At this time of year, no sooner is one festival finished than we start preparing for the next one. The last few days have seen Dad and me building our sukkah, the portable ‘home’ (shack sort of thing, with tent like walls, but a bamboo-thatched roof) for the next festival, Sukkot. Timewise, we’re halfway through the festival season, but Sukkot, and the semi-independent, semi-connected festival of Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah that follows it, go on for nine days. On about half of those (Chol HaMoed), many types of work are permitted, so it’s not a massive enforced break from the norm, but the flipside of that is that I may have to do the Very Scary Task again to cover for J’s Chol HaMoed daytrip with his family on Thursday. Sukkot isn’t as emotionally intense as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as it’s a time of great joy, but it’s also more time in shul (synagogue) and with guests for meals — my parents’ friends rather than mine (my parents would let me invite friends over, but I won’t do it right now for a variety of reasons). And no TV to help me switch off; immersing in Doctor Who or whatever is more restorative for me than reading, important though books are to me, but while I can do it on Chol HaMoed, I can’t on the other days.
Shul was quite difficult over Shabbat (the Sabbath), which is one reason I’m apprehensive of the approaching festival. I found the clapping in Kabbalat Shabbat really loud and almost physically painful; at one point I wanted to run out the room, which was a strong reaction for me. There was dancing after Lecha Dodi (well, holding hands and shuffling around in a circle — there isn’t really room for real dancing). Someone tried to get me to join in; I just shook my head. I feel bad staying out, but I would feel bad if I joined in too. It’s hard to know what to do sometimes. I missed prayers on Shabbat morning as usual, but I did go back to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers), as I didn’t want the social anxiety to grow. I need to work out how to beat it back a bit. I did manage to cope OK, although not brilliantly, with some jealousy-provoking thoughts. I was OK with seeing someone I was at school with in shul with his young daughter, but struggled more with him leading Kabbalat Shabbat (I used to be able to lead prayer services, but haven’t done it much in the last six years through social anxiety).
Today, aside from helping Dad with the sukkah for a while, I made a few small, but hopefully significant, changes to my novel before submitting it. Other than that, I didn’t achieve much. Typed up some notes to (hopefully) help me stop making mistakes at work, went for a walk, managed a few (very few) minutes of Torah study, did some ironing and Skyped E. My mood was rather down and I’m not sure if I was down because I didn’t do much or if I didn’t do much because I was down. I suspect a bit of both, but I think some of the “down” was exhaustion from shul recently and awareness that there’s a lot more to come (plus sukkah guests and possibly the Very Scary Task).
E and I both feel frustrated that we haven’t got where we expected to be in life by this point (our thirties), and that other people seem to manage it so effortlessly. We aren’t really sure how we catch up or get to where we want to be. Maybe other people don’t really manage it, or not so effortlessly, or maybe they do manage it, but it’s not our fault that we haven’t managed it too because we have our own challenges, but it’s easy to fall into self-blame and negativity (neither E nor I could ever be mistaken for an optimist).
Do I enjoy being scared? I always think of myself as a nervous child who avoided anything scary. I was too scared to watch Doctor Who for years after I first came across it, and I remember running from the room at the opening minutes of the James Bond film Live and Let Die. I also remember being terrified by the cover of a murder mystery novel my mother borrowed from the library; it showed nothing more frightening than a blood-stained shirt, although the black skull icon on the spine that indicated it came from the library mystery and thriller section was just as scary. Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel were programmes that were intended to be somewhat scary, but they were also aimed at a family audience, not an 18-rated one, and by the time I watched most of them, I was too old to be really scared. Then again, I was probably in my twenties when I watched Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (the 1950s version) and found it mesmerising and chilling, even though it was probably a PG by modern standards.
Yet as a teenager or even a pre-teen, I read a lot of Victorian pot-boilers that laid the foundations of the horror genre: Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (I’ve read that so many times I’ve lost count, probably half a dozen; the image clearly resonates with me), The Island of Doctor Moreau. I missed The Invisible Man, but picked it up later. None of these particularly scared me and most of them didn’t gross me out (Dracula a little bit, but Doctor Moreau was the only one I found really uncomfortable). Even before then, when I was seven or eight, I was always reading “non-fiction” children’s books about UFOs and ghosts (I don’t believe in either now, but was more agnostic then and wanted to find the yeti and the Loch Ness Monster when I grew up) and not-quite scaring myself.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the Jewish fantasy series I’d like to write and how it is somewhat on the boundaries between fantasy and horror: vampires, dybbuks etc. I wonder if I should read some horror novels to get a sense for the genre. Aside from those Victorian classics, I’ve only really read a couple of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula alternative history/horror novels (“What if Dracula hadn’t been defeated?”). I did watch Twin Peaks, which I mostly put off watching in the past because I worried it would be too scary or gory. The original series turned out not to be much scarier than Doctor Who, but the 2017 series had some gory moments. Yet I seem to be able to put up with some scares or gore if the essential story is good enough (Twin Peaks, the Blade Runner films). Similarly, I’m watching The Twilight Zone and I definitely prefer the eerie stories to the fantasy or funny ones, but there isn’t anything gory about them and the scares are mostly psychological.
This came to a head a few days ago. Someone has set up one of those free book-swap boxes in a nearby road. I look inside periodically, but hadn’t found anything I wanted to take. Then the other day they had IT by Stephen King and I picked it up impulsively. I have never read it, even what I’ve heard about it scared me (although I’m not coulrophobic). It was almost like I was daring myself to read it. (It’s also flipping enormous, over 1,100 pages, longer than The Lord of the Rings and not much behind War and Peace.) It’s been sitting on my shelf since then. I’ve flicked through a couple of times, but can’t decide what to do with it. Should I read it or send it back to the book-swap box? I haven’t entered it on my Goodreads account yet, because I know once I’ve done that it will be hard to return it. The logical thing to do would be to start it and see what it’s like, but I don’t really do logical. Maybe that’s why I scare easily, because I can’t see how illogical most of my phobias and fears are. Or maybe I worry that I would be the impulsive kid who goes down to the cellar alone in the middle of a storm.
I guess the bottom line is that I like eerie atmosphere a lot, but I don’t like gore or sadism and I certainly don’t like jump-scares (which aren’t really an issue in prose as opposed to TV or film). And I’m not at all sure about how this fits in to my writing ambitions.