For someone who is freaked out by pretty much everything, I really enjoy scary stuff: haunted houses, movies about ghosts, and, of course, good horror novels make up a fairly large part of my entertainment consumption... even though every single time I come away from them, I end up terrified out of my wits.
The problem with enjoying all these spooky forms of fun, though, is that it doesn't take long for the effects to wear off as soon as you get distracted from them. The time it takes you to drive home from a scary movie can whittle away at that fear that you're about to get attacked by a demon girl lurking in the shadows, and looking at cute pictures of puppies on Instagram after you read a bit of a creepy story can definitely calm you down before it's time to sleep. So I had to wonder... what would happen if I didn't have those distractions in between reading a horror novel and going to sleep in pure darkness?
The book: The horror genre is a broad one, so at first, it was hard to find a novel that was exactly what I wanted. I wasn't looking for a mystery novel with a twinge of terror, nor was I aching for a thriller that would make me think, "Well, sucks for those characters." I wanted something that would give me an early Halloween fix, something that would complement my suspended disbelief and make me terrified to be in my own home. I wanted monsters, I wanted paranormal, I wanted a story that existed for the purpose of scaring the hell out of its readers. And I found it in Forsaken by Andrew Van Wey, which you can read for free if you have Kindle Unlimited.
The story centers around Daniel Rineheart: a man who is living the American dream with his cushy job as an art professor, his perfect wife, and his two young kids. But of course, that's not what makes this a horror novel. Things start to go awry when Daniel brings home an unsettling painting that features two creepy little kids, a mysterious clock, and a window that looks out to a seemingly endless field. From there, it's a miserable adventure that has both the characters and the reader wondering what's real, what's not, and what's going to happen to this unlucky family.
The rules: I wanted the maximum creep-out experience here, so I had to make sure that nothing was going to get in the way of that. My first rule mandated that reading this story had to be the last thing I did before going to sleep. In other words, no heading to the kitchen for a quick snack, no messing around on my phone, no jumping up to turn on the light. I wanted no gap in between putting the book down and trying to squash my fear before closing my eyes. Because things are way scarier in the dark, I also forced myself to make sure there was as little light as possible while I was reading. That meant that the lights were off, the door was closed, and the pages on my e-reader were set to black with white text. Finally, to prevent myself from putting the book down out of nerves, I made myself read about fifteen percent of the story every night, which would ensure that I would finish the book in exactly seven days while getting a decent dose of fear each night.
Night 1: My first night of reading Forsaken involved a lot of setup and not a lot of actual terror. Like most horror movies, it spent a while introducing you to the characters: a man, his wife, their two kids, and the man's younger mistress (scandal!). It was only towards the end of my reading session that I got treated to some foreshadowing... including a glimpse of the painting that supposedly is at the center of this novel. Creepy? Eh, a bit. But I was more excited for what could possibly lie ahead.
"The novel was making me feel like I'd been dropped directly into a scary movie, and I couldn't stop turning the pages."
Night 2: The intensity was starting to get cranked up on the second night. A few creepy events were starting to happen — the kind that make the characters go, "Hmm. That's a bit weird," while the reader is over here like, "Run, you idiot! Don't you know you're in a horror story?!" The novel was making me feel like I'd been dropped directly into a scary movie, and I couldn't stop turning the pages. Once I settled in for bed, though, my overactive imagination kicked into gear. I was thankful that I didn't have any creepy paintings in my room, but the darkness started playing with my eyes. Did that sound come from outside? Or from within my walls? Was that shadow always there? Or was it a monster coming to take my soul and eat my dog? I snuggled my unwilling little mutt closer to me just in case.
Night 3: Oh, man. Things were starting to get crazy over here. Van Wey does a great job of making fear come in waves rather than a single flood, so just as you feel like things are going well for Daniel and his family, you realize just how wrong you are. At this point in the novel, the events are beginning to transform from just creepy to downright terrifying... and you really get the full effect when you're exhausted from a long day and the lights are turned out. I nearly jumped out of my own skin when my cat jumped onto the bed right next to my face, and once I stopped reading for the night, all it took was a little voice in my head saying "Wouldn't it be crazy if that jacket in your open closet was actually a demon?" for me to be sufficiently freaked out. To add to the fun, one of the repeating events in the book that signifies that stuff is about to go down is the sound of an "electric hum"... one that I imagine is similar to the sound my refrigerator makes. Despite my fear, I was pretty impressed at the author's ability to make an everyday noise so anxiety-inducing. But I figured I'd appreciate it a little more in the morning when the sun was up.
