Dread is an instrument. Its sound varies depending on how you play it. We’ve all heard it before, in the background of movies and TV series: there’s the high-pitched note that stretches on and on, the irregularly thudding heartbeat, the creak of a loose floorboard, or a rusty hinge, or of a rope tightening till something breaks – the rope itself, or perhaps the neck in its noose.
Some writers play dread like a Theremin, seeming to draw its thuds and shrieks out of thin air. I wanted to write a story where the dread settled into your stomach before the first paragraph ended, and remained humming along at some barely perceptible frequency thereafter, peaking when I needed it to peak. So I went looking for examples, and made an effort to understand their inner workings. What particular note of dread is played? How does the author play it, and when?
Shirley Jackson is a virtuoso of dread. She beats her drum deliberately off-tempo, destabilizing the reader at every turn. Unreliable narrators (The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Hangsaman) and uncanny valleys of place (The Lottery) keep us permanently off balance, unable to trust the senses through which the story unfolds. Her protagonists, typically intelligent but alienated young women, fumble through the mundane world as if the lights are either always too dim or too bright to see clearly. Like Eleanor Vance in The Haunting of Hill House, they anatomize their own perception of reality until it dissolves into the unreal; or they do not understand the “rules” by which the world operates and question how anyone else could, like Natalie Waite in Hangsaman and Merricat Blackwood in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Dread comes out of never knowing whether the instability is external or internal—whether it’s “all in your head,” or there really is something wrong with this person, this place, this life.
Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream can, and perhaps should be read in one gulp. It’s the kind of dread that tightens like a rope—like the rope of “rescue distance” so often referred to by the dying woman in whose brain we the readers are trapped—a rope that starts out tight and only gets tighter as the pages turn. A mother wakes up in a hospital bed with a boy whispering in her ear, urging her to remember the moment that “the worms” settled in. Remember “only what’s important,” he admonishes her, again and again, as she runs through the events that led her to this place, and connect her indelibly to the boy. What are the worms? Is the boy real, or a ghost, or a dream? The word “important” shows up on nearly every page of Fever Dream, accumulating anxiety with every repetition. As a reader, you begin to ask yourself, “Is this important? Or this?” Like the constant high-pitched note, this dread over what is and is not important to unraveling the mystery never seems to go completely silent—sometimes a low drone, and sometimes a screech.
And then I look at someone like Carmen Maria Machado, who takes this continuous note and chops it up into dots and dashes, like half-strangled screams. Her memoir In the Dream House abides by no conventional narrative rules whatsoever; like the best memoirs (in my opinion) it picks at questions of time, place, and incident like so many scabs. We see the seeds of an abusive relationship planted, and then watch them grow through the book’s fragmented structure like vines through a ruin, prying up the floorboards of memory, bursting through the cupboards of fairytales, even sprawling wetly behind the glass of an old television-set. Lights flicker; faucets drip. We are led through a haunted house wherein—like most haunted houses—every room is thematically different but equally dangerous. It’s the irregular heartbeat, but taken to extremes well past what the heart can usually survive.
None of these books fit neatly into the genre we think of when we think about dread: horror. The monsters are terrifyingly human, or caused by humans; sometimes they are the protagonists themselves. But dread is not about the moment when we finally see the monster, it is about all the moments leading up to that: the long, slow inhale of anticipation. The gradual opening of a door that should not be opened. The darkness beyond, that seems also to be holding its breath.