Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Horror Fiction: Extraordinary Situations. Ordinary People.

Alfred Hitchcock often told stories about ordinary people caught in intricate, seemingly inescapable webs. How they comport themselves is the measure of the man or woman. It is also how we measure ourselves. We too are ordinary people entangled in day-to-day routines. We cannot imagine turning a corner to find a web that arrests us and forces us to summon skills we aren’t even sure we possess so we look at Hitchcock’s characters with a certain degree of horror, afraid to be in similar circumstances and in awe of the character’s resourcefulness.

That contrast between ordinary and extraordinary is at the heart of our sense of dread. It is also a key ingredient for horror fiction.

Ordinary Steel forged into powerful links secures ordinary wood weathered
and dry, both suggesting something extraordinary, even ominous, behind the two.
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin Photography.
The Man Who Knew Too Muchstarring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, pits two ordinary Americans against international intrigue, kidnappers, and killers because one man whispers a cryptic message into the protagonist’s ear. He is thus thrust into extraordinary circumstances that will test his intellect and require raw courage in order to save his son and protect his wife. He proves equal to the challenge.

Accidental encounters are the heart of many Hitchcock films, and some fall more naturally into the horror category. The Birds and Psycho are two that feature other elements of horror stories, including the malevolent streak in human nature, a sense of foreboding from frame to frame, extreme events, and violence.

Another making use of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances is author Stephen King whom some call the King of Horror.  

Carrie, the title character in Carrie, is an ordinary school girl, na├»ve and sheltered, the daughter of a woman so subsumed in her religious fervor that she weaves an extraordinary web exacerbating Carrie’s high school torment and igniting Carrie’s peculiar talent as she saves herself from extreme bullying and shaming.

Ben Mears, the protagonist in ‘Salem’s Lot, encounters the ancient horror: the undead who feed upon the living. He moved to ‘Salem’s Lot to write a book, but he’s forced to fight for the lives of others and his own life against monsters. His journey carries him through the horror manufactured by malevolent creatures.

King’s latest novel, Finder’s Keepers, published in 2015, is the second installment in a trilogy that began with Mr. Mercedes, a novel recommended last year and used to review an editing principle. You will not need to read Mr. Mercedes to enjoy Finder’s Keepers, but you will enjoy each a bit more if you read both in order. And you will find ordinary characters caught in extraordinary circumstances.

The protagonist of Finder’s Keepers is Pete, a boy who stumbles across buried treasure. Inside a stream bank is a trunk containing cash and notebooks, the last words of Rothstein, a writer who wrote and retired, hoarding both cash and his words from the world. But a malevolent force named Morris Bellamy finds Rothstein and his stash; Morris kills Rothstein just to read those words, to find out what Rothstein did for a character Morris loved.

Morris hides the treasure he stole behind his home, then goes to prison for a different crime and a very long time without ever having read the notebooks he craved. Years later, his childhood home becomes home to the Saubers family when they must downsize after Mr. Mercedes cripples Pete’s dad at a time when the U. S. economy crushed job opportunities and incomes for America’s middle class.

Pete’s family is on the edge of a black hole, being inexorably pulled into oblivion when Pete finds Rothstein’s cash and notebooks. He begins sending that money to his parents anonymously, and it saves them. The terrible stress of being broke and broken, accusations about good and bad spending choices, and the wrenching sorrow of never being able to see a way out come to an end. Family members find each other and begin to heal.

Young, ordinary Pete has rescued his family from horrors inflicted by Mr. Mercedes and unbreakable glass ceilings--until the money runs out. Then Pete creates a new set of extraordinary circumstances when he tries to sell the notebooks to raise more money. Pete unleashes greed in a bookseller, fear in his sister who guesses the source of the money, and the trio who stopped Mr. Mercedes. Worse, Morris Bellamy finally earns parole and grows vengeful when he finds the buried trunk empty.

Pete faces his own desire to keep the notebooks for himself and their potential to bring more money to his family. He faces people who will help him and spurns them--at first. He faces off against malevolence in the body of Morris Bellamy. He witnesses the violence Morris inflicts upon others. Pete also learns the weight of violence when he must be violent to save himself. More important, he understands the consequences of spurning help and hoarding when his actions endanger the lives of his family. He has put them in jeopardy while crafting a web of his own.

Pete breaks through the intricate web he helped to build and the one Morris built. He proves to have both sufficient intellect and courage. He shows that ordinary people can overcome horrific circumstances even if those circumstances do not include Carrie’s telekinesis or taking up residence in a town of vampires. In showing the triumph of ordinary people, Pete and King reassure readers and remove much of their dread about a web that might be just around the corner.

Reading Challenge:

Read Finder’s Keepers, taking note of King’s use of extraordinary situations.

Writing Challenge:

Narrate a story of ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.