At our Writers group last night, my friend, the poet Heidi Williamson, read a poem she has written, inspired by the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ books by Lewis Carroll. (It’s a great poem, but then you would expect nothing less from Heidi!) We had been discussing the books themselves, and our various responses to them were fascinating to me.
My mother wouldn’t let the Alice books into the house. She had been terrified by them as a child, when her mother had attempted to read them to her, much as I had been when my sister tried to read me ‘Great Expectations’ when I was small – the phantom of Magwich in the marshes put me off Dickens for more than twenty years!
As a result, I came to Alice relatively late, in my early teens. I ploughed through a copy from the school library that combined both ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’. It was a rather large tome, a bit like one of those novels adults read, so I was quite proud of having finished it. But to be frank, I didn’t really get it. It seemed horribly dated to a child who had grown up on the fantasies of Roald Dahl and the Goons. Mainly, it just didn’t make much sense to me.
Interestingly, each of the members of our group shared our memories of reading Alice as a child. One was not much bothered. One, an older lady, had loved it so much that her face lit up with the joy of childhood more than 60 years after she had first read it. It was still a delight to her to remember the feeling of identifying with Alice herself.
And one, like my mother, had been terrified. (Although, in truth, it was probably because the version she had contained the most sinister illustrations in a book intended for children that I have seen since my husband showed me his Victorian copy of ‘Struwwelpeter’!)
I’ve been thinking a lot about fear recently, in connection with my writing. I’m working on ideas for a new novel, trying to decide whether what I have is a ghost story, a horror story, or a work of supernatural romance – or something of each.
Our talk last night got me to thinking about the things that scare me. I have this theory that we all have one story in our childhood that scares us out of our wits, even into adulthood. For my mother and friend, it’s Alice. Even now, in her 80s, my mother shudders at the mention of it.
For me it was ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ which I saw as a TV cartoon in the early 1970s. The terror of the Headless Horseman has stayed with me ever since. Like every child I was scared of Dr Who, and I had nightmares about Dracula and Frankenstein (thankfully seeing Mel Brooks’ ‘Young Frankenstein’ sorted that out!), but it was Ichabod Crane’s encounter with darkness that filled me with wordless dread.
I had to read Washington Irving for my degree, and I made myself read the original text of ‘Sleepy Hollow’. I was scared. I could only read it in daylight. But I finished it, and that helped.
Years later, and certainly years after it was released in cinemas, I finally watched ‘Sleepy Hollow’, Tim Burton’s version. It was the exposition in that film that healed. The atmosphere Burton so superbly conjured up added to my terror, but in the end, finding out the ‘why’ of the Horseman’s predicament somehow took the sting out of the tale.
Because it is the not knowing that creates the fear.
When Lockwood hears the tapping of ghostly fingers on his window pane in the opening scenes of ‘Wuthering Heights’, it is not knowing what is making the noise, or who the ghost is, and why she is knocking, that is terrifying.
In the film, ‘The Haunting’ (the old version of course), it is the evil we can’t see, the unseen entity that makes the booming noises, that holds a girl’s hand in the darkness, that is so terrifying.
And the Master of them all, M.R. James, knew that what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do. His greatest ghosts and demons are faceless entities, the shifting surface of a bedsheet, the shadow on the staircase.
We fear the myriad possibilities of our imaginations. There is nothing in the real world, even created by Hollywood, which can match up to the nameless dread of our own minds’ creativity, of Not Knowing which monstrous solution is behind the curtain.
Looking back, I can see that my fear of the Headless Horseman was about Not Knowing. As was my conviction that Dracula might emerge from behind the cupboard door of my bedroom. It was that place of unknown dark potential that scared me. And in the end all good ghost stories and horror stories are actually detective stories, in which the hero or heroine sets out to discover what is behind the supernatural phenomenon he or she encounters – ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ by Hammer anybody? (Now that one really scared me!)
So my challenge with my new work is to explore that potential of the Unknown – and perhaps the Unknowable, and see where it will take me. I need to get inside my hero’s mind, and look at all the potential horrors he can create in his head, and see which would terrify him the most. It’s a tall order, but I reckon I can probably refer back to the shudders induced by Alice and Ichabod to guide me.
After all, what’s the worst that can happen…