ambiguity, favim.com, H.P. Lovecraft, Mary Shelley quote, monster, Neil Gaiman, Scary Stuff and the Enjoyment of Fear, Shirley Jackson's The Summer People, Stephen King, The Call of Cthulhu, The Gross-out, The Horror, the known unknown, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the unknown unknown, triple terror, villain quote
“No man chooses evil, because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” ~Mary Shelley
Ambiguity is the real enemy. That’s the oldest trick to make stories terrifying, whether it’s horror, thriller, ghost tales, and so forth. As long as we the audience don’t see the monster, we get even more scared than we would be if we knew what it was. The anticipation is indeed killing us. If it’s clear that it’s something like a werewolf, for example, we can hold onto more hope and the protagonist can create a plan of attack, like getting a gun and some silver bullets. It’s frustrating, though, when the monster shows its face and yet no one has a clue what it is or how to fight it.
In the beginning of last semester, my professor in the English seminar I was taking asked us to try to define Weird Genre. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a truly abstract, non-uniformed genre that has a mix of horror, fantasy, science fiction, goth, mystery and many other tiny details. It’s kind of the fall-back genre for whatever novel and short story that doesn’t fit in any typical category but several of them. Anyway, one of the traits we mentioned was the unknown. Funny thing about the unknown is that there’s:
* the known unknown; monsters that have been given terms, such as vampires, ghosts, mermaids, et cetera, and situations and worlds that have rules and predictable outcomes.
* and then there’s the unknown unknown; monsters and situations that are beyond our understanding, signs that prove how insignificant human beings are. A good example portraying the unknown unknown is “The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft; anyone who tries to solve the mystery behind the Cthulhu Cult loses their mind, because they’re incapable of holding that cosmic knowledge.
I began thinking about this stuff last night when I finished reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of Lane. (Whole-heartedly recommend it, BTW.) When I picked it up, I had no idea what I was getting myself into and on at least two instances, I had to put the book down; the main monster in that novel was scaring the crap out of me. (Yes, there’s more than one.) And the reason she (or “it,” I don’t know) scared me was because neither the unnamed protagonist nor I fully understood what exactly she was doing, only that it was flipping awful.
Supposedly she wasn’t the biggest baddest thing that exists either, but she was definitely the creepiest one. Opposite to the creatures that were stronger than her, she had no purpose. Her motivation was purely self-amusement. Sometimes it’s worse when the villain has no master scheme, because that makes them unpredictable. That’s a good damn reason to be scared.
This leads me the subject that I want to leave with: TERROR.
The other side of ambiguity is questioning your senses, your sanity; it’s wondering whether the supernatural is actually taking place; it’s asking yourself if the oddities you’re running into are just… odd. Maybe you should simply brush off your shoulder and move on. Maybe… That is terror. Terror happens when nothing occurs according to our fear or expectations. It’s when someone or something have violated the rules in your world, and you don’t know whether the change is harmless.
Stephen King’s definition of terror hits the nail in the coffin (pardon if that felt like a “too” appropriate expression):
“The three types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs. It’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around. It’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worst one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own has been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”
King does the ambiguity trick in “The Reach,” where the reader is left wondering if the protagonist actually ran into ghosts. It’s a brilliant combination of unreliable narrator and unbelievable events that creates doubt within the reader so the terror in this story is not knowing what really happened. I’ve also seen this in “The Summer People” by Shirley Jackson in which an elderly couple stays in their summer house even though the season is over and for reasons unexplained, the people around them behave strangely and out-of-character rude… I won’t go into more detail on what else happens; it’s so indefinite.
It’s humorous when the writer appears to write a “closing statement” to their story, but then they somehow surprise us with something that gives it loose ends. As a result, the ambiguity instills further terror.
When I began this discussion about horror in “Scary Stuff and the Enjoyment in Fear,” I wondered out loud why we like scaring ourselves. It’s the thrill, isn’t it? Yes, we’re scared, but our curiosity is too powerful so daring readers who enjoy these kinds of stories learn to momentarily forget about it. Better yet, another question that occurred to me this morning was: Why do people write them? What good comes from telling stories about monsters and humanity’s weak position in the universe? They don’t exactly inspire confidence in mankind, do they. That, I will discuss next Saturday.