Writing Beautifully Disturbing Things

“Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin.”

—-  Mary Shelley, from the novel “Frankenstein” (public domain)

Although I have read almost more books that I can count by Stephen King, my favorite book wasn’t written by him. I also enjoy books not by “commercial authors,” of which – for better or worse – Stephen King is considered one of. My favorite book is “A Prayer for the Dying” by Stewart O’Nan. He writes dark literary fiction, but when I stumbled upon this book and finished it, I was shocked. This was horrifying to its core. And, delightfully beautiful.

By Stewart O’Nan

It was this book that inspired me to write in a new fashion.

“A Prayer for the Dying” is the story of a lawman, minister, and undertaker – all the same person – in a time of plague. But it’s not just his story – it’s yours as well, because the novel is written in second person.

Not many writers can pull this off, at least, not that I’ve seen. But this book is brilliant. You feel the emotions stronger, you feel the desperation as if it was yours, and you know the horror is real, because you are the one confronting it. Stewart O’Nan scarred me for life with this one, and I liked it.

But more than the unique perspective, this was the first modern horror(ish) novel I’d ever read that paid as much attention to the prose as it did to the events. The way he uses the language is an essential part of the story, for it puts you in the proper time, and the right place to see the things that are happening. It takes place before cell phones and the internet and the automobile. It is about a time when people rode trains, and bicycles, and sent messages by telegraph. I think in that time, attention spans were longer, and people looked to words not just to be thrilled, but to be enraptured.

When you think of horror as a genre, a few authors come to mind – Lovecraft, Stoker, Poe, Shelley. None of these writers would be given a chance today, because “literary horror” is not considered marketable, at least, by many in the business. But I wonder why? “Dracula” still scares me when I read it, and I’ve read it more than once. The words keep bringing me back. Poe frightens me with poetry – an art form that is decidedly on the out in popular media – and the line I presented at the beginning of this post – a line from “Frankenstein” – shows how deeply we can connect our fears to the beauty of our existence.

I wonder what you think? Is there a place in the market for a book that tells what could only be considered a “horror” story, and yet does not follow the pattern or the style of modern commercial fiction?  Would we have such staples of our culture as Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster if writers of a century ago were concerned with churning out as many novels in a year as they could? Or is it our fault for wanting something much simpler to read, that doesn’t challenge us to take note of the more subtle uses of the language? Will literary horror – like a mummy rising from a tomb – live again?

Writing Beautifully Disturbing Things

“Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin.”

—-  Mary Shelley, from the novel “Frankenstein” (public domain)

Although I have read almost more books that I can count by Stephen King, my favorite book wasn’t written by him. I also enjoy books not by “commercial authors,” of which – for better or worse – Stephen King is considered one of. My favorite book is “A Prayer for the Dying” by Stewart O’Nan. He writes dark literary fiction, but when I stumbled upon this book and finished it, I was shocked. This was horrifying to its core. And, delightfully beautiful.

By Stewart O’Nan

It was this book that inspired me to write in a new fashion.

“A Prayer for the Dying” is the story of a lawman, minister, and undertaker – all the same person – in a time of plague. But it’s not just his story – it’s yours as well, because the novel is written in second person.

Not many writers can pull this off, at least, not that I’ve seen. But this book is brilliant. You feel the emotions stronger, you feel the desperation as if it was yours, and you know the horror is real, because you are the one confronting it. Stewart O’Nan scarred me for life with this one, and I liked it.

But more than the unique perspective, this was the first modern horror(ish) novel I’d ever read that payed as much attention to the prose as it did to the events. The way he uses the language is an essential part of the story, for it puts you in the proper time, and the right place to see the things that are happening. It takes place before cell phones and the internet and the automobile. It is about a time when people rode trains, and bicycles, and sent messages by telegraph. I think in that time, attention spans were longer, and people looked to words not just to be thrilled, but to be enraptured.

