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The Toybox

people for the conservation of limited amounts of indignation

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the point is that i don't have to look to know for sure
children of dune - leto 1
Today I finally got around to getting the ebook version of Stephen King's Danse Macabre, which is one of my deserted island books in the top five at least (along with The Stand, which always makes me feel a little guilty to include, as it feels like cheating; it's a hundred novels rolled into one, and I'm not referring to its length when I say that).

I read horror novels (sometimes), but I cannot sit through most horror movies; it took me most of my childhood and half my adolescence to understand and internalize this, but even with the entire Watership Down horror that still haunts me, I still didn't get a fundamental fact about my processing abilities. My friends would have a few nightmares; I'd go into obsessive thought circles that ended in insomnia for weeks and flashback on it for years afterward (again, Watership fucking Down, source of many bad nights sleep). There have been exceptions; I don't regret them, per se, but I rarely have the internal funds to deal with the price after. Being a grown-up is a conscious choice I make and takes a lot of work; I do not see the point of exhausting myself more than I have to when I'm not terribly good at it as it is.

Danse Macabre was magic. It gave me all the horror, intricacies of plot and circumstance, without the, you know, ongoing breaks with reality where I'm utterly convinced--not imagined here, I mean, convinced like I know I'm sitting on the bed--that there is Something There and its' not even I'm worried that it'll kill me; I'm worried more the problems with proof. I'll get to that.

(It's eleven at night; boy, do I know how to time these things.)

So Danse Macabre is like being a tourist, really, in mental landscape I'm aware is a terrible place for me to move to for any length of time. Every time though, he always reminds me of this story my family loves to tell about me and the lion. I don't remember this in any meaningful sense, so bear with me; I can extrapolate, however, as I'll be honest, not that far from me of now.

Apparently, one day, whilst surrounded by relatives in my grandparents' house, I suddenly became utterly terrified of the bedroom.

To give context; this was a normal, lower-middle class house, the bedroom was off the living room, the door was always open, when people socialized there we wandered from kitchen to living room to bedroom because my grandmother's family was very large and when they got together, it was that or homicide by crushing. When the door was closed, it was almost always for the value of the phone inside; it was literally the only place to have a private phone call. This being a period before now and before the advent of call waiting, you would sometimes get a busy signal. A relative (possibly my mother) came out one day irritated and me being me and aware adults who are irritated to do not take one out for ice cream or buy one new toys, asked what was the matter. And as it happens, the world ended.

You may be shocked to know I was not a quiet child. I was a relatively spoiled child as I was the first surviving grandchild and so, no one had ever though to develop some kind of way to protect themselves when I gained enough command of language to express pretty much everything I was thinking or considered, ever. No one knows when I spoke my first word; they have no memory of a time I wasn't talking. This is always said rather grimly, so I tend to believe them.

My silence apparently was loud enough to drown out an explosion; you'd think they'd be happy, but I'd conditioned my world quite thoroughly and there was no joy in the House of Jenn when the order of the world tumbled like that. Luckily, quiet was very hard for me, and also, terror is motivating; when warily questioned, I finally explained what my mother had told me.

The lion was busy. In the bedroom, as lions tend to be, and the goddamn door was open and we were going to die. I explained this so the adults who kept making up nonsense about why streets were bad to play in and pools were dangerous would get on this shit and protect me, since apparently this was like their thing and if it applied to everything potentially fun in the universe, then what the hell was going on?

(I suspect a lot of my childhood skepticism of dangerous was basically proved by this; if these people knew what dangerous was, then they'd sure as hell have done something about the lion.)

My mother knew my language; while everyone else stared at me blankly in shades of growing worry, she answered. "The phone line, honey. The line is busy."

You would think that would fix the problem; it did not.

