I recently read Stephen King's The Shining for the second time. The first time was many years ago when I was a young girl living in Johannesburg, South Africa. I had never seen snow. I had, in fact, never stayed in a hotel. King's description of snowbound Overlook seemed alien and monstrously wonderful. When I picked up the book after all these years, I wondered if the novel would still pack a punch as powerful. It did. It scared the stuffing out of me all over again. This is a great book: it takes you into the heart of darkness the way a good horror story should.
I know Mr. King is not fond of having this label slapped onto his work and I understand why. The horror genre does not get much respect and frankly, it doesn't often deserve any. Too often "horror" means clumsy over-the-top plots and prose as purple as a the festering boil on the forehead of a flesh-eating zombie. The kind of book that makes you go, Ooh!, then yuck, followed by yawn. And like badly written sex scenes, horror can easily tip over into the ridiculous.
But place a story of subtle evil in the hands of a masterful writer who uses elegant language and he'll mess with your mind like no-one else can. Good horror writing takes skill. It requires a clammy hand but a light touch to convince the reader that something ephemeral is lurking at the periphery of his vision and if he moves his head quickly enough, he will come face to face with something so devastating...
I'm not happy either when my own books are classed as horror and it happens all the time. Borders, for example, insisted on buying Season of the Witch on the understanding that it will be shelved in the horror/fantasy section. So when I walked into the Borders store in the Time Warner Building in New York City three weeks ago, it was with mixed feelings that I finally tracked down my witches. There it was: my book with its beautiful cover of a woman with wanton red hair and long, sexy white neck squeezed in next to a book with a vomit-hued jacket featuring a female with no teeth and breasts like rotting apples. But to the left of my witch, was perched a fluorescent crow. Another Stephen King classic: The Stand. If my witches were going to hang with someone, who better than Mother Abigail or Randall Flagg.
Two days after I had searched out my book in Borders, I attended the Edgar Allan Poe Awards ceremony. Each year the members of The Mystery Writers of America get together for a day of seminars and discussion, followed by an awards banquet. This was the first time I attended and I was as star struck as a groupie. There was Lee Child! He has sold a gazillion copies of his books about loner drifter Jack Reacher! There was Barry Eisler! He has sold a gazillion copies of his books about loner assassin (but what a sexy assassin) John Rain! There was Harlan Coben who has sold more than a gazillion copies and had won more than a gazillion awards. Actually, as Mr. Coben and I share the same publisher, I was seated at his table the night of the banquet and I was able to introduce myself to him as his MySpace friend number 2034. I'm happy to say it created an immediate bond between us. And there was Stephen King. Oh, wow.
At the banquet Mr. King was crowned Grand Master: a life-time achievement award. Earlier in the day, he had signed books. When I approached with my copy of Lisey's Story for him to autograph, he started talking to me about my own novel. Not that he had read it, but he could hardly fail to notice the T-shirt I was wearing. I was shamelessly self-promoting Season of the Witch and emblazoned across my chest were the words "Prepare to be seduced." (I'm all for subtlety in my stories but when it comes to publicity...) We also talked about Bag of Bones, one of my favourite King novels and I managed to quote a sentence from the book, which I have always found magical."I can smell pine – a smell which is both sour and clean at the same time – and the faint but somehow tremendous smell of the lake." The tremendous smell of water. Is that not beautiful? Well, my memory – for once flawless – got me a once-in-a-lifetime. The King leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. Just like that.
An aside: Later that day, I left the Edgars to attend a panel discussion arranged by Pen World Voices. One of the participants was Neil Gaiman, another author I admire greatly and one whose sense of horror is rather nicely developed as well. I think I may have had visions of a second kiss, but sadly, Mr. Gaiman left before the end of the evening and I had no chance to quote at him a line from American Gods.
What is scary? My own books feature almost no graphic scenes of violence because I am the first to admit that I am very poor at writing gore. Still,reviewers often use the words "chilling", "disturbing" and "creepy" to characterise my work and book stores like to stick me into the weirdo section located at the back of the store behind the stairs. But for me, it is all about the mind. Jung once said there is nothing more fascinating than watching your own mind self-destruct. I agree. Which is why the Jack Nicholson character in the movie version of The Shining cannot compare to Jack Torrance of the novel. You look into Nicholson's eyes and you are reminded of what Samuel Beckett said: "We are all born mad. Some of us remain so." Nicholson was crazy right off the bat. But in the book Jack is losing his mind one tiny slippery step at a time...
So here is my question to you: What do readers find frightening? What do you guys find suspenseful and deeply disturbing? I'd love your feedback on this topic. Do you require blood spattered sheets, eyeballs impaled on toothpicks, psychopaths supping on people's brains while they are still alive? What gets the goose bumps going for you? Do you find it more frightening when horror is tinged with the supernatural, or is it the stone cold serial killer lurking inside the pages who makes you check the doors and windows?