Why Can’t I Be Scared – An essay by Sharon Lawson

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As with authors, I have certain publishers and editors that I consider favorites. Today, one of my favorite ones of all is here with a new and captivating essay about fear–or the lack thereof. Sharon Lawson, co-editor of the Stoker nominated anthology, DARK VISIONS: Volume One, alongside Anthony Rivera, has edited seven horror and genre hybrid anthologies showcasing some of the best fiction and some of the best talent in the business. But it turns out that, in addition to being a rock star editor, she’s also quite eloquent. I hope you take the time to enjoy this outstanding and entertaining essay.

Why Can’t I Be Scared

By Sharon Lawson

I am terrified of death. There, I said it. I know most people aren’t looking forward to that inevitability, but there are times I get downright obsessed with the thought, consumed OmRealwith sadness, dread and terror. These episodes pass, but you would think that maybe I should steer clear of horror literature—which very often focuses on death—choose something lighter like romance or mystery. I do enjoy a good mystery from time to time, but it has always been horror for me, long before I became a part of the industry. However, a sad truth has dawned on me since taking this job as I read submission after submission: I don’t get scared anymore.

I don’t know what happened to that little girl, parked in front of the TV, watching my favorite shows, Lassie—don’t even try to tell me that a beautiful collie facing peril week after week isn’t horror—and The Twilight Zone.  A friend once told me that it is the Irish in me, that I am naturally pessimistic, too enthralled with all that can go wrong, which might be why I was attracted to darker shows, movies and books from a very young age. The first adult horror I read was Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, at the age of nine or ten, and I loved it, never mind the resulting nightmares. I was lucky that my mother didn’t pay a lot of attention to what I read, and I kept on buying the scariest books I could find. Ghost Story by Peter Straub is still one of my all-time favorites. I became a huge Dean Koontz fan. I was never big on the slasher movies of the day, but When a Stranger Calls did me in, probably because the horror was all too real for this in-demand babysitter. There was simply no shortage of thrills. So this strange development starts me thinking and I wonder what has changed in me so that I no longer get that delightful rush of fear.

I suppose the most obvious answer is that reality is scary. It is not a new concept. SBFrontCoverThroughout history, there have always been atrocities both big and small. The difference now is that we know about them. All of them. Every horrible thing that happens, from our own backyard to the farthest corners of the world, from an entire family murdered in their home to children burned alive in Nigeria. The immediacy of information has made the horrors of the world commonplace. Most of us now see news of a mass shooting and experience not much more than a fleeting moment of sad resignation. So have I simply become too jaded to be scared by a fictional story when I can simply turn on my television, or check my Facebook feed, and see true stories much more frightening than anything that comes from the mind of even the best writers? That might be one answer.

Another idea I have is that as we age, our imagination diminishes. I don’t mean for everyone. I am sure there are people who hold on to that sense of wonder, that openness, long into old age. But I think many of us lose our ability to accept the fantastic. Become more cynical, or maybe just more clinical. I remember when my son was very young he would look up towards the ceiling and smile, or frown, focusing on something I couldn’t see. I wondered what it was that he saw, and why I couldn’t. As we age, do we close ourselves off to the impossible? Not intentionally, but as a result of our brain aging? I find that it is often difficult for me to visualize the horrors in the stories I read, and I know that it isn’t only with the poorly-written stories. I don’t remember having trouble with this as a young reader. Now my mind cannot so easily conjure the terrifying images the author wants me to see, so I don’t feel the fear that used to excite me.

splatterAnd then there is the thought that maybe my expectations are way too high. We once received a review for one of our books where the reader stated that she wanted to find a book so scary she would have to sleep with the lights on for weeks. Is that even possible? Am I being as unreasonable as this person? Or have I read so many stories, thousands of submissions, and now I am too hard to impress.

