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Reading Like a Writer: Fever Dream and Evoking Chills

Posted on Wed, Aug 30 2017 9:00 am by Allison Wyss

This time I'm going to try something that I might not be able to do. As a reader, I scare really easily, so I don't read a whole lot of horror. When I do read it, I usually know what I'm getting into. The fact that someone has told me "this is a scary book," gets me hearing the organ music before I even start. So it's really hard to know which part of the atmosphere comes from the text and which I'm bringing to it.

Yet I do think the first page of a frightening book or story is important. Setting the tone is crucial to any story, but maybe it's more obviously so with a scary one.

Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream (translated by Megan McDowell) is a beautifully frightening novel. I don't want to give away the precise circumstances because the suspense is so well rendered, but I will say the dangers are psychological, chemical, and mystical—all wrapped together and teased to a taut and chilling terror. The first page sets the tone.

            They're like worms.

            What kind of worms?

            Like worms, all over.

            It's the boy who's talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.

            Worms in the body?

            Yes, in the body.

            Earthworms?

            No, another kind of worms.       

            It's dark and I can't see. The sheets are rough, they bunch up under my body. I can't move, but I'm talking.

The atmosphere is eerie, but why?

The simplest answer (though by no means a complete one) is the italics. The decision to distinguish voices with italics instead of quotation marks is not unprecedented, but it has a particular effect.

First, and this may seem silly, but italics just look sort of shimmery and ghostlike. They're normal letters and at the same time they're not, which hints at the uncanny. Quotation marks do none of that.

More important, when we first encounter the italicized text, we don't know its meaning, and so we consider, quickly, the typical uses for it: emphasis, foreign language words, internal dialogue, external dialogue. The first two uses of italics are related to the second two, of course. They make us experience the words slightly differently. The tone shifts even if we don't understand the emphasis. They become somewhat exotic even if the language remains the same.

But it's the ambiguity of internal/external that makes those first lines creepy, I think. It could be a quote or it could be a thought. That slippery space between implies madness. And that's scary as anything.

The italics also help make the voices seem unconnected to bodies. In the first few lines, here are no dialogue tags and no gestures, no physical description or naming of the characters—just words, floating and ghostlike.

Then we get the sentence, "I am the one asking questions." The fact that this needs to be told increases the sense of disembodiment. If the narrator was easy in her body, obviously sitting there in front of us, she wouldn't feel the need to say this.

Maybe these voices lack bodies, or maybe they're hovering outside of bodies. Or maybe it's just so dark they can't see their bodies. Each theory contributes to the eeriness and can live side-by-side in my mind until the text puts the incorrect theories to rest.

Usually I like bodies to be explicitly rendered on the page, but in this case, the lack of them is unsettling in a good way. It feels like the room is dark. The voices are there first, but without context. So when I read, "it's the boy who's talking, murmuring into my ear," it's startling. I think I jumped a bit at first encounter. Not only is there very suddenly a body in the room, but that body is very near, way too near.

There's something like dream logic in that revelation. A thing is not true, until it is, and then suddenly it always was. Time expands backward as well as forward, as we realize this boy—and the ear that hears him—must have been there all along.

Now let's look at those worms.

The first line is a statement: "They're like worms." However, like many great openings, it prompts a question. In the reader's mind the likely question is: "What are like worms?" Yet the story sidesteps that question to ask a different one: "What kind of worms?"

Answering the wrong question—or asking the wrong question—is such a great technique for creating suspense. It's a way to make the reader want to know something, and refuse to tell, while instead telling them something else. An answer would put away the mystery. A refusal would be frustrating. Providing the "wrong" response is, instead, a careful tease. In this way, the mystery can grow.

The same thing happens again when the "wrong" question is answered. We get an answer that is not. The italicized voice gives information about the worms—they're "all over"—but not the information requested. He is neither answering nor refusing to answer. We know a little more, but not yet enough. The same thing happens with the later assertion that they're not earthworms. We still don't know what they are, even as we learn a bit more about them.

But why are these undescribed worms scary in the first place? Of course, the one direct answer is a big part of it. They're "in the body," which is not a place that worms should be!

The worms are also scary because the specificity of the image counters the mystery. We know what worms are. We can imagine their shape and their wriggling (there's always terror in wriggling, right?). But we still don't know what they are or how they are like worms. Is it their size, shape, squirminess? Is it because of where they live, how they eat, their lifespan, their personality? Thus we have a concrete image of worms and specific questions about them, but still no definite answers. While the author refuses to give us certainty, she carefully guides our uncertainty.

But it's more than that. The urgency of the repeated question and the apparent attempt to answer that question, futile as it is so far, tells us there's something very important about these worms in the body. There's reason to fear them, even if we don't yet know that reason.

Later in the book, there's a sort of refrain when the boy tells the narrator what is and isn't "important," without telling her why. This is another type of non-answer that convinces us of urgency without giving us the concrete something to release that worry onto. (It can be a relief, can't it, to finally learn what to fear?) And this happens while the narrative continues to release the strange clues of whether each detail is important or not. Thus, we try to deduce the answer from the clues, and the mystery is not frustrating but intriguing.

All of this is misdirection, of course, but it's a particularly smart form of it. If we got something some non sequitur, the mystery would be intact. However, our focus—and thus our fascination—would wane. Answering questions at a slant keeps us curious. As we learn more—but not the essential bit we crave—our captivation grows.

Teasing without annoying is such a tricky game. If we're not told something about the mystery, we might just throw the book at the wall and give up. But we also want the mystery to continue. This opening, and much of the book, describes the mystery, instead of just solving it.

So consider this: plain old darkness is not particularly frightening, but an occupied darkness, where something unnamed is there—that's scary.  Schweblin creates a mystery, in Fever Dreams, but it's a mystery that is inhabited—with wiggling worms, specific but unanswered questions, and teased out bits of frightening information. These are great techniques for inspiring terror.


Allison Wyss is teaching the following class at the Loft: Eight Weeks, Four Drafts: Advanced Topics in Revision. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.