I’ve been working on some horror lately–revising my first full length offering, Skellyman, and writing/revising a couple of short pieces to send to anthology calls. It must have dribbled into my sub-conscious, because I had a dream last night that got me thinking and led to this post.
I dreamed last night of the Beany and Cecil jack-in-the-box I had as a kid. You turned the crank, and Cecil popped out. It was even more impressive after we had worn out the little tab that held “Cecil” onto the spring, because when the box opened, the sea serpent would fly halfway across the room. I still have this in the bottom of my toy chest (yes, I have a toy chest) though worse the wear for fifty years of service…
The main thing about that jack-in-the-box–the thing that scared the hell out of us–was the anticipation. As you turned the crank, you could see the catch on top of the box wiggling back and forth, and you knew it would eventually open and Cecil would pop out. We would turn the crank with bated breath–or sometimes with a thumb on top of the box so it couldn’t open–both anticipating and dreading the moment that it burst open. Sometimes, we would just crank for awhile and quit before it had a chance to explode. We knew all that waited inside the box was a cloth puppet on a spring, but it still had the capacity to make us scream.
In my dream, the cloth was worn to near transparency; you had to stick your hand through a hole in the bottom of the box and physically make Cecil jump out like a hand puppet because the spring was gone; the lid was off the box, for goodness sake–but it still was enough to make you jump and scream when he popped out, because only the person cranking the box knew just when that event would occur.
I read a Stephen King quote many years ago–it may have been in Danse Macabre but a quick look couldn’t find what I was after. King talks about the closed door at the top of the stairs, and how much more terrifying it is to leave that door closed and have the reader wonder what is behind it than to open it and reveal the monster, no matter how horrifying it is. Once the door it open, the matter is settled. It may still be something that will kill the character and freak the reader out–but it is now seen, and can therefore be dealt with. As long as that door remains closed, it could be anything, and there is no way for either character or reader to prepare for it.
The anticipation is key. That is what builds the unease into fear into terror…and (hopefully just in the character’s case) perhaps to madness. I’m working on this build. It’s not easy to accomplish. Who do you think has mastered it? I’d love some suggestions on who else to study. Leave your recommendations in front of that closed door at the top of the stair. 😉