It's not that I didn't believe her; I did. But the fact is, there was a lion as I conceived it, and while you can prove a positive--go look, no lion!--you can't a negative--there has never been a lion nor will there be one. Now, being older and armed with far more understanding of the world with which to scare myself, I think I conceived of the Schrodinger's Lion, which may not be there when I looked, but I wasn't always looking, and if the door was closed, there was no way to tell, and fuck me if I was opening the door.

This is the reason I have never in my life willingly cleaned under my bed.

See, I don't need to remember what happened to know the conclusion my mind drew once it had been alerted to the potential lion--at any time, there could be one, and while I could prove sometimes it wasn't there, I couldn't prove it was never there and never would be. I know this because circa age eight, I had a diary and you can pretty much see my lion issues peeking out every so often in the entries. When I became literate, I was not behindhand in seeing the value of talking with a sharpened number two pencil.

To prove my point, I raised a child who at age ten was in the garage with his BFF and it was dark and the BFF's dad came in and made scary sounds; BFF's dad was at the time my sister's husband and had no excuse for not seeing this coming. Child is very much my son; I armed him very early on with how to deal with potential lions.

Child grabs BFF without missing a beat and hurls him toward the voice. "Take him!" (And he also said something eerily Lovecraftian about a sacrifice, but I'm not willing to admit that Cthulhu may rise from my bathtub one day if my last cleaning spree in the bathroom is any indication.) Everyone tells this story with a lot of uneasy laughter, while I nod cheerfully, because hey, my parenting skills rock. I can't even open the door to check; Child, however, has a plan to deal with what happens if you do.

[Lovecraft is and remains my single attempt to attack the entire problem head on by writing it; it both worked and failed dramatically. I am not afraid of what I wrote or what I'm writing about when I write it; literally no effect on reading other people's work. And given time, I can even read what I wrote and badly unnerve myself; luckily, this is rare since its' hard for me to approach what I write as just a reader. So that was useful.]

Right, Danse Macabre--in the new foreword, Stephen King lists some of his favorite horror movies of the last fifteen years. I was pleased to see Blair Witch Project and the new version of Last House on the Left and 28 Days Later, of course Scream and--really interestingly--The Mothman Prophecies and Jeepers Creepers and Snakes on a Plane made the cut (along with others I'm less familiar with)--he gives a short version of why they worked for him in general and one of the things I like about his analysis of horror movies is he goes in already with the frame of mind to understand what he's watching. He goes over in more detail on the first two movies mentioned, but you probably are still blinking about Snakes on a Plane, which is the top number one movie I will never watch--I saw forty-five seconds of it once and have never gotten over it.

This is why I love Stephen King and why horror is art; he understands on a fundamental level that the art of invoking horror is actually fairly simple. Find button, stomp; you're done. He also gets, even more fundamentally, that while everyone has buttons, they are very individual with pressure variations, and horror is both individual and universal and where a lot of filmmakers get it wrong; you cannot scare everyone to death, but you want to get a wide swathe, so pressure is key and pushing too hard overclocks the lizard brain and you're just meh.

I truly love anyone, however, who gets that particular thing about the difference between terror (for me, The Ring, horror (things involving evil worms or snakes), and the gross-out (pretty much everything Hollywood usually mistakes for terror and horror and involves torture porn, see Hostel); gross-out movies kind of freak me out and I hate to watch (I can never unsee graphic grossness) but that's all they do in the end, and I don't want to watch and will possibly break your knee-caps to get away, but they won't sign a lease for me in the zone of terror-insomnia either. Watching the trailer for The Blair Witch Project means I will forever have certain twitches that will manifest around forests, trees, or people's camcorders or sometimes for no reason at all and will keep me up at night very possibly the rest of my life. The rabbits of Watership Down have lived in my head for years, after all. I prefer my current tourist status very much.