"Literally everything looked like it might have just moved or is slightly darker than the rest of the room, and I kept expecting to roll over and be face-to-face with some terrible evil doll-girl."
Night 4: I don't know how these characters aren't freaking the eff out at this point in the story, because my adrenaline is pumping and I'm not even the one dealing with all this scary stuff. Still, I love it. As much of a wuss as I am about horror-based anything, I know that it's partly because I enjoy being freaked out, so I allow my brain to entertain the idea that all of this stuff could really happen to me, too. Even if I didn't, though, I still think I'd be sufficiently terrified by Forsaken. I discovered that by far, the most terrifying part of this experience was that moment right after I stopped reading and my eyes adjusted from staring at a slightly glowing screen to the darkness around me. Literally everything looked like it might have just moved or is slightly darker than the rest of the room, and I kept expecting to roll over and be face-to-face with some terrible evil doll-girl.
Night 5: Why do I do this to myself? At this point, I'd gotten to a part in Forsaken that had me not wanting to read anymore because I was so scared of what would happen next. In horror movies, you can peek through tiny cracks between your fingers when things get crazy, but doing that while reading is more inconvenient than anything. Every little noise I heard made me jump, and the only thing that kept me going was the fact that my cat was sleeping on top of me. I assumed that if any real monsters came into my room, he'd at least be awake and curious... unless he'd been the monster all along, that is.
"When I woke up, I was sore as though I'd been working out instead of sleeping."
Night 6: Protip: Don't binge-watch all of Stranger Things and then read a horror story unless you want to be constantly paranoid that everything you see is a sign of your imminent death. This was the only night (erm... morning) that I had actual trouble falling asleep after putting down the story, and it was also the only night that I had nightmares after finally dozing off. Granted, the nightmares weren't actually about the story or the Netflix show, but they were incredibly intense. When I woke up, I was sore as though I'd been working out instead of sleeping; dream-me had been doing a lot of running and screaming, and I assume that my body had tensed up in my sleep as a result.
Night 7: I was both relieved and bummed out about finishing Forsaken. I was looking forward to not having to try to lower my heart rate before I fell asleep every night, but at the same time, I was loving getting my horror fix in. The ending was terrible and awesome at the same time, and the twisted sense of closure that it brought left me without that awful feeling of dread that had come during the previous nights. I spent the night free of any fear that there was a secret painting stored in my apartment that would make my life a living hell... until I got up to pee in the middle of the night and watched the bathroom light flicker.
Some people might not enjoy the lasting effects of a horror movie or novel, but I really do. When I read, I want to be completely and utterly absorbed in the story, and I really felt like diving into a book like Forsaken in broad daylight would have taken away from the elements that made it so dang creepy. Sure, it scared the bejeezus out of me, but that's exactly what I'm looking for in a horror novel. I really recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys early Stephen King and also maybe peeing their pants.
"The little bit of extra effort I went through to make myself even more scared turned this into a horror experience rather than just a casual reading session."
Despite how much it freaked me out (or perhaps because of it), I'm going to try to enjoy even more horror novels the same way I read Forsaken: right before bed with all the lights out. The book itself was great, but the little bit of extra effort I went through to make myself even more scared turned this into a horror experience rather than just a casual reading session. It was like turning my mind into a haunted house, and I couldn't get enough.
If you like to carry your horror stories with you even after you stop reading, I strongly suggest going out of your way to make sure nothing — not even turning off your bedroom light — comes between reading and trying to sleep. But if you don't like wondering if that shadow has always been there or if that sound you heard was really just the house settling, it might be smart to invest in a night light.
Images: Pixabay; Giphy (5)