When the reviews for Gimme Shelter
started coming in, I noticed a theme in the way critics described it. "A roller coaster of fear," said Booklist
. "Kafkaesque," said Shelf Awareness
. "Gut-wrenching," said Smith
. "Harrowing," said both Newsday
To which I say, thank you.
Lest you run away howling from your monitor right now, let me assure that I also threw in a lot of cheap jokes. But I wrote a book about trying to become a homeowner at the height of the housing bubble. It's supposed to scare the pants off you.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Yet Gimme Shelter is shelved in many stores in the "Business" section. I find that hilarious. Me writing a business book is like a comedian writing a relationship guide.
As I slugged away at this, my first book, I borrowed from the excellent examples of Michael Pollan and Bill Buford and especially Barbara Erenreich, mixing first person experience with social commentary and straight up reporting. But you know who my number one inspiration was? Joss Whedon.
I love horror. I have a PhD in horribleness. When it's done right, horror takes you right down to the bare bones of human existence — horror is life and death and sex and religion and frequently comedy as well. It's laughing at a clever riposte one moment, then having somebody's head snapped off in the next, and then, my god, laughing at that, too.
I've never understood people who dismiss an entire genre just because there might be monsters involved. Yo, it's called metaphor. And look up catharsis while you're at it.
Space aliens who do not come in peace
I don't trust them.
If I could have credibly worked any of the above into my nonfiction narrative, I surely would have. I'm the woman who suffered through Once wondering, "Why can't this be more like Shaun of the Dead?"
There's a very good reason this little tome of mine references Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Blair Witch Project and The Shining and The Amityville Horror. Because they're pretty true to life. Especially those last two.
If horror is the artistic repository of our primal fears and desires, then home is the ultimate Big Bad/Damsel in Distress. You don't have to be Freud to know that home is the sanctuary; the reflection of the self, and the violation or desecration thereof is the ultimate violence. Why else are we endlessly fascinated with that theme? From Black Christmas to Bad Ronald to Flowers in the Attic to The Strangers and on and on and on, what's a bigger freak-out than hearing that "The calls are coming from inside the house?"
In my own writing, I wanted to tap into that protectiveness and that dread and that nervous laughter. I wanted the reader to go with me into these god-awful places and shout, "DON'T GO IN THE BASEMENT!" Because what are we living through now in this economy of foreclosure if not the payoff of that nightmare? The carnage of the quest.
The allure of horror is that we identify with both the victims and the monsters. We can see ourselves running through the woods and twisting our ankles, but let's face it, we also think, man, it would be so awesome to start fires with my mind. That's why I hope, when people read Gimme Shelter, they think less of Carrie Bradshaw and more of Carrie White, pelted with the tampons of life and wreaking a little havoc for it.
In order to do this, I had to be willing to trot out my own demons. I had to invite the vampires of envy and class-consciousness and anger and obsession in. A book where I'm just the hero would be a book of fiction.
I'm no angel.
Tomorrow I'll talk more about what it feels like to stand in front of the world in your proverbial underwear and say, "Judge me!" — with more horror stories, this time from some of my favorite memoirists.
Today I'll just say that it was horror that taught me that sometimes in life you have to go deep into the ick of your own closet, on the hope that there will be strong arms on the other side to pull you out. Or as Buffy would say, How do you like my darkness now?