Stephen King On Why Fear Makes a Good Story

Weekly Lizard

As Halloween approaches, we at the Weekly Lizard have been scouring our bookshelves for the most frightening books we own. As we searched for a good, strong, seasonally-appropriate scare, we started to wonder why it is that we love reading books that terrify us.

For answers, we turned to the master of horror himself, Stephen King. In his original foreword to the classic short story collection Night Shift, King gets right to the point:

“Let’s talk, you and I. Let’s talk about fear. The house is empty as I write this; a cold February rain is falling outside. It’s night. Sometimes when the wind blows the way it’s blowing now, we lose the power. But for now it’s on, and so let’s talk very honestly about fear. Let’s talk very rationally about moving to the rim of madness…and perhaps over the edge.”

For generations, horror, thriller, and mystery writers have been keeping their readers riveted by playing on their worst fears. That cold-blooded murderer in your favorite noir novel could be lurking around the corner. That monster from your favorite horror thriller might actually be hiding in your basement. Says King, “Fear has always been big. Death has always been big.” There’s a universality to fear—everyone’s got ’em. And our fears run the gamut, as King notes:

“Fear is the emotion that makes us blind. How many things are we afraid of? We’re afraid to turn off the lights when our hands are wet. We’re afraid to stick a knife into the toaster to get the stuck English muffin without unplugging it first. We’re afraid of what the doctor may tell us when the physical exam is over; when the airplane suddenly takes a great unearthly lurch in midair. We’re afraid that the oil may run out, that the good air will run out, the good water, the good life. When the daughter promised to be in by eleven and it’s now quarter past twelve and sleet is spatting against the window like dry sand, we sit and pretend to watch Johnny Carson and look occasionally at the mute telephone and we feel the emotion that makes us blind, the emotion that makes a stealthy ruin of the thinking process.”

When writers tap into our fears, they exploit us at a vulnerable point; they open the door to the most sheltered part of our inner lives. “The horror tale lives most naturally at that connection point between the conscious and the subconscious,” says King, “The place where both image and allegory occurs most naturally and with the most devastating effect.”

While not every book exerts such pull on its reader, all of literature can be placed somewhere on the spectrum of fear. Be it a zombie story or a coming-of-age novel, as King notes, “the subjects of death and fear are not the horror writer’s exclusive province.” He cites a list of “so-called ‘mainstream’ writers,” who have dealt with themes of fear, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Edward Albee, John Steinbeck, Albert Camus, and even one of our favorites here at the Weekly Lizard, Ross Macdonald. Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels are more than just mysteries, they are psychological suspense novels: studies of the loathsome characters with whom Archer must deal. In these books, Macdonald plumbs the nature of human evil, or what King calls “the horrors that we all do believe in…. hate, alienation, growing lovelessly old, tottering out into a hostile world on the unsteady legs of adolescence.”

And yet, as the weather grows cold and the nights grow longer, we still find ourselves reaching for our favorite Stephen King and Ross Macdonald books, because ultimately, there is catharsis to be gained in what King calls this “rehearsal for our own death.” Allowing ourselves to believe in something frightening gives us an opportunity to drag our fears out of the closet, to examine them and, perhaps, to come to terms with them. A good writer can hold your hand and guide you through the unfathomable, and as King puts it:

“No waking or dreaming in this terminal, but only the voice of the writer, low and rational, talking about the way the good fabric of things sometimes has a way of unraveling with shocking suddenness. He’s telling you that you do want to see the car accident, and yes, he’s right—you do. There’s a dead voice on the phone…something behind the walls of the old house that sounds bigger than a rat…movement at the foot of the cellar stairs. He wants you to see all of those things, and more.”

Yes, we do, Mr. King, yes, we do.