I have been described as spunky, bubbly, hyper, talkative, silly, dorky, scattered, and sensitive (you may have surmised that not all of these descriptions were meant to be compliments).
If you were to survey a list of my favorite authors and books and stories, though, you may get a different impression of me. I adore authors like William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Kent Haruf. And I have recently expanded my appreciation for Shirley Jackson, of "The Lottery" fame. (You probably read it in high school and were justifiably horrified. Yeah, I love that story.)
A week or so ago, I finished reading the aforementioned Jackson's slim and deliciously disturbing novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. (Even the title has an eerie cadence and implied neurosis, don't you think? Go ahead and draw that conclusion, because you're right on target.)
As the novel progressed and the creepiness increased, and as Jackson revealed more of the darkness in a particular character's psyche, I became thoroughly captivated.
Now, I am not a fan of any kind of horror or gore, especially not on the big screen. I don't like violence, rage, blood. It's the psychological tension that gets me.
On occasion, it occurs to me to worry a little, and to wonder what it is that fascinates me about this kind of story and this kind of character. Is there something disturbing about me?
The answer: yep. I'm disturbing. Disturbing and creepy. In fact, we are all a little creepy. It's called human nature. We think thoughts that we ought not to think. We have urges that we are (hopefully) well-adjusted and disciplined enough to subvert.
So, when I read a story that reveals those normally hushed-up aspects of the garden-variety human, and perhaps even reveals what would occur if the urges and thoughts were set free, it rings true. It confirms what I know, deep down, to be true about people, about myself, and about the world.
There is no falseness in Emily, from Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." You may not fully understand her (I rather hope you don't...), but you know she's not fake. There is no facade to the Misfit in O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find."* His behavior perfectly (horrifyingly) matches his heart.
Characters like these hold up a mirror (and a high-beam flashlight) to the dark, spiderwebbed corners of our own hearts. They remind us of the struggle and ache that comes with being human.
What really thrills me about these characters and stories is the sheer genius of the writer. It takes discernment to see through the human condition to that degree; it takes guts to put it out there, risking that the reader won't relate; it takes skill to put it all plainly and beautifully into a story that touches readers' hearts. They implicitly ask the deeper question: "Now what?" It's the question life is asking us all the time.
These stories, when it comes down to it, are honest, brave, and real. That's the kind of person (and writer) I want to be.
*If you're not one to click on hot links in blog posts, make an exception for this one. It's a rare audio recording of Flannery O'Connor, reading the story herself. You're welcome.