Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Five Novels that Scared Me

Maine gets serious about Halloween. This time of year feels like a portal from one plane of existence into one that is not only colder and darker, but also more dangerous; snow tires, central heating and halogen lights can't override the real perils of winter. Halloween is the gateway to winter, and this year it's the end of Daylight Savings Time.

It's a time of year for scary stories, because scary stories help us feel brave. They help us imagine what we would do when confronted with evil and danger, whether it comes in the shape of a monster or the H1N1 virus. Parents who don't let their children read scary books are denying them the opportunity to learn something true about the world — it's a dangerous place — and discover their own resources for self-preservation.

In roughly chronological order of when I read them, these are five books that scared me.

1. The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl. Mr. Fox is a suave bandit who supports his family (Mrs. Fox and the little Foxes) by thieving from three evil farmers: Boggis, who raises chickens; Bunce, who raises geese; and Bean, who raises turkeys and apples. The three farmers lay siege to the Foxes' den, nearly starving the family to death before Mr. Fox devises an ingenious plan to defeat the farmers and save the day. My mother read this book to my twin sister Kathy and me (and possibly my younger siblings, too) at the kitchen table in our house in Fairfax, before we went to bed. I was no more than six years old, and this book terrified me: the evil farmers, the starving children, the helpless mother all tapped directly into my own deepest fears. And the farmer Bunce, who stuffs doughnuts with goose liver pate, is one of the most vividly disgusting characters ever written. But Mr. Fox's creativity, hard work and optimism triumph, and he shares the fruits of his work with the whole forest community. It's a lesson I still haven't forgotten.

2. Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin. The summer before we turned nine, Kathy and I had a babysitting job. (Yes, it's hard to believe that eight-year-olds were babysitting, but maybe Mrs. Landon thought that two eight-year-olds were as good as one 16-year-old.) It went fine, especially since our mother was only two doors away across the street, and while the unfortunately-nicknamed Thumper took his afternoon nap, I prowled the Landons' bookshelves. (See Laura Lippman's brilliant short story "The Babysitter's Code" for more information about things babysitters do while parents are out.) I managed to read all of Rosemary's Baby over the course of a week, during Thumper's naps, and it scared me witless. If you somehow missed the book or the movie, it's the story of Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse, young marrieds who move into a fabulous apartment building they shouldn't be able to afford. That they can afford it — and are immediately befriended by their kindly, eccentric neighbors, Minnie and Roman Cassavetes — has to do with the fact that Rosemary longs for a baby, and Guy (an aspiring actor) is willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead. The movie is fantastic; the book is just as good, and an uncanny time capsule of 1965, the year I was born.

3. Salem's Lot by Stephen King. I'm pretty sure I read this book the summer I was 11 (1977), because I read the paperback. It's quite possible that my own babysitter, Evelyn, lent it to me. I later owned a paperback copy, and now have it in hardcover, in an omnibus edition that includes Carrie and The Shining. My exposure to vampire lore before this had been through movies and the occasional horror comic; I read Salem's Lot before I read Dracula or any other vampire novel. It is the story of the destruction of a small Maine town — a town very much like Gardiner, in fact, although Salem's Lot is supposed to be in Cumberland County — by forces beyond its control. In King's novel the force is a vampire, but especially now that I live in Maine, it is easy to read Salem's Lot as a metaphor for the death of New England's small-town industrial economy. Anyone need a Ph.D thesis topic?

4. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. I was already thinking about applying to Georgetown when I picked up this book, the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I was 15, and reread my paperback copy until it fell to pieces. Twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil, daughter of an actress, is possessed by an ancient demon; the only ones who can save her are the troubled priest, Father Damian Karras, and the aging exorcist, Father Lankester Merrin. I can't say why this book mesmerized me so: it might have been that adolescent feeling of being out of control, or it might have been the idea of the forces of good and evil at constant war in the world, whether or not our modern, educated selves believe in them. Terrifying, either way.

5. Dark Hollow by John Connolly. Private investigator Charlie Parker investigates the murder of a young woman and her son; the key to the mystery is the woman's ex-husband, Billy Purdue, but not in the way Parker assumes. Parker's search takes him far north in deep winter, to the coastal town of Lubec, and deep into the history of not only Purdue's family but his own. Everything and everyone is haunted in this book, especially the snowbound Maine landscapes Connolly describes. Dark Hollow is the second novel to feature the tormented detective Charlie Parker, but I read it before I read the first book, Every Dead Thing. It disturbed me very much — so much, in fact, that when I picked it up to reread in preparation for work on a documentary about Connolly and his books, I realized I'd blocked a lot of it out of my memory.

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