This is going to sound weird coming from a girl who was rhapsodizing about magic three weeks ago, but I loooooooove scary things: ghost stories, monsters, real-life horror, all the things that go bump or creak or stalk or slither in the night. I think there is also a kind of magic in being able to scare the socks off of someone, in tapping into that weird little animal brain that makes your palms sweat and your pulse race. So yeah, I love my fairy realms and dragons, but I also love that nasty, sly, creeping thing that hides under your bed.
So naturally, if I’m going to recommend a horror novel, I’m going to go to the master. The King himself, if you will.
Here’s the catch though; upon revisiting my favourite Stephen King novels (among which are It, The Shining, The Stand) I realized that none of them had a really prominent female protagonist. I mean, they all had major female characters, great female characters, but not a lot where the lady took front and center.
So, I went through the stack and stacks of horror I’ve read through the years and I realized that only the barest handful feature good, well-rounded females as the central character. And that’s really weird. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve found my calling now (HELLO WORLD, LET ME WRITE LADY-CENTRIC HORROR FICTION FOR YOU!) but still. I’m mystified by this. Is it because a lot of the most prominent horror authors are men? Is it because horror novelists think their audience is predominantly male? Am I just reading all the wrong scary stuff? WHAT IS IT I WANT TO KNOW.
But I digress. All this is really just to say that this genre almost stumped me. I ALMOST couldn’t think of a good book to recommend that would scare you dumb and also feature a great girl hero. But lo, I returned to Stephen King and The King came through.
And no, I’m not talking about Carrie. You all already know about Carrie. Even if you’ve never read Carrie, you know about Carrie. Today I’m recommending the seriously underrated Stephen King novel The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. I say underrated because this probably isn’t the first book you think of when you think Stephen King. In fact, odds are it’s not even in the first five.
But I love this book, and there are two major reasons. The first and the biggest is the precise nature of the horror that King evokes in this tale. There are no haunted hotels or killer clowns or world-ending plagues (though those are all fantastic things with which to traumatize people). This is a story of a little girl lost in the woods. The child-in-peril angle is popular in horror stories, probably because, as adults, most of us feel an ingrained instinct to protect children. If you happen to be a parent, I imagine this instinct is less reflex and more a fundamental need. Regardless of your current relationship to young people, we all know that children are small, and breakable and a lot more helpless than grownups, and they need looking after. Seeing them alone and scared – even in fiction – sparks something primal. It could also be that we grownups remember being small and breakable and helpless and reading these stories makes us revert back to children ourselves. Fear is a fickle beast is what I’m saying, and if you’re looking to scare people, kids in danger is a pretty reliable trigger.
So here’s this story of a child lost in the woods. The child in question here is Trisha, and she’s nine. And when she wanders off the path while trying to avoid her constantly bickering mother and older brother, she gets lost so quickly, and it feels so real, and so plausible, that anyone who’s ever been within three feet of a fast-moving grade-schooler gets the whim whams** just thinking of it. And, of course, this is Stephen King we’re talking about so there’s a hint of a supernatural element thrown in just for kicks. The really fantastic thing about how this particular dose of spooky business is worked in is that you’re never really sure if the creepiness is in our young heroine’s imagination, or if it’s actually happening. Trisha is established to have an active imagination early on (more on that later) and certainly she goes through a myriad of awful and harrowing things, so is there really some dark, hunching beast stalking her and leaving dead animals in its wake? We’re never quite sure, and it amps up the tension nicely.
The rest of the book’s success as a piece of storytelling comes from the character of Trisha herself, who is as likeable a child character as you could hope for. She deals with her situation with the matter-of-factness that children often have and her mix of resourceful smarts and deeply flawed kid-logic make for a nail biting mix of “Yeah, you go girl!” and “For the love of GOD stop walking around”. She is hilarious and tough as nails (I’d have curled up in a ball and quietly starved to death in her shoes. And I’m not talking about when I was nine, I’m talking about now) and she goes up against some truly heinous, hair-raising shit and just never quits. The other really fun thing about Trisha is that she’s a huge baseball fan, particularly of pitcher Tom Gordon (hence the title) and to cope with her nightmarish situation she imagines Tom with her. It is just such a kid thing to do, and it makes her even more endearing than she already is. PLUS, because we know that Trisha is able to imagine a famous baseball player hanging out and having full conversations with her, it throws us off balance even more when it comes to the is-it-or-isn’t-it real possibility of her being followed by a monster.
An observation I’ve made every time I’ve read this book is that Trisha could have easily been a boy. There’s nothing about her story that makes it absolutely necessary for her to be a girl, and there’s nothing about her character that, with a bit of tweaking, couldn’t have worked as a boy. Stephen King was, presumably, once a nine year-old boy, and as I’ve mentioned, horror novels have an odd tendency to focus on men and boys. So it is interesting to me that King chose to make his little lost child a girl. And it feels like a choice to me, like he deliberately sat down to write this and said, so I don’t care what anyone says, my main character is a little girl name Trisha and that’s the end of it. I’m not sure why this feels important to me, but it does. Because it likewise doesn’t feel like Trisha exists because King thought’ “oh hey, I’m putting a kid in danger and let’s make her a girl because that makes an already helpless character even more helpless!” Trisha never really feels particularly helpless at all. She’s actually very capable, and brave, and really kind of stupidly awesome. You are rooting for her so hard, and are so convinced at least six times that the kid is absolutely 100% done for, that by the climax of the book, you practically want to chuck the thing across the room, rip your shirt off of your body and just go roaring down the street in triumph ***. And I honestly don’t think that you’d have the same reaction if Trisha was a boy. So one day, once I’ve written a number of female-centric horror novels and me and Stephen are besties forever, I’m going to ask him why he chose to make Trisha a girl. And I’m going to hope that his answer is “because girls can do anything, including face down maybe-or-maybe not real forest monsters and save yourself from dying in the woods at least ten times”. Because that’s why I’D have done it.
** May not actually be a thing, may just be a saying I made up in my head.
*** again, very real possibility that this is a reaction unique to me, but I’m going to trust you all know what I mean.