The Strange Pleasures of Obsessive Dread- Victorian and Contemporary Horror
By Catherine Stine
I love horror, more and more. I blame it on my father who read me Edgar Allen Poe stories for bedtime when I was only eight or nine. Thanks, Dad. No, really!
Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley and Christina Rossetti—these were some of the greatest Victorian masters of horror. They wrote during a time of extreme suppression of the passions. Ironically, this repressive mood inspired a huge outpouring of dark, gritty, evocative literature. Passions manage to burst out of people no matter how buried.
In 1818, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the quintessential misunderstood antihero. He was hideous and committed murderous acts, yet he had a human, breakable heart and sadly, understood how hideous he was. Shelley is credited with being the very first science-fiction author. Quite impressive for the time period when women were trussed in girdles and long, cumbersome skirts, and rarely had jobs much less illustrious careers.
Edgar Allen Poe is another master of mounting dread, with his ticking clocks, ghastly secrets, and moldering corpses in walled up sections of cellars. In his short stories The House of Usher and The Black Cat Poe wrote of an alcoholic’s nightmarish visions that might make even sane men murder cats and move crusty houses to snap to life.
Christina Rossetti’s brilliant poem The Goblin Market is a favorite dark Victorian gem. At first the plump little goblins selling fruits seem spunky and cute, but later, when the young women turn down their offers of treats, they become quite nasty. Many determine that the goblins’ aggressive behavior was a Victorian caution to women against considering sex with strange men. Here are some lines. See what you think:
No longer wagging, purring, but visibly demurring,
Grunting and snarling. One call’d her proud,
Cross-grain’d, uncivil; their tones wax’d loud,
Their looks were evil.
Lashing their tails, they trod and hustled her,
Elbow’d and jostled her, claw’d with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking,
Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,
Stamp’d upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeez’d their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat.
So, in Victorian times, people shared a dread of lurid, passionate sex, alcoholic-fueled visions, and creeping lunacy. In my young adult horror, Dorianna, I examine a very contemporary anxiety that emerged from social media: the dread of never having enough followers, enough Likes on Facebook, enough people Friending and following your Instagrams and Pinterest boards. It is also the hollow feeling that comes with sensing that the real problem lies way underneath—a psychological horror of alienation, loneliness, being left out of the party. With Dorianna, the problem also lies in what happens when she actually gets followers—a mega-ton of them—but those rampaging followers have a very different agenda than she ever imagined. Here’s a snippet from Dorianna where she’s talking about her next party, organized online:
I spoon in a hunk of chocolate and let it slide luxuriously down my throat. Lately, I’m so famished. For food, for clothes, for fans. Nothing ever seems to fill me up.
“Can’t wait to hear.” Bailey licks whipped cream off her spoon. “How many RSVPs do we have now?” she asks. The evite went out a week ago.
“This morning we had three hundred sixty-two yeses.”
“Holy Moly!” Bailey’s jaw drops. I study the oozy chocolate blobs floating on her tongue. “How will we cram all those people in my loft?”
“It’s a good problem, right?”
“Uh, yeah, if we had a stadium. Seriously, Mom will freak, and she’s normally very mellow. Where are they all coming from?”
“Mostly from a friend who goes to a school in Fort Greene.”
“Dorianna, we need to shut this thing down—take it offline.”
“We can’t do that.” Five thousand fan page followers and three hundred sixty-two attendees is not enough. No way. I can’t wait until the third event, where I’m going to bust it wide open.
As Simon Cowell of American Idol judge fame said: The ratings come in, you’re happy for five minutes, then the insecure madness comes.
What modern obsession or dread do you think would make a good theme for a horror novel?
Contemporary/Paranormal Teen Romance
Released October 24, 2014
Internet followers, beauty, power. It all sounded good. Until it transformed into a terrifying reality Dorianna couldn’t stop.
When her father is jailed, her mother ships Dorianna to her aunt’s house. Dorianna yearns to build a new identity, but the popular Lacey bullies her—mostly for getting attention from her ex, Ander.
Ander takes Dorianna to Coney Island where Wilson, a videographer, creates a stunning compilation of her. She dreams of being an online sensation, tired of being plain and lonely, and vows she’d give anything to go viral. Wilson claims he’s the Prince of Darkness and offers her the beauty and fame she's dreamed of—warning her that a pledge has its downsides. Dorianna has no idea of how dire those consequences might be.
On the way to my new school, I catch a glimpse of my face in a shop mirror. Even though I hate mirrors, I force myself to look. No one needs to remind me I’m plain.
