I started this morning with no idea what I was going to write. There isn’t much new to report with respect to my stories. Progress on Unanimity and on Penal Colony goes on at a steady pace. I haven’t started any new projects, and I don’t mean to do so until at least Penal Colony and In the Shade are both finished.
On the other hand, today is the last Thursday before Halloween, which is my favorite holiday. Last October, as a celebration of the season, I wrote the first draft of Hole for a Heart, a quite Halloween-ey tale. The story actually takes place in late spring, but its atmosphere is decidedly redolent of Halloween, and I pay lip-service to that fact during the story.
I’m not entirely sure why Halloween has always appealed to me so much. Part of it probably has to do with its arrival shortly after my birthday, but that annual milestone hasn’t pleased me for quite some time, and I still like Halloween just as much. Similarly, when I was younger, there’s little doubt that the acquisition of candy had no small influence on my holiday joy, but I’m not that big a candy person anymore, yet I’m still very much a Halloween person.*
Part of the attraction is that this is the most quintessentially autumnal of the holidays, and autumn has always been my favorite season, entirely unrelated to candy, to birthdays, and to any other more parochial concerns. I simply love the feel of this time of year, especially as it is up north. The changing of the colors of the leaves in southeastern Michigan, where I grew up, remains one of the most magical spectacles of nature. Also, I was one of those supposedly rare kids who really liked going back to school after summer vacation (I think there are more of us than we’ve been led to believe).
Autumn has also almost always been the time of year when I restart the Tolkien cycle, beginning sometimes with The Silmarillion but often with The Hobbit, and always proceeding to The Lord of the Rings. The fact that Frodo begins his adventure in the autumn surely contributes to my associational joy with the time of year. That happy connection has only been bolstered by the fact that the Harry Potter books begin on Halloween (albeit on a tragic note).
Deeper than this, though, is that I’ve always felt an affinity for dark stories (in case you couldn’t tell) and Halloween is the holiday of the shadowy tale; I don’t think I’m anything like alone in this. It’s not a coincidence that Stephen King is one of the most enduringly successful authors the world has yet seen. Halloween is a time when huge numbers of people, at least in America, indulge their inner King, and embrace stories of the dark, the supernatural, the otherworldly. For some people, it seems to be the only time when they use their imaginations at all.
Oddly enough, I’ve never really found Halloween scary, not even when I was a young child (no, not even the movie). It’s just too much fun, frankly, and that’s true even of most scary movies and stories. Weirdly, although I love most of Stephen King’s work, only two of his novels have ever frightened me (The Shining, and, more prominently, Pet Sematary). It’s odd, but horror stories in general seem to affect me much the way Halloween does: I feel them deeply, when they’re good, and I enjoy them; they resonate powerfully with me; but I don’t usually find them frightening.
The exceptions to this rule are interesting, and probably instructive. Only a rare few books have literally made me feel afraid for any noticeable period of time, including the two listed above, as well as Floating Dragon by Peter Straub, and—the long-reigning champion—The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which has perhaps the best opening and closing paragraphs of any spooky story ever. A few Lovecraft short stories, and more Stephen King short stories—as well as some Orson Scott Card stories, surprisingly enough—succeed in this area, as do intermittent others (most notably, the bone-chilling story Nadelman’s God by T.E.D. Klein).
In movies, the phenomenon is rarer still, with crowning glory going to the original Alien (Event Horizon was pretty darn spooky, too; also—though lamentably stupid as a science fiction story—as a horror movie, Signs really and majorly creeped me out…possibly because I first watched it in a hotel room, alone, at night, far from home).
Obviously, I like writing stories that might make other people frightened, but I don’t approach the writing with the idea of doing anything calculated to build a scary atmosphere, to make people feel uncomfortable, to surprise them, to worry them, etc. At least, I don’t do it consciously. It’s the darkness, rather than the scariness, that seems pivotal to me, both in my writing and my reading. The same holds for my enjoyment of other literary forms, from plays, to movies, to video games, to TV shows.
And, of course, autumn is that time when darkness is gaining ground, with Halloween its most prominent celebration. After Frodo’s and Bilbo’s birthday, which is roughly at the equinox, the days in the northern hemisphere grow ever shorter, and darkness is ascendant. In the shadows, where there is less blinding, glaring, external input entering the mind, the imagination can be brought more readily into play. The mind’s eye sees most clearly in the dark.
Well, it seems I did have a fair amount to write today, after all. I could probably go on and on about this topic, but that might be truly horrifying, and not in a fun way; the “Chinese water torture” isn’t very dramatic as torments go, but it does sound maddening. I’ll spare you such erosion and hold off further discussions of darkness and stories for later times. In the meanwhile, please enjoy your Halloween (those of you who observe it). If you get a chance, dress up for it. Have some candy. Laugh at and about scary things.
But you might want to avoid going out by yourself too long after night falls. Even the darkest of entities like to give themselves treats from time to time, and a solitary human is a juicy morsel indeed.
*This isn’t quite the same—nor is it as bad—as being one of the Autumn People, à la Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, but it’s not entirely orthogonal, either.