When I was a kid, my family moved a lot. We went from a trailer to a house in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, then onto Jamestown, New York, where we made stops at an apartment, a small house, then a medium house, then a spacious, if ramshackle, house, all in different neighborhoods, the blocks of the city like squares on a checkerboard, leaped without consideration of likely outcomes, our game of pausing, starting over, landing, and picking up haphazardly played. If the game involved strategy, it came down to one principle: bigger was better, even if the bigger house came with a rougher neighborhood. I suppose we got something out of these moves, but I’m not sure what. Pieces—toys, a favorite lilac bush, friends, a stamp collection, schools, a cat’s pawprints memorialized in the concrete of a sidewalk—were lost along the way.
My parents separated right before I entered college, and by the time I finished my undergraduate work and started teaching, Mom and Dad had divorced, remarried, and moved on, so when a holiday approached and colleagues asked me if I was heading home over the break, I wanted to nod and shake my head at the same time. Though I might have had plans to track down one parent or another, I certainly wasn’t going home. Not mine, anyway.
Home. There’s a laden word for you.
The place I associate most with that cookies-warmth-safety term was our house on Blanchard, the first house my folks actually owned: a green two-story with a front porch and small yard, tucked in snug among houses that looked like the close relatives of our house, though just different enough…fraternal multiple-birth babies, not identical. Maples lined the street, providing branches to climb, roots to poke at with little shovels, and leaves to rake into piles and promptly scatter with our flung bodies. Mr. Nordstrom, who lived on Beverly, an intersecting road, tapped the wide trunks for sap. Blanchard and Beverly were red brick streets, bumpy on account of the snowbelt’s manic weather, patched with macadam, and birthmarked with manhole covers that clanked under running feet. When school didn’t interfere with our fun, the neighborhood kids, my siblings, and I pretty much lived in the streets, riding our bikes and playing kickball, jump-rope, hide-and-seek, and death.
Death faked, death uncovered, death stalked, death reversed.
We imagined ghosts in certain houses and did our best to will those spirits into existence. We held séances, played “light as a feather,” and turned popular rumors (the child snatcher who holds out candy to lure kids to his white van, the violent gang that gathers in the alley) into stories with the exact same ending: DEATH. Usually ours.
This morbidity was the glue that bound the Blanchard-Beverly tribe together.
An activity we frequently played was a creepy skit for two. One kid stood directly behind another and pounded that person’s back—in Swedish-massage chopping fashion—to the rhythm of a menacing chant that began something like this:
People are dying. Babies are crying.
Stick a knife in your back. Watch the blood make its tracks.
I wonder if any of you also played this gloomy game.
It went on and on with many disturbing verses involving spiders crawling down the back and snakes slithering up and even a cracked egg sliming the shoulder. The point of this exercise was supposedly supernatural: at the end of the song, the person on the receiving end of the pounding had to squeeze her eyes shut, and (if I’m remembering this correctly) the color she saw on her closed lids indicated how she was destined to die—drowning, hanging, poison, old age (bor-ing!), car accident, tumble down the stairs, choking, disease, and so on. A purplish hue, for instance, might have indicated suffocation as one’s certain fate.
Why were we so obsessed with death? Why did we relish being frightened? For heaven’s sake, what possible psychological benefits did our self-imposed terror serve? Because believe me: I was really scared. Scared enough (on almost a nightly basis) to beg my sister to scoot over and let me sleep with her and (if that failed) plead with my brother to relocate to my floor and (if that failed) curl up in a thin blanket and shiver at the foot of my parents’ bed like a pitiful puppy.
Maybe you recall your own childhood penchant for wading into horror and hauntings. Maybe you witness this bent in your own kids. I certainly see it in mine.
I think there must be something universal about the desire to be terrifically terrified and saddened and stressed for a spell (as long as safety stands close at hand) and something cathartic about being put through an emotional wringer. Perhaps it sharpens our appreciation for everyday normalcy and makes us more keenly relish peace and security and feel for those who don’t have to pretend horror, who face it in their actual circumstances.
Whatever the reasons for this desire to toe the dark depths of death and misery, it’s an important tendency to bear in mind when crafting stories.
I don’t write psychological thrillers, but I sense a good novel does thrill and requires elements of that subgenre: the smudging of the edges of reality, the destabilization of a character’s mind, and the process of turning relationships complex, even tortured. I also don’t write mystery novels, per se, but I’m in full-blown mystery-writer mode when I’m devising plots. The novels I like best all read a bit like mysteries—with characters puzzling over problems, struggling to find answers, and revealing their secret longings and motives along the way. And I don’t write tragedies, but I’m not above trying to make my readers weep. It’s, like, my job. Writers have to weave their conflicts—the very essence of their works—out of the sticky threads of the awful and the hard ropes of the unthinkable. Too little conflict, and the narrative is like a dish devoid of salt: it tastes flat.
I just finished reading an excellent fantasy by Peter S. Beagle entitled The Last Unicorn. At the end of this novel, Beagle writes, “Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.” Well, it’s all part of life, too. Beagle’s words make me think of something my friend Erin Varley mentioned when she came over for breakfast the other Saturday. Erin’s a wonderful teacher who does a super job of getting good books into kids’ hands. I had to laugh when she told me about a student who insists she will only read books that make her cry.
I love that.
Yes, please, give us the books that make us cry and fear and love and rejoice—the novels we can’t put down out of worry and compassion for the characters, the stories that, once finished, make us reach for our children or lovers or friends and hold them close while we fervently think, Thank God, thank God, we’re safe here, we’re together. How lucky I am. Now I must try harder. I will love more. I can do better.