Too often, when writers set out with a purpose such as “to make my readers laugh” or “to scare my readers,” they fall victim to stock props of the genre as found on TV, in the movies, and yes, in literature. But there’s more to, say, scaring people than vampires by night, zombies by day, and Sean Spicer press conferences by cable.
If you really want to write about fear, get in touch with your inner child. As adults drugged on maturity, we often forget the powerful knack children have for seeing malevolence in the most ordinary of objects, and there’s no better Museum of the Extraordinarily Ordinary than your basement.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a moment to regret the passing of poet Thomas Lux at the tender (by today’s standards) age of 70. I was reading some of Lux’s poems when I came across “Cellar Stairs,” a piece in which ice skates, ice picks, roofing nails, a fuse-box switch, and yes, even a freezer, do yeoman duty as witches, monsters, and boogeymen:
It’s rickety down to the dark.
Old skates, long-bladed, hang by leather laces
on your left and want to slash your throat,
but they can’t, they can’t, being only skates.
On a shelf above, tools: shears,
three-pronged weed hacker, ice pick,
poison-rats and bugs-and on the landing,
halfway down, a keg of roofing nails
you don’t want to fall face first into,
no, you don’t. To your right,
a fuse box with its side-switch-a slot machine,
on a good day, or the one the warden pulls,
on a bad. Against the wall,
on nearly every stair, one boot, no two
together, no pair, as if the dead
went off, short-legged or long, to where they go,
which is down these steps,
at the bottom of which is a swollen,
humming, huge white freezer
big enough for many bodies—
of children, at least. And this
is where you’re sent each night
for the frozen bag of beans
or peas or broccoli
that lies beside the slab
of meat you’ll eat for dinner,
each countless childhood meal your last.
“Cellar Stairs,” from New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).
The minute you go for laughs or frights in the usual, well-trod places is the minute you should stop and reconsider the tack you’re on. People are killed in droves by ladders, bathtubs, and stairs. Why, then, are you channeling Freddie Krueger?
Get your remote and channel this: your childhood home and how much it resembles your present-day home. There are places in the former that scared you and places in the latter that should, and even though those places are populated with objects both hum and drum, your job is to make them thrum.
See you later. I’m going down to the cellar for a minute.