Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

Recently I read an article about eleven recent novels that Stephen King apparently found scary. Being the fan of His Royal Scariness that I am, I checked out the article and found this book at the top of the list. The premise sounded interesting, so the next time I had a credit for an Audible audio book, I got A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, which is about a young woman who tells us her memories of when her elder sister started showing symptoms of schizophrenia, but when treatment after treatment seems to fail, the family comes to the conclusion that the sister is possessed, and somehow a reality show documenting the family’s attempts to exorcise their daughter evolves.

Like I said, it sounded interesting, and it was, though I wouldn’t call it scary. I mean, there are a few moments that can be terrifying, but even imagining them as a horror movie in my head, I didn’t really feel that it was as scary as King hyped it up to be.

Still, A Head Full of Ghosts is definitely not a dull read. In fact, it’s quite entertaining. The main character and narrator, Meredith “Merry” Barrett, is one of the most enjoyable types of narrators, the unreliable kind (see my post on unreliable narrators). Eight years old at the time of the events of the novel, she tells them anew to a writer for a new book in the year 2030 (which apparently still values paperbacks and blogs. I find that reassuring). As she tells us early in the novel, she misremembers a lot of what happened, due to the passage of time and of course what everyone has told her has happened.

To a certain extent, most of the characters in this novel is unreliable to a degree. We can’t tell what’s up with the older sister: is she possessed, is she schizophrenic, is she something we don’t have a word for? The things she says and does, you get a lot of conflicting signals. I have my guesses, but you really don’t know at all, right up to the end. The father is struggling because of unemployment (I sympathize) and has recently rediscovered God and begins to see everything through a religious lens with disastrous results. The mother seems to be perpetually grumpy and wavering between trying to be in control and trying to be responsible as her life unravels. The priest from the Catholic Church seems priestly, but underneath that you get a sense that he’s milking this situation for his own reasons. It’s amazing how little you can actually trust these characters.

My favorite parts of the novel involve segues into a blog by a horror fan (a woman after my own heart) where she gives us an idea of what watching the reality show was like, as well some good ol’ scholarly examination of some of the show’s deeper meanings. And all with a snarky voice too. These segments are hilarious and fun, but they also help us as readers put the story and characters into context and prepare us for future events in the novel.

Another part I enjoyed about the novel is just seeing Merry and her family experience her sister’s illness/possession/whatever and then the craziness that is being the subject of a reality show, how fame has its downsides, how the show and the ordeal brings out the worst in her family, how her relationship with her sister becomes strained by all these events. It’s a very engrossing evolution.

One problem I do have with this novel (besides the fact that I never really found it scary) is that we never really see Merry outside of the context of her family or the show. Not even when we see her as an adult, because it’s fairly obvious that her family and the show has affected the adult she’s become. I would’ve liked to see Mary outside of the context of the family or the show, maybe in the company of friends or her soccer program. Those aspects of her life are mentioned, but they’re not really delved into, and I think she would’ve been a fuller character if we saw that her family and what’s going on around it isn’t entirely what defines her.

Oh, that and I didn’t particularly care for the audio book’s narrator. I mean she was good, especially when she was voicing the older sister, but when she does male voices, especially the father character’s voice, it sounds like every daughter’s impression of her embarrassing father or teacher. Just not convincing at all, more comical than anything.

All in all, I give A Head Full of Ghosts a 3.9 out of 5. It’s not as scary as I’d hoped it would be (or maybe I just listened to it wrong), but it’s psychological, it’s entertaining, and you want to see it through to the end. If you’re looking for a book that’s like The Exorcist with a modern twist, this might not be for you. But if you want to read something with dark subjects but you’d like to sleep at night, I think you’ll find this book fits the bill.

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anxiety

What is the trouble with psychological horror? Actually, there’s not much trouble to it. It’s just very hard to do well.

What do I mean by this? Well, let’s look at the definition of psychological horror: “a subgenre of horror fiction, film, and video games (as a narrative) which relies on the characters’ fears and emotional instability to build tension”, according to Wikipedia (I know you’re not supposed to rely on that site for information, but I couldn’t find a better website for a definition). It’s a sub-genre that, rather than relying on a traditional monster that’s out front and center for all to see, the monster is restricted to quick glimpses and shadows. If there’s a monster at all: sometimes the true villain is a character’s own brain, their fear, distrust, paranoia, suspicion, isolation.

