Friday, October 26, 2012

A Halloween Tradition: Storytelling

"Minos, King of Crete," Gustave Dore, illustration for the Divine Comedy
Everything you can think of is true,
And fishes make wishes on you.
We’re fighting our way up dreamland’s spine,

Red flamingos and expensive wine...

Out along the edge is
Always where I burn to be:
The further on the edge,

The hotter the intensity. 
"Danger Zone," Kenny Loggins

For the last several years at Halloween, my roommates and I have gathered our varied acquaintances in our home to do something that adults rarely do these days: read aloud together.

I personally love reading aloud; I enjoy the feeling of community it generates, the opportunity to discuss something read immediately after reading it, and the chance to use one's voice to, to almost become someone else. I suppose it's like acting, but more accessible to non-actors.

Here's the thing, though: my roommates and I aren't really trying to revive some lost cultural institution of communal reading aloud, withered on the vine of human entertainments as radio, film, and television have sucked up its nutrients. (If you'd like to read a brief opinion piece on that subject, this one is good.) No, what we're trying to do is freak each other out.

You see, I've never liked haunted houses, and I don't usually go in for horror movies or suspense films (exceptions: Alien, The Thing, and early-middle M. Night Shyamalan movies). My roommates have similar tastes. Reading scary stuff aloud is a nice way to freak ourselves out without having to venture into those danger zones.

It is also, admittedly, a good excuse to get a bunch of people into our house and eat gigantic quantities of baked goods and other treats (viz. puppy dog chow1). BUT let us not go into that; instead, allow me to narrate a typical Halloween at our house for you, if you've never joined us.

As the guests arrive, the iPod speakers in the living room are set up with a playlist of more-or-less lighthearted Halloween mood music, e.g., Tom Waits' Everything You Can Think (Of Is True), Dead Man's Bones' My Body's a Zombie for You, or Sufjan Stevens' John Wayne Gacy. People mill about, cupcakes and brownies and the like are distributed. After a period of socialization, the readings begin.

When we read, the book or papers with the story are passed around the circle of folks, each person who wants to read taking a turn. I usually take on the role of "guy who knows about this sort of thing" and give people advice about how to read aloud effectively (read a little slower than you feel is natural, try to speak clearly and deliberately, and have fun with it).

We usually start with something quite short, often with a sort of twist ending; something that's not obviously horrible all the way along, but ends up nasty. The Chaser by John Collier2 has often filled this role, but this year I'm considering trying out Skin by Roald Dahl.3

After this come one or two longer stories, usually marked by more suspense and intensity throughout. We often use science fiction for this, having read the unsettling Inconstant Moon by Larry Niven4 and the mesmerizing Nightfall by Isaac Asimov,5 though we have also filled it with The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle.6 This year, I think I'm going to try M.R. James' Oh, Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad, 7 but I don't know; I might go track down a copy of Neil Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors and pick out something. Also, we'll probably do The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe.

All this time there's usually some background music going, something atmospheric but not necessarily terrifying. But with the last thing we do, that changes a bit.

The last story is always H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space. This may seem like an odd choice to end things with, as it is quite long, quite old, and very slow, not to mention full of obscure words and occasional weird, nigh-unintelligible rural speech approximations.8

However, what this story lacks in momentum it more than makes up for in slow-building, gut-wrenching horror; and it's the best kind of horror: the horror of the unknown. What exactly is at the back of the terrible events of the story is never made completely clear, as Lovecraft builds a series of increasingly unusual, unpleasant, and upsetting events into a mysterious, terrifying climax.

As we read the story, I put on the most unsettling ambient music I can scrounge up out of my archives, typically some William Basinksi and some music (called, improbably, "Pasibutbut") from Taiwan's native people that is really, really unnerving, at least to me. When the end finally arrives, and strange lights are flashing in the sky, the earth is trembling, and the trees are swaying in a wind from some other dimension, I put on the really weird stuff, take the story in hand, and read in my most wild-eyed, burning voice. People, including myself, tend to freak out. And it's great.

1. AKA "mud buddies," apparently.
2. A very brief story about a young man buying a love potion he doesn't understand the consequences of.
3. About a homeless man with a tattoo on his back done by a famous painter.
4. About a night when the moon is suddenly fiercely bright, indicating that the sun has expanded or flared, destroying the day side of earth, and that this likely is the narrator's last night, along with everyone else's.
5. About a place where night only happens once every several thousand years, causing madness among the planet's population and the destruction of civilizations.
6. A creepy Sherlock Holmes story about a mysterious death, a weird uncle with exotic pets, and a young woman stuck in a huge freaky old mansion.
7. About a dude who finds a whistle that summons a ghost.
8. E.g., " must a’ come in that stone . . . pizened the whole place . . . dun’t know what it wants . . . that round thing them men from the college dug outen the stone . . . they smashed it . . . it was that same colour . . . jest the same, like the flowers an’ plants . . . must a’ ben more of ’em . . . seeds . . . seeds . . . they growed . . . I seen it the fust time this week."

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