A Monstrous Month: Week Four

And just like that, October draws to a close. The costumes have all been purchased, the candy set aside in decorative bowls, and the pumpkin enthusiasts among us have already exhausted our loved ones” patience for pumpkin-flavored everything-on-earth.

With the end of the Halloween season comes our fourth and final installment of A Monstrous Month. We’ve done children’s stories, YA series, and zombie lit—all exemplary fare for spooky recommendations. But in this fourth week I’d like to branch out a bit and highlight those books that are, it’s fair to say, A Different Breed of Scary. The sort of scary that keeps adults up at night, not for its direct representation of a particular demon (as tends to spook children), but rather because they, these stories, force us into long-vacant areas of discomfort, places our mind would never roam without coercion because they leave upon us such an unavoidable impression, or worse: they frighten us because they ring so true.

Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery The reasons we’re left markedly affected by this story are obvious, aren’t they? That the story so fully arrests us is precisely why it’s famous, a literary “gotcha!” so loud and brash that we forgive it for fully admitting to itself, sly in its prose and lasting in its effect. It was exciting to sit in a 9th-grade classroom among others who didn’t quite understand the implications of the ending; or, better still, those who understood, but hoped they hadn’t. (I’ll stay at least partially vague on the ending, in case any readers aren’t familiar. If not—stop reading this and go read that.) Our adolescent classroom was electric with the possibility that the macabre not only had its place in literature, but that it had a celebrated and respected one. We all tried our hand at creeping ourselves out after that (as well as each other), but no story of mine has yet come close, and I doubt any of theirs have, either; Jackson shows how hard it is to spin this kind of suspense, and simultaneously, how effortless it can look to do so well.

George Orwell’s 1984  Through some horrible snafu of the education system, I was never once required to read any dystopian literature, canonical or otherwise. It seemed that the genre would appeal to me massively (given my love of films like Gattaca and my general fascination with post-Apocalyptic worlds, which by my estimation fall as close cousins or alternate endings to dystopias), and so I brought Orwell’s thin volume along with me for a 17-hour train ride from Kyiv to Lugansk when I was visiting Ukraine two summers ago. (Interestingly, my volume of the 1949 story 1984 was a printing from 1983 that I was reading in 2009, so I was effectively encased in four time capsules. Five, I suppose, now that I’m reflecting in 2011 on the experience of having read it.) Orwell has crafted for us an entire regime – and an unsettlingly believable one at that – comprised of the tiniest haunting details. There’s never a claim about this Britain that isn’t substantiated by miniscule imagery: the lacking taste of the saccharine tablets (in place of real sugar), the reductive lines of incomprehensible Newspeak. The smiles, though, are what I’ll remember as the eeriest: the vague happiness that must be kept plastered on every face from sunup to sundown, lest Big Brother see them as anything less than ecstatic to face a day under His guidance.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World This book came on the tails of reading 1984, also read in transit: this time, the French TGV from Lyon to Nice. Dystopia seems to lend itself well to the motions out the window, perhaps because we’re moved through a cross-section of these comprehensive, horrific worlds with context and narration as our guides. Whereas 1984 was based on a plethora of governmental restrictions, however, Huxley crafts his world around excessive indulgences, and both seem equally plausible in any society that lacks active self-evaluation. Orwell’s world exhausted me, but this one disgusted me: the diversion of consumerism, the matte sexualization of all human contact. It’s a world that inundates and distracts with pure choice, and if readers anywhere are going to relate to that, it is in our Café-Superstore-Subway-You-Build-It-Your-Way nation that they will find Huxley’s 1932 prophecy ringing the truest and only growing truer.

So, the question is, reader: are you scared yet?

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