Note from the editor: This Halloween, we asked you to review your scariest moments in books, with the aim of getting at just what of literature–perhaps even art in general–sticks with us, lasts.
“Five Signs of Disturbance,” a story by Lydia Davis from her collection Break it Down, quietly and precisely details a woman’s (she is unnamed) slow breakdown as she searches for an apartment alone. The story culminates with the woman’s near-total inability to act. But it’s the quiet precision of the description, over and against what happens to the character, that really horrifies me.”The toll was fifty cents,” Davis writes, “so she had to keep two quarters in her hand and put one back. The problem was that she couldn’t decide which one to put back…She told herself that the choice was arbitrary, but she felt strongly that it was not.” This is a story about a division of one’s own thoughts: a breakdown, a decline, but simultaneously, a quiet, precise vigilance that watches the breakdown. When I was a kid I thought the movie The Watcher in the Woods was so scary, but now my terror is for the watcher within me.
Fear begins with a tree.
Consider the Biblical account, for example: the human propensity to fear takes root (so to speak) when Adam and Eve succumb to their itch for more, venturing to the center of the Garden of Eden to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve, as a stand in for humanity, fall prey to a literal hunger for knowledge, for possibilities beyond what they explicitly understand to be their lot.
All of this in a tree – trees fascinate us. Trees edge their way into the symbology of myriad religions and cultures, from mythological nymphs to the Buddhist Bodhi Tree to Tolkien’s ents to the Whomping Willow. Their branches droop with the weight of more symbolic jewels: pears! Cherries! Olives! Wood! Wisdom! Life! Death! Hardly surprising, then, that the oldest living creature currently sharing this earth with us would be a tree (a bristlecone pine somewhere in California, over 5,000 years old, roughly as old as written history). And what haunted house would be complete without the gnarled branches of some lightning-struck behemoth casting skeletal shadows on the peeling wallpaper?
The tree that terrifies me the most, though, has more in common with your local fruit grove than with the infamous, immortal shadow of Nosferatu. Maybe it has to do with the timing: Sylvia Plath planted a sapling in my mind (so to speak) the summer I read The Bell Jar, the summer the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik opened fire on a number of teenagers not unlike the one I was at the time. That was a summer I remember in vivid and sharp colors; it was also the summer I fully realized for the first time that I was going to die.
The most quoted passage of The Bell Jar concerns a fig tree. Its fruits, of course, are symbolic, because who are we to neglect the symbolic possibilities of trees? Esther, the protagonist, sees each fig as a different possibility, each one grand: “a husband and a happy home and children;” “a famous poet;” “a brilliant professor;” “[an] amazing editor;” “Europe and Africa and South America;” “a pack of lovers,” etcetera, etcetera. Like any given tourist in an apple or cherry orchard, she considers which fruit to pick. But her indecision paralyzes her. In her inability to focus her ambitions on one fig and one fig only, she watches from her figurative perch in the tree as the figs fall to the ground and rot. As do all of our future possibilities.
What first struck me about the fig tree passage was not that it exemplified the suicidal depression of the speaker or the author (I started the book knowing only that it had something to do with mental illness and women in the 1950s). Instead, it struck me in how universally applicable it felt. What’s more human than dreaming of a successful life? And what’s more human than having to realize that our youthful dreams are unrealistic or mutually exclusive?
Although one could certainly view the fig tree metaphor as an illustration of the limited possibilities for women in the mid-20th century, it continues to haunt us because it so succinctly presents us with a central paradox of human life. Our drive to seek happiness, tracing down to our genetic wiring as primates, compels us to explore possibilities, which grow in weight and number as we reach adulthood. Each possibility constrains the others, becomes a limitation, and meanwhile, time shows no mercy. As we struggle, the trees look on in silence. Each fall, we watch their little deaths; each spring, their rebirth. In the meantime, we become a barely-visible series of rings on a thousand-year-old stump somewhere.
Consider Esther, despairing as she watches the figs of her hypothetical future selves fall away. Then consider a more self-assured Esther, who immediately spots and picks the best, juiciest fig. She takes a bite and marvels at the taste – even better than she expected! Then, a few bites in, she finds the fig too soft. It starts to melt away in her hands, drawn back towards the ground to feed its ancient master. Esther and her possibilities, after all, are human and not privy to the world of delicious eternal figs. But Esther, being human, is compelled to crave them. And again, she is left fruitless and powerless.
