There and back again

Illustrated by Eric Fraser

When I was a child, I would sit next to my brother while my mom read "The Hobbit" aloud. I was not aware of it at the onset of Bilbo's journey, but I, perhaps too young to explore the dark depths of humanity--expressed through Tolkien's fantasy world--found the retrospectively-quaint story to be absolutely terrifying, to the point of asking, no, begging my poor mother to stop reading at various intervals. I needed some time to catch my breath, to rethink my life decisions.

Inevitably, I reached a point of no return, and would not allow her to finish the story. Yes, "The Hobbit" was too scary for me.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here ...

I mean, what the fuck is a boy supposed to do with a dragon? Sure, in some books, the boy somehow befriends one, but ... come on, everyone knows that's bullshit. I had cats, you know?

There was nothing left to do but run. And so we turned our attention toward friendlier tales, like the Bible, where nightmares are truly farmed.

I tell this story not to lap up your precious pity, but to transition ever-so-awkwardly into "The Exorcist." I--like most children, I assume--was pretty much afraid of everything growing up. It's possible a forced-religious upbringing, of which I was vehemently opposed to, contributed to this constant state of unease and distrust. I remember running full-sprint out of my childhood home, headed for the neighbor's house across the cul de sac, because I discovered upon entering the house that the front door was unlocked. Scary, I know.

But something happened when I was around 13 years old (well, a lot of things happened ...); the terrors of the world became distant, like a stone dropped into a deep well, and I found myself creeping back toward the very things that had once rendered me mute and incontinent. I wanted to be scared. I watched horror films with pure delight, waiting to feel the customary tingle as a Krueger or Myers came into frame.

An entire world of horror opened up before me, in every legal and non-binding form, and yet, despite my love of the genre, I was unable to scratch the itch--outside of fearing there was an actual ghost in my bedroom, banging on the walls while I tried to sleep.

A few weeks ago, I finished reading William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist." After the first few chapters, I was skeptical that this book would live up to its lofty expectations. The film is one of the few I find genuinely frightening, and the novel has an almost-legendary aura.

Early on in the novel, the '70s dialogue of Chris, the mother of the soon-to-be-possessed Regan, was a bit outdated and distracting. I was worried that it would carry through the entire book, and ruin the suspense of the characters' deconstruction.

Thankfully, those worries were unfounded. Chris' dialogue smoothed out, and the focus of the novel transitioned away from the darling actress to Father Karras and his battle with the Devil. Which is a bit like starting a movie with Hermione Granger and finishing with Ellen Ripley. It is not a scary book, in King-ian terms; there are no squirming hedges or vindictive cell phones. But over the years, I've learned that true horror isn't about things, or people, or even the strange expressions of the horror they're meant to convey (clowns, anyone?), but of how the story makes you think, of what it slips into your drink when you're not paying attention.

True horror is not someone throwing a ball at your face (don't tell that to my wife), but in the introspection that comes with watching someone else throw a ball at someone's face. Could that be me one day? Or worse, could I be the victim of a malevolent ball-thrower?

That's what makes Blatty's "The Exorcist" so great. The book lacks some of the shock and awe of the movie, in the sense that you're not watching a snuff film, instead merely imagining one (which I would argue is worse), but the written conversations between Father Karras and Regan are haunting--perfect dialogue with perfect pacing--and far exceed the visual thrills of the film. Those conversations stick with you long after the pages have been turned. I know I'll revisit them again, whether I want to or not.

I still look back on my "Hobbit" days (in both fear and general body-size) with fondness. I'm not ashamed to have been moved by effective storytelling. I'm not ashamed to have wilted under Tolkien's mighty pen! If anything, it was a signal to me that the written word has power, and that when wielded properly, you can terrify small children. And, really, isn't that what writing is really all about?