Recently I took a break from the memoirs and young adult novels I’ve been reading and picked up some short stories of the “creepy” genre instead. First I read Horror Stories: A Spine-Chilling Collection, chosen by Susan Price, which was great. It contained favorites like “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe and “The Room in the Tower” by E. F. Benson (a story so creepy I kept checking behind me as I read it), as well as some eerie ones I hadn’t heard before like “Something” by Joan Aiken and “The Affair at 7 Rue de M—“ by John Steinbeck, which is about a sinister piece of bubble gum which takes on a mind of its own.
Next I read More Spooky Texas Tales by Tim Tingle and Doc Moore, which included modern versions of stories about such creatures as the chupacabra and “Skinwalker”. It was only ok, but did have a few gems here and there. One of my favorite lines came from “Screaming Banshee Cattle of the Night Swamp”. In this story, a little boy is with his dad, driving across east Texas at night, and his father has just told him the tale of the screaming banshee cattle of the night swamp, those monstrous cows that look just like the rest of the herd until nightfall when they reveal their long sharp teeth and pounce upon human victims with piercing screams. The boy, who only half believes the story, falls asleep, and when he awakes it is dark and his dad is pulling into a lonely-looking diner. He tells his son to stay in the truck while he gets them some food for the road. But not long after he is left alone, the night becomes frightening. The wind picks up, the moon disappears behind the clouds, a storm rolls in, and the boy begins to hear a high-pitched screaming sound. Terrified, he looks toward the restaurant for signs of his father and sees him, sitting at the counter, laughing and joking with the cook. It says, “In the diner, life appeared normal.”
Such a simple statement, yet it holds so much meaning for me.
One of my earliest memories is of a recurring nightmare I had, when I was around four years old. In the dream, I am playing in an old red rocking chair in the back room of our house, climbing around on it and hanging upside down in it so that my feet point to the ceiling and my head dangles toward the floor. Just a few yards away to my right, my mom and grandmother sit at the kitchen table, shelling peas into a metal pan and talking quietly. To my left, I can see my pappy walking down the back porch, heading to the door to come inside. The scene is normal, peaceful, right.
Then, in an instant, everything changes. No longer is it my pappy coming to the back door. It is the thing, the monster, the creature, the phantom, and it is coming in to get me. Suddenly, I can't move; I am trapped, upside down, in the rocker. Suddenly, I can't speak; I try to call for help, but my voice is gone. The nightmare advances in slow motion. Me, trying desperately to move, to speak, to run… the thing getting closer and closer to the door, reaching for the doorknob, the doorknob turning… the panic growing inside me until I awake, drenched in fear.
The only thing about the dream that remains constant, is the scene in the kitchen. Throughout my turmoil, my mom and grandmother continue shelling peas for dinner, utterly oblivious to my horror, and completely safe from it. In other words, in the kitchen, life appeared normal.
Sometimes, when you feel creeped out, whether justifiably or not, you find comfort in being around others, in joining a group that knows nothing of your turmoil and carries on as usual. There is the idea of “safety in numbers” and the feeling that nothing bad can happen to you if you’re surrounded by friends. But other times… there is no amount of camaraderie that can protect you, no crowd that you can blend into to feel safe. In times like these, the terror has targeted you specifically, and there is no way for others to rescue you because they can’t even perceive your danger. And those are most horrifying experiences of all.