As always, the tree looks on in silence.
When considering frightening moments in literature, the first thing to come to mind was something I’ve read recently. The Females, by Wolfgang Hilbig, is a forthcoming work of translation out of Two Lines Press. The book is narrated by a factory laborer working in Communist East Germany. He is living a solitary and self-immolating life, ogling women at the factory and decrying his various pathologies, when suddenly all the females disappear. The story traces his desperate and otherworldly journey to find them and bring them back. Hilbig’s prose is haunting in and of itself, wielding sentences that go on for pages, folding back over themselves in hallucinations and refutation. The language works to hold the reader spellbound, before introducing jarring instances of unprovoked and absurd vulgarity. The book is scary in the way I most enjoy literature to be scary—it builds a steady sense of mystery, and at the height of suspense it releases language that leaves the reader unsettled and discomforted. Hilbig is a master of these sensations. By juxtaposing long, elegant sentences, filled with beautiful language, against absurd, gross images, he manages to capture a particular type of surprising horror.
The passage from the text that immediately came to mind is found early in the narrator’s journey. He has returned to his hometown and is walking the streets at night, recounting memories of his life before the females disappeared. Without much explanation, he reaches his hand into a trashcan, searching for something. As he searches, he thinks he feels “hair, a fleshy hairy mound in the midst of the can whose contents massed around [his] wrist.” The hair closes, “firm and sucking” around his lower arm. As he digs still deeper, he finds that what he’s pressing down on is a piece of rotten fruit, “rotten glowing fruit and its wet heat, sinking into the fingers’ skin, into the clefts of the four-fingered surface of the fist, smoothly coating it with a juice from those depths.” The hair has become fruit and in time, as he imagines it, the fruit becomes flesh.
In gently swollen flesh, in a hole beneath the hair. Returning to the maw of origin, ball of the hand, held by brain-like stems and windings, bathed by my slit veins, held fast in the center of the flood and wound in the vortex of the brain, rotten fruit in the trash can.
The imagery itself is frightening, holes in rotting flesh and sucking mounds of hair. Added to this imagery is the portrait of a profoundly unbalanced and desperate man, which adds a provocative sense of danger to the reading. Layered beneath all this, is the gendered nature of the text on account of our narrator’s pursuit of “the females.” The imagery of hair and soft flesh evokes the feminine, and later in the same passage, as our narrator’s “hand in the trash can met resistance, a round soft object resembling a uterus, and [he] started, scaled by fright, for suddenly here was something that [he] was forbidden to harm.” This final layer of gendered imagery, the hand of man pressing a uterus, is perhaps what made the image so stick in my mind. It is a sort of terror that rests beyond the apparent terror, which is the inescapable possibility of violence.
A woman walks along a quiet path, alone, one evening. It is a walk she often takes, one that allows her mind to wander, her head to clear. She stops for a moment to listen to the way that the wind blows through a gate. She is not accustomed to encountering anyone on this path, but on this particular evening, a young man appears. He is walking toward her, and he is hooded. She is horrified at the sight of him. She wonders if she will wet herself, briefly thinks that this will “serve him right,” and then, for reasons she does not want to explore, hopes that she will not wet herself during the act. The act that she fears will happen, though she never explicitly states it, is rape, to be clear. The woman begins a mental negotiation. Perhaps, she thinks, it wouldn’t be so bad if the dreaded act were to happen. Perhaps it would seem natural, “recreational,” animalistic, even. The moment passes. The young man continues to walk past her. The woman is unharmed, at least it seems, at least for the moment.
This moment occurs in “Morning, 1908,” a story in Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut book, Pond. This moment occurs, each day, for so many women, including myself. My secluded path is a New York City block, an empty subway platform or car, or a solitary elevator ride in which a man, simply by appearing before me, destabilizes me and my understanding of the space around me, upsetting my sense of safety, however tenuous that sense may have been in the first place. This sense of immediate danger ultimately dissipates: the man walking behind me suddenly turns, the man in the subway car gets off at his stop, the man on the elevator exits on his floor. “Nothing happened of course,” Pond’s narrator says, after the young man walks past her. Of course. Of course both she and I and so many women make it home safely, of course my fears do not come to fruition. But the terror lies in the truth that our fears are not unfounded. We are reminded of this all too often, through stories in the media and stories relayed from loved ones, from accounts of assault in the workplace or in cabs or in bars or in our very homes, even, those assaults enacted by the men we thought we knew best.
