Ah, February. In keeping with the human need for tradition and ritual, this is the time of year where everyone becomes temporarily obsessed with their and others’ relationship statuses. If you’re in a relationship, you’re bombarded with messages to spend hours planning the perfect candlelit Valentine’s Day date and spend a chunk of change for flowers, candy, stuffed animals, jewelry, perfume, and lingerie. If you’re not in a relationship, then you’re bombarded with messages about how you either need to find a Valentine or become recluse for those weeks that the grocery store explodes into a red and pink mess of cheap cards, candy, and other cheesy knick-knacks.
Why do we go to all this trouble? We tell ourselves its because if you love someone, you buy them “romantic” stuff, right? And if you don’t have a Valentine, then you should be constantly reminded of it, right?
But in all the bustle to buy and surprise and spoil, no one really stops to think about love itself, which is odd. After centuries, love is still an enigma, a cypher. Countless hearts and minds have attempted to elucidate the twists and turns of love, but no one has ever been able to truly plumb those murky depths. Everyone knows about love and its paradoxes, how it can make you feel happy and sad, grounded and insane. Love can introduce you to your soulmate and in the same moment cause you to feel a chilling loneliness.
Love is immense and pervasive. It touches everyone, sneaking unexpectedly into unsuspecting lives and wrecking the best-laid plans, for better or for worse.
Love is scary.
Love is inescapable once it chooses you. Love inflicts wounds that only time can heal, if they can heal at all. Love confronts you with the fear that you might never find someone to reciprocate your love. Or worse still, that you will find that special person and you will lose them.
Seen through this lens, Valentine’s Day takes on a different level of the human experience. The fear behind the holiday becomes obvious, as do the measures we take to protect ourselves. On a deep, silent level, all the cards and gifts and meals feel more desperate offerings laid at the feet of some callous deity. We’re trying to prevent the unthinkable, the unbearable. We are afraid that if we don’t perform the proper prostrations, we might be left completely alone with a gaping, bloody hole in your chest where your heart used to be.
It’s something out of a horror movie.
I’ve talked before about how ghost stories are appropriate for all times and seasons, not just at Halloween. Ghost stories are particularly appropriate on Christmas Eve, when the dark cold of winter confronts us with our fears, when the longest night of the year promises us the glory of continued life.
In a similar way, I think ghost stories should be more popular on Valentine’s Day. The holiday has a disturbing way of conjuring up the ghosts of lost love, and these memories are bound to produce pain and longing. But those feelings are not always bad.
We can learn a lot from heartbreak.
Consequently, in an effort to highlight romance-themed horror stories, I decided to focus my February Horror Reading List on the scary parts of relationships. I picked these stories because I hope I can delve into fears about love—powerful, uncontrollable, unmerciful love.
- The Demon Lover – Elizabeth Bowen
Perhaps Bowen’s most famous short story, “The Demon Lover” borrows its conceit from an old piece of medieval lore. If a maiden promised herself to a soldier, who then perished in battle, it was said that she had better avoid marrying another man. If she did not, she risked the anger of her dead beloved, who would return as a ghost or living corpse to steal her away, thereby avenging her betrayal of him.
This is the plot of “The Demon Lover,” but instead of being set in the Middle Ages, Bowen has cleverly moved the action to Worled War II London, during the Blitz. Mrs. Drover, the story’s protagonist, has arrived at her London home after being forced to evacuate during a German airstrike. There, she is confronted by painful memories of the soldier she loved during the First World War, the soldier she vowed to love forever and no other, the soldier who died. Despite her promise to stay true to the soldier, Mrs. Drover eventually did marry another man, and it seems as though the ghost of her lover has returned to seek his revenge.
While the human heart can be complicated, sometimes it is a very simple instrument. Loss can damage someone in ways that may not make sense to others, but for the brokenhearted, the pain can become a way of life. It’s not hard to see how a person could feel perpetual guilt about moving on from the death of a lover. It’s not hard to see how this guilt could become personified as a ghost, literally haunting her until she dies.
The story seems to be a straightforward tale of broken hearts, but I’m intrigued by the setting. Anchoring the story in WWII-era England immediately calls to mind the historical context of that time, on interpersonal levels while invoking the wider socio-economic-political threads of the war. Add in the connection to World War I, and I’m sure the story will achieve greater depth and nuance than a basic ghost story.
- Lovely, Dark, Deep – Joyce Carol Oates
I enjoy Oates fiction because she frequently blends her literary tastes with horror conventionss to produce truly unsettling stories.
A writer after after my own heart, Oates has won a National Book Award as well as the Horror Writers Association’s Lifetime Achievement award. In Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, Oates forced her readers to confront macabre, morbid situations that dared us to peak at the seedy underside of modern life. In Zombie, Oates took us deep into the psyche of a serial killer, a character she based off of infamous real-life serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares saw Oates toy with the idea of social mores and the roles we all feel compelled to play. And in Black Dahlia & White Rose Oates ripped away the pretense that our lives are orderly, controlled and safe.
In short, she’s awesome and loves to scare everyone with well-written horror.
In Lovely, Dark, Deep, which includes a novella and twelve short stories, Oates dives deep into different types of personal relationships, each one its own unique tangled mess. Each story inspects not only different kinds of romance and love, but also different points of time within those relationships. She is interested not only in how people love, but how differently they can love the same person over the course of the relationship. Just when a person believes they have a handle on their emotions, love has a frightening way of knocking the world sideways.
- Valentine – Tom Savage
I know what you might be wondering, and that’s why on earth I’d bother reading the novel that inspired the terrible 2001 slasher film of the same name.
And you’d be right, because this is a random choice for me, given my tastes. When trying to think of love-themed horror books for this month’s list, I stumbled upon this book.
I remember how unimpressed I was when the film adaptation of Valentine came out. It looked so cheesy and not in a good, fun, enjoyable way. All in all, it looked like a formulaic college slasher, one of scores that were popular in the late 90s and early 00s. I had no idea that its source material was a fairly well-received thriller written by a bestselling novelist.
While nowhere close to a horror classic, Valentine is, apparently, a pretty entertaining read. The book’s basic plot is the same as the movie’s—a psychotic man stalks the four women who humiliated him on Valentine’s Day years prior—but that’s all the two have in common. I’ve read other reviews of the book that claim it is suspenseful, imaginative, more like an intriguing mystery/psychological thriller and less like a boring, lazy slasher. These reviews have also said that the book’s twist is much, much better than the movie’s twist. That’s saying a lot, especially since the movie’s twist can be guessed from the trailer.
The bullying-victim-returning-to-kill-his-bullies story is a horror mainstay, but so rarely is it ever used in a mystery story, and rarely have I ever heard anyone praise a twist ending like Valentine.
Over all, I’m starting to think this book should be a little bit more famous than it is currently. And I’m a little disappointed it took me so long to find out about this book, because who doesn’t love a good thriller? A holiday themed thriller, no less?
Happy horror reading!
Love, Stories For Ghosts