‘I came to you because I want to tell my story,’ the man on Dr Harper’s couch was saying. The man was Lester Billings from Waterbury, Connecticut. According to the history taken from Nurse Vickers, he was twenty-eight, employed by an industrial firm in New York, divorced, and the father of three children. All deceased.
‘I can’t go to a priest because I’m not a Catholic. I can’t go to a lawyer because I haven’t done anything to consult a lawyer about. All I did was kill my kids. One at a time. Killed them all.’
Dr Harper turned on the tape recorder.
‘The Boogeyman’ Stephen King
One of my favourite horror stories of all time is the Stephen King short, ‘The Boogeyman’.
This is a fantastic story because it starts off in such an unremarkable way. The protagonist comes into the story needing to speak with a psychiatrist to unburden himself of the terrible things that have happened to him.
And the things that have happened to him are terrible. He’s married (that’s not terrible part). He’s got kids (the jury’s out on whether or not that part is terrible). But the kids start dying. And that’s definitely terrible. The kids start dying and this protagonist believes that the boogeyman is responsible for their deaths. Worse, as the story goes on, we (as readers) begin to realise that the boogeyman is real and his appetite for dead kids is fairly unslakable.
I think dead kids are a powerful trope in horror fiction. Children are such a strong symbol of life and vitality that their death in fiction reminds us that life can be cruel and uncaring, and we’re reminded that life can be obscenely shitty.
Dead child number one occurs. The protagonist is upset. But he’s not so upset that he misses the fact that a closet door he’d closed is slightly ajar. This was the closet where his child had pointed and said ‘boogeyman’ and explained he was afraid of the boogeyman that lurked behind the door.
The protagonist puts it down to being a sad and tragic accident. He tries to get on with his life and gets mightily pissed off when Child Number Two starts screaming one night that he too is scared of the bogeyman who lives in the closet. The protagonist tells his wife that he’s not happy she’s been teaching Child Number Two about boogeymen living in the closets and, when she says she’s taught the child no such thing, the couple quarrel.
They’re still quarrelling about where this knowledge of the bogeyman has come from when they awake to find a repeat of the tragedy they’ve previously experienced.
I’m not going to say any more about the plot of this story as I believe it’s one of those that’s essential reading for anyone who likes the horror genre. But, what I will say is, this story works for two very powerful reasons.
Primarily, it works because we’re looking at the death of children and this is one of those horrific situations that we all find frightening. The death of the vulnerable and those unable to protect themselves is heartbreaking. Reminders of mortality through those who haven’t yet had a chance to experience life are devastating, harsh and upsetting. And, as cruel as it is to accept these facts: we come to horror fiction for the devastating, the harsh and the upsetting.
‘The Boogeyman’ also works because the boogeyman lurks in the darkness of closed cupboards and behind doors that are slightly ajar. We all hesitate briefly before opening an unfamiliar cupboard. Spiders could be there or some other source for our fears. Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Closed doors and the spaces behind a slightly ajar doorway are perfect examples of the unknown, and this story plays into that nasty little fear in a big way.
Billings broke off and darted up on his elbows, staring across the room. ‘What’s that?’ he barked. His eyes had narrowed to black slots.
‘The closet,’ Dr Harper said. ‘Where I hang my coat and leave my overshoes.’
‘Open it. I want to see.’
Dr Harper got up wordlessly, crossed the room, and opened the closet. Inside, a tan raincoat hung on one of four or five hangers. Beneath that was a pair of shiny goloshes. The New York Times had been carefully tucked into one of them. That was all.
‘All right?’ Dr Harper said.
‘All right.’ Billings removed the props of his elbows and returned to his previous position.
‘The Boogeyman’, Stephen King
The story is almost fifty years old (it was first published in 1973, in Cavalier Magazine) yet it still stands as a testament to the scariness of two chillingly effective tropes in horror: the death of children and our fear of the unknown. This one is well worth checking out if you like your horror to be genuinely scary.