It all started because of a thunderstorm. It was a particularly wicked one, clouds plump with torrential rain, and continuous ropes of lightning that knifed through the darkness, bearing with it the sharp tang of ozone and delivering the weird frisson of having walked through something unseen.
It was a Mary Shelley kind of moment.
And it was an easy decision to unplug the electronics and move to a more secure place away from the windows, a no-brainer to assume that nature might well have every intention of inviting itself inside by way of the outside.
So sure enough… in a matter of seconds and one lightning illuminated, very loud clap and roll of thunder later, the lights…went…out.
Suddenly all that was left to sense was what could be held by the dark-filled room – its shape-filled interior lit only by the occasional flash of electrically charged tentacles, the sound of heavy rain cascading down upon the roof like a waterfall, and the rich loamy smells of wet earth.
What if, one could hear oneself wonder, what if I am not alone?
This is Where I Live as a Writer…
Growing up in the military, I lived for a while overseas, experiencing my first hurricane on the island of Taiwan in 1971, a Category Five Super Typhoon named Bess. I remember watching the walls of our house crack in the flickering light of candles, the winds so loud we never heard the large tree fall on our house, buckling the ceiling behind the kitchen. We also couldn’t hear the screams of the families further up the mountainside whose houses disintegrated during the storm, families that were left huddling against the only remaining wall of their home, holding onto a glass-peppered mattress for protection as the storm took off the roof.
Their suffering went unheard and unnoticed, everything lost to the surreal and unnatural sounds that 130 to 160 mile an hour winds create as they pass over land, ripping trees from the ground and sweeping civilization back into the ocean, drowning anyone and everyone not left impaled, carrying too many back out to sea in the floodwaters of the storm surge.
In a place where our house was slightly sheltered by a natural earth berm, the biggest terror I took away from it all was the warning of our ama (a Chinese appointed housekeeper and nanny) to never open the door during a storm no matter what we heard because the dead wander in typhoons asking to be let in.
Even now, I eye the darkness left by a simple power outage with suspicion.
Even now I tend to turn off all electronics, gather the candles, and sit and…listen.
It is a gift to a Horror writer, these kinds of life experiences.
It is mirrored in the temporary power-outages caused by lesser storms, reminding me not to forget. It forces the arrogant beast of technology back into its cave, disarming the once-brave because there is nothing like a black-out to remind us of exactly where we come from.
In the darkness of a storm, we are all meat.
Indeed, these times of high technology have ruined a great deal of Horror. We mock the measured, detail-laden stories of older times, we sneer at people who would be so superstitious, so easily spooked. We think ourselves so sophisticated, surrounded with technology the way primitive peoples used to surround themselves with amulets and sacrifices.
Yet hiding in our precious lighted castles, we forget that it is the elements in charge of our ultimate well-being. Our planet decides whether we will be allowed to live another day, to ravage her flesh and mine her bones. And on occasion, she has tantrums and moves to excise us from the open wound our existence has created. If you have ever lived through a class 5 hurricane, you would have no doubt of our tenuous rule of this place.
And if you are a Horror writer, you know that it is not all superstition; that it is appropriate that we refer to energy as Power…
Sooner or later we are all brought down to the level of the elements, cast naked among them and dared to survive unchanged.
Yet not-changing is impossible, because even the brief loss of electricity stays with you long after the lights come back on. Suddenly you decide to straighten your room, to put away that sinister stack of clothes that you laugh at now, but suspect strongly did move just when the dark was darkest. And when a holiday like Halloween rolls around, it is that moment you remember… and a new frisson spills across your flesh even as you hide behind the cuteness of kids in costumes.
You can’t shake it. And you won’t admit it.
And therein again you miss the point… Mind that something has noticed, and is now waiting for opportunity to arise just there, at the edge of your vision.
Tasting the Fear and Loving It
Those who like to say that Horror is childish and no longer an effective genre have never been completely alone in the dark.
They mistake arrogance for bravery.
They live in electrically lighted homes with what they perceive to be impenetrable walls, armed with flashlights whose batteries never die, with cellphones that Twitter endlessly in the silence. Tragedy happens to everyone else. A “bad” storm is one that interferes with your cable connection.
They gamble and win so often with the odds that they believe themselves to be immune to the effects of Horror and beauty alike… never suspecting that sometimes they are one and the same.
They have never even looked up at the night sky when the streetlights and city lights are blotted out, never sat in the wilderness and seen that thick blackness populated by Carl Sagan’s billions and billions of stars… some of them falling away, the texture and dimension of the velvet of starlit blackness so profound you can feel as though you yourself might fall off the earth and into it as you stare…
They don’t pay attention.
They have never stood on the edge of the continent and felt the power of the ocean as it crashes into the land mass, slowly wearing it away with the promise of more beach sand and broken shells. They have never listened to the sounds a house makes when battered by the elements, the siren-cries of the wind, the sounds made by animals dying in the dark because predators don’t let the rain stop their hunt.
They trivialize nature on a skewed system of relevance.
But these things – all of them – are what shaped our fairy tales, our myths, our legends, our phantoms, our fears. Writing Horror, we ought not to forget that. Reading Horror we are trying to recreate that prickly sense of heightened alert, that brief and profound triumph that comes with eluding the man-eater in the dark.
Only if we remember it can we recreate it for the reader. Only if we’ve felt it and embraced it can we summon it at will.
Thrillseekers. That’s what lovers of Horror are. We find an endorphin-skewered high in sharing scary experiences, a secret thrill not unlike what many an ancestor must have felt in cheating a hungry lion. It is a fleeting feeling, almost impossible to recreate by seeing the movie or reading the book a second time because once learned, we program in the pattern of deceit directly to our brains. We learn from our experiences. It is a survival mechanism from our primordial beginnings.
