(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)
By Libba Bray
There are few things I love more than a good scare.
Wait, before you sneak up behind me and grab my neck, let me clarify: I don’t mean scared in the sense of, “Wait, did I forget to file my taxes?” or “What’s that spot on my leg?” I mean a proper scare courtesy of masterful horror—the sort of gray, October sky, leaves-skittering-across-a-sidewalk, impending doom feeling that has you pushing up your collar and hurrying your steps for no reason you can really name and wait, was that someone standing at the upstairs window in that old house on the corner, the one no one’s lived in for thirty years…not since…the murder?
Oh, yeah. I’m there.
Horror has always been my genre of choice. The creepy, the spooky, the phantasmagorical—all catnip to me. Summers when I visited my superstitious, Pennsylvania Dutch great-grandmother, she would regale me with ghost stories about my great-great-great-grandmother, an undertaker’s wife and psychic who could, allegedly, see and speak to the dead. Then she’d send me to sleep in the attic. This is why I have issues.
I watched Dark Shadows every afternoon and Hammer Horror films whenever I could, thrilling to the gothic, Pinewood Studios sets and anachronistic beehive hairdos. Dario Argento’s Suspiria gave me gorgeous Technicolor nightmares and a healthy fear of stained-glass ceilings. I read horror comics that I hid under my bed and, when I was older, I gobbled up stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, and Stephen King. Salem’s Lot is the book I have reread above all others.
But the thing that always made me look over my shoulder, more than the prospect of vampires, clowns, zombies, strangers in scarecrow hoods, or Olan Mills family photography, is anything having to do with the occult. Satan in particular. Beelzebub, baby. You know, He Who Pwns All.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the church (I’m a PK), or the fact that the mid-1970s of my childhood were rife with Satanic movies, books, cults, and fears, but anything remotely demonic scared the…well, BeJesus out of me. And yet, I craved those stories. I mean, dude! Let other people go head-to-head with Jason, Freddie, and Michael Myers. Battling The Big D? Go big or go home. That’s my motto.
The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Sentinel, Satan’s School for Girls—this is my terror turf, the sort of thing that makes me want to put on my Bruce Campbell outfit, fire up the chainsaw, and say, “Groovy.” When I was twelve, I went to see The Omen with a friend, and she and I stayed up half the night hiding in her closet, surrounded by anything that looked vaguely religious—a Bible, Popsicle sticks which could be made into a cross in a snap (It is a well-known fact that the Dark Lord does not like frozen ice treats), “holy” water in a Snoopy glass that we had blessed ourselves. A collection of scarves. (Even at twelve, I understood the importance of accessorizing.) We were terrified. We were also thrilled. It never dawned on us that Old Scratch probably had better places to visit than a closet in Denton, Texas. I mean, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were just thirty miles away.
Our twelve-year-old logic was this: You can outrun, outwit, or out-wait some crazy psychopath in a hockey mask. But Lucifer’s got game. The Dude’s not going anywhere until your soul is his or you’ve made a grand gesture of offing yourself in the name of can’t-be-turned holiness—or you’ve figured out his weak spot. The stakes are high. Too high for a horror gambler to leave the table. And along the way, Satan will possess your cat, make the walls bleed, kill people in hideously mysterious ways, play Carmina Burana out of nowhere when you are walking in the woods even when you say, “Quit it, Satan! That’s, like, super creepy!”, order ominous nannies to your house, record Led Zeppelin albums, do the freaky backwards voices on conveniently running tape recorders that when played will make you soil yourself, send his demons to eat the last Little Debbie snack cake, and just generally mess with you in ways that have you and everyone else doubting your sanity. And he’ll probably look good doing it, too. I mean, Robert DeNiro in Angel Heart? Hot.
So what’s a girl to do? Meet Satan for dinner to talk it out? Here’s how I imagine that conversation going:
(Satan and I are in a restaurant. Satan has ordered the filet mignon, naturally. It’s perfectly medium rare and paired with a nice Cabernet. I am having pizza that keeps hissing, “Your soul is stained! STAINED!” It’s difficult to eat pizza that’s talking to you. I’m just saying.)
ME: Dude, this is not a fair fight.
SATAN: Why not?
ME: You’re Satan.
SATAN: Ah. So I am. (Dabs lips with a damask napkin) You could always forfeit and give me your soul.
ME: Yeah, gotta say, that seems to lack dramatic tension.
SATAN: Agreed. Could you pass the steak sauce?
ME: (Passing sauce. Note that Satan needs a manicure.) Besides, if I give in to you, my head will swivel on my neck, I’ll have the eyes of a rabid dog, and my sinuses will produce vomity-hair gel snot.
SATAN: Not always. Rupert Murdoch looks good. Very nice suits. Here, try the beef. It’s outstanding.
ME: I’m not falling for that.
SATAN: Falling for what? It’s just steak. And it’s perfectly seasoned. (shrugs) Suit yourself. Look, there’s always a chance you’ll defeat me.
ME: For realz?
SATAN: (laughs) No. False hope. I manufactured that. See: Boston Red Sox, 1918–2004. (pats cheek) Face it—you will be a vessel for evil. Which is much better than being a vessel for, say, olive oil. Celebrate the little things. That’s what we say in hell. We say it between screams, but you know. It’s the thought.
When I was younger, I thought that movies about demonic possession were terrifying object lessons in “You better not pout, you better not cry, you better not shout or SATAN CLAUS WILL DRAG YOU TO HELL!” (Please also see: Fear of Christmas.) But as I got older, I began to see these movies as representations of our fears about a loss of identity and individualism. I mean, you can be POSSESSED! Through no fault of your own! “Honest, Father O’Brien, I was just sitting here playing with this here Ouija Board while listening to Black Sabbath and burning my flesh with the hot wax of midnight mass candles and the Devil done invaded my soul without even an Evite from me. Gettin’ to be that a body don’t even feel safe drinking from her I Heart Goats mug, anymore.” It’s the fear that your humanity can be stripped from you bit by horrible-convulsions-on-the-bed-head-turning-completely-around-doing-icky-things-with-a-crucifix bit by some amorphous, invisible, malevolent force with whom there is no reasoning. You know, kind of like the current political climate.
So when October rolls around and the sky darkens, when the wind howls like the last cry of a doomed man and children in Halloween costumes run past laughing those little-kid laughs that sometimes make you wonder if said children were made in a test tube by an escaped Nazi bent on overthrowing the world order, you’ll find me nestled on my couch watching Rosemary’s Baby, and hoping against hope that she’ll win the ultimate fight. But I’ll have my Popsicle sticks with me. Because, you know, I’m not taking any chances.
Libba Bray is hard at work on The Diviners, the first book in a four-book series that is full of the creepy. She’s listening to “Tubular Bells” while she writes.
Visit Libba’s blog at libba-bray.livejournal.com.
Follow @libbabray on Twitter.