Thursday, October 31, 2013

Five More Books that Scared Me

The tradition of telling scary stories in the month of November is one that goes back to pre-Christian days in Europe. The ancient Celts believed that at this time of year, before the winter solstice, the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world thinned, making it possible for the evil and the unwary to cross between.

Up in central Maine, it's hard to argue with that theory. Piles of leaves hide living creatures and their dead prey; trees stand skeletal against a sky the color of limbo.

In real life I am scared of mice, permanence, being unwelcome and becoming dependent. I prefer to take my scares on the page, where they seem more manageable, and can usually be defied by simply closing the book. I've been reading scary stories since I could read, pretty much; Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman remains one of the most terrifying and suspenseful books I've ever read. I've already posted one list of five books that scared me, but here are five more.

1. Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan (1974). I am happier than I can say that Lizzie Skurnick Books is reintroducing Lois Duncan to a new generation. In eighth grade, I read every one of her titles in the Norfolk Academy library; this one, her only Gothic, remains my favorite. When her mother remarries, Kit Gordy is sent to Blackwood Hall, a boarding school for gifted students — but she has only three schoolmates, and it turns out that their gifts are very strange indeed. Just writing about it makes me want to track this book down for a reread.

2. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959). The best horror novels repay rereading by changing along with the reader, because they're a sort of mirror in which we find the things that scare us. This book affects me in a much different way now, in middle age, than it did when I first discovered it in high school. Eleanor belongs nowhere; she gets an invitation to be part of a group of psychic investigators at Hill House, because she is special, because someone has noticed her at last. Finally, she thinks, she has found a place where she belongs. And the house, as it turns out, may think so, too.

3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962). My mother told me this book was scarier than Hill House, but when I first read it —at 14, I think — I didn't understand why. Merricat, her sister Constance, and their Uncle Julian live together in an isolated house that has seen terrible tragedy, and Merricat moves tensely among townspeople who think they know too much about her family. As it turns out, the scariest secrets are the ones we keep even from ourselves.

4. Ghost Story by Peter Straub (1979). Possibly the first book that made me cry from sheer fright. Four old men - the Chowder Society, as they call themselves - are lifelong friends whose friend Edward Wanderley has recently died under mysterious circumstances. When Wanderley's nephew Don comes to town, they invite him into their group, where they comfort themselves with ghost stories - ghost stories, it becomes clear, that have a great deal to do with what's happening to them now.

5. Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon (1973). I read a lot of Thomas Tryon all in a row, and while The Other has its own horrors and Crowned Heads is a pulpy tour-de-force, Harvest Home was the book that gave me nightmares. Ned and Beth Constantine think they've found a new home in the picturesque New England village of Cornwall Coombe; the neighbors, especially the Widow Fortune, are so friendly! If I learned anything from Rosemary's Baby, it's that you can't trust those friendly neighbors.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Question of Home

Warning: This post may include some oversharing. Proceed at your own risk.

Many years ago, when I was in college, I was blathering on about something when a friend got impatient and asked, "Where are you actually from?" 

It shut me up for a moment, as was undoubtedly his intent — I did have far too much to say, with far too little content, back in those days — but then I had to admit, "I'm not really from anywhere."

I was born in New Rochelle, New York, a city I never lived in; my mother was staying with her parents in Larchmont while my father was in the South China Sea, on the USS Duncan. Six weeks later, Mom took my twin sister Kathy and me across the country to San Diego, where we lived on Coronado Island (before the bridge was built) for two years. My earliest conscious memories are of a rented house on Galveston Boulevard in Norfolk, Virginia, where we got a dog and my sisters Peggy and Susan were born (events listed in the order of importance to my two and three-year-old self). But before I turned four, we'd already gone up to the Bronx to stay with my father's parents for a few months while my mother waited for the birth of my brother Ed. We landed in Fairfax, Virginia in early 1970, but moved again in August 1973, this time to Virginia Beach.

"Virginia Beach" is what I usually say when people ask me where I'm from, because it's where I went to school — but I left Virginia Beach for good in the fall of 1982, when I went off to college as a 16-year-old freshman. And then I stayed in the Washington, DC area for the next 17 years, but I was notorious among my friends for moving, on average, every two years. I lived outside the Beltway and inside the Beltway: I lived in Fairfax County, Alexandria, south Arlington, Adams-Morgan, on the outskirts of Shaw, in Palisades.

Friends of mine got married, bought houses, had kids. I never quite figured that out; I did everything out of order, though that's a longer story for another time. I looked around as the last century came to a close and decided to make a big leap — this time across the country, to Los Angeles. At least in Los Angeles I lived in one single apartment for five whole years.

But Los Angeles isn't home for anybody, as near as I can tell. I do, in fact, know people who were born there and have lived their whole lives there. I have friends who are raising their children there. It doesn't change my feeling that Los Angeles is almost by definition a city of transients, a destination for people who want to reinvent themselves and escape whatever roots were tying them down.

Five years was enough time to spend in Los Angeles, a city I love and will always be grateful to/for. A friend from Washington had moved to Maine and suggested I try it, just for a season; that was nine years ago, and it's the longest I've ever lived anywhere, in my whole life. The longest I've ever lived in a single apartment, the longest I've ever lived in a single town. I got here the week the Red Sox broke the curse . . . and now it looks as if I'll be leaving not too long after the last bit of the curse is broken for good.

Because I'm going back to the Washington, DC area, on or about the first of December. The decision had been brewing for a while, but it all came together very quickly only last month. I'm finding an apartment with a beloved former housemate, and affiliating myself with a consulting firm run by an old boss and mentor. (The nature of my work is not going to change, and as far as I know I'm keeping all my clients.)

I'm glad to be going, but oh, so sorry to leave. I'm sad to be leaving Gaslight Theater. I'm sad to be saying goodbye to the ESL student I've worked with for eight years, and to the weekly literacy lab I work with at Literacy Volunteers of Greater Augusta. I hate leaving Team Clueless, the pub trivia team I play with at the Liberal Cup. I'm going to miss the river and the woods and the fact that the Gardiner postmistresses ask me for reading recommendations.

Tonight I'll be at The Liberal Cup, central Maine's best brewpub, for what will probably be my last appearance as guest host of the weekly pub trivia night. It's one of a string of "lasts" that will continue throughout the month of November. I expect to laugh a lot and cry a lot and tear out big chunks of my hair.

And then I'll go home. I hope.