I’ve been thinking a lot lately about fear.
Not, like, in a weird way. I’m definitely not plotting out your death by sinister means or anything, I want to be clear about that. But I’m currently working on a collection of horror stories called It Came From Anomaly Flats, and all this time spent in the literary darkness has me contemplating the things that really drive our feelings of terror.
Now, I don’t write horror all that often, mostly because it’s a genre that doesn’t come very easily to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy with the horror stories I’ve written (some of which you can find in Pants on Fire, if you're into shameless plugs), but it takes a lot out of me to craft a good tale of terror. I have to work harder to make those stories sing their dark dirges, and I think that’s a good thing. It forces me to put some deep thought into the subject matter.
I want the stories in It Came... to work on multiple levels of fear, and to do that, I’ve had to try to pin down what it is that causes fear in all of us. And I have an idea about what it is.
I think the thing that instills us with terror...is hope.
Hope is what strings suspense like piano wire around our hearts and sets it thrumming against our chest. We go into a dark room, and we hope there’s no one waiting quietly in the corner. We cross into the graveyard, and we hope that the tales of tortured ghosts don’t prove themselves to be true. We go down into the basement, and we hope we make it back upstairs alive.
We know there’s a chance—however small, there’s a chance—that there’s something lurking around every dark corner. But we hope that there isn’t.
We pray that there isn’t.
Hope is cruel sometimes, especially for characters in horror stories, and I think this is the basis of our fears. In every scary story, there is a pinpoint moment of excruciating tension, when we, as readers, are just on the cusp of reading the single line, or even the single word, that will reveal whether the character’s hope will be rewarded, or if it will be severely, brutally punished.
When hope is rewarded and things work out, we feel relief. We can relax. We can laugh. “Phew,” we might say, out of breath, sapped of strength, "that...was close.”
But when hope is punished, we feel as if we’re being pushed over the cliff into the abyss. Our arms are pinwheeling, and we’re desperate for someone to grab us and pull us back from the edge at the very last instant, but we turn, and there is no one there, and we go pitching over into the dark chasm. It’s where we find despair. It’s where we find silence. It’s where we find the stories that really stick with us and just will not let us go.
I’m keeping this in mind as I write the stories for It Came From Anomaly Flats. In each and every story, the value of hope is weighed and judged. Some of the stories will reward that hope, because, after all, hope is something to celebrate, and even fictional characters need to catch a break sometimes.
But a lot of the stories will see us teetering on the edge of the cliff, desperately hoping for someone to appear and reel us in.
Sometimes, we’ll go over the cliff.
Because, to paraphrase the narrator in “The Time Capsule,” hope is a thing that’s probably best avoided in a place like Anomaly Flats.
“The Time Capsule” is the first horror story from the forthcoming It Came From Anomaly Flats, and it’s available as a free preview to the collection. Sign up for the State of Clayton newsletter, and I'll send the story along!