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Horror Where You Least Expect It

Literature With a Dark Surprise

By William Shelton • October 18, 2022

Genre bending has become a popular trend among modern fiction. Who knew that Abraham Lincoln would be so adept at killing vampires, or the Bennett sisters skilled subduers of zombies? Though in such books there is an expectation of terror, more fascinating to me are those books where behind an unturned corner looms the unexpected element of horror. Fear, where it is least expected, is all the more rich an experience.

Perhaps the most famous example of a novel that unexpectedly turns dark is Psycho by Robert Bloch. Today, thanks in large part to the Alfred Hitchcock film, we all know the tragic fate of Mary Crane, but when the novel was first published in 1959, it was perceived as a straight story about a secretary guilty of grand theft, and her flight from the scene of the crime. No hint of a gruesome fate is foreshadowed in her stop for the night at a run-down roadside motel, nor having dinner with the inoffensive man who manages the business. But, once a butcher knife is introduced to the story, there is no retreat from the compounding madness and terror of the novel.

Daphne du Maurier was famous for slipping dark elements into her books which, on the surface, track human foibles (usually around unrequited love). Who would have expected that Rebecca, who was the revered wife of Maxim De Winter, held up as a paragon of virtue, would actually be murdered in retaliation for her liberal private life? Or that the charming namesake of My Cousin Rachel was a calculating poisoner…or was she? Don’t Look Now begins as the story of a young couple traveling to Venice to recover from the loss of their daughter, the charm of the city being an integral focus of the book. Then, without warning, comes mysterious sisters who portend death, and its full realization. Lest we forget, those innocuous Birds who populate the wires of telephone poles, sweetly singing as they plot to peck out our eyes.

The Stranger Beside Me is an example of a true story which turns to chilling fear as the author, Ann Rule, recounts her experiences with the charming young man who volunteers with her on a suicide hotline in Washington state. So "kind, solicitous, and empathetic" was Ted Bundy that Rule said she would have allowed him to babysit her children. As slowly the screw turns, she comes to realize that he is a ferocious serial killer, responsible for the deaths of women in three states. The book follows his subsequent trial, conviction, and execution.

The series of short novels written by Michael McDowell, called his Blackwater series, is perhaps my favorite example of unexpected horror. What begins as a simple story about the struggles of a lumber mill family in early 20th century Alabama, is interlaced with episodes of absolute horror when one realizes that a principal character is actually a blood thirsty monster with her own evil agenda. We should expect nothing less from the author of the screenplays for Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the novelization of the film Clue. His other works, such as Cold Moon Over Babylon, and The Amulet, follow a similar vein.

Horror is like a rare dish, seldom indulged, but met with delight when encountered on a menu. Such is the experience when found among the pages of a story of romance, or bucolic tale of life mundane. It is the furtive unseen observer from the tree line during our walk, hand in hand, with a lover; the oh-so-engaging store clerk eager to sell us some of his homemade Texas barbeque; the elegant widow who has set the cemetery population to a new high with discarded husbands. It is ever lurking where we least expect it.

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