Leaning forward, I examine my pale skin with its tracery of blue underneath. It looks like granny spider veins. And I never smile all the way. That would expose my wonky teeth—one front tooth slightly over the other.
My hair’s limp, but it’s auburn with peachy highlights. I’ve got that going for me, at least. Lifting up a lock, I admire its warm glow in the September sun. And there’s still a hint of eagerness in my eyes––they haven’t knocked that out of me. It’s hope, whispering, “Maybe this place will be different. Maybe they won’t walk past me as if I’m floating dust.”
I’ve been here in Brooklyn for four days, shuffled away from family chaos to my Aunt Carol’s house. She’s nice so far, but I don’t really know her. It’s too bad we could never afford to fly east for family reunions. I do know she’s a fundraiser for a public radio station, and owns one floor in a brownstone. And that she eats vegetarian, and neatly folds the nubbly throws on her earth-tone Pottery Barn couch.
And she’s the sister of my screw-up father.
I’m not sorry I left Wabash. School there was a train wreck. It got so lonely, watching the reigning couples kissing their way down the halls. I wanted someone’s arms around me, too, or at least another good friend after Jen. But it wasn’t meant to be, after gossip spread that my father was sent to jail for committing moral turpitude. My mom took to her bed, and I took over. We were struck with loss and horror and shock all at once. Mom needed me last spring. I tried to help in any way I could, until she insisted that I needed a total break from the family. Or was it Mom who needed the break?
I’m going to suck it up. I am. If she needs the break, she can have it. Maybe I need one, too. I’m determined to pump myself up to face a different army of kids.
Ambling down Montague Street, past the cute boutiques, I soak in the balmy September sun and survey my new stomping grounds. These Brooklyn streets are as delicious as strawberry shortcake. The narrow shops are a wonder of necklaces, handmade with glass bits and bottle tops, and leafy bracelets fashioned from green computer chips.
The caffeine-laced scents wafting from the cyber café draw me in. As I walk by, I sneak looks at the lean, fox-quick boys with scruffy hair, low-slung belts, and tees that read Neon Pandas and Oubliettes of Onyx. Bands I’ve never heard of, since out in Hoosier Land they mostly play country music.
I smile, picturing myself talking to a slinky boy who makes me my very own playlist—he’d call it Songs for a Brooklyn Beauty. A girl can dream, right?
Turning down Court Street, a woman breezes past me in a black jumpsuit. Another dramatic beauty in thigh-high boots floats by, with two dachshunds tugging against their pink leashes. As I glance back at her, I imagine her working as a Broadway actress, dancing across a stage in those fancy boots.
Just then, one of her dogs works free of her grasp, and streaks into the street. “Hey!” I call. “Hey, pup!” I dash after it, grab the pink leather strap, and coax it back toward the curb as a bakery van careens around the corner, the driver pounding on his horn.
The booted lady runs over to me. “Thanks so much!” she says, breathless.
“Happy to help. Couldn’t let your sweet dog be hit.” Our eyes meet as I hand her the leash, and her smile touches me. I watch for another moment as she walks demurely on.
Everything here vibrates with possibility, if I block out my dread of school. It’s my chance to figure out who I want to be, which I couldn’t quite do back home. I can’t wait to let my old, stale-kernel life rot on the vine, and start over.
Reading the sign on a red colonial stone building, I sway with sudden trepidation: School. Ivy sprints up its scholarly walls, and its walkway is marked with marble planters. Each one bursts with purple chrysanthemums, as if this is the cheeriest high school ever. I’m here, no turning back. Look, you’re smart, I tell myself, you tested in and even got a scholarship here. Maybe private school kids are easier on new students. Unlikely, but I’ll give it my best.
Catherine Stine’s YA novels span the range from science fiction to dark fantasy to modern horror. Her futuristic thriller, Fireseed One was a finalist in YA and SF in the USA News International Book Awards and an Indie Reader Approved notable. Its companion novel, Ruby’s Fire was a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Awards. She also writes new adult fiction as Kitsy Clare, and her Art of Love series (Model Position and Private Internship) is about Sienna’s artistic perils in NYC. Her YA paranormal, Dorianna is her new YA horror from Evernight Teen. Catherine’s love of dark fantasy came from her father reading Edgar Allen Poe to her when she was a child. She was also addicted to science fiction as a teen. The freakier the better! She teaches workshops in writing speculative fiction and is a member of RWA, SFWA and SCBWI.
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