Grace Prosniewski: Appreciating horror stories

By Grace Prosniewski, Daily Literary Columnist
Published September 3, 2014

Putting another book on top was never enough. I built veritable fortresses, arranging towers of chapter books on all sides of the hideous thing to block it from my view. Even after I would settle safely on the other side of the room with my Barbies in tow, there was always a prickle of awareness, as if the buried book pulsated with malevolence.

Some days it proved too much for my cowardly heart to stand, and with a deep breath I would pick up the book, close my eyes, run the few steps to my older sister’s room and toss it through her door. The book I’m referring to was, of course, Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark,” aka the nightmarish “children’s” book that caused many a millennial a sleepless night.

While most of the book’s power to disturb lies in its ghoulish, surrealistic illustrations by Stephen Gammell, it also served as the first introduction for many readers, myself included, to what I consider to be the most satisfying type of short story: the horror/suspense tale.

This type of short story is rooted in the format and sensibilities of earlier oral storytelling traditions, traditions that continue today when we tell ghost stories around a campfire or swap urban legends at a slumber party. In general, a short story uses the conventional dramatic structure to examine a singular event, which thus encourages a specific mood within the reader. In the case of the horror/suspense tale, this mood is fear.

Fear is an innate emotion. Fear is also by its very nature fleeting. As a reaction to a perceived threat, fear forces us into a fight-or-flight response, essentially making us choose between confronting the perceived threat or running away from it.

Conflict is thus not only the essence of drama, but also of fear. The horror/suspense tale is doubly bolstered by this intrinsic struggle towards some sort of resolution or at least change in state. The length of a short story also works to the advantage of this type of tale as it sustains in totality the reader’s sense of fear longer than possible in a novel, but with a deeper intensity than can be accomplished through a simple anecdote.

The horror/suspense tale also provides the joy of emotional release for feelings we may not otherwise be able to alleviate in our daily lives. In a perverse way, we like to be scared, but only if it’s on our own terms. Things like horror movies and scary stories present us a safe, distant experience in which to work through our emotions of fear.

If, dear reader, you doubt my evolutionary and structural arguments as to why the best short stories are also the scariest, the proof is most assuredly in the pudding.

We start with the undisputed master of mystery and macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. Though I could reiterate praise for Poe’s most famous short stories such as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and truly wax poetic on the intensely disturbing “Bernice,” my favorite short story of his would have to be “The Masque of the Red Death.” The title in and of itself is rather chilling.

“The Masque of the Red Death” tells the tale of Prince Prospero who, when the illness known as the “Red Death” ravages his country, holes up in his castle with other nobles in an attempt to escape the disease. In an effort to entertain themselves, a masquerade is held. All is well until a mysterious partygoer arrives dressed as a victim of the “Red Death.”

The story is incredibly paced, and filled with haunting imagery that is unmistakably Poe. The “Red Death” is described in terrifying detail, making it seem alarmingly grounded in reality. The story’s end, along with its message in general about death’s ultimate dominion over all, doesn’t leave the reader breathless from anxiety, but rather disconcertingly pensive.

Another American masterpiece, William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” is a bit of a slow burner. The story centers on the eccentric and reclusive Emily Grierson, who serves as the last vestiges of the tradition and grandeur of the antebellum era for a small southern community. Upon her death, the curious townspeople enter her previously isolated home and make a shockingly morbid discovery.

“A Rose for Emily” attests to Faulkner’s mastery of the Southern Gothic, complete with decrepit mansion and twisted psyche. While the story doesn’t have quite the same opulence as “The Masque of the Red Death,” “A Rose for Emily” is filled with poignant observations on a society in transition and those who are left behind because of such transformations.

Lastly, we come to what I consider to be one of, if not the greatest, American short story of the last century: Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” There’s a reason this is one of the most highly anthologized short stories, and if you haven’t read it before, I beg you, go read it now.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” centers around a vain but typical teenager named Connie. Left alone at home one afternoon, Connie is accosted by Arnold Friend, a mysterious man, with only a screen door as protection. If your breath doesn’t quicken and your palms don’t start to sweat when reading this story, you have steelier nerves than I.

It’s a disturbing representation of the dangers girls face when transitioning into adult sexuality. And while the devil-like Arnold Friend may serve as an extreme example of these dangers, the truth behind the hyperbole rings true.

So whether you’re looking for a good read or a good scare, you’ll find the best of both worlds in tales of horror/suspense. Just makes sure to leave the light on.