Scary Stuff, by Elizabeth Kay

The further from reality something is, the less scary it becomes. Daleks are so obviously a creation of an effects department that physically they are not terribly frightening – it’s when they speak that all this changes. Although their voices are mechanical and emotionless the fact that they have voices at all suggests thought processes equally different from our own, but not so alien that they are beyond our comprehension. This may be why extra-terrestrials have so frequently been depicted as having an adapted human form – Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars, and the Vogons in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy both have vaguely human body plans, so that we can imagine their emotions from the expressions on their toad-like faces. The closer something is to something we know, the more disturbing slight changes become. In Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Coraline’s mother has been replaced by a mother with boot-button eyes, but she is otherwise the same, although her character is very different. Finding someone on whom you depend being subtly altered is terrifying, as it throws into doubt your own observations and memories, and re-frames the world.

 Fear is a natural response that triggers an adrenaline rush and results in the same fight-or-flight response that anger does: your heart rate and breathing quicken, your breathing becomes shallow, you feel flushed, your muscles tense up, you feel shaky, and weak at the knees. With fear, you might also find that you become dizzy or lightheaded, feel nauseous, and experience pain, tightness or heaviness in the chest. Fear causes specific behaviour patterns so that we can cope in adverse or unexpected situations that threaten our wellbeing or survival - like a fire or a physical attack. It’s a familiar emotion because it’s something everyone has experienced at one time or another. And if you feel this when you're reading something, you will remember it...

Last month, I mentioned a book of mine called Fury, which was my one attempt at horror. It has had several editions, so I've inserted some different covers. This is the the first chapter. The setting is a familiar one - a small museum in a small town, the sort of setting beloved by Stephen King. What then happens is surreal, and when the main character exits the museum we feel a sense of relief... but not for long.

Chapter One

Far away, the thunder growled like a mad dog. Melanie looked up. The sky had gone very dark, and a moment later she felt the first drop of rain. She was standing at the top of Hangman’s Hill, at the entrance to a little museum. She could see the building at the end of a twisting path, so she made a run for it. The door was old, and very heavy. It  seemed to be stuck, but in the end it creaked open, and she slipped inside.

    It was even darker in there than it had been outside, and she could hear shuffling foot-steps. She thought she saw a distant flash of a dark green uniform, and white hair. Then a light flickered on. After that the foot-steps went away again, and she was alone once more.

    So why could she hear tapping right beside her?

    There really was no one in sight. The noise was coming from inside a display cabinet. She peered through the glass and saw a large Greek vase. On it were painted a tree, a dog, and a man. And the figures were moving.

    Melanie rubbed her eyes. The man seemed to be trapped on the surface of the vase. It was as if he were behind a pane of glass and he was tapping it to test its thickness. The dog was big and white and powerful, a bit like a pointer. Then Melanie saw that the man was digging away at a hair-line crack with a knife.

    Suddenly the dog froze, and the man turned to look. Something dark slid round the side of the vase. The dog sank to his belly, and the man backed away until he was up against the tree. Black shapes were swirling into view, and the man had a look of terror on his face. Everything was happening in total silence.

    Melanie became aware that she was hardly breathing. The figures in front of her was more real than any she had ever seen in a painting. Her mouth had gone very dry. And then the man looked up, and saw her through the crack.

    His mouth dropped open, and he looked amazed. Then his expression changed, and he signaled in panic for her to break the vase. When she didn’t respond he got down onto his knees and placed his fore-head on the ground. He was begging her, in silence, and it was as clear as it would have been 3,000 years earlier.


Melanie lifted the lid of the display case. Three women slid into view, their black

clothing floating out behind them like smoke. They had snakes twisted round their arms, whips in their hands, and torches that blazed and spat sparks. A sudden gale shook the branches of the tree.

    The man looked trapped. And then, just as though someone somewhere had turned up the volume, Melanie began to hear voices. The language was strange, but she understood the sense. Her mind slipped into a new gear and she found the words.

     “Seize him,” hissed one of the women, her hands like claws.

     “Hold him.”

     “He is ours by law.”

     “In the name of Zeus!” the man cried out to Melanie. “Break the vase!”

    Melanie leant into the case, leant in so far that she felt the wooden frame cut into her. She picked up the pot. It felt smooth and cold, like stone, but it quickly warmed through and then it began to feel like skin, not clay. She shut her eyes and smashed the pot against the frame, and it broke with a dull clunk.

    Melanie blinked, and looked at what she’d done. The vase was worth a lot of money, her fingerprints would be all over it.  Maybe it could be mended.

    She turned over the pieces, one by one. She saw that the pot had broken down the hair-line crack. The paint was different there, as though it had been broken and mended many times. On the first bit she could see the tree. On the second one she could see the man’s body, lying on the ground. His head would be on the third fragment. She picked it up and dropped it again, the way she would have done if she’d picked up a plum and found it crawling with maggots. The women were lying in a heap on the other side, tangled together. One of them raised her head and looked right at her. There was no doubt at all that she saw her. The man’s head was lying at the woman’s feet. For one awful moment Melanie thought that she herself had cut off the man’s head by breaking the vase... then she saw a knife, lying beside him. She was suddenly quite certain that the three women had killed him.

     “Melanie Dunn...” The voice was the wind echoing through an empty building.

     “We claim you, Melanie Dunn,” hissed the second woman. “It is the law.”

     “We are The Kindly Ones,” breathed the third.

    They didn’t look very kind. Melanie slammed the display case shut, turned, and ran. When she reached the main door something brushed against her leg. She felt dizzy, and she put out a hand to steady herself. The door suddenly gave and swung open. She was outside in the sun-light, and there was a large white dog beside her. His tail waved back and forth, and he licked her on the hand. It’s the dog from the vase, thought Melanie, jerking her arm away as though he’d bitten her. But that’s just not possible.

    And although he seemed friendly, she had never been so scared in her life.


Griselda Heppel said…
Ooooh brrr this is EXTREMELY SHIVERY. Very M R James. Nothing is so scary as a perfectly ordinary surrounding, dull even - like James's pernickety academic narrating The Mezzotint - in which inexplicable things start to happen. Gently at first, you barely notice that something's a bit odd... then they build up until the hero is caught in a horrible mesh they never spotted weaving around them. My kind of horror! I actually loathe horror films of the Freddy Kruger variety. Why do you need all that blood when the disjointing of everyday life is so much more chilling?

I really enjoyed this. Great post.

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