I’ve used psychological horror before, particularly in the stories in my collection The Quiet Game (which if you haven’t read, I wish you would) and in the short story “Buried Alive”, which was published in the Strange Portals anthology last year (again, I wish you would read it). And I’ve come to the decision that while it isn’t as difficult as physics or writing comedy, it is walking a very fine line. Almost like a tightrope. And if you fall off, you can wind up veering either into the realm of the comedic with how obvious that it’s all in the character’s head, or it’s just so confusing that you find yourself losing patience with the story.

Let me give some examples (and it’s my blog, so you have to let me give some examples): have you read “Buried Alive”? I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum for those who haven’t, but like I said above, I use quite a lot of psychological horror in that story, and for the most part, I think that I use it well (so do most of the readers I hear from on this one). For the rest, though…it’s pretty obvious that the circumstances of the main character are taking a toll on her mental state. I don’t think it gets to the point of comedic, but it is obvious, and the point of psychological horror is to make you guess whether it’s all in their heads or if it’s real or…who knows?

Perfect Blue. Trippy, has its moments, but also has its problems.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the anime film Perfect Blue, based on a novel that I wish was available here in the States. The film is about a singer-turned-actress who starts to confuse reality and fiction when her first acting job takes a turn for the traumatic. It’s a good story, but it’s not a perfect story. There’s a good section of the movie where they spend time trying to confuse both the protagonist and the viewer, and it gets a little difficult to not only what’s going on, it gets difficult to pay attention or be patient with the movie. While I admire the visuals of the movie, and I get what they were going for by showing what the protagonist is going through mentally, and I recommend checking it out if you’re interested, psychological horror shouldn’t get so strange or trippy that the reader gets frustrated with or loses interest in the story.

A great example of a psychological horror story though, manages to toe the line very easily and keeps you guessing as to what’s real or what’s mental delusion. A good contemporary example of this is The Babadook. If you read my review of that movie last year, you’ll remember that I noted that the movie kept you guessing as to whether the film’s protagonists were dealing with an actual monster or a shared psychosis, and I eventually settled on a bit of both because…I’m mostly human, and humans need to categorize things to make sense of the world. And I still say that I don’t know for sure which it is, and that’s one mark of the film’s greatness. You’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s in the heads of the characters, it stays interesting throughout, and it never gets to the point of ridiculous or obvious. All told, it’s great psychological horror.

This movie will surely get you on so many different levels. I’m getting chills just thinking of it.

So how do you psychological horror well? How do you toe that line?

Well, I’m definitely no expert on the subject. I usually deal in traditional horror, the monster is out front and is usually either some twisted form of human or a creature not easily defined by our standards. I dabble in psychological horror, usually making it part of a bigger story. But I can try, and I think–beyond reading/viewing as much psychological horror as possible, both good and bad, and practicing like you want to get to Carnegie Hall, of course–I’d suggest trying to write a story where you’re not sure what’s really happening. Create a scenario where strange things start happening to your character or characters, and you can’t tell what’s real or what’s just in the minds of your characters. Keep it interesting, don’t get too ridiculous or obvious, and just see where the story goes. If you can do that but still be unsure for most of the story of what’s real or not, then it’s likely your reader will be the same and want to know more.

Another marker of psychological horror is that there’s usually a twist somewhere along the way, and if it’s good it’ll change how you view the entire story (a great example is the Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters and its American remake The Uninvited). Characters are also often driven or plagued by powerful internal battles: am I doing the right thing? Is this right or wrong? Are they really out to get me? It doesn’t have to be full-blown persecution belief or fear of some unknown. It can be something as simple as a growing suspicion that something’s off or that our desires are actually evil. Again, A Tale of Two Sisters is a great example of the former.

Not a fan of the movie, but even I admit it shows Jack’s breakdown very well.

And finally, psychological horror is often not the main focus of a story, but part of a bigger story. Take a look at The Shining by Stephen King. Obviously that hotel is actually haunted, and the kid and the cook are both psychic. But a good deal of the story deals with Jack Torrance trying to sort out what’s going on for himself. Is he just dealing with a powerful desire to get wasted again? Is he going insane? Is the hotel playing tricks on his mind? There are scenes where you really can’t tell, and that’s part of the terror. Part, but not the whole thing. After all, there’s all the stuff the hotel is doing to them, right?

