I am SO not a horror fan.
Horror movies have ensured that I will never relax in a bathroom with a shower curtain. Or a clown. Or a little boy doll with chubby cheeks. (Although, I must admit, I haven’t encountered either of the latter in my bathroom, I remain vigilant.) But what I didn’t realize was that horror is best served up from the most familiar, beloved places. Take being a grandmother—apparently we run equal chances of eating small children and getting eaten by big bad wolves.
I noticed this when looking for books and movies for my grandchildren. The years have really not been kind to some of them… Disney movies have messages that now make us cringe. (Beauty and the Beast: kidnapped girl falls for her captor, which causes him to turn into a rich handsome prince with better table manners and they live happily after. That makes sense, right? And don’t even get me started on pervy guys who assault sleeping girls…)
I considered other classics. Santa? (“He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake…” Creepy much?) How about Narnia? (Grownup sis Susan can’t come any more, but the rest of them can stay—as long as they all DIE first.)
The Rainbow Fish? (If you want people to like you, you have to give them all your pretty shiny stuff, including your own body. “You won’t be as beautiful, but you will have friends.” WTF???)
What about all the sweet fairy tales of childhood—the ones I now realize feature grandmother-eating wolves, stepmothers who are actual homicidal monsters, and other witches who EAT children. Then there are all the messages about “real” toys—Winnie the Pooh, Puff the Magic Dragon, Buzz and Woody from Toy story, and so many others—who are abandoned and forgotten when their child owners grow up.
I picked up an old favorite, The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams, flicking through the pages as I imagined reading it to my grandchildren. I’d tell them about how The Boy—a child like them—got sick and almost died. About how all his stuff (including toys which had become “real” by being loved) were then burned. Burned! And that’s when I realized how many beloved children’s stories are basically horror stories even Stephen King would blush to tell. (Somehow, that shower doesn’t seem nearly as scary now…)
Here’s my own attempt at cozy horror, with a little help from our friends over at the ever-addictive plot generator.
The Curse of the Adorably Fluffy Velvet Bunny
A Horror Story
by Sids Toys
Whilst investigating the death of a local
dedicated subverter of the adult world child, The Boy uncovers a legend about a supernaturally-cursed Velvet Bunny circulating throughout Grade Two. As soon as anyone plays with the adorably fluffy soft bunny, he or she has exactly 42 days left to live (or until their next report card comes out, whichever is sooner).
The doomed few appear to be ordinary children, but when photographed, they bear a surprising resemblance to their teacher, Miss Fremble. A marked child feels like a fuzzy stuffed toy elephant to touch, which makes their final days excruciatingly painful because everyone just wants to hug them and rub their soft little cheeks.
The Boy gets hold of the Velvet Bunny, refusing to believe the superstition. A collage of images flash into his mind: a wooly lamb with a black velvet face balancing on the soft cheek of a
dedicated subverter of the adult world child, an old newspaper headline about a collapsing tower of wood blocks in a fatal schoolroom accident, a hooded hanging monkey ranting about thumbs, and a water fountain located in a sunny place.
When The Boy notices his cheeks have stuffed toy elephant-like properties, he realizes that the curse of the adorably fluffy soft Velvet Bunny is true. He calls in his best friend—no, they really ARE only good friends; these are children here, you perv—an innocent child named Justa Girl, to help.
Justa plays with the adorable fluffy soft Velvet Bunny and willingly submits herself to the curse. She finds that the same visions flash before her eyes—the wooly lamb with black velvet face balancing on her warm cheek is particularly chilling. Justa joins the queue for a supernatural death.
The Boy and Justa Girl pursue a quest to uncover the meaning of the visions, starting with a search for the hooded hanging monkey. Will they be able to stop the Velvet Bunny’s curse before their time is up?
- If the Velvet Bunny is an alien entity who will eventually destroy all life because why the heck not, and only succumbs when The Boy gets Pink Eye—which as everyone knows is fatal to alien bunnies—it’s Cosmic Horror.
- If The Boy lives in a huge ancient house without central heating where everyone sounds like they’re auditioning for a BBC Jane Austen adaptation, Justa is actually the ghost of a long-dead child, and poor housekeeping has led to every door creaking and considerable evidence of spiders, it’s either suburban Scotland, or—if the Velvet Bunny drinks his blood at night, or is part of the Dr. Who Christmas Special—it’s Gothic Horror.
- If the Velvet Bunny is just a velvet bunny and The Boy is being manipulated by Justa (who has never accepted that her own parents couldn’t be arsed to give her a velvet bunny of her own), it’s Psychological Horror and The Boy will both use it as defense in his (inevitable) homicide trial plus as basis for his best-selling book and screenplay.
