What scares you? That’s the question I asked YA authors for this blog series. Stay tuned for interviews and guest posts as authors visit and reveal their frightening—even surprising—fears.
Today’s guest author is Robin Wasserman, author of The Book of Blood and Shadow, the Cold Awakening trilogy, and more. (And be sure to enter the giveaway to win a signed copy of The Book of Blood and Shadow!)
What scares Robin? Read on to find out.
Guest post by Robin Wasserman
As an independent, twenty-first-century, spunky city-living lady in my (uh, let’s still call them) early thirties, I’m pretty sure there are certain things I am officially too old to be afraid of: The dark. The woods. The boogeyman. The ceiling fan.
I’m doing pretty well on all but that last one.
Blame David Lynch. Or blame my parents, for letting me watch and get obsessed with a David Lynch show when I was twelve years old. Or blame me, for continuing to watch, even after I could sense my inner pendulum tipping from “delightful frisson of fear” to “holy freaking crap terror.”
But in fairness to me, I didn’t have much experience in being that particular kind of afraid. I didn’t see it coming.
When I was a kid, everything in the real world scared me—getting in trouble, getting hurt, talking to strangers, failing. At least, it was the idea of these things that scared me—for the most part, I was too timid to do anything that might lead to them actually happening. (No comment on whether this has changed as I’ve grown up. That seems like the subject of an entirely different and potentially humiliating soul-searching essay.)
Life was terrifying.
Fiction, on the other hand? When it came to fiction, I was fearless. Horror books, horror movies, horror TV shows—I was a horror vacuum, sucking up anything and everything I could find about the worst of the worst, about evil clowns and hearts of darkness. While my mother hid from the gore in her cozy, no-one-very-important-ever-dies mystery novels, my father and I bonded weekly over Tales from the Crypt and traded jokes about axe-murdering Santas and the fury of a zombie scorned. This when I was about eleven years old. It was around this time that I discovered Stephen King, and—when I ran through the library’s collection of those and waited impatiently for him to write more—Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Robin Cook, Christopher Pike. None of it scared me, not the vampires, not the killer carnies, not the homicidal toddlers or the carnivorous dogs. On the contrary: They comforted me. Books like It and The Stand were my security blanket, convincing me that if these characters could stare into the maw of pure evil and survive, even triumph, then surely I could face gym class or my angry French teacher.
For me, horror was never about being afraid—it was about being brave.
But that’s also subject for a different soul-searching essay (one that should probably be entitled “How Stephen King Saved My Sanity”), because this one’s about the one thing that finally leapt out of a dark shadow and scared the crap out of me.
I was twelve years old, eager to get the hell out of elementary school, afraid I was being ditched by my best friend, and, above all other concerns, determined to find out who killed Laura Palmer.
This is one of the greatest opening theme songs to one of the greatest shows ever on television.
I can’t listen to it for more than thirty seconds without starting to hyperventilate.
(Okay, that’s a writerly exaggeration, but one I believe is true in spirit, it’s just that I haven’t had the nerve to test it out—that’s right, I am 34 years old and literally too scared to listen to that song. Don’t even talk to me about red curtains. Or, as mentioned, ceiling fans.)
I was obsessed with Twin Peaks. I watched every episode and endlessly rehashed it the next morning with my one friend who was allowed to watch. I bought the Laura Palmer Diary (and if you’ve seen Twin Peaks, you’re shuddering now to imagine what might have been in there), listened to the Agent Cooper tapes to Diane, and spent a fair amount of time planning my future wedding to Kyle MacLachlan.
If you haven’t seen it, I could tell you that Twin Peaks was a murder mystery set in a small town, but that wouldn’t even begin to describe it. I could tell you that it was a twisted, Lynchian vision of modern American life, consumed with duality and darkness, that it was a meditation on evil and youth and the worms crawling beneath the surface of apparently bucolic life. But that wasn’t the show I saw when I was twelve years old. What I saw was a surreal, terrifying, anything-goes circus of horrors, normal people who acted just off enough to make you want to run for the hills and less normal people driven insane in ways simultaneously hilarious and horrific, a world where dwarves danced in your dreams and the owls were not what they seemed, where at any moment, even in the safety of your own living room, you could turn to see this coming right for you:
It’s something like what I imagine your first psychedelic drug experience might be like: a brain-shattering realization of what’s possible, a crack through the heart of how you see the world.
