Subtle Scares and Primal Fears
For me, the subtle scare—mixed with an element of primal fear—often works best. That and a sense of weird—of all not being right with a seemingly right world—make me shiver in the middle of the night..
Horror scares me most when it shows less, and works on universal human fears. Less is often more. Not that I don’t enjoy gore, and I believe gore can be beautiful, but it’s often what the author doesn’t show me that frightens me the most. A good spooky story plants an image in my mind, a seed of dread, and refuses to leave me long after the book is finished.
If you’ve read Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker, you’ve encountered the narrative where Jakabok Botch threatens you (as the book is speaking to you) with a blade. He begs you to burn the book, and tells you to watch out behind you, because you never know when this sly demon will sneak up with a knife, maybe a pair of scissors, and slice your throat open.
This image was effective enough that, when I was reading Mister B. Gone, I’m not ashamed to admit I brushed my neck, and even sheepishly looked behind me a few times, all because of the dread planted in my fertile imagination. It scared me more than the massacres Jakabok detailed from his travels across Medieval Europe. It scared me more than the warring demons and angels. All because the image planted worked on a primal fear: something sneaking up behind me, intent on doing harm.
It’s the whisper behind the character, a wind brushing their cheek that feels more like a hand, or branches clattering in a breeze that sounds like a chorus of human sighs that gets to me. Creeps me out and stays with me long after my night table lamp is shut off. Why? Because these scenes manipulate my senses, expose a vulnerability using sound, sight, touch to hit a raw chord of primal fear: being prey, the hunted, or the plaything of something unseen, or more powerful than I.
Rio Youers Mama Fish includes a scene that had a similar affect on me. What I think of as ‘the under the stairs’ scene. When the narrator goes to investigate the mysterious Kelvin Fish, he decides to crawl under the patio for a peek in the basement.
I won’t tell you what he sees within—that’d give too much of the story away—but it was what pursued him that made me breathe just a bit harder, feel my heart thud just a bit quicker. As he’s peering in, a spindly man discovers him spying. All because of a simple wrong move, a noise made, on the narrator’s part. Suddenly, the basement window creaks open, hands come out, and as the narrator flees, he swears he feels fingers brush his ankle.
Both sequences work on a primal human fear level. The fear of becoming prey. The fear of being pursued for malevolent purposes. Loosing control over your life for that split second and becoming the hunted instead of the hunter. Because it’s what we don’t see in real life that often unnerves us the most, restoring us to a basic human instinct sometimes: fight or flight.
Trust your eyes, we’re told in this modern world. But what if your eyes (and often ears) play tricks? What about that coat tree by your bedroom door? Ever woken up and glimpse your housecoat in a half-asleep daze, only to have your heart jump in your throat as you wonder: Who is standing in my room? Once you become fully conscious and realize it’s just a lump of terry cloth all is well, but for that split second your body seizes up with fear, prepared to coil and spring in attack or dash for freedom and safety.
Scenes and images that work on our primal fears expose our vulnerability. And, ultimately, isn’t that what humans fear? Being vulnerable reduces our bravery. It makes us second guess ourselves. In a world where we’ve made major technological advances, extended human life expectancy, a gentle reminder we were once closer to the bottom of the food chain unsettles us.
Human against human. Human against animal, or perhaps something supernatural. The fight for survival in an ever-increasingly complex world with a burgeoning population. Things like this remind us that, for as far as we’ve come, we’re still very much an animal. For as civilized as we like to believe we are, how civilized are we, really?
Modern human fears still hold primal foundations, and to invoke fear in me, a writer must work with one of these primal fears, building it with careful pacing, use of the senses, to make the fear hit home in a realistic manner.
Both examples I gave use the senses effectively to take you into the scene and make you feel, smell, hear, see what the narrator is experiencing. The smell of wet, autumn leaves, or the sound of dry ones crunching under foot. The creak of that basement window as it opens, and the sight of a white hand slipping up over the windowsill, reaching for the young boy in Mama Fish. Or the snicksnicksnick of the blade at my ear, or perhaps, Jakkabok’s hot breath on my neck. Every one of these sensations makes the dread presented much more tangible, relatable, and therefore real to the reader.
Tonight, as you tuck yourself in bed, I hope you’ll look around the room, make sure nothing is hiding under the bed, make sure that housecoat is placed where it can’t give you a scare in the middle of the night. Maybe the child in you, after reading this article, will need that bit of extra reassurance no monsters are lurking about, waiting to eat you up. But if you see an odd creature standing in your doorway, smiling a toothy smile and whispering arcane words you can’t understand, don’t blame me! Blame your primal fear, the seed of dread I just planted in your imagination. If all else fails, pull the covers up over your head and wait. I’ve heard that makes the monsters go away.
---Now, for a taste of the lovely Louise Bohmer's latest work read on:
The Black Act
by Louise Bohmer
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Library of Horror Press;
2nd edition (September 22, 2009)
by Louise Bohmer
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Library of Horror Press;
2nd edition (September 22, 2009)
She led the girls up wide, rounded stairs that ascended to a rectangular porch. The porch was supported by massive stone pillars carved with symbols Glenna recognized as an old, higher fae language she’d learned from Rothrien. The doors were two looming panels of oak, also intricately engraved with the symbols of this old fae dialect. Below each of the silver door loops, engraved into a square, silver plate, she recognized the words:
If you can read this, you already have the key.
Glenna spoke the spell aloud in its mother tongue. She wrapped her fingers around one of the silver door loops. She squeezed the cold metal and pushed against the door with all her strength. With a long, low creak of protest the wood yielded and she slipped inside with Rebecca.