I have no idea which is the actual answer, or maybe it’s a combination of factors. All I know is that I wish I could return to my youth, loving the scare, laying in the dark and watching my closet door to make sure that it didn’t open. Peering over the edge of my bed, waiting for those inhuman hands to appear from beneath. Don’t get me wrong, I have read plenty of entertaining stories that have disturbed or creeped me out, but nothing that has left my heart racing. The wonderful feelings I remember, of my spine tingling, of the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, of needing to turn the lights on, don’t happen for me anymore. But I refuse to believe that I won’t someday experience the thrill again. To all authors of dark fiction, both men and women, I ask that you please don’t give up on trying to scare me.

 

bio_sharonlawson200x2001About Sharon Lawson: 

Lawson spent more than a decade wasting her editing and proofreading skills on a career in accounting. She has now traded those dreaded numbers for the words she has always cherished, much to the chagrin of co-workers who are daily admonished for the grammatical and contextual errors she finds in their memos.

Having left her world of numbers for several years to be a stay-at-home mom, Lawson joined Grey Matter Press for an opportunity she just could not ignore — the ability to combine her love of books with her fondness for all things dark and horrible. Lawson’s interest in horror began while watching episodes of “The Twilight Zone” at what was probably an inappropriately young age. When she could finally hold a book in her hands she moved onto reading the works of authors that included Shirley Jackson, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, John Saul and Stephen King. Her favorite horror novel of all time is The Talisman, co-written by Straub and King.

Lawson prefers her horror to include elements of the supernatural as she has quite a fondness for ghosts, monsters and a few demons or two. In her spare time she enjoys hiking, photography and visiting the zoo (which we fondly refer to as ‘The Animal Prison’).

She lives in a suburb of Chicago with her husband, teenage son, two cats, and two very large and hairy black dogs. She suffers from a debilitating case of automatonophobia.

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8 comments

  1. I totally agree. I love horror and dark fiction. Plenty of reads have give me the creeps, but I too feel like I have become kind of numb in a way that very, very little scares me, particularly from a fiction point of view. I think television and the media has a lot to do with it. Some of the things we see nowadays are passed off as normal, whereas twenty, thirty years ago they would’ve terrified us. Maybe we’re just getting old and we have seen it all, read it all, heard it all before. Who knows ? Great essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think our capacity for fiction-induced fear withers with time, but never dies. You ought to read better-crafted work, and make more of an effort be present in the text. Long-term editing can blunt this faculty (I know). I was surprised to be genuinely disturbed (as opposed to merely “scared”) by these novels: THE WASP FACTORY (Iain Banks, 1984), NIGHT FILM (Marisha Pessl, 2013), BROTHER (Ania Ahlborn, 2015), and BIRD BOX (Josh Malerman, 2015). Give ’em a try. A big problem with younger writers: they don’t read enough, or widely, and therefore lack knowledge of what has come before—across all genres. Way too many books inspired by movies and games, with the resultant soulless unoriginality and poverty of language. Worse, only writing/editing professionals like us seem to notice.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I can really relate to this article. What got me into this genre – the scares – has greatly diminished. Though she gets blindsided from time to time and has a bad night’s sleep as a result, my wife is pretty much the same way. I feel like we fit into the horror movie explanation for why killers become serial killers: we’re always chasing that high of when we were younger and easier to spook. But we can never really attain that, so we just consume more and more horror fiction, but it doesn’t satisfy like it used to so the cycle perpetuates.

    Of course, there are other reasons to read horror stories (still my favorite), but I do kind of miss the high.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. To me, more often than not, the greatest scares or deepest terror in fiction comes from things that are an affront to my sense of what is right and proper.. e.g things that go against what I think are the way society should work or how relationships should work between people, etc. Karen Runge is one of the best authors around right now who writes stories that mess with your head this way and leave you thinking, long after you’ve finished the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent post. I see the same tendency happening with myself — it’s inevitable that the more times I’m exposed to various things that scare me, the bigger the callous gets against them. You wrangle those fears and you ward yourself a little harder for the next thing that is meant to unsettle or terrify. That’s not to say there are stories that stick to the ribs when you’re done (A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay rekindled it for me, and that’s become my most recent benchmark to be trumped when reading.) I can’t imagine what it must be like for an editor.

    Liked by 1 person

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