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Monday, October 25, 2021

Horror and Hope

Sebastian Murdoch
Readers Advisor, Talking Book Services

Growing up, friends and family might have referred to me as “a little odd.” I was a daydreamer, perpetually lost in fantastical worlds of my own creation, imagining for my toys lives and adventures of their own while I was at school or away on a family vacation. I was also inexplicably drawn to the strange and surreal, to the twisty, often scary, corners of the world around me. In those corners, I didn’t see dust and cracks in the paint, but the ashes of a hastily-smothered fire or hidden messages that only I could read. I was, to put it simply, a weird kid.

I was also, first and foremost, a reader. From the time I could string words together in a coherent sentence, I gravitated toward books and words, toward stories. My mother tells an anecdote in which, at about six or seven, I described myself as “loquacious.” Though I was right in my choice of self-identification, I imagine that I chose the word not because it fit me and my personality, but because I enjoyed the way it sounded, the languorous rise and fall of the syllables, the way it drew my lips forward, then back, then forward again as I shaped them around each sound. The fact that I just used 59 words to describe the reason for choosing that word goes to show that I am much the same now as I was then.

Another thing that has not changed for me since I was a child is my fascination with the horror genre. Throughout elementary school, I devoured the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine, even going so far as to fill out a form in the back of one of the books to join his fan club. I mailed the application and was rewarded with a signed photo of the author himself. Granted, that signature may have been a copy printed onto each of the photos sent to us ravenous children, but it still meant something to me. That photo is long gone now, misplaced or discarded during one move or another, but I remember it vividly, as I also do the stories Stine wrote. They, along with but to a lesser extent the Fear Street tales, have stuck with me into adulthood, where I now write my own horror stories professionally, as an agented writer looking toward the publication of their debut novel. While my own work does not center around children or teenagers, the core appeal of those spooky stories sits at the head of my practice, my process of crafting a narrative meant to fascinate and simultaneously repulse its reader.

Because that’s the central tenet of good horror writing, isn’t it? To make the reader scared to turn the page, but helpless in the face of their own curiosity, their need to follow the story through to the end, because it’s just that good. I think that’s something about horror that translates well to real life: so many of us are scared of how our stories will turn out, and yet most of us go through our days anyway, wanting to know how it all shakes out. It makes sense that we might be propelled through a fictional story by that same curiosity.

All this to say, I completely understand the people who eschew horror because they have lived through enough terror and pain to last them the rest of their lifetime. If you have experienced real, palpable fear that leaves behind a psychic (and, in some cases, physical) scar, then why subject yourself to that same kind of fear in your leisure time? It makes a certain kind of sense. But, on the other hand, some of those same people who have experienced trauma and fear in their real life will often find fictional horror a type of outlet or catharsis for their pain. Because they are able to control the type of fear to which they’re subjected, the fear becomes less damaging and more of a purge of the emotions that are wrapped up in fear: grief, embarrassment, guilt. If we fear the pain of grief, for instance, then might it not be helpful to run through a fictional situation in which loss plays a large role, as a sort of trial run? Would we not then be better prepared for the emotions that arise when we are in the midst of a divorce or dealing with the death of a loved one or mourning the loss of a home or a part of our lives we thought would be around forever? Of course, it’s not a foolproof strategy for how to cope with unpleasant emotions, but nothing is really.

In my case, I fear physical pain to an extreme degree. (Please disregard the fact that I have multiple tattoos; I’m talking about a more intense and ongoing pain here.) I avoid most situations in which an amount of pain might be expected. You will not catch me scaling cliffs or subjecting myself to a session of CrossFit. Scenes wherein tremendous amounts of pain are inflicted on the characters cause me to cringe and duck behind my hands. I have nightmares about body horror like Junji Ito’s The Enigma of Amigara Fault. But I have also watched almost all of the Saw movies and have listened to the audiobook of Nick Cutter’s The Troop and The Deep multiple times. I don’t know if consuming these kinds of horror stories will make it easier if I ever go through something truly painful (like when I fractured my wrist as a child), but it certainly makes me feel more grateful for the times when my body feels healthy and strong.

That’s another thing that drives horror: a fear of weakness. I would be willing to bet that most people have experienced a nightmare in which they felt completely helpless, whether that meant being unable to walk or run from a pursuer or a sudden muteness that left them incapable of calling for help. We all fear being weak in some way—physically, emotionally, or mentally—and at the core of that fear is the question, “What will be done to me when I am unable to defend myself?”

This question is especially pertinent to those of us who live with some form or marginalization. Someone with a mental illness or disability may fear an abusive conservatorship (wherein another person is put in charge of your life, as in the case of Britney Spears’s conservatorship) or institutionalization. Someone with a physical disability that literally prevents them from being able to defend themselves would have ample cause to fear an abusive caregiver or any callous stranger on the street. And, on a slightly more philosophical but no less important note, a person of color or a queer person might fear violence when they lack a support network, which might be considered a way to defend yourself against social attacks or manipulation. That’s all to say that, regardless of your placement in the social hierarchy of the West (as that is where I have lived all my life and so can only speak to my experiences here), everyone will have seen or experienced what can happen when one person is at a disadvantage to another. It’s similar to love or intimacy in a way. We are all always asking, “If I show you this vulnerable part of myself, will you be good to me?”

It’s the same for me with my writing. I put so much of my heart into my work that sharing it with another person is akin to tipping back my head and exposing my throat. They could kiss it, or they could cut it. It all depends on them at that point. And, even in spite of that fear, I still show my stories to other people. Why? Why not hide it, and thus that soft part of me, away where it can’t be harmed? Because otherwise I will have missed out on that intimacy, that connection with another person. Yes, the fear is there because I have been hurt in the past, because I know that I could be hurt again, but so too is the knowledge that hope exists. Any good horror story will maintain that spark of hope, because it isn’t just the curiosity that drives us to finish the book—it’s also the hope that, despite all that terror, things will be okay in the end. That’s why people get into relationships again even after a bad breakup or why people ride roller coasters again and again. Because the risk is worth the reward we hope awaits us. And all that fear we experienced along the way?

Well, it just makes us more grateful.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Come Library With Us!

The Mississippi Library Commission is hiring! Several beloved staff recently left for positions at other libraries and agencies. While we celebrate the new paths in their careers, we also can't wait to meet the people who will fill their shoes in the months to come. 

We're located at the Research and Development Center in Jackson, Mississippi, just off Lakeland Drive and Ridgewood Road. Our award-winning facility is the home to the Mississippi Center for the Book, a Patent and Trademark Resource Center, and the Mississippi Talking Book Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. We also offer extensive reference and interlibrary loan services for Mississippians and library consulting services, digital services, and network services for libraries and librarians across the state. Our current openings include:

If you are interested in joining our team, please submit an application to the Mississippi State Personnel Board. Please keep an eye out in the coming weeks for additional openings at our agency.

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