I haven’t posted much lately because I’ve been dealing with a crashed computer and the consequent frustrating efforts to restore my technological life. I say frustrating because, even though I backed up a lot of important stuff about a week before the crash, I’m finding now as things get back to normal that a lot of “unimportant” stuff didn’t get saved. I experience occasional bouts of regret and sadness at the awareness that files I rarely used but kept on hand “just in case” are no longer available to me. Curiously, this regret is mingled with a sense of lightness as I realize how unencumbered I am by the intellectual detritus that’s built up on my computer over the years. Which, when I think about it, makes no sense because it was all electronic bits and bytes and had no “real” existence at all until I called it up on the screen. It’s not as if I cleaned out a closet and tossed a bunch of old clothes and shoes. It’s not as if I went through my books and culled out the ones I know I’m never going to read again (or ever, in the case of some titles). It’s not as if I went through the medicine cabinet and pulled out all the expired prescriptions and the ancient bottles of “Tr. Merthiolate” from the Southern Pacific Memorial Hospital, Inc, and the sticky cough drops that are so old that when you try to take off the wrapper there’s this sort of viscous webbing that stretches between the lozenge and the wrapper and it reminds you of mozzarella cheese when you pull a piece of pizza away from the whole, or of the first X-Files movie when Scully pushed her latex-gloved fingers against that fireman victim’s chest and the goo covering his corpse kind of stretched out in a disgustingly gooey way. So yeah, losing computer files isn’t anything like that.
But I’m not going to dwell on computer crashes and lost data. Since Halloween is coming up, it’s time to talk about what is the Scariest Book. I know, I already posted about The Pony Engine, but stuff that scares you when you’re a kid doesn’t necessarily affect you the same way once you’re grown up.
One of my favorite Halloween books is Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen.
Of course, the hilarious book cover notwithstanding, Northanger Abbey is not really a scary book. In fact, Jane Austen wrote it as a parody of the scary books of her time. That makes it a perfect book for this particular seasonal celebration because -- in the words of someone whose name I no longer know and whose words I actually don’t remember either so I’m going to have to paraphrase because I lost all that information when my computer crashed and that’s annoying because she said it way better than I can -- it describes the folly of trying to scare yourself on purpose, which is what Halloween is all about.
In case you do want to scare yourself, though, and you choose literature as your method, you may want to select something a little more suspenseful. As for me, I always thought Mary Stewart’s books were pretty suspenseful, the first few times I read them, anyhow. And I remember once, when I was babysitting for this couple who had three or four boys, and the boys were all in bed because it was getting on towards 11:00 pm and the parents had said they were going to be late, and I was bored so I looked at their bookshelves for something to read, I selected Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie. I was in my early twenties at the time and yet, if you can believe it, I had never read a single book by Agatha Christie. I decided to give this one a try.
I really do not like being in a room late at night with a light on when the room has massive windows and no curtains. Because, when the light is on, you can’t see outside. Yet anyone who happens to be lurking out there has a clear view into the room. And they can see you sitting there, huddled on the couch, reading a murder mystery, all alone.
I’ve come across a lot scarier things since that time, but Sleeping Murder has a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf, first, because it truly gave me the creeps (I know, the circumstances had a lot to do with it), and second, because it introduced me to Agatha Christie.
I’ve never read anything by Stephen King, since I’m not really a horror fan. Horror seems like a cheap way of scaring people (like those “horrid” novels mentioned in Northanger Abbey), whereas with suspense you must take pains and use skill in creating the atmosphere of psychological fear. But that just may be the literary snob in me speaking.
Yet it seems to me that it’s getting harder and harder to “scare” people nowadays without resulting to the cheap tricks of horror. For instance, I read Dracula, by Bram Stoker, and found it interesting and entertaining, but I certainly wasn’t horrified by it like people in the 1890s supposedly were when they first read it. The increased graphic content of tv, film, and literature has made people (including me) more callous to horror and suspense. Sure, I’ve read page-turners, books that were so intriguing I couldn’t wait to find out what happens next. But I wasn’t really scared. When I try to think of a book that I’ve read in the last ten or twenty years that has really frightened me, I can’t come up with one.
Any suggestions? Any truly scary books you’ve read that don’t rely on graphic descriptions of maiming-type mayhem to frighten the reader?