Whenever we drive somewhere as a family, our seating arrangement is always the same: my husband behind the wheel, me next to him, our teenage son occupying the back seat. Usually, we chat, laugh, bicker over the choice of radio station, sing songs together, whinge about the traffic. But if we’re on a long car-ride, say, to a holiday destination in the countryside, or if it’s late and we’re all talked-out and tired, we soon fall silent and retreat to the privacy of our own thoughts. It’s at these times that I gaze out the passenger window and note the houses flitting by. Each house contains a family of some sort. But what sort? I feel pensive.
What could be going on inside each home?
I’m passing dozens, no, hundreds of hidden dramas. A couple might be arguing, splitting up. Someone may be crying, alone. Or an assault is in progress. A murder. It unsettles me to think I might be driving by any number of grisly events. I never imagine any happy families within those anonymous houses. As a writer of dark fiction, why would I?
Writers have always been drawn to the family’s limitless potential for plot and character, and I’m no different. As Leo Tolstoy so famously described, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And stories about unhappy families resonate deeply with readers, including me.
One of my favourites is ‘The Shining’ by Stephen King. The novel is a devastating, brutal
analysis of a dysfunctional family. Jack Torrance, winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, is an alcoholic trying to stay sober for the sake of his wife and young son. The traumatic relationship with his own long-dead father, an abusive drunk, keeps occupying his thoughts. The Overlook Hotel may have supernatural forces at work, but it is also haunted by Jack’s unbearable memories.
Horror films love families too. For instance, what about the granddaddy of the modern horror film, Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’? Marion so longs to start her own family that she’s willing to break the law. And Norman…well, his adoration for Mother knows no bounds.
No matter the medium, dark stories about families share one thing in common: claustrophobic and inescapable proximity. The characters are trapped together, physically or psychologically, or both. A spouse who can’t leave a bad marriage. A child too young to strike out on their own. An older person too sick or frail to defend themselves. If a writer can conjure a believable scenario of disappointment, fear or bitterness, most readers will relate. After all, how many of us have had a perfect childhood? How many of us are perfect parents, grandparents, sons, daughters, siblings, cousins, uncles, or aunts? Who hasn’t regretted an action, a word, a thought? Who hasn’t longed for a second chance?
My collection, ‘300 Degree Days and Other Stories’, concentrates on relationships within nuclear families. Like many writers, I use the microcosm to explore the macrocosm. The eleven stories in this collection touch upon a range of social ills such as emotional abuse, violence, and loneliness. Families are fragile things, easily broken.
According to a recent US study, one in 10 families is affected by estrangement of some kind. That statistic doesn’t include families with members who resign themselves to keeping the peace. What figure might that particular group represent? Two in 10 families? Five in 10? More? Your guess is as good as mine. “Blood is thicker than water” is an adage that apparently speaks about the importance of family ties. However, it’s a misquote. The actual line refers to the bond between soldiers, and states, “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” Meaning, family ties aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
A dark story about family, if well written, pokes and prods at the reader’s tender places, triggers sad memories and, at best, even provokes tears. This is a good thing! It sounds counter-intuitive, but stories about dysfunctional families help us to reframe our own experiences in a more positive light. If you grew up on a diet of TV shows about close-knit families (in my generation, the most popular were ‘Happy Days,’ ‘The Brady Bunch,’ and ‘The Partridge Family’), or if you believe the “life is always wonderful” posts of Facebook friends, you might erroneously think that your less-than-ideal situation is the exception rather than the rule. Dark fiction holds up a different mirror. Through reading melancholic or downright frightening stories, we find reassurance. Everyone in a family is human, fallible, capable of mistakes. Sometimes, ghastly mistakes. And, occasionally, ghastly “mistakes” are made on purpose.
Dark stories about families are cathartic because they allow us to safely examine the damaged places within our own hearts. And, paradoxically, the healthy places too. Maybe that’s why I tend to ponder the anonymous houses while I’m in the car, with my husband at the wheel, our son in the back seat. It’s a kind of reassurance, a quick reminder to feel gratitude. My writer’s eye imagines chaos, mayhem and discord behind the closed doors and curtains. Then I touch my husband’s leg. Turn to smile at our son. During those long drives, I count my blessings, and my inner demons settle down to rest for a while.
Deborah Sheldon is a professional writer from Melbourne, Australia. Latest releases, all traditionally published, include the horror collection ‘Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories,’ the horror novel ‘Devil Dragon,’ and the romance-suspense novella ‘The Long Shot.’ Upcoming titles in 2018 include the horror novella ‘Thylacines’, the collection ‘300 Degree Days and Other Stories’, and a dark fiction retrospective collection. Her short fiction has appeared in many well-respected magazines such as Aurealis, SQ Mag, Midnight Echo, Island, and Quadrant, as well as in numerous anthologies. Her work has been shortlisted for various Australian Shadows Awards. Other credits include TV scripts, feature articles, non-fiction books (Reed Books, Random House Australia), and award-winning medical writing.