Sunday, October 30, 2005

BOOKS: Honk! Honk! All Aboard the Chickenshit Express!

Here's the thing about me: I am a total pussy.

Oh, I talk a good game, and to the casual observer I probably come off as one of these modern, post-riotgrrl, cussin', dot-commin', post-feminist thugs who are cluttering up the media landscape. But I repeat: I am a total pussy.

Now, I'm cool with spiders (despite having been nastily bitten once), and with heights (I've climbed parts of The Chief), and even with public speaking (which, according to all the experts, is our number one fear, a fact which has always stymied me... like, what, you'd rather face being ripped apart by wolverines than a lectern and a crowd?).

No, I'm pretty much mostly afraid of made-up shit. Scary movies. Scary books. Hell, even scary comics can get me all twitchy.

For some reason, my fear of imaginary shadows is a nerve I've been tempted to poke throughout my life. It started with horror comics. (Books like the
Goosebumps series didn't exist when I was a kid, or trust me, I would've been all over them.) One story -- about a boy who channels dark forces by rocking maniacally on a rocking horse -- haunts me to this day.*

When I was about ten, I graduated from horror comics to horror novels after discovering my grandmother's huuuge stash of trashy books in her den. All I had to do was say, "Grandma, can I borrow these?" and I was allowed to trot away with a shopping bag chock full of evil. Given that the grown-ups in my life had no problem whatsoever with exposing my tender sensibilities to the worst that
Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Robin Cook had to offer, I don't think it's hard to pinpoint the exact moment in my development where things went wrong.

I read fairly widely throughout my teens, but horror was definitely a staple of my literary diet. I still have no idea why, since these books never lost their ability to terrify the living bejeezus out of me. It was not uncommon for my mom to find a book on the hall floor outside my bedroom, where I'd put it in the middle of the night after realizing I couldn't fall asleep while it was in the room.

(FYI: Rationality was not a watchword of my youth. I once made myself walk through a cornfield after watching
Children of the Corn. And I used to sleep with the covers pulled up to my ears, thinking that the vampires would first have to pull the blanket down to get at me, which would at least give me a fighting chance to fend them off. I was sixteen.)

I left my fascination with the horror genre behind when I left my teens, but the one thing I did not leave behind was my tendency to get batshit scared at the slightest provocation. More recently than I should probably feel comfortable admitting, I only agreed to see
The Sixth Sense with Wing Chun and Glark if I could sit between them. At one point during the movie, Wing was kind enough to reach out and pat my hand reassuringly as I was curled sideways in the fetal position in my seat. I may also have been whimpering.

So why, oh why, did I pick up
Firestarter a couple of weeks ago?

Firestarter by Stephen King (#43)
Now, I've read
Firestarter before -- many times, actually -- but it's been years and years. And back in my horror-reading days, if you'd asked me, I probably would have told you that it really wasn't that scary.

But oh my god. This time around I got so caught up in this book that I could hardly put it down. And when I did put it down, it occupied a roomy corner of my thoughts.

If you're not familiar with the story, it's about young Charlie McGee, an eight-year-old girl whose parents participated in a government-funded drug test when they were in college. The drugs left them with low-grade psychic powers and with permanent chromosomal damage. The result: their offspring has an incredibly powerful gift for starting fires. (Surprise!) A secret CIA-type government organization called The Shop has been observing the family for years, and one day murders the mother and tries to kidnap Charlie, who escapes with her father, Andy, and goes on the run.

The rest of the book is about their attempts to evade the government. I won't tell you how it ends, but I will give you one hint: there are a lot of fires.

Okay, it's a schlocky premise. Sure, I'll give you that. And King is hardly a subtle writer. But he has an ability that is rarely acknowledged, and that is his ability to take his schlocky, supernatural premises and use them as a framework upon which to hang stories that are actually about the horror and damage that people bring on each other and themselves.

Cujo, for example, isn't just a story about a rabid dog that traps a woman and her son in their car for days. It's about infidelity and treachery (the woman was actually cheating on her husband, and for circuitous reasons to do with this, hadn't told him where she would be) and it's about a parent's fierce need to protect their offspring, and it's about the fact that [SPOILER]
you can't always protect your children from harm (her son dies)[/SPOILER], and it's about guilt and payback. Harsh.

Exhibit B: The Stand. Yeah, yeah, yeah... a killer plague wipes out almost everyone on earth, and then there's a supernatural battle between good and evil for the souls of the survivors, and then everyone who reads this plot summary simultaneously turns into a puddle of incredulous goo because the portion of their brain that allows for suspension of disbelief has completely imploded.

