distraction no.99

Nova Ren Suma | On Writing & Writing Distractions

Not an Author Newsletter… something else.

Guest Post: Two Books That Scare Marianna Baer

(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.

Comment on this guest blog and you’ll gain an extra entry for the big Halloween giveaway on October 31, containing prize packs of signed books plus books and ARCs donated by my publisher Penguin Teen!  

You can keep track of all the “What Scares You?” guest blogs with this tag.

20 responses to “Guest Post: Two Books That Scare Marianna Baer”

  1. I loved the book Jane Emily and have never met anyone else who heard of it. It was one of my favorite books as a child and I reread it multiple times. I’m glad to hear that it is back in print. That, and my other favorite, Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, are true forgotten classics. Thanks for bringing attention to a great, creepy, and thought-provoking book!

  2. Oooh, such a good post. Jane-Emily is the absolute last word in nuanced otherness, the world not in your grasp, the sense of being watched. And I love that MB contrasts it with the paranoia and entrapment of Go Ask Alice, a book that absolutely terrified a generation.

    Considering these books in relation to the daring intelligence of MB’s own haunting novel Frost provides an added measure of thought.

    Just seeing all these jackets sent a one-two-three of chills down my back.

  3. I read Go Ask Alice and found it chilling on several levels…but the Jane Emily book could also send chills down my spine. I suppose I’m easily scared–the curse of an overactive imagination!

  4. Oh, wow, Jane-Emily sounds creepily fantastic. I’ll have to check that out, thanks!

    (and for some reason, WordPress isn’t logging me in, but it’s Dot Hutchison, requiemofrain (at) hotmail (dot) com- normally the gravatar is a little clockwork piece)

  5. I agree completely! When the horror is inside the character, it gets my skin crawling. I once watched a program about parasite like bugs that live in water and eat you from the inside out….. EEK! I still haven’t forgotten the story, even though I have no idea what they are called anymore. Freaks me out every time!

  6. Wow… you bring up an awesome point about being your own worst enemy… and I will have to pick up Jane-Emily! That sounds seriously awesome, and creepy… and considering the “something is not right” feeling Frost had… well. Win. Thanks for sharing, Marianna!

  7. Go Ask Alice was strange and creepy in a different way and I agree that final scene was chilling.

  8. Wow, Jane-Emily sounds really good and I’ve never heard of it before. Will definitely be checking that one out. Thanks for the recommendations!

  9. Wow, scary books there! I’ve got to pick both Jane-Emily and Go Ask Alice up sometime… Then read them both in broad daylight and somebody next to me (I’m kind of a scaredy cat!).

  10. jane-emily sounds totally scary. and i’ve never read go ask alice but i have been meaning to. but i live alone. wonder if i should attempt these books in daylight or when other people are around.

  11. Mary D [M.A.D.]
    It’s been decades since I read Go Ask Alice – pretty grim & shocking at the time. As for Jane-Emily, never read but now I sure want to 😀

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