Horror is so brain science…
This makes it even harder for a Horror writer to shape the old fear into a new design. We must make our monsters unrecognizable just long enough to lure the reader closer, unsuspecting and within striking range.
Then we must give the reader a fleeting glimpse…We must return to the lesson of the storm.
It is deeply primitive and elemental, this lightning-flash view of the drooling beast with open maw that can end us in a split second. And it must happen at precisely the right moment or we cannot trigger that basic instinct to survive… the one that says RUN… or the second monster that leaves us to ask WHERE?
When “people say” Horror cannot scare us anymore, that we are too sophisticated now, they are in denial. They will simply be the first to be eaten. They think technology will save them in the end, and that bravery is about willpower.
They have never really faced the natural world, living in their virtual ones. Hypnotized by their perceived control of all things, they have disabled the primitive responses that can be suddenly and completely resuscitated by a thunderstorm.
“Scare me,” they dare. They watch movies and read books where protagonists get to hide behind digital devices, and roll their eyes when the terror fails to fully materialize. They go into dark theaters of Horror films and cannot even turn off their cellphones. “Not scary,” they proclaim. And I say, probably not.
To scare yourself you have to be willing to meet yourself in the dark.
You should try it. Turn out the lights and sit in complete darkness. Alone. Taste your own fear. Let your mind imagine things that move in the inky black. Did something brush against you? Are those eyes over there? Is that door moving?
This is the sketchy place your Horror writers live. We pack up the notepads and leave the headlamps behind, crawling into dark and dank places where misshapen things slither…because we like it. Because it is strangely familiar.
We go there so we can bring a piece of that world back to you, to jumpstart your heart, to startle your reflexes, to whisper of things that wander in the tall grass with rotting meat in their teeth.
You are welcome to come along, but you will have to turn off your devices, because they do not work here. This is a place for instinct, and sensory acuity. This is where survival happens, and luck can be simply the place you bed down.
Putting Your Head in the Mouth of the Beast
They called it a Super Typhoon. It had a forty-mile wide eye and sustained winds from 108 to 130 knots, depending on where one was exactly. I remember the terrible and sudden eerie silence as that eye passed over Taipei and the mountain community of military housing called Shanzaihou on Yangmingshan (where we lived while my dad served at the U.S. Taiwan Defense Command), sliding stealthily over us from 10:20 to 11:05 pm…
When the storm was over it had claimed 30 lives with 2 missing, 2,200 dwellings were destroyed (and that being dwellings of record, as much of the population unaccounted for were street people at the time, living in lean-to’s between other structures). Flooding was massive, with as much as 18 inches of rain having fallen with a storm surge of 9.9 feet , and I remember almost 10,000 people being unaccounted for the immediate morning after as I and my family stood looking down the mountain at what had been the bustling town of Tianmu surrounded by rice paddies, then looking like an inland bay.
Nothing in my life has ever touched me the same way. I cannot get out of my head that memory of staring at all of that water, remembering all of those people who lived and worked down below, whose restaurants I had eaten in with my ama, quite against my parents’ directives…
Where are all the people?
The thought to this day brings tears to my eyes…the power of nature was overwhelming even in its aftermath. And I knew at that moment I would never forget what had happened, would never stop wondering how many of those 32 lives I might have encountered on my many trips into towns and cities and who were now just…gone.
I remember it as the first time I heard the sound of the elements the way our ancestors heard them when they clung to trees and painted the insides of caves.
I remember it every time a severe storm comes, its worst punch and thrust only a whimper of what happened that September 22nd on the tiny island of Taiwan. I remember it because its language is that of the Horror writer…primal, lethal, savage.
Typhoon Bess would become my benchmark for terror. I would never get it completely out of my head – the sights, the sounds, the smells, the absolute fear I felt even at age ten as fingers of wind clawed at the wooden shutters, trying to get in. It would serve to remind me that no amount of civilization is a match for the things that stalk and shape this world – the older, elemental things that seem to come awake when we overstep our egos, the things that seem to know that all which must be done to cow us is to turn out the lights…
It echoed the truth of what apocalyptic writers say: that technology cannot save us from the natural predator that ultimately stalks us… that in the end, we are all meat, destined to face our maker as naked as we met this world…
And it made me homesick, thinking about that time and that place. So of course I went looking…I went rummaging about in my past. And in the internet search for photos for this post, I took a long trip down memory lane…I used to trick-or-treat in this neighborhood…now in serious disrepair…
Here I found a photo that suggested the house that was condemned after the typhoon, along with a similar wall and a same-sized tree that grows in the exact place it would have grown at our house, the one that fell on our kitchen, our ama, Fay, oddly sound asleep in her room beneath it during the storm …
And then there were other houses that look familiar…
The Old Neighborhood… http://ustdc.blogspot.com/2010/09/yangmingshan-housing-area-today.html
Is it any wonder that we are shaped by the things that rearrange our lives? Do we remember or imagine the things we see in the dark of savage storms? And when it is our time, what might we see then? The storm that left us to recite the tale of its passing?
Horror writers inevitably cannot leave those questions alone. We pick at them like a scab that covers our humanity.
Will we die in our sleep?
Or be devoured alive by something we underestimated? Perhaps the Horrors in our own memories?
Turn out the lights and ask that question. Do it for Halloween when strange things roam the night.
Listen to the inhuman cries in the thick of a storm. Are the voices human? Did the darkness just move?
Don’t open the door… trick-or-treat… who knows what might be asking to be let in.
Maybe you should just set the candy dish out and go to a well-lighted place…
I’m not thinking you have the nerve to sit there in the dark.
Horror is alive and well.