When you think of horror as a genre, a few authors come to mind – Lovecraft, Stoker, Poe, Shelley. None of these writers would be given a chance today, because “literary horror” is not considered marketable, at least, by many in the business. But I wonder why? “Dracula” still scares me when I read it, and I’ve read it more than once. The words keep bringing me back. Poe frightens me with poetry – an art form that is decidedly on the out in popular media – and the line I presented at the beginning of this post – a line from “Frankenstein” – shows how deeply we can connect our fears to the beauty of our existence.

I wonder what you think? Is there a place in the market for a book that tells what could only be considered a “horror” story, and yet does not follow the pattern or the style of modern commercial fiction?  Would we have such staples of our culture as Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster if writers of a century ago were concerned with churning out as many novels in a year as they could? Or is it our fault for wanting something much simpler to read, that doesn’t challenge us to take note of the more subtle uses of the language? Will literary horror – like a mummy rising from a tomb – live again?

Sarah Winchester

English: Winchester Mystery House Category:Ima...

English: Winchester Mystery House Category:Images of California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I took the extended family for a tour of the “Winchester Mystery House” in San Jose, California. The home began as an eight room farm-house in the late 1800’s, but today is a sprawling mansion of labyrinthine hallways and 160 rooms , many never finished. The story of this house gets much stranger, though. After the death of her husband (of Winchester Gun fame) and her infant daughter, a distraught Sarah Winchester began consulting a Spiritualist medium, where her dead husband warned her that the family was cursed, and that she would die if she didn’t obey what the spirits told her.

She moved from Connecticut to San Jose – just a rural farmland at the time – to “follow the setting sun.” There she purchased a small home, and began immediately it’s improvement. The spirits had told her to begin building a house, and never stop construction. And she didn’t, for almost four decades.

Deep within this sprawling estate filled with doors to nowhere, bookcases that open to walls, and an obsessive amount of 13’s, is a smallish, blue room. This, we are told on the tour, is where Sarah Winchester held seances with the spirits of those killed by the weapons her family made – a large number of the dead being Native Americans.

It was to this room that Sarah would come alone, close the only door that leads in, and do whatever she did. There are two other doors in the room. Both can only be opened from the inside. One leads to a hallway – this is the exit. The other leads to a drop of over 18 feet, right above a kitchen sink a floor below. Sarah came to this room alone, forbidding anyone else to attend her “meetings.” In a closet are 13 coat hangers, presumably for her thirteen “guests.”

English: Hand-tinted ambrotype of Sarah Winche...

English: Hand-tinted ambrotype of Sarah Winchester taken in 1865 by the Taber Photographic Company of San Francisco (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As our tour stood in this room, some fidgeting on their feet, talking amongst themselves, laughing, peering though the one window, I began to wonder what it must have been like when she was here alone. I tried to imagine the room without the people, with all the doors closed, and with one small little old woman sitting in the center, holding court for the dead. And then suddenly, I began to feel nervous, anxious, like a panic attack was coming. I felt a little sick to my stomach. I felt like I shouldn’t have been there. No one else looked disturbed, and the guide persisted with her dry humor, but I was scared. I may have been the only one.

Maybe because I was the only one seeing what really might have been going on in that room. Maybe because there is something still going on.

I can’t say for sure what happened there. But I know a couple of things. The Winchester House is very old, and it smells like houses that I  lived in and visited when I was a child. The scent reminded me of the mystery of old places. The other thing I know is that when you invite something into your house, it usually doesn’t leave. That’s why I only allow friends into my home. People can sometimes bring things in with them that they do not see. She directly invited spirits into her home. I’m pretty sure they haven’t left yet. And the last thing I’m sure of is that Sarah Winchester believed that she was talking to spirits, and that they were helping her plan her masterpiece to insanity. Whether they were or weren’t really doesn’t matter. If these spirits were actually things from beyond, or just delusions in her own imagination, what happened was real just the same. Something dark happened there, and is still happening.

I was glad when the tour moved on.