June 17, 2016

Fear Itself

I'm aware that the earliest examples of my childhood writing were fun because they involved cute drawings and hilarious story concepts. Now that we're into the high school era, I hope nobody minds that it's all death and angst. I was prolific during high school, and most of my work from that period has been preserved, so we're going to be here a while.

While the Steno notebook I reported on last time is nearly all stories (or at least, story beginnings), the next one contains quite a few journal entries mixed in with the fiction. Among the raw adolescent emotions on display in these, there's the ongoing pain of that unrequited love I mentioned before: "When I am away from him I am seized with terror, and I imagine that he is hurt or dead." Also of note is the admiration I express for a friend's writing, coupled with doubt over my own: "She showed me her poems and stories all the time, and they were so good that I knew she would think mine were pitiful. Next to hers, they were."

At other points in the notebook, I'm more confident about my writing. Early in the summer after my sophomore year, I enthusiastically proclaim, "Well, today I finally began committing some of my stuff to disk. It's so nice now that I have Puck, my wonderful little Mac." (Puck was a Mac Classic, a one-piece computer with a handle, easily portable at only 16 pounds!) I write about looking through my notebook entries and deciding what to type into the computer and revise, and then I reflect, "I realized that I've got some good stuff. However, nearly everything I like is about death or dying. How totally morbid! The problem is that this morbidity is so typically adolescent that it's embarrassing." Very perceptive, Teen Lisa.

Here's one of my rare stories from the time that's not about death, though I'll warn you, it is a little scary. I suspect it's no coincidence that I wrote it just before Halloween.

Fear Itself

There is nothing quite like the thrill of sheer terror. The American media thrives on the culture's love of being frightened. Stephen King, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Unsolved Mysteries spawn books, films, and episodes in rapid succession, making money off our desire for horror and fear. And I'm the biggest sucker of all.

After seeing The Silence of the Lambs, I couldn't sleep without the light on for a week. I haven't gone near a graveyard since reading Pet Sematary. "Laura, I wish you'd stop reading those ghost stories," pleaded my mother after I woke her up after a nightmare for the third night in a row. "They're really unhealthy, honey."

But I couldn't stop. It wasn't teenage perversity that drove me to devour every thriller in the library, but a burning need to feel my heart beat faster and my breathing quicken as I reached the climax, then slam the book closed and remember with relief that it was just a story. The terror is only fun, of course, if it goes away.

Except it didn't. It got to the point where not only couldn't I walk outside in the dark, even with other people, but I couldn't sleep with the light out, and finally I couldn't be alone, not even in broad daylight.

I tried to hide my fears from my mother. I would go along with her every time she ran errands, rather than stay home alone, claiming that I had to buy something or wanted to talk to her. I declined her invitations for moonlit mother-daughter walks, explaining I had too much homework. I waited until she had tucked me in and closed the door before turning on my bedside lamp. Sometimes I got my little sister to sleep with me, promising to tell her all the high school gossip as we giggled late into the night.

But still I read the horror stories. I couldn't explain why. It was my secret addiction, and I walked around with a guilty conscience. The stories were becoming more real to me, too. I would become so absorbed in the book that I would become oblivious to everything else. When I stopped reading, I would be drenched with sweat and shaking.

I became intensely paranoid. Every shadow was a hidden threat, every bump or creak a death toll. When my few friends started whispering and giving me sidelong glances, I thought they were plotting to murder me. It never occurred to me that they had noticed my condition and were concerned about my mental health.

Finally, one night, I went too far. I had gone to the library to get more books, and I had become absorbed in a story. The action was very exciting, and I felt the grip of terror around my heart. Right in the middle of a very frightening part, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

I let out a cry and jumped so high my chair fell over. A shocked librarian was standing next to me. "Sorry to startle you, dear. We're about to close," she explained. I looked out the window and saw the early winter darkness. I mumbled something about being involved in the book and went to the check-out counter. I noticed my hands were shaking uncontrollably.

After the library doors locked behind me, I ran to the phone booth under the cold light of the streetlamp. I called my house, then listened, terrified, to the recorded voice of the answering machine. "Mom? Are you there?" I asked hopelessly.

I would have to walk home, a ten-minute walk at the most, four minutes at a panicked run. I chose the latter method, tearing through the cold, dark, empty streets (why were they so empty?), glancing with longing at the warm glowing windows of the houses. It was while I was looking particularly hard at one of these houses that I felt the claw on my ankle. I opened my mouth to scream, but the cry was strangled in my throat by my tightening scarf. I landed hard on my chest.

Paralyzed with fear and pain, I darted my eyes to my feet. As my eyes focused, I realized that no wandering undead had tripped me, but a six-inch high wire garden fence. As I relaxed with a prayer of relief, I felt the clammy skin on my hand. My loosened throat let forth a blood-curdling scream.

The rest is a little blurry. There were footsteps, and voices, and lights, and a dog sticking its wet nose in my face. I was carried into a warm room where there were persistent voices asking "Are you all right?" and "Where does it hurt?" and "What's your name and phone number?" I must have answered, because soon my mother and little sister were there, asking more questions and thanking the other people. They led me into the car, then into the house and into bed.

The next morning, I had a lot of explaining to do. I told my mother through sobs of the nightmare my life had become. She cried and chastised herself for not noticing. It was all rather mushy. In the end, I insisted that I didn't need any help curing my horror addiction, the night before had cured me just fine, thank you.

Oh, yeah. I met the people whose garden I fell into that night. I've become quite good friends with their son. He's a real Dungeons & Dragons fan. He's taking me to my first D&D game tomorrow...

I'll conclude by excerpting the paragraph from this notebook that amused me the most, at least in a non-cringey way. It's from an otherwise unpromising opening to a story set backstage during a play rehearsal:

"Eat me," Rosie mumbled, walking down the spiral staircase to stage level. It was the most common curse heard on the Alice in Wonderland set.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Kirkus Reviews, Vicky Smith explains the reasons for and effects of a new reviewing policy for kid's books: "So to reflect the fact that large swathes of the audience of the books that we are reviewing are not white--and that not all of our own readers are white--in the fall of 2015, we started naming white characters as well as characters of color when describing humans (or humanoids, where applicable--children's literature contains multitudes)."


Christopher Gronlund said...

This is why one should never think about going to libraries at night. But hey: D&D! :)

As always, I love the peeks at old writing. Obviously, I'd love it if you became a ridiculously well-off writer for what you're writing today, but I must admit I hope you are famous enough to one day have a nice, hardbound book of all your old writing and current commentary about it all :)

Lisa Eckstein said...

I think this story was aspirational. I was too chicken to read horror, and nobody ever invited me to play D&D.

Thank you for being a fan of my silly childhood work, Christopher!

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