But what's actually going on amidst this grandly implausible series of very unfortunate events?
The Stand is about how people are plenty evil on their own, without supernatural intervention, thankyouverymuch (even though the disease kills people quite nastily, far more nasty is the myriad ways the survivors maim and kill one another). It's about how there's always chance for well-meaning people to go wrong (people like Harold Lauder, for example), as well as for people to be redeemed (again, Harold Lauder). And it's about how people need each other for survival, despite how we bring out the worst (and also the best) in each other.

And what about Christine? Just your classic story about a murderous, possessed muscle car? Nope, a dark premonitory warning about how you can only push a victim so much before he retaliates with horrifying violence.

I'm not going to be
too great a Stephen King apologist here. I stand by the fact that his premises are incredible in the fullest sense of the word, and that his approach is about as subtle as a dull pickaxe to the noggin. But I have to give the man credit for being able to scare me on several levels, which is harder to do than it sounds.

So... what makes
Firestarter so scary?

Oh, just the fact that it reminds me that governments are hugely powerful and capable of rationalizing great evil to themselves. It reminds me that, no matter how much I love my spouse and child, in the grand scheme of things I don't have much power to protect them from fate and plain old bad, bad, bad luck. It reminds me of how easily one's safe, comfy family life can be ripped apart by tragedy, leaving you praying for death just so the pain will stop.

You know, just stuff like that.

*A hearty thank you to Confused and tabloidman for letting me know that this comic was based on the short story "The Rocking-Horse Winner" by D.H. Lawrence. It's available online in its entirety here if you want to ensure that your Halloween is just a bit more haunting.


Anonymous said...

I totally did the no book in the room, covers up to protect against vampires thing. And I can one-up you, I think. After watching Jaws, I refused to let any limbs hang over the edges of my bed. Because, naturally, if they did they would be bitten off by the giant, man-eating shark...swimming in my bedroom. It still feels unnatural when I sleep exposed. Oh, and then after reading/watching Jurassic Park, I still think raptors will eat me if I'm walking down dark streets alone at night. I'm 18.

Tammy said...

Hee! You reminded me of something the mister once told me:

Back in the 70s, his parents had blue carpeting throughout most of the main floor of their house. After seeing just the *commercials* for Jaws, he used to race as quickly as he could across the carpeting when he had to get from point A to point B, because he was convinced that sharks lived beneath their sea of blue carpeting. Of course, he was about six at the time, so I think you still have him beat. Heh.

zuhn said...

Standing behind a lecturn in front of a crowd is quite similar to having your face ripped off by a wolverine, I think. Well, 'face' in the symbolic sense and I would add to that, your dignity. At least that's been my experience in academia.

Anonymous said...

Christine was one of those books you read at someone else's summer cottage (I did, anyway) and it was Godsake amazing.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Mr. King. But what about the Dark Tower series?

Anonymous said...

I read 52 books back in 2001. I read one book for every week and it was NOT easy but it was fun and I felt great about it. You can read about it in my first diary at

Good luck!

Sean said...

I am also freeked out by "The Rocking-horse Winner" by D.H. Lawrence, as it puts a sick and depressed feeling in my stomach everytime I read it.

Anonymous said...

Ah, "The Rocking-horse Winner".... My Grade 12 teacher made us read that for English class, thus cementing the unnerving image of little boys rocking, rocking, rocking to the beat of Beelzebub in our very souls forever. I wonder if he secretly hated us all?

Tammy said...

Oh, maaaaan. Thanks A LOT for telling me the author and title, guys. Because, knowing that, I of course had to search for it and read it online, and now I'm going to lie awake tonight thinking about it.

Did I already say THANKS A LOT?

Anonymous said...

I had to read that one in university; I'm surprised you didn't. When I started to read it I even thought I'd written a paper on it, but that was "Odor of Chrysanthemums."


Dee Paolina said...

For my money "It" and "Pet Semetary" [sic] were the two scariest books I've ever read.

Anonymous said...

My secret shame is that I really enjoy reading Stephen King books.

As he would say (in Christine, I think, in the voice of either Arnie or the guy Arnie bought the car from)

"It's got a good beat, Dick, and you can dance to it."

Em said...

I have watched only one horror movie from beginning to end in my (admittedly short) life so far. I saw a commercial for 28 Days Later and didn't sleep for three nights. So I watched Gothika at my friend's house a couple of years ago and then had to drive home alone in the dark around 1 in the morning, and I found that I couldn't look in the rearview mirror because flaming schoolgirl would be in the back seat, and I couldn't watch the road because flaming schoolgirl would be in the road waiting to possess me and turn me into a vengeful murderess. Solution? I drove almost all the way home with my eyes closed, only excepting turning corners. (Thank God I knew the route well.) I have no idea why I am not wrapped around a tree in the middle of a field somewhere.