Scary books re­veal truths about one­self

Writer says self-de­cep­tion hard to main­tain when you’re scared

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - AN­DREW PYPER

When I was 12, my mother con­fis­cated my copy of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot af­ter she ran into the bath­room and found me curled up on the floor. I’d been scream­ing. I can’t re­call ex­actly what had fright­ened me so much — I think it had to do with pulling back the shower cur­tain and imag­in­ing Barlow, the mas­ter vam­pire from the novel, toothily stand­ing there — but my mom’s pa­tience had come to an end. No more scary sto­ries for me. “Why not?” “Look at you,” she said. “You’re see­ing things that aren’t there!”

I took her point. But she was also miss­ing the big­ger point that see­ing things that aren’t there is why we read in the first place.

It’s why lit­er­a­ture of­fers us mean­ing and co­her­ence in ways our daily lives don’t. It’s also what can make it ex­hil­a­rat­ing, trans­port­ing us to sit­u­a­tions we wish we could ex­pe­ri­ence as well as those we’d rather not. I think I in­tu­ited all of that even then. It would cer­tainly ex­plain why, even though I was scar­ing my­self silly, I bought an­other copy of King’s book at the first op­por­tu­nity and fin­ished it, in se­cret.

(My trou­bled re­la­tion­ship with shower cur­tains only wors­ened af­ter I saw Psy­cho, by the way.)

Six­teen years later, I wrote my first novel, a thriller. I’ve been writ­ing them ever since. Some of these sto­ries in­volve the su­per­nat­u­ral, oth­ers have vil­lains who are hu­man (if no less mon­strous). To one de­gree or an­other, they em­ploy fear among their arse­nal of ef­fects. Over the time I’ve been pub­lish­ing these books and meet­ing their read­ers, I’ve come to ob­serve how dif­fer­ently we ex­pe­ri­ence fear. Other than what turns us on, there may be no more nu­anced and in­di­vid­u­al­ized part of our selves than what makes us afraid.

Some­times it’s bi­o­graph­i­cal, as some­one who had a sib­ling who jumped out at them wear­ing a red nose and a wig grows up to be afraid of clowns. Some­times it’s uni­ver­sal (who isn’t freaked out by the idea of be­ing buried alive?) And some­times it’s cul­tural, as ev­i­denced in the sharp de­cline in the num­ber of swim­mers in pub­lic wa­ters the sum­mer of 1975 — which hap­pened to be the year af­ter “Jaws” was pub­lished and the year in which the movie was re­leased.

But a lot of the time, we have no idea why we fear what we do be­fore we en­counter it in a story. And when we do, we have a chance of un­der­stand­ing a part of our­selves we would be un­likely to ac­cess if we kept to a strict diet of re­al­ism, or read only to be com­forted.

I’m of­ten asked why peo­ple would want to read a scary story when there’s so many scary things go­ing on in the real world.

My re­ply is to point out the dif­fer­ence be­tween read­ing a novel about di­vorce ver­sus go­ing through a di­vorce your­self. The for­mer may be in­volv­ing, cathar­tic, per­haps even hi­lar­i­ous. The lat­ter is merely mis­er­able.

As with all lit­er­a­ture, there is an es­thetic dis­tance be­tween the reader and the events she reads about. Even when we’re deeply en­gaged with a story — even when our emo­tional re­sponses to it ex­ceed what we’ve ever felt about our real lives — a part of our mind un­der­stands this is a game we’re play­ing, a com­plex rep­re­sen­ta­tion. In the case of erot­ica, for in­stance, it’s why we can read about sex and ex­pe­ri­ence arousal and sat­is­fac­tion with­out the guilt of cheat­ing. And when we read hor­ror, we visit fear for its ex­cite­ments and in­sights know­ing we can re­turn home at the end, our brains pro­vid­ing mi­cro-re­minders that imag­in­ing what it would be like to go to Han­ni­bal Lecter’s for din­ner is not the same as be­ing din­ner.

For me, just as the ex­pe­ri­ence of read­ing scary sto­ries says some­thing about us, hav­ing charac- ters con­front what fright­ens them is to re­veal who they are in sur­pris­ing ways. We’re all ex­perts at em­pha­siz­ing our strengths, hid­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, re­shap­ing the parts we con­sider mal­formed. But self-de­cep­tion is harder to main­tain when there’s some­thing bad, re­ally bad, com­ing for you. Fear is a truth serum.

So how does a writer build a fear ma­chine to find a way to that truth?

For peo­ple in my line of work, this is an on­go­ing chal­lenge. I’ve found that every reader has their own Scare-o-Me­ter, with some rarely go­ing past three or four on the dial no mat­ter what you throw at them, and oth­ers hit­ting eleven the mo­ment you have a door creak open on its own.

The good news is that what all of us share is the ca­pac­ity to em­pathize with what a novel’s char­ac­ters are go­ing through.

If we feel we know them, rec­og­nize them, when they scream we scream with them. And for both, we learn why.



Hor­ror writer An­drew Pyper, seen here in a 2008 file phone in the Queen West neigh­bour­hood, finds shower scenes pretty scary.

The Only Child An­drew Pyper Si­mon & Schus­ter, 304 pages, $24.99

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