Monday, June 13, 2011

Tenebrific tension in horror and science fiction

When a story gives you the creeps, when it makes you afraid to turn off the lights at night, a horror writer’s done their job. Creeping a reader out involves building tension, getting that spooky vibe travelling along a reader’s spine until it makes them shiver with fear.
On a recent road trip, I listened to the audio version of Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of my favorite books. It’s a science fiction tale that crosses over into the realm of horror. Even though written in the 1950’s, the book still has creep power. Finney achieves this not through blood and guts, but by increasing tension chapter by chapter. And tension is timeless. It’s why Finney’s Body Snatchers is still popular in 2011.  
Finney begins with the protagonist, the town doctor Miles, receiving an unexpected visit from a girl concerned about her cousin. The cousin’s convinced her father isn’t really her father. There’s something not quite right about her dad she can’t put her finger on. We feel the initial chill that something in Mill Valley is amiss and its icy tenebrous fingers start to creep through our veins.  
When we’re introduced to the long gray seed pods that burst open and form white mannequin- type molds of humans, we’re freaked out. This isn’t just a psycho-social anomaly. This is terrifying: a being we’ve never encountered before, a monster from another planet.
Finney furthers the tension by breaking down trust. Longing to count on each other, believe in each other, help each other as humans when the going gets tough is shattered in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Most of Mill Valley’s population is a replica of their former selves. What the people perceive as themselves is really not. They want to trust but how can they when they don’t know who’s on their side? When the monster becomes not just an alien human-absorbing seed pod, but could be your mother, brother, neighbor or boss, Finney’s pulled our nerves taught. He’s played with us, using an everyday human social element, relevant in the 1950’s the same way it is in 2011. In doing so, he’s succeeded in amping the tension. We can’t wait to turn the page, to find out what happens next.  
I won’t give you Finney’s ending, and will only say it’s a good one. But will suggest a couple other books and stories I’ve read that terrify us through use of tension:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons
The Elementals by Michael McDowell
“Family” by Joyce Carol Oates

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