Looking at his movie list, it's interesting to see the variation not in quality, per se, but in execution--but more importantly, the one-ness of concept in them all; they depend on the audience recognizing the story being told is being told specifically to them. I've only actually watched one of the movies (maybe two) he's listed: I read the plot synopsis, reviews, and in-depth analysis of most of them because again, I don't want to live there, but I will always have my citizenship and I'm always tripping over the borders. Horror movies keep telling me that yeah, you were right; there are lions--wanna see? Well, obviously not, I do not want the proof; but on the other hand, it's comforting to know that I'm not the only one who knows that proof either way has nothing to do with the existence of lions.

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Any horror plot that leaves things open-ended will bother me for years. While I've deeply enjoyed a lot of Mr. King's books, some of them have given me the willies for much longer than I really liked; The Stand was fine, but I once made the mistake of reading Pet Sematary before finals week and lost more sleep than I could afford, and Needful Things and The Shining still make me twitchy a decade after reading them. The lizard-brain says, but what if it comes to get ME now???

House of Leaves delicately straddles the line between fascinating and intolerable for me. I reread it every couple of years. I am never quite sure whether I like it or not, but I keep it around and come back to it. Oddly, if I regard it as an art installation in book form rather than a book, it is much less unsettling. I suppose my formal art training has made me more receptive to unsettling and disturbing concepts presented visually. Or maybe it has something to do with the different ways I process verbal/textual input and visual input.

I've found that I really enjoy Japanese horror games and manga, actually; the psychological aspect of the horror pushes the buttons nicely for me, while the setting is different enough from my everyday surroundings that I'm not looking nervously over my shoulder - it's not happening here. Instead of gore-shock, it also tends to emphasize the concepts of vulnerability and the unknown more heavily than Western horror.

If something terrible happens just out of sight, was it lions? Or something worse? Or nothing at all? The only necessary proof is that something terrible happened, and if you don't quite know what that terrible thing was, it's even scarier.

Please excuse my disjointed rambling. It's late. Early. Whatever.

Oooh damn, Pet Sematary - God. That one never stops being terrifying.

If something terrible happens just out of sight, was it lions? Or something worse? Or nothing at all? The only necessary proof is that something terrible happened, and if you don't quite know what that terrible thing was, it's even scarier.

That twanged something for me, but I don't know what, but oooh. The uncertainty principle involved. Yes. Exactly.

I love Stephen King, mainly because of his characters. I never fail to really feel like who he's writing about is a real person. He's great with that.

The Stand is my all time favourite. And it is many novels in one. And there's so much there. But, in the end, my favourite bit is the chapter of "no big loss". Forever.

Yes, this. His characters are often not just well-drawn but you can feel they had an entire life going on before the story begins quite thoroughly. It's one of the things that makes The Stand feel--I know this is crazy--rather short to me; he has all these stories within in that just pump it along that I'm completely surprised by the sheer length. I'm fascinated by all those stories within it.

OMG, I love this so much. You take me back to my eleventh birthday, when my parents took me to the movie of my choice. (I have totally blocked out the title, I only remember it was something with Boris Karloff). When I came home I was terrified of going to bed. There was a set of window blinds right over my bed, and if they were open I could see a street light through the upper corner of the window. For the next six weeks, those blinds HAD to be open. It was the only way that nothing could sneak up on me in the dark. I haven't thought about this in years, but your 'phone lion' took me right back to the moment.

I like your strategy. *nods* You have to be sure, exactly.

I'm a masochist; I watch horror movies for the anxiety they cause. Which means I go to netflix's horror section and just go for a horror binge because most of them just do nothing for me except make my stomach twist in grossness. And then go lay down, manage to fall asleep somehow and wake up an hour later because there was a sound in my house not caused by me. I sit in the dark for ages, because there is no way I'm announcing my presence to whatever is there before passing out again only to repeat this process for a few days.

I can't bring myself to read any of Stephen King's works which I realize is a total loss on my part. But IT and sewer grates. Someone apparently showed this to me as a young child, which I have blocked out of my mind, but I still do not walk over sewer grates and go near them willingly. And I really do not need something else to avoid so I sidestep Stephen King.

