Updated: Jun 30
Elizabeth Barrette, in her essay ‘Elements of Aversion’, outlines the role of horror tales in a modern world:
The old "fight or flight" reaction of our evolutionary heritage once played a major role in the life of every human. Our ancestors lived and died by it. Then someone invented the fascinating game of civilisation, and things began to calm down. Development pushed wilderness back from settled lands. War, crime, and other forms of social violence came with civilisation and humans started preying on each other, but by and large daily life calmed down. We began to feel restless, to feel something missing: the excitement of living on the edge, the tension between hunter and hunted. So we told each other stories through the long, dark nights. when the fires burned low, we did our best to scare the daylights out of each other. The rush of adrenaline feels good. Our hearts pound, our breath quickens, and we can imagine ourselves on the edge. Yet we also appreciate the insightful aspects of horror. Sometimes a story intends to shock and disgust, but the best horror intends to rattle our cages and shake us out of our complacency. It makes us think, forces us to confront ideas we might rather ignore, and challenges preconceptions of all kinds. Horror reminds us that the world is not always as safe as it seems, which exercises our mental muscles and reminds us to keep a little healthy caution close at hand.
Horror fiction often struggles with tropes, though — significant or recurrent themes, motifs — which sophisticated audiences have become used to detecting and which, once spotted, tend to defuse the emotional, psychological, or physical responses within readers for which authors are striving. As H.P. Lovecraft wrote in his essay, 'Supernatural Horror in Literature’: ‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown’. But if an audience can see something coming, it becomes less unknown and less effective.
Darrell Schweitzer, a science fiction scholar, says that ‘the true horror story requires a sense of evil, not in necessarily in a theological sense; but the menaces must be truly menacing, life-destroying, and antithetical to happiness.’
So a horror story which manages to defy these tropes and to instil in a reader a sense of convincing menace is quite an achievement — and Gabriella Balcom pulls this off in her story ‘Bobby — You’d Never Guess’, which appears in her debut collection On the Wings of Ideas.
In brief, two things in this story are key: Balcom’s protagonist and the structure of the tale, as told through the protagonist’s diary.
Bobby is introduced as a disgruntled boy, unhappy and resentful in the school system, not too unusual — but we are quickly shown, through a clever use of the diary technique, that Bobby has some off-key tastes:
I got the idea from a horror movie Mom didn't know I watched one night after she went to bed (I’m not allowed to see them yet). A man in the movie threw gas on people, tossed matches, and burned them alive. Another put bags over men’s heads and suffocated them. The way the dying people looked—eyes bulging, clawing at their heads and necks, and unable to breathe—looked interesting.
‘Interesting’ is the off-putting euphemism. Bobby uses his experience from watching the movie when out fishing:
It would've been strange putting a bag on a fish’s head but they need water, right? So I dropped the one I caught on the ground instead and watched. It flopped all over the place, its mouth open the whole time, trying to get air. That was sort of disappointing. I'll try a squirrel next time.
The abuse and general paucity of Bobby’s family situation are presented to us as a framework in which his oddness starts to make sense, but Balcom never lets us fall for the trap of allowing any of that background to be an excuse — the emphasis is more tragic, more chilling. Bobby has evil intentions all his own:
I tried to memorize the sound and what the rabbit looked like. Watching it trying to breathe was more satisfying than with the fish.
In horror, the readers are often kept outside of the perpetrator’s head, never glimpsing the darkness within, with the effect that the ‘evil’ in the story is projected outward onto an exterior unknown, from which the victims are usually trying to escape. Balcom’s brilliance in this story is to reverse that convention: Bobby’s diary places us directly inside his mind. The effect is utterly chilling:
But that wasn’t even the best part. I started skinning it, and Wow! Rabbits bleed like we do! They feel pain! I didn’t know that. Fish hardly make a sound but my rabbit screamed like a little girl being murdered. I got goose bumps and felt a little light-headed. I got real close to it on my hands and knees so I could watch its eyes.
I wanted so badly to play with it longer, but I had to kill it eventually. The blood didn't bother me, or the sound—I liked those parts—but the screaming made me a little nervous. What if someone heard and came to check? What if they found me? I’ve replayed everything over and over in my mind since then, and I think this might have been the best day ever.
Note the foreshadowing of the ‘like a little girl being murdered’.
But Balcom doesn’t quite let us lose all sympathy with Bobby: he struggles to make friends and then, when he meets Mark, we are part of the small and grisly conspiracy between them. As readers, we are already extremely repelled by Bobby, but the diary technique holds us close to him and we can’t help but feel a little fascination for his thought processes:
Sometimes he says how he felt before he had a friend, how he used to think about dying because he was lonely and had no one to talk to. When he tells me that stuff, he ducks his head, his brown hair falls into his eyes, and he starts crying. He wanted us to hug last time he cried. Sheesh!
Listening to him gets boring fast, especially when he’s boo-hoo-ing. I wonder how he'd feel if I stopped being his friend.
What’s gripping us overall here is the vacuum created by the absence of humanity or compassion in Bobby: where has his love gone? Did he ever have any? How can he be the way he is, even with such a love-deprived background? The adults around him are completely out of their depth and don’t have any clue what’s going on in his head. At Mark’s funeral, Balcom shows us how adults are projecting onto Bobby the normality that they want to see:
Looking at Mark lying in the casket, pale and quiet, I expected him to say, "Hey, Bobby. I snuck us a new razor." Remembering things, I smiled and couldn't help but laugh a little. I didn't realize his mother had come up by me until she asked, "Are you smiling?" She looked horrified. Anyone could tell she'd been crying. Her nose was red and her eyes looked puffy. I told her, "He must have been real, real sad to be cutting himself, but I guess he's not sad anymore now."
Bursting into blubbery tears, she started wailing! She looked ugly, with the blotches on her cheeks and crud dripping from her nose, and she started blowing it and wiping it on her sleeve. I thought she'd go medieval on my butt for a second, but she grabbed me and hugged me super tight.
But there really isn’t a lot of normality in Bobby. Just when the scenario starts to approach something ordinary, like a school bullying incident, we are reminded of just how extreme and casual Bobby’s psychosis is:
I didn’t hear her talking to me at first. I was thinking about my plans for later, visiting my spot in the woods and working on an animal. Fun stuff. I’ve gotten a little better at cutting, and I know how far to go in the woods so no one can hear. When I finally heard The Pain say my name super loud, I realized she must’ve done it more than once already. Staring at her long nose and triple-chin, I wondered how she’d look with no skin.
Balcom increases the intensity as the short story goes on, with Bobby becoming more and more coldly murderous:
My favorite part was watching his eyes as he died. Everything dies differently. Sometimes I take notes.
The climax is when the one figure with whom Bobby appears to share some sympathy, his little sister Lacie, is found dead. The final twist I won’t spoil for you here, but it leaves the reader horrified to the core.
Noël Carrollin's book Philosophy of Horror suggests that a modern horror story must contain a menace that is threatening in some way, physically, psychologically, spiritually, socially, morally, or in some nuanced combination, but also that this figure must be impure, defying accepted norms of cultural categorisation. The fact that Bobby’s psychosis remains entirely undetected is threatening enough, but it is his impurity, his remote psychological distance from the expected behaviour of a youth his age, that is the driving force which captivates the reader through to the unsettling end.