Unless Jack, Danny, and the cook are all sharing some sort of shared delusion, or folie a trois, in which case…wow. New conspiracy theory right there.

In any case, it’s something to experiment with yourself. And for me to experiment with more often. Just try and see what happens…or does it happen? You’ll never know until you try.

How do you feel about psychological horror? Do you have any good examples in film or literature you’d recomend? What are some tips for effectively writing in the subgenre?

Lately I’ve been reading Stephen King’s Revival on my Kindle, and I have to say, while a bit more on the science-fiction side and a bit less creepy than other King novels like The Shining, Misery, or IT, I find Revival to still be a very interesting read and I’m looking forward to seeing how it ends.

While I do believe Revival’s not as creepy as other King novels, there is one part of it that is very unsettling: early in the book a lot of time is spent on the question of whether God exists or not. I’m not going to say what any of the main characters decide one way or another in case you haven’t read this one and want to read it sometime soon, but the way they question their beliefs in God and some of the conclusions they come to, coupled with King’s ability to immerse us almost completely in the minds of the narrator, causes us as the reader to question our own faith in whatever god or gods we choose to believe in, if we do.

Doubt. In some ways, a little bit of doubt in our strongest-held beliefs can be one of the most anxiety-inducing things in the world. All we’ve known or believed is called completely into question, and the power of that can send us completely reeling, make us terrified of the possibilities if we come to the conclusion that our beliefs are as false as a three-dollar bill. Even worse is that this doubt is housed entirely within our own minds, so outside attempts to erase that doubt are not always very effective. It’s like standing on the very tip of a structure that until now you thought was completely solid, but suddenly you discover cracks there and that the structure is in danger of caving in on itself. Your friends, your family, your religious leader, and even your favorite YouTube stars (why not?) can put some wood beams under the stones and put sand in the cracks, but they’ll only last so long. Fixing the structure, or letting it fall to ruin, has to come from within.

This makes me think of the lengths people will go to silence doubt. Anyone doubts America’s exceptionalism in the world (which I admit is a philosophy I find silly, seeing as many nations have said the same things about themselves and have later lost power or disappeared from the face of the Earth), those in favor of the philosophy will shout out those who oppose it and say they are un-American or even trying to ruin the country. A parent thinks their kid doesn’t believe in the religion that will get them into heaven, they will surround them with prayer and texts and church music until those kids sing with joy of God. Someone suspects their partner is being unfaithful to them, they will go to any lengths to either prove or disprove this theory, sometimes to the point of paranoia. A member of a secret group or spy ring thinks another member might be disloyal, they make that member go through some sort of bizarre and often sadistic test to ensure loyalty to the cause (at least in espionage novels; I have no idea if this happens in real life, though I wouldn’t be too surprised if it did).

What doubt can do to you.

What doubt can do to you.

Doubt is powerful, its effects on us are powerful, and our efforts to eradicate doubt can border on the extreme sometimes. You can see why a writer like King would use it in the first part of a story. He knows how scary it is, the effect it can have on people. And over the years and through age, experience, and reading, I’ve come to the realization of how powerful doubt can be as well. I even have an idea for a novel where religious doubt plays a major role. I have a feeling it’s going to be quite the unsettling story, whenever I get around to writing it. I doubt it’ll be anytime soon though.

Yeah, I went there.

In any case, it’s pretty obvious that doubt might be as much a part of the horror writer’s toolbox as any of the other fear-inducing tools and devices we have on hand. In a way, it’s also much stranger, because unlike the other fear-inducers, you can’t fight it or flee it for survival. After all, doubt is a product of the human mind, it exists within you. And you can’t outrun your own mind, can you?

And that, my Followers of Fear, might be the scariest part of all.

If you’ve known me for a while, I’m big on trying to correct injustices and inequalities. Racism is a big one for me, and when I hear people say “Racism’s dead” or “It’s not as big a deal as people make it out to be”, I’m among those pointing out why those folks are so wrong. In my own fiction I try to create casts that are very diverse, using characters with different sexual orientations, religions, genders, gender identities, ages, and races, among others.

