Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Please Don’t Show Me Your Teeth

Our coverage of scary monsters and the books they inhabit continues with middle grade horror author Dan Poblocki. If you're looking for a scary book for a younger reader for All Hallow's Read, might I recommend The Stone Child or The Nightmarys series?

My fear of the Carcharodon carcharias—the Great White shark, “the ragged-tooth one”—is the textbook definition of a phobia. Simply imagining the creature sets me off balance. My skin tightens. My throat closes. I turn red, get dizzy.

Some have been lucky enough to be in my presence when a New York City bus passes wearing a Discovery Channel Shark Week advertisement—one of those life-sized pictures of the beast, open-mouthed, coming directly at you. I may scream, drop to the ground, even leap into your arms. I’ve been known to do all three in rapid succession. A few who know of my weakness have been cruel enough to tap me on the shoulder, holding a National Geographic magazine open to an article about shark cage photography. The results? Not pretty. Even now, having worked up the nerve to Google the damn thing’s scientific name, I’m left with a sense of unease. You see, one never knows when a picture of a shark will pop up on a computer screen or television, or reveal itself after the turn of a page.

You can never be too careful.

I first learned this rule at the age of six, during a family trip to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. I remember rows of colorful colonial buildings. Seaport staff wandered the streets dressed in festive costumes. My family found our way into one of the gift shops, and being the little bookworm that I was, I ended up in the store’s book section not anticipating that my life was about to change.

I’d always been timid around ocean images. Deep water is the ultimate danger zone, filled with animals whose teeth and claws can not only nip or pinch, but totally tear a body to shreds. My parents had some undersea photography books at home, and sometimes I’d dare myself to flip through them, peering at the crabs and lobsters through the mesh of my small fingers, as if the crustaceans might leap off the page at me.

Before arriving at the seaport, I was okay with sharks. I knew what they looked like. Big fish. Big mouths. But no big deal. They fascinated and frightened me the way snakes and spiders would any child—as subjects of a science lesson.

It was with this same fascination that I approached a book on a display table at the gift shop in Mystic. The cover was benign enough: an illustration of several sharks swimming near a reef. I flipped through the book, surprised to find some of the pictures dark, violent, frenzied.

Before I knew it, my cheeks flushed. My palms grew moist. I had to put the book down, or something very bad was going to happen. Somehow, I glanced at the back cover. There was no juvenile illustration. Instead, an enormous close up photograph of the inside of a Great White’s mouth stared back at me. Bloody flesh was lodged between its teeth. And beyond, inside, where the rest of the meat had gone, was an infinite darkness.

I threw the book across the store and screamed as loud as I could.

My mother came quickly and saw what I’d done. She was mortified at my behavior, but of course, she didn’t understand what had happened and I didn’t have the words to explain. She insisted I retrieve the book and put it back where I found it. I begged her—BEGGED HER!—to do it for me, but she refused.

I don’t remember what happened next, except that I somehow got that freaking book back where it belonged, on that display table waiting to scare the bejeebers out of the next fool-kid who happened to be seduced by its promise of an exciting ocean-life lesson.

The darkness beyond the shark’s teeth in that picture is what I see in my worst nightmares. It’s there when I wake in the night, there when I peer over my shoulder while walking home alone. It’s there when I try to imagine an evil that lurks in the souls of men. Evil just has to look like that. Don’t you think? It’s what Mary Shelley dreamt about the night she conceived of her monster, what Lovecraft saw when he closed his eyes, what Stephen King hunts whenever he puts his fingers to his keyboard.

I actually don’t believe I’m scared of the sharks themselves—the poor things get a bad rap—but for me, the animal triggers the memory of that seaport gift shop, of that bloody mouth I had to return to the table while my six-year-old brain prayed to God that its jaws wouldn’t bite off my fingers. No, I suppose I’m not really scared of sharks. But they certainly don’t make things easier.