Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Things that Scare Us

A conversation about scary stuff between publisher Maggie Topkis and managing editor Julia Musha. We'd love to hear about the things that scare you, dear readers!

JULIA: Let's talk about things that scare us.

MAGGIE: Do you like being scared?

JULIA: I don't like being scared.

MAGGIE: I was so interested in Sarah's point [during the interview with Sarah Rayne, which we're editing right now] about how reading something scary makes you feel safer in the same way that being inside during a storm is a really cozy feeling. It doesn't work that way for me, but I understand how it might work for some people.

JULIA: Do you remember the first thing that scared you?

MAGGIE: The first thing I remember being scared by was the theme song to Gigantor; there was something about the inhumanness of it. I listened to the lyrics recently, and the lyrics make it clear that he's fighting on the side of good, but the animation doesn't necessarily make that clear, it just shows him being powerful and inhuman.

JULIA: For me it was a 1979 mini-series on Albanian television, Emblema e Dikurshme, based on a novella by Ismail Kadare, who wrote the script for the miniseries, actually. It revolved around an old crime committed during World War II by dark-hooded strangers, and it's generally not scary, although it has scary moments here and there, especially the cold open to the first episode. But, first of all it was the only thing on television that had anything at all to do with crime and that had these darker, deliberately scary moments, in a sea of brightly-lit socialist-realist productions; and second, I watched it at a really inappropriate age, like 6 or so. That scared me for a while, and I remember there was a long hallway in the apartment we lived in at the time, and I would be so scared walking down that hallway at night to go to the bathroom.

MAGGIE: I must have been about 8, I guess, and my mother was friends with Pauline Kael, the film critic, who invited us for a weekend at her house, and in the evening the grown-ups were talking and Pauline set me up in her basement to watch The Miracle Worker, the Helen Keller movie. At the beginning of the movie Helen was in some kind of institution, and I remember being terrified of the institution; there were hallways and doors that you didn't know what was behind. I turned off the movie, and sat in the basement waiting for the grown-ups.

The first thing I remember reading that really scared me was the epigraph to The Exorcist. The book had just come out (I would have been about 11 at the time), and my father was reading it, and I snuck it into the bathroom. The quote is an excerpt from a series of FBI wiretaps of mafia hitmen, having little chitchats. One of them is talking about stringing somebody up on a meathook, throwing water on him, and poking at his naked genitals with a cattle prod. The guy speaking starts giggling. To my mind, that wiretap is infinitely scarier than anything in the novel, and it's the fact that the guy giggled that makes it so.

Later in life, Peter Straub's Ghost Story scared the hell out of me; the other day it occurred to me that they had made a movie out of it, so I took a look at the movie; it was terrible. But the book is really, really scary on a number of very intelligent levels. One of the levels that it's scary on is the notion of somebody taking pleasure in another person's pain. It's about a shape-shifter who particularly delights in taking the shape of the person you love and trust most in the world. You see that person on the other side of a bridge, say, and you run toward them with your arms open, and they are beaming at you, and at the last moment they change, and the joy in the shape-shifter lies in watching your face as you realize you've been betrayed.

There is another scene in there, in which our hero is in a house where he believes himself to be alone, and he's going up a winding staircase, when all of a sudden he comes across a long-ago dead guy, and his feral creature of a long-ago dead brother, playing chicken with a knife. I had dinner with Peter a few years ago, and told him about that scene, and he said that was the only scene he's ever written that scared him when he was writing it.

JULIA: I've generally stayed away from horror, because I don't enjoy being scared, but I have seen the film of The Shining, twice, and it scared me both times. The second time I saw it, it was in the middle of a bright sunny day, and I was pretty sure I would be fine with it, given that I already knew what was coming. Yet after leaving the movie theater I remember everything had a sinister bent to it; everything looked just a tiny bit creepy. Walking into my utterly ordinary apartment building, and going down the brightly-lit hallway, I could sort of hear the little bicycle rolling down the hallways of the Overlook hotel, and I remember thinking I should have gone into the front door of the building, rather than the back.

MAGGIE: A few years ago that film was on TV, and I thought, well, why don't I watch this. I'm grown up, I won't be scared, I'm sitting in my well lit apartment. So I put it on, and everything's fine, there's the hotel, there's Scatman Cruthers showing Shelley Long how many barrels of oatmeal they've got in storage, everything's fine, I'm not scared and then the two little dead girls show up, and I think, Hunh, maybe I'll see if Food Network has one of those shows on about decorating cakes.

JULIA: Intellectually, you know that nothing is going to actually get you at that very moment, and yet

MAGGIE: Well, listen, 20 years ago my upstairs neighbor, who was then an editor at Crown, gave me a galley of a new book called The Descent. I started reading it, and at a certain point--and I still remember EXACTLY what was happening in the story--I put the book down on the table, closed it, and then I got down my copy of the Riverside Shakespeare, which was the heaviest book I owned, and I put it on top. I threw the book away the next day; I didn't even put in the garbage in my apartment, I took it and I put it in the garbage can outside.

JULIA: I hope, if the author of that book reads this, that he takes it as a compliment.

MAGGIE: He should, it was really scary. A book I think is just terrific, and recommend highly, is Jon Evans' Dark Places. The first time I read it, I went straight through, lying in bed, and at about 3 in the morning I got up and, uh, just checked that the front door was locked.

I realized at some point that I could not read horror; I read quite a bit of it earlier, and enjoyed it, but I realized at some point that it scared me too much; I couldn't cope, and I completely stopped.

JULIA: I wonder if the difference between mystery and horror is that mystery eventually returns you to a world restored; at least classic mystery does. There is generally a logical explanation for the crime, and you learn who did it and why.

MAGGIE: Except for noir; not only does noir not restore you to an orderly world, but it shows that there was never order to begin with. But I wonder if the difference is that horror offers no logic; it's all madness. Even in noir there is a sense that there is sanity here; it may be corrupt, self-interested sanity, but it's sanity. But a monster that wants nothing but to cause you pain I wonder to what extent sanity is the dividing line between even the darkest mystery fiction and horror.

Bonus links: ; (watch the first 2.5 minutes).

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