Have you ever seen a reflecting ball? People have them in their yards and gardens, and they send cold chills down my back. I won’t even walk near them in stores. It’s not a pointless phobia. When I was in junior high, I bought a copy of Jane-Emily at the book fair. It’s the story of Louisa and her niece Jane, who go to spend the summer with Jane’s grandmother. While exploring the empty old house, they learn of Emily, who died many years ago, but whose vengeful, angry spirit is searching for a way to return to life, and thinks Jane might just be her ticket. But what about the reflecting ball, you ask? Well, the reflecting ball plays a significant part in the story, enough that it has left an indelibly frightening image in my imagination for thirty years. There’s something unsettling about the gently distorted image of oneself in the curve of a reflecting ball, as if someone who is you, but is not you, is looking out at you with malice in mind.
It’s the simple things that scare us best.
The success of movies like “Saw” and “Hostel” notwithstanding, there’s nothing so scary as the things that made us hide under our covers when we were little. Stephen King said, “We’ll see if you remember the simplest thing of all – how it is to be children, secure in belief and thus afraid of the dark.” Think about his books, some of which are scarier than anything else I’ve ever read. Most of them are populated with tons of characters, and have loads of subplot to hold up the immediate story, but the main problem is always based on the simplest of fears. The fear of being alone (The Shining), or the fear of big dogs (Cujo) or even the fear of bullies (Carrie). Chop up blonde American hikers, hang stupid frat brothers from meathooks, force people to saw off their own limbs…yeah, there’s a certain frightening aspect to that, but it’s based on disgust, not fear. It’s horrible, but it’s just not scary. If you want to get under a reader’s skin, make the gooseflesh rise up on his arm and make him leave the lights on when he goes to sleep, you have to depend on the simple fears.
F Paul Wilson wrote the Adversary Cycle, a series of six books that began with three seemingly unrelated stories, and ended with all those characters coming together in the last three books. Nightworld is the concluding story. It scared the bedoodles out of me. Not because of the Big Bad Evil who was on his way to rule the world, not the monsters that came out at night. Those were upsetting possibilities, sure, but the real scare happened in the book when the sun began setting earlier and rising later. At first it was hardly noticeable – seconds, then minutes of difference. Scientists noticed, but no one else did. Until there was no way to ignore it. Days were six hours long, then three, then one, and soon the sun would stop rising at all. Fear of the dark made that book an absolute terror. It was great. For several days after I read it, I actually checked to make sure the sun was rising when it was supposed to. That, my friends, is real terror. Something that lasts long after you read it.
I’m afraid of heights, not crazy about the dark and I have an irrational nervousness that toys will come alive at night or when I’m not looking. (Sometime when we’re at a con, ask me to tell you of the Death of Tiny Buzz Lightyear.) If I was going to write something scary, I’d put my characters on the edge of an unlit roof in the middle of the night. Not much scarier than that, for me. I don’t need anything more complicated to be frightened.
Except maybe a toy standing where it shouldn’t be. *shiver*