(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)
By Nina LaCour, author of HOLD STILL
I teach high school part-time, and one of the classes I teach is Gothic Literature to juniors and seniors. Early in the semester, I give my students an assignment to bring in a scary story. We close the curtains and light candles in these bronze and glass candlesticks I found at a flea market, and we go around the table and tell our stories. There’s a story I always tell. Like any good ghost story, it happened a few years ago to a friend of a friend of a friend of mine’s ex-girlfriend. (That sounds like a joke but it’s true.)
It was college, and this girl was sick of living in the dorms. All of those tiresome conversations. All of those people everywhere she went: in classes, in the laundry room, sleeping in beds across from hers. Even when showering, she was aware of all the other people showering on both sides of her. So, when spring break finally arrived, she decided to leave town and spend some time on her own.
She was going to school in Santa Cruz, a couple hours south of San Francisco, so she meandered up the coast in her handed-down little car, took hikes during the day, camped at night faraway from designated campsites so that she wouldn’t see anyone else and feel obligated to talk to them. She had a wonderful trip; it went exactly as she hoped it would. She drove along the stunning coastline and then cut inland, drove up into hills, got lost on purpose. She camped in a new place every night, and every day she took photographs of the landscape. She played her guitar and listened to how she sounded in the wind without other voices in the background.
When she had enough of solitude, she drove home to her parents’ house for the rest of the break. A couple days later, she remembered the photos she took, and brought her film to be dropped off at a one-hour lab. She picked them up that afternoon and, eager to see how they turned out, flipped through them in her car before leaving the parking lot. There was the shot of California coastline: jagged and blue. And there was the view from the hill she hiked up to camp. And there was a photo of her sleeping. There was the deer she saw the next morning, The towering redwood tree. And there was a photo of her sleeping. This pattern continued, and, to her growing horror, she found that there was a single photograph of her sleeping for every night she had traveled.
The details after this get fuzzy. All I know is that she was shaken. Actually, shaken isn’t the right word. She was traumatized. She didn’t know how this had happened, but she ruled out the possibility of someone following her. She was all alone the whole time. Sometimes she parked right next to where she camped, but most evenings she hiked in. If someone had followed, she would have known. That left two possibilities: either the supernatural was at work, or she had gone insane and had played a joke on herself, setting up her camera, pressing the timer, and then pretending to be asleep.
My friend doesn’t know what happened to her after that, except that her parents moved her stuff out of the dorms and, as far as he knows, she never went back to school.
Normally, I would leave the story there. But I tell this in class, and a big part of Gothic Lit is taking stories apart and discovering why they scare us. This incident contains a few gothic elements, but most prominently is the idea of sanity vs. madness. In the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s now obscure but once wildly popular The Castle of Otranto, when the characters encounter the supernatural they question their own sanity. This happens over and over—in the presence of ghosts and an animate skeleton and a portrait that cries blood—and each time the characters wonder whether what they are seeing is real or imagined. The question then becomes, Which is more frightening—to be faced with a supernatural (and often threatening) being, or to lose your mind?
To me, and the answer is different for everyone, but to me, the idea of that girl alone in the wild and completely insane, playing a sinister trick on herself, is one of the most chilling scenarios I can imagine.
I picture it like this: She hikes far out into the hills, where no one else is around. She eats her dinner of nuts and dried fruit and cheese. She lies on her back and watches the stars, and feels happy in the simplest, best way. And then she falls asleep, only to wake up hours later no longer herself. As someone else, she pulls out the camera. She sets it on her backpack, focuses on the spot where she had been sleeping. As someone else, she sets the timer, and climbs back into her sleeping bag, and feigns sleep, her mouth partly open, her eyelids closed and relaxed. After the shutter releases, she smiles, or maybe she laughs because no one is around to hear her. As someone else, she gets back up, puts the camera back where that other girl, her true self, had left it. She settles back into her sleeping bag, pleased with herself. In the morning, the girl wakes up from unbroken, blissfully solitary sleep, packs up her things, and begins her next day unaware of the other girl with her.
Nina LaCour is a high school English teacher and former bookseller. She is the author of the award-winning Hold Still. A San Francisco Bay Area native, Nina lives in Oakland, California. Her second novel, The Disenchantments, is coming out in February 2012 with Dutton Books.
Visit Nina online at ninalacour.com.
Follow @nina_lacour on Twitter.