There is a distinction to be made here, when we look at the language of fear, between terror and horror. Rape itself is the horror. The looming threat of rape is the terror. This terror, for so many women, reshapes and distorts our surroundings. Public spaces, like parks and restrooms and city streets, are spaces to be navigated thoughtfully, are spaces that necessitate careful observation and planning before entering. It is this terror that has given us rape whistles, and apps that allow our friends to track us as we ride in private cars. It is this terror that can cause us, quite often, to just not leave our homes after a certain time.
Perhaps what makes this moment in Pond so personally frightening is that I recognize it as a fear that has existed within me long enough to become normalized. Yes, women feel this fear each day, but we often find no reason to put words to it. It is simply reality. Seeing a character and feeling pity for her fear and her vulnerability, then realizing that this fear and vulnerability are your own, too, though you may try to bury those feelings, leads to an unease, something close to the uncanny, something familiar in a strange, uncomfortable way, something that you come to recognize as an unearthed, visceral memory. It is terrifying to realize that a man need do nothing more than walk towards a woman to instill fear in her, leading the woman to make all sorts of mental contortions to try to reconcile the potential assault, to try to delude herself into some semblance of control over the situation. Pond’s narrator speculates: “Perhaps the worst thing that could happen right now might not be quite as diabolical…as the thought of it jaggedly decreed.” It is, in part, the narrator’s attempt at reconciliation that is itself so scary and so, at least seemingly, unthinkable.
This terror extends far beyond my own experience of vulnerability, of course. It exists in many others. Perhaps it exists in you. The fear of being alone in the presence of someone who could, if so desired, overpower you, whether physically or by some other means, is one that many people feel. It is the fear of the disenfranchised in the face of the powerful. What terrors do I inflict on others? What harm does my presence engender? I know I am not exempt. Even I have my own claim to power and privilege in some form or other, and that in itself can be enough to instill fear in someone with less power or influence than the little that I can claim.
Earlier this month, a brash man spoke a few very loud, very public words that have been ringing in my head ever since. It’s a very scary time for young men in America. How ridiculous, how bogus, how untrue, I thought. But then, I thought, what if that were true? How bad could it be, really, for those who have felt safe for so long to feel a little fear in the face of the other, in the face of the oppressed? What I would want to say to these men, if they truly are fearful, is: welcome to the terror. This is how it feels. This is what we’ve felt for so long, though our threats are not imagined as yours are, they are real. And if you could feel just a portion of that terror for a short while, you might work to dismantle and eradicate it. But I cannot possibly say any of that, and mean it. For knowing in a real way what this terror feels like, how pervasive and incapacitating it is, makes it impossible to wish it upon anyone else.
This is mostly a show-don’t-tell approach to the prompt, I suppose–mostly a visceral definition of “fear,” moments that are strange enough to be inexplicable, so that you can’t intellectually dismiss them; well-observed enough so that you can’t reject them; and intimate enough so that you relate in ways you wish you didn’t. They pull the scare out of you.
Franz Kafka, “A Country Doctor”:
“Will you save me?” whispers the young man, sobbing, quite blinded by the life inside his wound. That’s how people are in my region. Always demanding the impossible from the doctor. They have lost the old faith. The priest sits at home and tears his religious robes to pieces, one after the other. But the doctor is supposed to achieve everything with his delicate surgeon’s hand. Well, it’s what they like to think. I have not offered myself. If they use me for sacred purposes, I let that happen to me as well. What more do I want, an old country doctor, robbed of my servant girl! And they come, the families and the village elders, and take my clothes off. A choir of school children with the teacher at the head stands in front of the house and sings an extremely simple melody with the words
Take his clothes off, then he’ll heal,
and if he doesn’t cure, then kill him.
It’s only a doctor; it’s only a doctor.
The baffled inability to interact with the world, or protect yourself from it, is what is always scary about Kafka. But what puts this moment over the top for me is the creepy singing children–there is no better ominous, alien creature than a singing child.
Brian Evenson, “Two Brothers”:
Daddy Norton has fallen and broken his leg. He lay on the floor of the entry hall, the rug bunched under his back, a crubbed jag of bone tearing his trousers at the knee.