Which brings me to why I’m writing this post. The past couple of days I’ve been working on a new short story that will probably turn into a novelette, based on how many words I’ve written so far. In it, four of the main characters are white, while one of them is black (and in a relationship with another male character, but I digress). While writing the first scene in the story, I was trying to point out the that Fred, my black character, is black. Why? Because I worry that unless I point it out, they’re going to assume he’s white.

Realizing that I was thinking this made me stop and think about my other works. Why do I take the time to point out a character’s race? Do I do the same thing for my white characters? And why do I assume that they’ll think I’m white in the first place?

On that last question, my roommate here in Germany, who has a background in psychology, was able to provide the answer to this question of mine one morning while waiting for the bus: “Most people tend to transfer their own qualities to others, including characters in stories.” That makes sense to me, and I’ve got a personal anecdote to back it up (I know anecdotes don’t count as scientific data, but bear with me): when I was 17 I spent five weeks in Israel and at one point we passed by a bookstore with some books in English. Having already read through the two books I’d brought with me (no surprise there), I went in, browsed the titles, and bought I, Alex Cross by James Patterson. This was my first Alex Cross book, but sixteenth in the series overall, and at first I didn’t find any indications to clue me into the fact that the protagonist was black. It wasn’t till midway through the book that I realized from the conversation between Cross and his grandma that they were black! Had to really adjust my image of the guy in my head right there, as well as several other characters.

Funny what reading out of order and a few misconceptions can do.

But in this line of thinking, wouldn’t this mean I assume all my readers are white? Well, I know for a fact that’s not the case: while I still have a relatively small readership (both in terms of books and blogging), they come from a variety of backgrounds. Some I know personally and off the Internet, and can attest is that they’re not white. What I worry about is that they’re going to transfer my race, which is white, to my characters. And it’s not a crazy concept: if you had never read or seen Harry Potter and heard about it and then saw a picture of JK Rowling, what would you assume the protagonist’s race was? I’d say you’d guess white.

And in a strange way, I’m helping my readers come to these assumptions. Unless I’m noting how pale a characters’s skin is, I generally don’t do anything to indicate a character is white. In Snake, where a majority of the characters were white, I did very little in terms of description when it came to skin color, and yet I’m pretty sure everyone who read the book was able to figure out my characters’ races just fine. The same in Reborn City: except for noting that Ilse has very pale skin, my white characters didn’t get any indications to clue the readers into their whiteness, while every character of another race did get indicators.

So why is there this collaboration between my readers and I? And do other authors do this?

For the second question, I’d say yes. I’ve seen plenty of other authors do this, including idols of mine like JK Rowling and Stephen King. And for the first, I think it might have something to do not just with the transference thing my roommate mentioned, but also with the society I live in. Think about it: while America may have a black president now and there are more people-of-color in the media than ever before, it’s still a very white-centric society. Because of this, I think that means, along with transference, I don’t feel the need to give indicators for white characters because in America, whiteness is still considered “the norm”, and my readers won’t imagine my characters a different color unless told otherwise because they’ve been conditioned to feel that whiteness is still “the norm.”

And I’m sure that if I were of a different race in a different country or culture, the same concept would apply. If I were Middle Eastern writing in Israel, probably all my characters would be Israeli Jews or Palestinians and I’d give indicators for tourists or Ethiopian or Russian Jews. If I lived in China and was Chinese, I’d probably only give indicators for non-Chinese Asians or Americans or something along those lines.

So to wrap this whole post up, the way my mind works, plus the way my readers’ minds work and the society we were raised in all collaborate in this strange need I have to mark my characters so as not to give my readers a false impression. Funny how that works. Even weirder that it makes sense to me as I write about it, and that I’m not sure whether or not I feel anything about it other than it being strange. Maybe that’s just how one should feel about something like this. Not liking or disliking it, but accepting it as one of those weird facts of life.

Well, I’ve gone on and on about this subject for a while now. Now I’d like your opinion on it. Do you think what I’m doing with non-white characters here is strange? Why or why not? And do you ever do the same thing in your writing? Why? Let me know, I’d love to hear your thoughts, Followers of Fear.