Put it down to an overactive imagination, but I was possibly the wimpiest kid in the world when it came to scary movies and TV shows. My parents threatened to stop letting me watch Doctor Who because it gave me nightmares. (Though in my defense, “Image of the Fendahl” is seriously creepy when you’re ten!). For as far back as I can remember, I have had nightmares involving home invasion and serial killers. (Let me state for the record that I had an otherwise normal and stable childhood.
Maybe it was a past-life memory. Maybe I just started watching the ten o’clock news young and tender an age).
Paradoxically, I also have a fascination with ghost stories, even though I know they will interfere with my sleep for many nights to come. This was something I had occasion to ponder, as I streamed spectral tales through headphones while working past dark in a mostly empty building and occasionally jumping at imaginary sounds. (At least, I hope they were imaginary!)
I also had to ask myself when I first started writing A Hunt by Moonlight whether or not I could handle writing a book about a serial killer that preyed on women, even a fictional serial killer in an alternate-universe Victorian London. Even though the killer was not one of my POV characters, I still had to get into his head enough to understand his motivations, and his head was a deeply unpleasant place to be. Even one or two of my red-herring characters made my skin crawl.
And yet I found that I had fewer nightmares while I was working on Hunt. I had to ask myself what was up with that? It might have been different, of course, if I was the sort of writer that described the killing in (literally) gory detail. (Reviewers of some of my previous books have praised my ability to portray the horror of an occurrence without resorting to stomach-churning description). That might explain why the nightmares didn’t increase. By why did they lessen?
Part of it, I think, was that this killer was under my control. He jumped when I said ‘jump’. I could stop him at any time. Another factor may have been that the focus of my writing was the good guys, the ones trying to stop the killer, the ones that wanted to protect citizens from harm. I spent more time by far in their heads.
But maybe the biggest factor might be what the amazing writing teacher (and author) David Farland says about one of the values of fiction to society. In a workshop I took with David a few years ago, he said that scary/tense/difficult moments in fiction help to prepare us for dealing with scary/tense/difficult moments in real life in the same way inoculations of killed or weakened virus prepare the body for encounters with live virus in the real world
David is not entirely alone in the theory. I first encountered something like it in the analysis of A. E. Houseman’s poem “Terrence, This is Stupid Stuff” in a high school English Lit textbook more years ago than I care to count.