It may well be behind us as this sees print, but I will comment again on the fascination this part of the country has with the macabre at this time of year. Between Halloween — which really lasts weeks here — and Day of the Dead, we are possibly closer to our prehistoric roots than many other parts of the country.
By this, I mean that — assuming harvest festivals, dancing around bonfires, and rituals were the origins of All Hallows’ Eve and what have you — we seem far closer to that tradition than an East Coast tux party with feathered black masks meant to decorate rather than conceal.
One theory (and I am no anthropologist) is that the sun-worshipping cult of Southern California has a genuine, underlying fear of the cold and dark. This may well be born of the cold, long winters from which we have emigrated or, in the case of the native San Diegan, a fear of the little known. I am among the former, having arrived from Chicago via New York, but my superstitions are more along the lines of what I call a duty-free set of Catholic sensibilities.
I am not suggesting that San Diegans believe much of this stuff: goblins, red-painted devils in store windows, or (and I saw this on a window mannequin in Hillcrest) a life-sized woman wrapped in bloody bandages, suggesting extensive plastic surgery to the point of the grotesque. A fear of aging among the wrinkly adolescents of our town? Or is it all just playfulness in a town that loves to party?
I am suggesting that San Diego may well rival New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro when it comes to an enthusiasm for at least informal Mardi Gras sensibilities.
My own idea of a good time on a late October or early November night is to, first off, keep warm somewhere and to read something not only frightening but convincing and done with care. I refer not strictly to things that go bump in the night, the undead, or ghosts, but more often to works dealing with the truly horrible ways we can misunderstand each other, abuse each other, or the inexplicable kind of evil that seems endemic to our world. It is this last that will send me for metaphoric and spiritual cover.
Homelessness frightens me greatly...it is something of which I have had some experience. Hospitals, jails (where so many inmates seem to genuinely enjoy themselves), and insanity are always good ones. I am no doubt more than halfway arrived at insanity, but like so many with types of “unsoundness of mind,” I can remain oblivious to it until some horrendous consequence to some particular madness results.
An online commenter asked me for some recommendations for weird and seasonal reading, and I have done enough of it — just not lately. Not too many columns back I mentioned Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. This certainly is the single most frightening piece of fiction I have read in years, particularly for fathers of young boys.
As for Stephen King, I have enjoyed several of his books and stories but have little to recommend to the more discerning reader. His stories (and this is undoubtedly me speaking with some age) seem to take on more of the quality of white bread as I try one after another.
H.P. Lovecraft is an obvious choice and more reliable than many others who come to mind. Lovecraft himself was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe — consistently capable of creeping one out — and Robert Chambers, author of The King in Yellow. If you haven’t read it, give it your time and don’t forget your patience.
Finally, when I was 25 years old, I happened upon The Philosopher’s Stone, by Colin Wilson, with an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. The sense of fear and intellectual excitement was extraordinary. A sequel, the unfortunately titled Mind Parasites (like a 1950s Roger Corman film), was equally disturbing. Both are Lovecraft pastiches and possibly more appropriate to intellectual entertainment seekers in their 20s.
Still, I recall how all of these stories have moved me in appropriately frightening ways at various times in my life.