- If their teacher, Miss Fremble, is actually Satan—which you can tell by her intense focus on grammar and proper formation of cursive letters b and capital Q, plus by the way her head revolves a full 360 degrees as she paces down the rows of desks —and Velvet Bunny is really The Boy’s guardian angel who is, unfortunately unable to save him because, well…he’s a stuffed toy, it’s Religious Horror. The Boy can only be saved when Justa accidentally drops Velvet Bunny in the bowl of holy water she keeps in her lunch box for just such an eventuality and uses the soggy toy to wipe Miss Fremble’s unholy cursive from the chalk board.
- If Velvet Bunny’s curse is actually a mutant strain of mildew that is causing rapid brain damage resulting in hallucinations, death, and/or decidedly unpleasant body odor, it’s Science Horror. If the mildew turns into an epidemic which causes the dead to reanimate and attempt to infect and/or ingest the living, it’s either Zombie Apocalypse Horror or the next UK Prime Minister appointment.
- If the Velvet Bunny’s curse causes The Boy and Justa to lure their (blonde, of course) teen babysitters (followed by the entire high school football team because why not?) down to the basement where they are systematically turned into teenaged tomato soup, it’s Date Night Horror and will most probably become a franchise with lifetime employment for The Boy and lucrative product placement licenses for the Velvet Bunny.
- If the cursed object and children are adorable reminders of our own innocence and everything we hold to be good and lovely, only to have them turn into a total brain screw that questions all we hold dear, it’s either Cozy Horror or we’re trapped in a Groundhog Day version where we’re forever forced to relive the 2016 election returns, pretty much the Worst Horror Ever.
To discover a wonderful example of historical cozy horror, please see my review below of A Peril in Ectoplasm: Just Once More
by Teagan Ríordáin Geneviene.
My Review: 4 stars out of 5 for A Peril in Ectoplasm: Just Once More by Teagan Ríordáin Geneviene
This novella is the ideal Halloween read. The setting —1920s Coral Gables Florida — is so perfectly described that it serves as a character in its own right, brilliantly enhanced by the ice cream-colored pictures of old Coral Gables.
Starshine silhouetted a line of palm trees on the horizon. A pale sliver of light divided the black of the treetops from the deep slate blue of the heavens. Venus rode brightly above that line, glowing in the Coral Gables sky.
In addition, the dialog pays homage to colorful period slang. (For example, a fancy car is “pos-i-lutely orchid“. When you’re sure of something, it’s dollars to doughnuts.)
The story is an interesting mix of historical fiction, horror, and fantasy. A wealthy young woman, Daphne is also a gifted medium at a time when spiritualism is enjoying great popularity. But her seances take a physical toll which mounts until it’s life-threatening. Motivated by ambitions for wealth and prestige, her fiance, a Cuban Count named Crespo, presses her to continue with the dangerous seances, especially with the mysterious Mrs. Smith.
A gallant ghost attempts to save both Daphne and her new assistant, Clover, but the evil threatening the two young women seems to be stronger, moving from vaguely menacing to outright horror. Author Teagan Geneviene shows us both the strengths and weaknesses of her main characters, with the exception of the one truly evil character. I would have liked to know more about the backstory of the menacing “Mrs. Smith”. It seems like the friendly journalist could have come up with more information, filling in the pieces of her history to help explain her actions.
In keeping up the fast pace of the story, we miss out on background details of supporting characters. I would have liked to see more exploration of the two young men who try to help Daphne and Clover. But overall, the setting and the historical details are fascinating. I loved the slang words in the dialog, plus what I think is probably a historically-accurate report of the sense of entitlement of Crespo, and Daphne’s instinctive recoil from the physical strength and large hands of Mrs. Smith.
One of the most interesting themes threaded through the book was that of the archetypal mother. Daphne’s mother is dead, but her lifelong maid Maisie serves as a substitute, determined to protect and nurture at all costs. But Daphne sees a dark side to the mother figure, which she tries to explain to her fiance.
Crespo, there are basic… primitive elemental forces at work here — forces that have existed from time immemorial. Most of these things were destroyed by civilization, but motherhood stands where it stood at the beginning of the world. Animals or human beings, it doesn’t matter. A mother’s love for her child is like no other force in this world. It recognizes neither morality nor empathy. It risks everything. It knows no remorse, and it would slaughter anything or anyone that stood in its way.
Another impulse explored from both sides is the hope for just one more glimpse of the lost loved one. Mrs. Smith needs to see her dead son, and is willing to go to the most horrific lengths to make that happen, to Maisy’s disgust. “Why can’t she go and pray for her child’s soul in a church, like any decent person would do? She could burn a candle or something…” But Clover understands both the need to see the beloved just once more, and also the need for closure.
A Peril In Ectoplasm is a quick and wonderful Halloween read, with a mystery in a gorgeous historical setting that crosses the line into horror.