Ah! “crubbed jag”! The pure onomatopoeia of awful injury.
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (this is the climax of the book so, you know, spoils):
They waved back at her dutifully, standing still, watching her. They will watch me down the drive as far as they can see, she thought; it is only civil for them to look at me until I am out of sight; so now I am going. Journeys end in lovers meeting. But I won’t go, she thought, and laughed aloud to herself; Hill House is not as easy as they are; just by telling me to go away they can’t make me leave, not if Hill House means me to stay. “Go Away, Eleanor,” she chanted aloud, “go away, Eleanor, you can’t stay here; but I can,” she sang, “but I can; they don’t make the rules around here. They can’t turn me out or shut me out or laugh at me or hide from me; I won’t go, and Hill House belongs to me.”
With what she perceived as quick cleverness she pressed her foot down hard on the accelerator; they can’t run fast enough to catch me this time, she thought, but by now they must be beginning to realize; I wonder who notices first? Luke, almost certainly. I can hear them calling now, she thought, and the little footsteps running through Hill House and the soft sound of the hills pressing closer. I am really doing it, she thought, turning the wheel to send the car directly at the great tree at the curve of the driveway, I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself.
In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?
More creepy singing! But I chose this passage because I think few things are scarier than perfect confidence, especially in oneself. “Perfect confidence” seems like a pretty good definition of “possession.”
–Patrick Douglass Cline
First came the sound of their trampling feet, a distant thunder that caused the earth to quiver, and the birds to leap from their perches and squawk irritably, sensing something was amiss. The sky was clear, they must have noticed, as did I, the source of the thunder still not evident, and my ears perked up with those of unseen beasts hidden in the folds of the desolate earth stretching before and around me—how did I arrive here? I wonder. Here, in this half-formed world whose limits and details remain unfinished, waiting for those last brushstrokes from a hidden creator to fully form and finish it all—the rocky outcrops are too smooth to be made of rock, the angles at which they rise unnatural; they are but mythical impressions of distant lands told in ancient, authorless texts, etched across crumbling vellum; the trees and shrubs and cacti are but ideas or suggestions of their actual shapes, vague outlines or simplified blots of canopies and thorns and bristles; my own movement is too slow, too unsure to be truly my movement. And the sky is also incomplete, a primer of grey ending before—rather than meeting—the undulating, fluid horizon, and lined with cracks of black nothingness, calling for binding and buffering and color.
The quivering of the earth is swiftly becoming a shaking, a clattering, a great din accompanied by a whistling wind—no, this sound is woven of whooping cries, I quickly realize, belonging to creatures who speak a language or languages not my own. Who use gestures whose meanings formed in isolation have long since been forgotten, who belong to this realm, not to the one I know or knew, and seek now to purge it of an unfamiliar presence. They sense me and have been roused by me, who threatens them and what they know, roused to an innate capacity for violence, for revenge for a sin I committed in a distant memory that may not be my own, and yet I can’t flee. I’m but a pair of eyes, an observer of my own impending doom, as unfinished as everything else, except for them: they emerge on the shifting horizon on horseback, perfectly intact, this legion of horribles, hundreds in number…
Literature, like all art, is infectious. It calls for your trust and then abuses it—it invades, trespasses, uproots, and tangles. But it also respects you—it comforts and nourishes and untangles and clarifies; everything you’ve ever read remains within you in some way, emerging at will when conjured by thoughts or inadvertently when sparked by senses, or simply dwelling in the subconscious deep, dictating actions and ideas without us knowing. But never had a single moment in a piece of literature consumed me so utterly until reading of these gaudy and grotesque riders of Christian reckoning in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Never before had a scene burst before me so completely and distinct in that place where all and everything should be a blurring, a merging, a mixing—in a dream dreamed the very night I finished that passage and set down the book until morning. Or call it a nightmare, as they charged my way, this horde from hell, these men or vaporous beings half-naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed with the skins of animals or pieces of uniform or fragments of Conquistador armor…
Blood Meridian can be difficult to accept. It can halt by exuding supposed pretention for those now expectant of the self-confessional, the colloquial, the excessively contemporary and trending, the translatable, the easily-digestible phrases and references and names and places that don’t test what we are increasingly failing to test—our imaginations—and do little to reveal those hidden links that connect us all with the extended memories of entire cultures and times. And what lurks beneath everything: our emotions. In fear, most choose to skirt above it all, comfortably floating at the surface of existence, distracting themselves rather than descending into their very depths, and accepting, “a feeling for the irregular” (Paul Valéry). Let instead the irregular and the fear it brings seize you in your most vulnerable moments, as only then can you—we—truly understand the power of art.