And after all that, even then I wasn’t scared.
But then, I saw the Twin Peaks movie. And then, I went home to my friend’s house for a Twin Peaks sleepover, and lay on her floor all night, sneezing and sweating through the first stages of the flu, drowning in a recurring fever dream of dead girls wrapped in cellophane and evil lodges in the forest and ceiling fans. When I woke up, it was all over.
“It” being my blissful life free and clear of worrying about things like evil. I spent the next year in a fit of fear that—at thirteen years old—I felt far too old not to be embarrassed by. But I couldn’t shake it. I stayed out of the woods. I said “I love you” to my parents every night before bed, in hopes it might ward off any evil spirits that might want to inhabit them. I never, ever turned on my ceiling fan.
I grew out of it, eventually—and I’ll never be sorry that it happened. (Well, I could have done without the fever-induced night terrors.) Something about that show shook me off my feet, and when you’re thirteen years old, living a reasonably uneventful, insulated, self-pitying suburban life, you can use the occasional internal earthquake to raise some questions you might still be too terrified to ask.
Because I’m afraid to risk re-watching the series as an adult (I like being able to go into the woods), I spend a lot of time wondering what it was about the Twin Peaks universe that had the power to scare me as nothing has before or sense. A couple years ago, in an essay that every David Lynch fan should read and possibly commit to memory, David Foster Wallace gave me a lead:
“Darkness, in David Lynch’s movies, always wears more than one face…Characters are not themselves evil in Lynch movies—evil wears them….Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (ie people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force….People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are—at least potentially—everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time—not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now….It’s not just that evil is ‘implied by’ good or Darkness by Light or whatever, but that the evil stuff is contained within the good stuff, encoded in it.”—DFW (emphasis his)
Evil as a force; evil as something that could inhabit anyone—and probably did. In my most beloved Stephen King books (notably this did not include The Shining, which may be his most Lynchian work), good and evil were neatly divided, and evil itself was something external to our heroes—something that could be challenged and killed. In my favorite King books, the bonds of love and friendship weren’t just clear, they were the beacon that guided you through the darkness. But in Twin Peaks, love was a weapon. The people you loved the most were as likely to turn on you as anyone else, maybe more so. Because evil wore many faces. Because you could never know anyone, not the truth beneath the surface, not the truth that they didn’t know themselves.
Because if evil is a force of nature, not an exception but a rule, not a bug but a feature, then it can be fought but not destroyed. If evil is a force of nature, not maliciously intentioned but mindlessly impersonal, then it can inhabit anyone. And if evil is a force of nature, then—at least in Lynch’s vision of the world—it seems a force most like entropy, a force that grows, that spreads, by immutable physical law, until it insinuates itself into everything. Which means a fictional world where it isn’t inevitable that good defeat evil—where, in fact, the opposite seems more likely.
I think, in the end, it was a world I couldn’t quite stand to live in when I was thirteen. I’m not sure I can stand to live in it now.
Which is all the more reason to write about it, because it turns out the only thing more satisfying and even occasionally comforting than reading about things that scare you is writing about them. This year I’m writing my first real horror novel, and what I desperately want is for someone to read it the way I once read Stephen King: as a book not just about being scared, but about being brave.
But I also want people to read it the way I read Laura Palmer’s diary, and the way I watched wide-eyed while David Lynch turned the world upside down and gave it a shake: unsteady on their own ground, uncertain about their own selves, and maybe, just a little bit, holy freaking crap terrified.
Thank you so much for sharing your fears, Robin! As a fellow Twin Peaks fan, I absolutely love this essay and understand it more than I can say. (Ceiling fans!)
Readers: Be sure to enter for a chance to win The Book of Blood and Shadow—(just scroll down for giveaway details).
Robin Wasserman is the author of the Cold Awakening trilogy, Hacking Harvard, and, most recently, The Book of Blood and Shadow. She lives and writes in Brooklyn, where she only occasionally hides under the bed from things that go bump in the night.
Visit her online at www.robinwasserman.com.
Follow @robinwasserman on Twitter.
Want a chance to win The Book of Blood and Shadow?
This giveaway is now closed. Thank you to everyone who entered! The winner will be announced soon.
Here’s what you missed so far in the What Scares You? series:
And come back tomorrow—Halloween—for one last creepy piece from a surprise guest…
Series art by Robert Roxby. Email to contact the artist directly.