What A 19th Century Crazy Guy Taught Me About Writing Spooky Stuff

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I want to talk about Guy De Maupassant; but I’ll come back to that in a minute. Stick with me here.

When someone asks me the scariest thing I’ve ever read, they usually expect me to say something from Stephen King. If they’re literary, they may want to hear Henry James. Whatever. Truthfully, 1984 by George Orwell scares the crap out of me more than anything; and I’m not sure how you could top it.

Especially during an American presidential election season, anybody can relate to that desolate feeling of trying to talk to someone so caught up in their beliefs and convictions that the eyes have glazed over, they’re not listening at all, and confirmation bias squeezes out any facts running contrary to what they want to believe. It’s horrifying how mobs of people can get caught up in the momentum of anything, and how quickly and viciously they’ll turn on dissenters. We should all just take a breath, right? When I read 1984, I think of how likely a world it describes, how people have behaved much like that. I can see how easily we’d slip into such a knot, and how impossible it would be to break from it once you’re inside. Shivers, man. Just shivers. That guy worked magic. It’s why we still quote that book so often.

You may have or heard the short story by Guy De Maupassant called The Necklace where a really poor lady borrows an expensive necklace and loses it, works her butt off and ruins her life trying to pay for a replacement, only to find after years and destroyed health that it was an imitation anyway. Not sure why that story hit the mainstream and gets taught in schools so much when the same author put out so much skull-slamming treasure! He went nuts, probably because of syphilis but kept writing while dipping into his madness.

“Every other time I come home, I see my double. I open my door, and I see him sitting in my armchair.”

Guy said that to his friend, Paul Bourget. It wasn’t fiction, though this exact thing happens in a story of his called He? Guy wound up slitting his own throat unsuccessfully and lived in an asylum for another 19 months. Here’s something he tossed out in a letter to his friend, Dr. Henry Cazalis:

“A saline fermentation has taken place in my brain, and every night my brain runs out through my nose and mouth in a sticky paste. This is imminent death and I am mad…”

Sheesh. Anyway, I consider one of his very short stories one of the most perfect scary pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. In the same manner as why 1984 spooks me so much, it is realistic and possible and shoots jolts of terror in ways you don’t normally see with no real strain on your suspension of disbelief. It could happen to you. That’s the basis of real horror, isn’t it? The story is called “Two Friends“. To read it yourself shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes. Go ahead, I’m about to spoil it for you.

When my kids were very young, there was one particular July 4th night we were all sleeping; and I was awaken by a very loud CLAP sound downstairs. It sounded like two pieces of ceramic tile smacking together. Thinking something had fallen, but suspicious maybe of a break-in, I went groggily downstairs with my wife hovering at the top of the stairway with the ‘9’ and the ‘1’ already dialed, touching the ‘1’ again just in case she needed it.

I saw a massive spider-web in the dim light on the far wall, too massive to believe. It wasn’t there when we went to bed, right? Anyway, I was deep into the living room downstairs and exposed, gently extending a finger when I realized it wasn’t a web at all…it was the drywall cracking from a bullet hole. Someone outside had fired a gun into my home. Wasn’t that kind of neighborhood. This was the suburbs, for pete’s sake! Lawless teenage vandals, devil worshippers, whatever…I had to bolt for cover just not knowing who or what or where. The silence was maddening thereafter, with the thought of how a slightly different angle of the barrel, and I’d have awaken to a paralyzed or bleeding son or daughter!

The scariest things I’ve read fall into the same kind of chill:

  1. Mundane, maybe even pleasant events jarringly turn a different and terrible direction
  2. I can relate and sympathize with the character thrown into this surprise
  3. None of the decisions the character makes seem out of line with what I’d have done (nothing breaks my fright faster than an author breaking this rule)
  4. There’s a sudden realization that there isn’t a way out

In Two Friends, Maupassant presents two pleasant country guys who just love fishing. Even though there’s a war on in the countryside, they work through a military friend to get out of the village and to the shore of their favorite lake. Prussian troops show up, present the option of revealing the password back into the village or die, then shoot them dead where they stood when they won’t do it.

“The water spurted up, bubbled, swirled round, then grew calm again, with little waves rippling across to break against the bank. There was just a small amount of blood discoloring the surface.”

Guy broke the rules of literature, man! He killed off the point of view characters and shifted focus to people that had just been introduced. There’s a silly joke by the Prussian commander at the end about fish. It’s creepy and cold and absolutely believable. Honestly, the part of the story where the Prussians show up makes me feel exactly like I did tracing my finger on cracked drywall. That was a drunk neighbor barbecuing, by the way.

Anyway, go read more of Maupassant. The scary stories. They’re public domain and awesome. Let me know what you think!

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