Spiders and Snakes

The key to writing good horror is, of course, to write about what scares you. Usually, what scares you will scare other people, as many of us have fears in common. I, for example, have many fears: the dark, situation claustrophobia (crowded elevators, tight spaces), heights, spiders, snakes, the puncturing of skin with sharp objects. (Reading Gillian Flynn’s brilliant Sharp Objects was incredibly difficult for me. In the hands of a lesser writer I probably would have stopped long before the end.) There are also things that make me uncomfortable–the woods, the open sea (again, situational; but even though I will get in the ocean, I am never really comfortable; but I am more comfortable in the ocean than I am in lakes and rivers), flying–when listing my fears, I do realize how neurotic I sound.

Barbara Michaels, aka Elizabeth Peters, aka Dr. Barbara Mertz, wrote wonderfully creepy Gothic horror novels; her ability to set that creepy mood where weird things could happen and seem absolutely realistic was extraordinary. I always say that Ammie Come Home is one of my all time favorite ghost stories, but she wrote many others that were also most excellent.

Take, for example, The Crying Child.

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From the air, the island doesn’t look big enough to land a plane on. It’s a pretty sight, from above, calling to mind all sorts of poetic images–an agate, shining brown and green, flung down in folds of sea-blue satin; a blob of variegated Play-Doh, left in a basin of water by a forgetful child; an oval braided rug on a green glass floor.

Or a hand, in a brown-and-green mitten. The hand is clenched into a fist, with a thumblike promontory jutting out on one side. Across the broad end there is a range of hills that might be knuckles; at the other end, the land narrows down into a wrist-shaped peninsula. There are beaches there, like fur trim on the cuff of the mitten; the rest of the island is thick with foliage, somber green pines and fir trees for the most part. The house is surprisingly distinct from above. The lighter green of the lawns and the gray outline of roofs and chimneys stand out amid the darkness of the pines. The only other distinctive landmark is the cluster of buildings that make up the village, along the thumb promontory, and its harbor, which is formed by the junction of thumb and hand.

And that’s where the figure of speech fails. You could compare the house to an oddly shaped ring, up on the knuckles of the hand, but the village doesn’t suggest any analogy. A diseased imagination might think of sores or warts; but there was never anything festering about St. Ives. It was just a charming Maine town, and not even the events of that spring could make it anything else. There was no lurking horror in the village. It was in the house.

I certainly wasn’t aware of horrors that morning in May. I had worries, plenty of them, but they were comparatively simple ones. I didn’t know, then, how simple.

The story is quite simple. Joanne, our heroine, was raised by her older sister Mary after their parents died. Mary managed to land herself a millionaire husband, who tried to fill a father figure role for Joanne–which she didn’t appreciate or like. Long story short, the sisters became estranged when Joanne finished college and moved far away, refusing any further assistance from her wealthy brother-in-law and sister.*

*This is something I’ve never understood as a plot point; why would you refuse help from a wealthy, connected relative? This is often a plot device in melodramas/romances/soap operas, when someone marries into wealth. “I need to be my own man.” “I need to be my own woman.” I always roll my eyes; I understand it, but why make life harder on yourself than necessary?

Mary has always wanted a child of her own, and recently has suffered a miscarriage. Mary and her husband Ran are spending the summer on King’s Island, at his ancestral family home. He has wired Joanne that Mary needs her, and so of course, full of misgivings about her brother-in-law but worried about her sister, she gets on a plane and heads to Maine. After she lands, Ran–and the island doctor–tell her that Mary is having a breakdown; she keeps leaving the house at night because she claims she hears a baby crying and has to find it. The reason Ran finally sent for Joanne was because that night she almost went over a cliff.

Mary seems normal, but shortly after Joanne’s arrival, she sees a strange ghost in the family cemetery and stumbles over a grave just outside the consecrated ground…and then she, too, starts to hear the crying child.

This book is absolutely chilling, with constant twists and turns that keeps the reader on the edge of his/her seat, and that sense of unease, that Gothic atmosphere, keeps up through the entire book.

I loved the work of Barbara Michaels; still do, in fact. I also love her work as Elizabeth Peters. I’d love to revisit her novels–The Dark on the Other Side and Be Buried in the Rain in particular; I do reread Ammie Come Home fairly regularly.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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