(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)
By Marianna Baer, author of FROST
Nine-year-old Jane is visiting her grandmother for the summer, in a big old house where—years earlier, at the age of twelve—her aunt Emily died tragically. Quiet, mild-mannered Jane develops a morbid fascination with Emily, who is rumored to have been a selfish, willful, controlling child. One day, as Jane wanders the garden, struggling to write a poem, she pauses to gaze into a reflecting ball—Emily’s prized possession. Minutes later, Jane begins to write. Only when we see her grandmother’s reaction to Jane’s poem do we know that something is wrong: the poem is identical to one that Emily wrote, a poem that Jane has never read. Somehow, it came to her word-for-word, and she thought it was her own.
This is an early scene from the 1969 ghost story Jane-Emily, by Patricia Clapp. It probably seems fairly innocuous taken out of context; you’d have been more impressed if a ghostly hand reached out of the reflecting ball and pulled Jane inside. But when I read the book (over and over) as a tween, the moment when the poem is revealed to be Emily’s sent a deep chill up my spine, and has stayed with me to this day.
I should back up for a minute and add that lots of different things scared me when I was younger, from realistic scenarios like a burglar breaking into the house, to fantastical things like ghosts. But Jane-Emily tapped into the brand of fear that burrowed deepest into my bones—a fear of moments when the danger is coming from within, times when the evil is inside your own mind, and you don’t even know it’s there. An attacker with a knife can be fought off. How do you fight off an attack you’re not even aware is happening?
As Jane-Emily progresses, the events become more sinister and threatening than the one with the poem. But those early moments when it’s first becoming clear that there is something wrong, that Emily is somehow controlling Jane’s thoughts, were what frightened me the most. (FYI—Jane-Emily was recently re-released and I highly recommend it. It’s narrated by an 18-year-old, not by 9-year-old Jane, so it straddles the MG/YA border.)
A more lurid example of a book that scared me in the same way is Go Ask Alice. There’s a scene at the end, when the narrator has unknowingly been dosed and is locked in a closet. She thinks that she’s being eaten by worms and maggots and tries to claw her way out and claws so uncontrollably that she scratches off the tops of her fingers. That scene scared me more, I think, than if she had been trapped in the closet with a homicidal maniac. There was no external threat. The drugs were just a different version of the evil spirit, something that could warp the narrator’s reality so badly that she clawed off her own fingertips. Clawed off her own fingertips! That image has never, ever left my mind. (Score one for the Just Say No folks.)
I’m sure that Freud would have a lot to say about this: fear of loss of sanity, or loss of control, or even loss of self. And I guess I’d agree with him. In any case, reading about characters who are possessed by any sort of malevolent force—be it an evil spirit or tainted drugs—tightens my neck and loosens my legs and causes my heart to thump-thump-thump. Because I won’t know when it’s happening to me, will I? I won’t see it coming. I won’t know to call 911. It could be happening at this very moment.
And no one will know until it’s too late.
Marianna Baer is the author of Frost, a YA novel published by Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins in September 2011. She received an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a BA in art from Oberlin College. Marianna also attended boarding school, where she lived in a tiny dorm called Frost House, the inspiration for her first novel. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Visit Marianna at mariannabaer.com.
Follow @mariannabaer on Twitter.