In terms of horror, and my respect for it, the only book that mattered was Stephen King’s first short story collection, Night Shift, first published in 1978. I turned eleven that year, and the other boys in my class had a mass market paperback copy of Night Shift, with far too many eyes on the front cover. The story they kept daring all the other boys to read was “Graveyard Shift,” in which a repair crew stumbles on (and gets devoured by) a colony of mutant rats.
I read it.
It was scary.
I kept reading.
Until I met “The Boogeyman,” a short originally printed in a 1973 edition of Cavalier. After finishing that one, I returned the book and gave up reading. Forever.
And no wonder. “The Boogeyman” posits an all-powerful closet-dwelling monster that slithers its way out of hiding by night and kills children, including the children of the narrator.
Bear in mind, I was a child when I encountered this story, and in the fictions I’d read up to that point, children might well be in danger (heck, even Ian Fleming, in Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang, puts children in danger) but they don’t get killed––or if they were killed, it was always with a noble gloss of Romantic heroism. A wasting disease, for example, or some heroic self-sacrifice. They didn’t just get mutilated for no good reason. That simply wasn’t allowed.
But in “The Boogeyman,” kids get killed even with their parents in the very next room, and that played to my deepest fears, my inner conviction that the world was nowhere near as organized and predictable as my parents (and grown-ups in general) seemed to believe. The boogeyman had infinite reach; it had endless appetites; it did not obey the laws of physics. What could be more frightening?
Eventually, round about 2011, I did once again pick up the reading habit, but “The Boogeyman” has never strayed far from my mind. By that time, I had also started writing, and spent endless hours ruminating on what made my favorite stories of yesteryear take hold and burrow their roots into my soul. “The Boogeyman” bore special consideration, since it left me terrified of closets for years. (Yes, I’m exaggerating about how it made me give up reading, but my fear of the dark, exacerbated by that one short story, took literally three and a half decades to conquer.)
The mechanics of the “The Boogeyman” are simple enough: it’s told in flashback, with the narrator speaking with a psychiatrist, Dr. Harper, who (spoiler alert) turns out by story’s end to be the boogeyman in disguise.
Why, then, did it work so well?
Streamlining, for one. The story doesn’t linger on detail. It goes for the jugular.
How does it manage this? By focusing on what I believe to be the central conceit of all good horror fictions, the demolition of the main character’s sense of control.
Let’s face it, we human beings are pretty content so long as we have a pillow on which to rest our heads by night and full bellies by day. But strip away that easy predictability, and what are we left with? Panic and primal fear.
So in the end, I owe Mr. King a debt of thanks. His story taught me that no matter what sort of tale I’m telling, if I wish to amplify the stakes and increase the tension, all I need do is peel away a layer or two of the protagonist’s basic sense of control.
A final thought: this lesson doesn’t only apply to horror. I write literary fiction, too, along with stage plays and more. If the work I’m doing has legs -- if its internal engines churn full speed ahead – it’s likely due, at least in part, to my characters having been thrown off the proverbial deep end. Whatever sense of order and control they used to have has been shattered; the boogeymen in their closets are on the rampage, ready and waiting to spring.
It’s that simple.
Now, I really must go. I hear something lurking in my closet…
Mark Rigney is the author of Check-Out Time and many other fictions. His website is www.markrigney.net. For an interview right here on Ginger Nuts Of Horror, follow this link.