The foyer was designed to be a meeting room. Glenna discerned this from its size and design. A perfect place for all the Elders to gather at once. Off the back of the foyer, two staircases led left and right. From the map, she knew these two stairwells led to eleven rooms on the main level, twelve on the second story. All were used for teaching, or storing the Guild’s most sacred of possessions and documents. Perhaps this was where the secret histories, the truth of the curse she had inherited, lay buried?
At the front of this grand foyer there were two hallways situated opposite one another. These led to an east and west wing that housed some Elders’ private quarters. According to the map, the cryptic great room that was Glenna’s destination waited at the end of the west wing. So down this narrow corridor they went, following dim blue light that burned in stone sconces.
Through the murk, Glenna noticed bookshelves were carved into the walls of the corridor, and behind wire mesh set in sturdy wooden frames leather tomes were kept safe. She realized, as she scanned the spines of the books and caught snippets of esoteric titles, the hallway must encompass a part of the Elders’ voluminous library. Within these walls, vast catalogs of magical knowledge were tucked away.
She ran her hand over the wire mesh stretched across a lower shelf. A rush of powerful energy tingled up through her arm. The sensation made her gasp.
“What if we were to open it?” Rebecca said.
Glenna turned and stared at her companion. Rebecca was such a quiet child. It was obvious she followed Jessica in much her Guild sister did. These impulsive words surprised Glenna very much.
“Part of me would like to,” Glenna said. “But, this isn’t what I’ve come for.”
“Don’t you want to see what’s inside?” As if mesmerized, Rebecca continued to stare at the shelf while she spoke.
Glenna touched her shoulder and shook her. “We should keep on course with the plan. We have to leave before the others return, or we’ll not make a safe escape.”
“No,” Rebecca said. “I want to see.”
She yanked Glenna’s hand off her shoulder and growled. The voice the child spoke in sounded too much like one of those haunting Glenna’s mind. Why would they possess Rebecca? Glenna closed her eyes and quickly went within, searching her mind and third eye for traces of Goddard and Corrigan. She could feel them, but their energies were faint. What kind of game were they playing, deserting her at a time like this, when she’d brought them this far? She wouldn’t bow to their whims now. This quest had become as much a part of her as the ghosts were, and she’d finish it with or without them. There were no other alternatives left.
She grabbed Rebecca and pushed her forward. The girl rammed into her and scratched at Glenna’s face before she knocked her to the hard floor. Rebecca yanked at the wire mesh covering the lower shelf. She clawed at the wood surrounding it. Before Glenna could get to her feet, the girl managed to break the hinges from the frame. She tore one panel free from the books.
The stones beneath Glenna shuddered as a violent vibration rippled through the rock. From somewhere down the corridor behind them, a thunderous crack echoed when the floor heaved up and shattered. She held onto Rebecca, while struggling to keep her balance atop the quaking granite. Shrapnel flew by her head as the fissure grew longer and moved closer. A sharp shard sliced a deep gouge into Rebecca’s cheek. The wound didn’t stop her from reaching for the book Glenna had touched, despite the blood that flowed down her face and soaked into the grey collar of her dress.
“Rebecca.” Glenna crawled to the girl and pulled her away. “We’ve got to go, now. You must stop.”
Larger stones flew past her now, and she held Rebecca as they both ran, crouched over, forward down the hall.
“I think you woke something up,” Glenna whispered. “Perhaps the house’s protector.”
The sound of more great stones smashing, like an angry giant coming for them, seemed to break the initiate’s trance. A boulder the size of a head struck a bookshelf opposite them and wood splintered while books scattered. Rebecca looked back the way they’d come then bolted in that direction. Glenna could barely keep up with her. She had to let go of the child.
As Rebecca fled, she heard her scream:
“The ground opened up and ate the witch women whole.”
Glenna wrapped her hand around her dagger and grabbed for the young initiate. Catching the girl by the wrist, she forced her to change direction. She hoped they reached the great room before whatever pursued reached them.
They rounded a corner in the corridor. She noticed a wedge-shaped cutout in the wall opposite her, a dark resting place she might’ve missed were she not searching for some form of refuge. The alcove was hard to see, and the darkness within held no torches to give away an occupant. She willed herself to run faster with Rebecca.
As she pulled a resistant Rebecca behind her toward the nook, a great groan emitted from the quavering stones beneath their feet. Glenna heard Rebecca scream as the floor below them split. She was thrown headfirst into the crevice, and Rebecca’s hand was yanked violently from hers.
There was a small, cushioned bench in the enclosure which Glenna used to prop herself up. She leaned on it and tried to summon strength. Her breathing came hard and fast as she held her bulging belly. Twinges in her lower abdomen spiked strong and insistent as the babes beat the inner walls of her womb. She winced, squeezing her eyes shut tight just as she heard Rebecca’s shriek once more.
Crawling to the entrance of the crevice, she peered out and searched for the girl. In the dim light cast by torches located farther down the corridor, she spied Rebecca.
The ground opened up and ate the witch women whole.
The girl pummeled her fists into the earth. Teeth fashioned from shale worked in conjunction with massive arms made of bleached roots to pull her into a muddy mouth. Long earthworms became a part of the monster, blending into its patchwork body as they wrapped their plump pink flesh around Rebecca’s fingers and wrists. Dirt rose up in waves around the girl and poured soil over her feet, her waist, her face.
“Rebecca,” Glenna shouted and reached out to the girl through the niche in the wall.
The earth slug turned its filthy head and growled at her. It was a warning, but it didn’t stop from enjoying its meal to give it. The hulking, squirming creature of stone and dirt continued to suck Rebecca inside the earth. White root held the girl’s mouth open while soil poured down her throat. Her screams were efficiently smothered.
* * * *
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