery” is a story about the horror of real life: the evil we are capable of committing in the name of tradition or when influenced by the pull of society.

But hiding below the surface of this beloved and oft-taught allegory, is the darker implication of its plot. It's a world terrifyingly similar to our own, a world in which people pick others at random to sacrifice their lives for the well-being their society. We do this, don't we? We, who send men and women to war to sacrifice their lives for shakily defined things like peace and freedom. We who hear about these lives lost as we watch the morning news and forget about them by the time we finish with breakfast. We are all Mrs. Delacroix, telling our neighbors and their loved ones—people whose lives are as valuable and vital as our own—to ‟be a good sport,” to ‟hurry up,” and to get it over with so we can all get on with our day.

Emily Lackey is the fiction editor of Barnstorm

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