When I was twenty-one, I worked for a summer in a lab on my college’s campus. I had wanted for some time to be that age: twenty-one, the age of legality, of gay bars, of adult fun. Yet when the milestone came, I never went out. I spent most of my time that summer at lab, where the work days were slow and somehow inscrutable. By seven or eight, everyone would leave, even the graduate students with their weighty dissertations, leaving me alone in the lounge, where there was air-conditioning to enjoy and a comfy couch I barely left a mark in.
The lab I worked in was an entomology lab. One of my colleagues studied honeybee flight, another the speciation of caddisflies in New Caledonia. My own research was a baby, and like a bad mother I thought I might drown it by summer’s end. I knew my project had to do with moths and I knew that I was supposed to be inquiring about their antenna, which were special, maybe, imbued with a kind of electrical energy, an insect ESP. “Well, that’s a little speculative…” one of the postdocs said when I tried to explain my research to her. “Yeah, I guess,” I told her. Night fell. The postdoc returned to her apartment. I stayed behind, trying to think.
I think it was that night that I first read Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth.” I came upon a pdf of the essay while scouring the internet for some reading which would make me feel, post-consumption, less ignorant about moths. Woolf’s piece didn’t exactly do the trick, but it has stayed with me regardless.
In the essay, Woolf describes sitting by a window in early fall. The scene is pastoral, the clime temperate: “It was a pleasant morning, mid-September, mild, benignant, yet with a keener breath than that of the summer months. The plough was already scoring the field opposite the window, and where the share had been, the earth was pressed flat and gleamed with moisture.” Into this scene arrives a day-flying moth, “marvelous as well as pathetic” to Woolf’s eyes. The moth presses itself into the windowpane, probing at the glass’s transparency, a film it cannot penetrate or even dent. Eventually, the “thread of vital light” inside the moth starts to dim. As Woolf watches, rapt, the moth falls onto its back, legs pedaling uselessly in the air, and mounts a last bid against extinction:
It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself. One’s sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life. Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely. Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead. I lifted the pencil again, useless though I knew it to be. But even as I did so, the unmistakable tokens of death showed themselves. The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death.
I feel ragged, now, rereading these lines. They contain for me a durable kernel of doom, though it’s something more as well, something I must connect to the circumstances in which these words entered my life. It is one thing to read an essay about a moth’s death; it is another to read that essay at night, in a lab full of other dead or dying insects, trapped in one’s own live but also dying body. If I’m being honest, I don’t remember my exact reaction to the piece, if it gave me the heebie-jeebies immediately or if I found Woolf’s take on mortality too measured, too aloof. I suspect that it was very late when I read the essay, and that my ears were all too aware of each stray sound in the hallway, each witchy rasp from the terrarium, where, to complete the scene, a colony of Madagascan hissing roaches nested. Given these facts, I want to say that I was scared, and even if I wasn’t, Woolf’s essay—its long presence in my mind—has amounted to a kind of haunting for me.
Later that summer, an event actually worthy of a horror movie took over my apartment. A swarm of flies had emerged from the trash, and for a whole week, they camped out in the kitchen, clustering by the hundreds in our curtains, getting trapped in the microwave and the fridge, striking out on mad patrols of the living room which never got them to where they wanted to be: that glorious outside, that Earth which “gleamed with moisture.” Around the same time, I began to receive visitations from moths, randy bachelors drawn I assume by the moth pheromones I worked with at lab. These moths would hover about my face, sipping my aura. Sometimes, tired of flapping, they would land on my clothes, prompting a swat of my hand which I would feel poorly about later, like I had batted away an earnest if unrealistic suitor.
There is a story hidden away in all these details, I think, an essay I have tried to write many times and failed. Maybe the tales which haunt a writer are just reminders of these stories that have gone missing, these drafts which remain indefinitely unfinished. It’s a sad but also privileged life—to be afraid mostly of your own obsolescence, to be haunted only by a moth, long dead, its carbon already returned to the world. Retained among the living, you rub your dumb but diligent face against the glass. It’s beautiful out there, you think. It’ll look even better when you arrive.