Hi there, readers. Thanks for hanging out with me today. Over the weekend, I went on a much-needed girls’ trip to a cute Airbnb in a small, historic Louisiana town, which could have been a big town, a cruise ship, or an abandoned mine for all we cared. We cooked and ate and drank and ate and talked and ate and drank and talked. It was refreshing. Hooray for Airbnb. And girlfriends.
I was gone for 49 hours. When I came back, this heart-exploding sight awaited me:
Like, are you kidding? It makes all of that birth-as-visceral-horror stuff 100 % worth it.
AND, they got me a gift. It was in a sweet little bag with tissue paper and everything. Wanna know what it was?
Oh yes. The little weirdos know exactly what I love. They also cleaned their rooms which is more a gift from Dad, but I gave them all the thanks and praise. I walked out of the room to put my bag away, and when I walked back in, my youngest was standing there wide-eyed, wanting to know what I thought of Haunted Louisiana. She actually thought I had read the book in the two minutes I was out of the room. I love her unwavering belief that I can do stuff like that. It’s so pure.
Exhausted from a weekend of girlfriend-style decadence, I settled down with some Shirley Jackson short stories. If you’ve gotten this far into my blog, you probably have seen The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. You also probably know that it is based (loosely) on the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name. You may have even, like me, rushed out to read Jackson’s novel. You might have even finished it. Not me. I got bored. It didn’t keep my ever-dwindling attention. Oh well.
Jackson’s short stories, though, are a whole different, um, story (sorry, I need to work on vocabulary). So far, I have read two of them. “The Daemon Lover” had many of the elements that I love in a good scary story: unease, obsession, disorientation, confusion. I think these states are frightening to experience, and to follow someone as they escalate from one to the next is especially unsettling. We can go into what this story represents—she is emotionally bound by this man and made a prisoner (again, emotionally suspended) as he is forever just beyond her grasp—but I don’t want to. I just want to enjoy the temporary descent into madness made possible because of the knowledge that I can put down the book and regain my foothold on reality in an instant. That’s the fun of it, right?
As I cruised the table of contents for my next story (Heaven forbid I go in order), one leapt out at me: “Pillar of Salt”. I grew up in church, as mentioned in my first post. And the thing about kids is this: they’re literal. This, combined with the crazy stories of the Bible, sometimes made Sunday school a scary place. I think this is where I heard some of my first scary stories, and it probably was the beginning of my love for supernatural horror.
When I think back to what was scariest in church, one thing looms above all others: leprosy. Oh man, listening to our pastors describe (very inaccurately, I might add) the ravages of this disease had me lying in bed late at night, staring at the ceiling and trying not to think about my nose falling off or my cheek caving in or my fingers shriveling up. That’s the stuff of horror. Would my eyeball fall out and softly plop onto my shoe? Would I accidently step on it as I tried to find it? Would I even notice?
Much later, I summoned the courage to learn more about leprosy. Turns out, it’s called Hansen’s disease now and we (as a country) were very, very mean to those who were suspected of having this slow-growing bacterial infection. Can you believe it? We forcefully removed people from their homes and forced them into isolation and dependance on government? We tore families apart and ruined lives out of fear? Yeah, I can’t either. So unlike us.
Aaanywho, the story of Lot’s wife in Genesis is another story that scared me. Dang! So harsh! All she did was look back and POOF! A pillar of salt. This reminds me of many stories and myths where witches turn people into stone. It’s sudden, irreversible and horrifying to witness. Turns out, no one is sure if she actually turned into salt but remember: kids are literal. In my sweet little elementary-school-aged mind, Lot’s wife looked back at her home—come on, man, her home–and instantly began to crumble into a pile of Morton’s table salt. And thanks to my obsession with the 1985 film Return to Oz, I had a perfect visual to bring this biblical horror story to life.
Spoiler alert! If you plan to watch this almost 40-year-old movie and don’t want it ruined, skip this little bit. Dorothy defeats the Gnome King by way of an egg laid by her plucky pet chicken Belina. (Ha! Get it? Plucky? Chicken?) He disintegrates, which is especially graphic in 80s stop motion. Return to Oz is a very good “starter” horror film for kiddos. I plan to take a closer look at it in the near future. For now, all that matters is the climactic scene where not only does the Gnome King disintegrate (as I imagine a woman who is turned into salt would), but his minions also collapse inward into little clay voids. All very scary stuff to a kiddo.
Turns out, Shirley Jackson’s “Pillar of Salt” doesn’t feature a housewife crumbling into a pile of salt, but it does document the mental crumbling of Margaret, a woman, wife and mother who is finally taking a well-deserved vacation. I really felt this particular moment in the beginning of the story, which opens with Margaret and her husband boarding the train to New York from New Hampshire: “She looked out the window first, tasting it almost secretly, savoring the extreme pleasure of being on a moving train with nothing to do for six hours but read and nap and go into the dining-car, going farther and farther every minute, from the children, [and] from the kitchen floor…” She’s getting away from it all, finally. And she’s loving it. You go, Margaret.
The big city begins to creep in on her peaceful vacay-rose-all-day mindset, however, by the middle of the story. She attends a crowded party and during a break to catch some air near a window, hears someone on the street yelling about a fire. She runs, panicked, from the crowded death-trap that is a New York walk-up, just to see that the fire is several buildings over. She never recovers from this moment of fear.
The mask of New York’s chic hustle-bustle has slipped; the ugly thing beneath the city has been exposed. She sees decay everywhere. She is fearful and claustrophobic, terrified by the speed at which everything—including her—must move in the city in order to avoid being run over. The story climaxes at her panicked inability to cross the street. She is trapped, unable to get up to the speed demanded by the city. She is in sight of safety but cannot reach it.
A slow burn is sometimes the scariest. Margaret is slowly overtaken by anxiety. Many of us are familiar with this insidious beast—certainly new parents, right? Fear creeps into the cracks of our homes, filling up the room with its invisible paralyzing fumes until our nervous system is overcome and we are rendered helpless, incapable of making even the simplest of decisions. No ghosts or demons in this story: just a woman at war with her own senses. Like a ghost or evil presence, anxiety is something that others can’t see and so must be kept secret. It’s not easily solvable like so many worldly, tangible problems. It’s spooky. It comes on quietly in the dark, leaving its subject completely destroyed without making a sound.
If you have a few minutes, these stories are worth a read. The settings may be old, but the anxiety and fear are ever familiar.
Thank you, my sweet and spooky girls. You know your mommy so well.
If you want to hang out again, subscribe below to know when a new post comes out. I’m currently aiming for publishing twice a week, but the semester has begun and I’m back at work, trying to convince a new group of students that fiction really does have something to offer them. Hopefully I can find a writing rhythm that works. Until next time!