Hidden beneath the ghastly, screaming voices of the typical horror tropes is a built-in safety blanket. Certainly, monsters, demons, ghosts, plagues, nameless psychopaths, all of them, have the power to startle, alarm, disgust and scare. There is promise with them as well, more in the modern world than the times of vaster ignorance. Rational thought suggests that monsters aren’t real. Demons are religious tools for moral lessons and commandeering sensibilities in a group effort. Ghosts promise that death is not the end. Plagues happen, but always elsewhere, or in the past, or in the future, never in the here and now. Nameless psychopaths visit other neighborhoods, never our own.
Understated horror: the mundane world and its loaded bear trap. Understated horror not only suggests survival, but suggests slow, conscious survival. Broken bones happen in a flash, the true trouble begins the seconds following this, in the long process of healing.
Try not squirm.
It will only prolong the suffering.
Let the bones heal. Let the scars fade.
Against monsters, demons, ghosts, plagues and nameless psychopaths there are tools and defenses. Against the understated horrors, there is little hope, but as human beings it is important to act civilized and not paranoid or brash.
There is only survival and pain. Caught unaware and off-guard, these everyday happenings sour and envelope our sense of safety, our sense of comfort, our assumed ease.
Three stories have etched at least semi-permanent marks on my mind for their quite terror and drive home a point I’m attempting to make (spoiler alert!):
Pumpkin-Head by Joyce Carol Oates: From Sourland.
There is a quiet menace of thoughts running from the very beginning of this story. A recent widow is lonely, nervous and reasonably polite. Treating each other with softened humanity is a sign of a class and offering dignity where it might not come easily becomes a downfall so easily. But it is civilized, expected, necessary to fit into the modern world.
Home alone, a man familiar from the market approaches bringing tidings of cast-off vegetables. The widow does the polite thing and lets him in, running a slow and ponderous inner-commentary; the what-ifs of this big man and her recent singleness. Empty thoughts that she tries to push aside while being polite to this unexpected, unwanted guest.
It is the calm and the politeness of the widow that opens the story to stark, horrifying opportunities. Uncertain as how things turn so far so quickly, the widow is on the floor, blood in her mouth, fingers forced inside her, listening as the man angrily obliging his pain rallies against those who have wronged him.
A case of mistaken identity.
The force is chilling after the lulled act of storytelling, but it is not what is there to stick around. Gone is the man, but he is not gone. Outside she sees lights, his lights? If not, what about tomorrow? Will those lights return? Will they ever leave?
Joyce Carol Oates presents the turmoil of the mind like no other and does so atop a bed of fantastic imagery of the commonplace and the reality of those dwelling therein.
The Juniper Tree by Peter Straub: From Houses Without Doors.
This tale represents the realistic, whispered terror that deforms the future for those involved and strains the hearts and guts of the reader. There is little as trusting or hopelessly willing to participate as a lonely child.
This story has a boy, his father and a stranger (so-called friend, molester). It’s understandable that the gaped opening donned by the boy. The father, a figure common in literature and in life, unknowingly takes something from his child and does so with the cold uncaring of a man trapped in his insecurities and failures. The world is hard and coldness closes doors to effort, only to open them to the real-life monsters lurking in shadows and worse, standing before us wearing smiles.
The act is difficult to read. It flutters sickly vomit-winged moths about innards and yet, that is not the face of the fact. The boy will be a man. The boy could be any boy. That boy that became a man has to hold that act and deal with it. The horror is in the afterthought, as real trouble does not exist until it is made obvious. Only that the act is not the norm and not right and that it has left a time-activated wound does the understanding come to reveal itself. The boy recognizes disgust and fear, though not why or how deep it might sink.
Peter Straub paints an everyday world that buoys and carries the reader, delivering him/her to a spot where there is no longer a choice. The thing will happen. The sexual act between man and boy will occur.
Worse, and reasonably so given the opportunity, it would happen over and over again.
If not for the grace of fire, it would happen forever, as the boy has no power or will to turn away from the place. This alone is shiver inducing.
The Last Rung on the Ladder by Stephen King: From Night Shift.
This man creates a sense of dread rarely equaled and this story is doubly so for me. The children of this tale are human, realistic, rounded and mischievous. These children are so very average and commonplace that it is impossible not to slide into their shoes and climb the rungs along with them.
Built on a vivid foundation these children play a childish game of danger mostly unacknowledged. Children do not consider death, not of themselves and not in the unavoidable sense of undeniable eventuality.
Climbing up the time-worm ladder to plunge deep into the scattered bed below is not unlikely or unbelievable. It is not a monster or a psychopath choosing the exit-ramp and then the street access that leads to your front door. Climbing that ladder is every forbidden act children do while happily unobserved.
One child falls, helplessly so. The reader is left hoping that the slapdash efforts of the other child is enough carries a dread so thick it makes all else unimportant.
Oh but the trouble has not truly reared its face yet. There is tomorrow and the terror that clings under the veil of quiet does so in the never-ending tomorrows. Surving a great scare does not mean the future is bright. It does not mean you've come away unscathed or settled.
The Quiet: The above is not to suggest that well written stories of the supernatural and unnatural cannot consume us and feel all too real. They can and do, but it takes skill and effort and leans heavily on humanity. Monsters, good and bad, can send shivers, but after spooked, it becomes easy to smile. Mostly at ourselves.
The Quiet horror has the tools already packed and cocked. There is no smiling. The memory of reading these stories sinks in, festers there and then emanates from our cores and shakess our souls.
Where all else fades the tarnished soul sticks around.