Why We Need Terrifying Stories

Karen Brown on how reading puts us in control

A photo of Karen Brown
The Brown Family; The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read Karen Brown’s new short story, “Needs.”

Needs” is a new short story by Karen Brown. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Brown and Oliver Munday, the design director of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Oliver Munday: Your story “Needs” takes place in a disquieting domestic setting in rural 1960s America. What drew you to that specific time and place?

Karen Brown: The changes that the 1960s brought to America—loosening social mores and the expansion of women’s roles—were slow to reach rural areas, where people still clung to traditional views of marriage and motherhood. Husbands left for work and wives kept house. Still, the world leaked in—those soap operas, for instance—and women’s longing for identity and for love ignited anyway. I felt that the clashes of the time served the background of the story.

Munday: From the first sentence of “Needs,” we’re aware that a murder has taken place. The story then unfolds into a mystery. What attracted you to this genre? Did the story always follow from this inciting crime?

Brown: The seeds of the story began with a true crime—the murder of a Connecticut housewife in the 1950s. At some point in my childhood, I’d heard about the crime, and the heinousness of it, and because the victim was a woman like my own mother, or the mothers of my friends, the crime haunted me. So my story began with the murder and the mystery surrounding it, but I discovered that writing the story, I could solve the mystery in a way that highlighted everything that bothered me so much about the crime to begin with. Mystery is always, to me, like flipping a rock over in the woods and exposing that slithering, pale salamander that lives underneath.

Munday: The narrator is an unnamed woman who lives across the street from the murder victim, Patty. The two were neighbors and friends, and as a result of living in such proximity there’s an element of voyeurism to the narrator’s recounting of events. How much do writers and voyeurs have in common?

Brown: I approached the story without any idea who my narrator would be. I was simply trying to create the world of the crime. But eventually, her voice emerged, and the story as she knew it unfolded. Voyeurs and writers are careful observers of the lives of others, making assumptions that translate to an invented closeness. In some ways, this can feel like a transgression. But the writer’s agenda is always unearthing a truth about the situation, the characters, or the world they inhabit.

Munday: Parenting plays an interesting role in the story. We get a sense of how the schedules and routines required to raise young children become linchpins for motherly sanity. Nap time is described as the “mainstay of daily life with a child.” It evokes a certain fragility. What is it about these mother characters that you find most interesting?

Brown: These mothers are bound by so many expectations: ones they place on themselves, ones placed on them by society, or by their parents and spouses. And then they are further burdened by their own assessment of themselves against each other. Motherhood has always carried with it an elevated selflessness. And yet both women in the story insist, in very different ways, on regaining control of their lives.

Munday: The myth of the Old Leatherman, a frightening tale from the narrator’s youth, is referenced several times in “Needs.” At one point, the narrator wonders, “Why continue to believe in things that terrify us?” It’s a poignant question. Are there ways in which we need these stories that are capable of instilling such fear?

Brown: A story, as an imaginative construct, allows us to experience fear in a way that is safe and controlled. We have all the power when we’re reading. Maybe we need the stories to remind us of what we are capable of? To test our own boundaries and then be able to step away?

Munday: Tell us about a few of your favorite literary mysteries.

Brown: I’m a fan of stories grounded in a strong sense of place, those whose prose transforms a dark world into something beautiful and lures us in. One that does exactly that, and which I’ve never forgotten, is John Burnside’s The Glister. The landscape of the Scottish-village setting is ravaged, polluted by a now-closed chemical plant, and over the years teenage boys have gone missing. Burnside is a poet, and his character Leonard paints everything with that eye. The ending surprised me more than any ending I’ve ever read. Likewise, Helen Phillips’s The Need upends our idea of a traditional thriller—it’s gripping and surreal, from the perspective of a mother with two young children. I read everything by Elizabeth Brundage, who creates such eerie, unsettling worlds, and her newest, The Vanishing Point, about three photographers, involves art and a way of seeing the world that adds depth to the characters and their relationships, and drives the mystery.

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The Glister
By John Burnside
The Need
By Helen Phillips
The Vanishing Point
By Elizabeth Brundage

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.