I think you'd like The Stand, as it really isn't horror, it just pretends to be while writing gleefully a lot of actually heartwarming stories about the beginning of the world. It's ridiculous, but I may be the only person who reads that for a pick-up. And there are so many stories in there, its' easy to get lost in the sheer scope of it.

Child grabs BFF without missing a beat and hurls him toward the voice. "Take him!" (And he also said something eerily Lovecraftian about a sacrifice, but I'm not willing to admit that Cthulhu may rise from my bathtub one day if my last cleaning spree in the bathroom is any indication.) Everyone tells this story with a lot of uneasy laughter, while I nod cheerfully, because hey, my parenting skills rock.

BRB, LOLing 4ever.

ETA: Also, Watership Down is exhibit A in my case that animation is a medium, not a genre, and it is NOT all "kids' stuff." I wonder how many children have been traumatized because of clueless parents who saw the box and thought, "Ooh, bunnies!"?

Edited at 2011-07-09 04:30 pm (UTC)

Not just the bunnies; even teh summary on the movie when I was a kid was misleading as hell. Honestly, if the parent didn't read the book, they'd have no clue of what exactly awaited them in that movie. Just--no.

You are the only person I've ever met (is it met if it happens on the internet) who has admitted that they loved Danse Macabre as much as I do. I love it for a lot of the same reasons--it's like a horror novel without the inevitable emotional fallout. BTW, The Stand is also one of my desert island books, mostly because I can spend HOURS making up stories in my headabout all of the other people who survived, or didn't and all the OTHER civilisatons that formed....

gotta go find my copy now, damn it...

Oh yes, this. *glee* Danse Macabre is perfect, and I love that he really is a tour guide of horror and loves it so much that he can just break down all the awesome without taking away the magic of it. Plus, his personal anecdotes are fantastic.

He's one of maybe the five people in the universe I desperately want to meet personally. I don't know what I'd say, though. I've thought about it and never come up with anything, because it's hard to explain how I read him not because I love horror--though I do--but because it's him writing the book and I know even if I don't like it, he's good enough as a writer that it doesn't matter for me, because I always enjoy it.

I first read Stephen King in college, and "The Bogeyman" made me force my roommates to leave the closet door open and the light on until I fell asleep. What I read has always frightened me more than what I see; no movie has ever had a similar effect. For some reason, though, when a movie disturbs me, like Andy Warhol's Frankenstein did, the images never leave my head. There are a few movies I wish I'd never watched.

Oh my GOd the seaweed thing he does with Boogeyman--that story is pretty much nightmare material from teh get-go. It's brilliant. Talking through a mouthful of rotten seaweed just--God.

And tonight will be fun. *shudders*

Re: Stephen King

I didn't like him when I attempted to read Christine when I was 14, so I basically ignored him for years. When I was 22, I got around to reading the Dark Tower series and there was just something about the way he phrased his imagery that I was deeply affected by his words and can't get some of them out of my head, even 4 years later. Usually, I can read anything even if I can't watch it - but I can't do that with the Dark Tower books.

Mom loves teh Dark Tower. I read up to IV and eventually I'll go back and get the rest. That one was unsettling in a lot of ways that I can't quite describe.

This is why I love Stephen King and why horror is art; he understands on a fundamental level that the art of invoking horror is actually fairly simple. Find button, stomp; you're done.

YES. Exactly. Thank you for putting into succinct words just why I love that man and his work, when I typically run in the opposite direction of horror movies. I agree, Watership Down was scarring. Dude, why do they do that shit to little kids?? I mean, it was a freakin' CARTOON. They're supposed to be safe!! Or at least, not so much with the in-your-face horror!!!

I love your story about your kid; my sister and I went to a Haunted House event a few Halloween's ago, and I found out that when faced with a chainsaw-wielding maniac, my sister will happily push me at said maniac and run in the opposite direction, screaming her head off.

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