by Grant Cousineau
Humans, by nature, are apprehensive. Most of our hardwired instincts are fear-based. We’re afraid of snakes, spiders, and bears. We fear the confines of closed, dark spaces. We react fearfully when we are attacked or when we stare up at the endless black sky to consider how alone and helpless we really are.
And yet, many of us like being scared — a little unsettled — so long as we’re safely on the other side of the page, TV, or silver screen. Fear throws the body into chemical overdrive: The adrenal glands start pumping, the nervous system releases endorphins, and for a lot of us, it even releases dopamine—the feel-good chemical. Our heart rate climbs. Our breaths become shorter. As William F. Nolan, author of Logan’s Run, puts it, “Fear is fun. Being frightened is delicious.”
Author Dan Chaon laces every story with fear, though he isn’t a traditional horror writer. In fact, despite his most recent book, Ill Will, being named one of the scariest books of 2017 by The Washington Post, his work is most frequently found in the literary fiction section, more often applied descriptors like “steadily unnerving,” or being said to exist within a “psychological shadowland.”
More than suspenseful scenes and shock value, Chaon paints with all the blood reds of his palette. For instance, in Ill Will, he summarizes the childhood of Russell—the protagonist’s adopted brother—with dark, ominous imagery:
Russell, six years his elder, who had shot him once with a BB gun in the back while he was running away, Russell, listening to death-metal music and carving a pentagram into his forearm with the sharp end of a drafting compass, Russell, who had used improvised kung fu moves to destroy a magnificent snowman that Dustin had built, Russell, who was delighted by Dustin’s fear of the dark and would wait until Dustin was comfortably alone in a room and then sneak by and turn off the light and pull the door closed and Dustin, trapped in darkness, would let out a scream.
He also creates terrifying immediacy, such as the beginning of his first novel, You Remind Me of Me, where a boy is savagely attacked by his mom’s pet Doberman. Chaon’s second novel, Await Your Reply, opens with a jolt: a father and son speed to the hospital with the son’s left hand, severed from the arm, lying on a bed of ice in a Styrofoam container.
Then there’s the ghost stories he explored in Stay Awake. In one short story, a father is repeatedly ripped from nightmares by his infant son, wailing with cries like “sharp teeth.” In another story, a produce stock boy lives in the house where his parents committed suicide, refuses to attend the funerals of former classmates, and stares at the name of a kid who’d killed himself, graffitied above the work urinal. The title story dips into the grotesque, as Siamese babies, conjoined at the head, force their new parents to cope with the fact that one will have to be surgically removed to save the other.
But these are the just elements of horror hanging off revelatory stories about identity, memory, and grief. His characters represent the weakest among us, or the most emotionally broke, or those most desperate for answers. There are no monsters in Chaon’s books, only the monsters who already exist among us.
His stories are the kind that leave you flipping one page after another, feeling that tha-thump, tha-thump wailing in your chest. They’re told through two lenses: one, the recognizable world we prefer to see, the other exposing secrets, lies, and madness, strung together in webs of satanic rituals and serial killings. He doesn’t just put horror on the other side of the backyard fence. He points out the ones we talk to at the store standing on dried rivulets of blood staining the hardwood floors. He nods at the ones we let drive our kids to school, past the bodies damming our rivers. He forces us to reconsider how carelessly we dole out trust to strangers.
We read horror because it’s the one common theme throughout human history. It’s woven into our genes, not for survival or even cheap thrills. To quote the King of horror, sometimes we simply “make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”
Dan Chaon will be reading from and signing his work on Saturday, April 21, at UntitledTown 2018.