Accidental Horror Stories

Justina Ireland started a Twitter thread about the short stories we read in school that had traumatized us. There were a lot of commonalities in her mentions: “There Will Come Soft Rains,” and “The Veldt,” by Ray Bradbury. “The Scarlet Ibis,” by James Hurst. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Eventually, the list turned to true horror stories: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” by Poe and the usual Stephen King hits.

There’s all kinds of trauma here. There’s the scary, from straight-up horror to apocalypse. There’s the pathos of being a woman in an oppressive state, or of being a disabled kid not getting adequate care. But I realized as I formulated my own answers that there’s a hidden category here, and my own answers defined it for me.

The first two stories I thought of are the same story: someone is miserably trapped in poverty. They weren’t horror stories by genre, but they worked as horror stories for me. Probably for a lot of people. These stories scared the shit out of me.

The first one that came to me was “Fool’s Paradise,” by Floyd Dell. I still remember several lines from it verbatim, though I read it only once. It tells the story of a kid figuring out that his family is very poor. In my memory, the POV character was a girl. Of course they were. I read them as me.

I remember wanting to warn this kid while reading it. I wanted to scream at him. How could he not know? How could he ask his parents for impossible things, like money to donate at school? In my experience, other kids will make sure you know you’re poor. In my experience, there is no worse sin than asking your poor parents for money.

I wanted to scream at him the way we yell at people in horror movies. Don’t go in there! Don’t run up the stairs, escape! I wanted to tell him EVERYONE KNOWS BUT YOU. I want to tell him Christmas morning is going to break your heart. This kid’s intimate, grinding misery was much worse than the sound of a heartbeat under the floorboards. Even as a ten-year-old, I knew real-life horror was scarier than anything Poe ever dared to put down.

The other story that sprang to mind was Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace.” I saw this one in a few other folk’s reply to Ireland. It’s about a woman who borrows a necklace to wear on one magical night out and loses it. She resigns herself to years of hard labor, penury, and silence to replace it, thinking it’s made of real diamonds and that her friend will demand she repay the cost.

After decades of missing out on everything fun and ducking her friend, our pitiable heroine learns it was a costume bauble and nothing more. She could have saved her own life by admitting she was poor and couldn’t pay.

That’s the real horror story, as any poor kid will tell you. It’s not being poor; it’s having to look people in the eye and say it.

Even now, with a liberal arts education behind me and enough political understanding to know that poverty has never been my own fault, the shame of it is scorching. I tried to reread both of these stories and found that I could not. I looked at the pages by peeking through my fingers, waiting for the monster to go away.

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