By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.
Masters of the horror genre know that monsters are scariest before they're seen.
This is why the makers of Jaws, according to co-writer Carl Gottlieb, kept their shark unglimpsed so long. Their model was The Thing from Another World (1951), which hid its nightmare creature until the end. Before them, we had Melville's distant whale and Verne's squid shrouded in its weird sea. Poe took the dread of temporary blindness to the extreme—the monster of the "Pit and the Pendulum" is a world plunged into total darkness.
Benjamin Percy, whose new novel Red Moon updates the werewolf mythos for our era, loves the way suspense ratchets up before something terrible is revealed. When I asked him to choose a favorite passage from literature, he chose a section from Cormac McCarthy's The Road that has haunted him for years. It's the only instance Percy can think when what's finally revealed is, in fact, far scarier than anything he could have imagined.
In addition to Red Moon, Benjamin Percy is author of The Wilding and two acclaimed story collections. His story "Refresh, Refresh" was selected for Best American Short Stories 2006. His nonfiction regularly appears in venues like GQ, Outside, and Esquire, where he's a contributing editor. He spoke to me by phone.
Benjamin Percy: I picked up Blood Meridian as my first introduction to McCarthy. I remember, at that moment when there's thunder on the horizon and a cloud of dusk and the horde of Apaches dressed in the blood-stained wedding garb as they thunder towards Glanton and his men, being completely overwhelmed by both the language and the horror and the beauty of the situation. I actually set the book aside after I read that passage and felt as though I'd been rewired aesthetically.
McCarthy's is an elemental voice. In his voice I hear stone shifting, glaciers cracking open, trees moaning in the wind. The ancient cadences of his prose take on an almost otherworldly quality, a quality that transports you. I'm constantly in awe of the language and recognizing how he's putting together his sentences so exquisitely.
And maybe this is the only time this has ever happened to me—but what is revealed is even more terrifying that what I could have imagined.
As many have pointed out before me, he's unafraid to stare into the abyss. He's peering into the darkest corners of human existence, using a lamp with blood.
I've read The Road several times now, but the first time I read it was soon after my son was born. I was especially emotionally vulnerable in that moment because he was having some issues with his breathing: He ended up getting a severe case of croup that closed his throat. He was transported to the hospital by ambulance and was in the ICU for three days. They pricked him full of steroids and put him in an oxygen mask. I've never felt more protective, or helpless, or scraped out emotionally than I did then.
Reading this book around that time put me in a mindset that made me particularly vulnerable to the subject matter. The Road is ultimately about a father sacrificing everything for his son—keeping on and surviving despite a nightmare landscape, and only for his son's sake. I felt plugged into that current in a way that I don't know I would have if not a father.
The most terrifying moment in any horror story is when a noise is heard—a noise behind a closet door; a noise heard in an attic, or the basement; a noise heard in a thicket of bushes; a noise heard deep in a cave—and a person pursues the sound. We always want to yell out: Don't go there. It's that moment of suspense, the second before the bogeyman is revealed, that is the most gripping. After the door opens, after we shine a flashlight on whatever awaits, the audience might laugh or scream but ultimately they feel relief. Because whatever is provided by the author or filmmaker is never as bad as what we imagine ourselves.
In this particular passage, as soon as the father spots a house on the hill, we know something terrible waits inside. It takes a long time for him to approach the house, to explore its many rooms, and finally descend into the basement.
He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light.
The whole time we're yelling: Don't go in there. But he does, of course.
Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.
Jesus, he whispered.
Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.
And maybe this is the only time this has ever happened to me—but what is revealed is even more terrifying that what I could have imagined. Humans are harvesting each other in order to survive. These pale, chewed-up creatures emerge from the dark and rattle their chains and moan and reach for the father. We're afraid of them, but we're afraid more of what might await the father upstairs—the people responsible for this.