It's hard to fear monsters anymore. Vampires and werewolves aren't scary since I learned they just want to love me. I make my husband watch The Walking Dead when I'm out of the house because the sound of zombie skulls splitting makes me want to puke, but on the whole, zombies don't have enough independent thought to be truly frightening, though said husband assures me there are different kinds of zombies, some of which can be quite autonomous. I'm sure I'd be scared if one came at me, but in general, piles of rotting flesh just gross me out.
You know what's scary? The Great Selkie, y'all. A fallen angel who looks like a bull seal, except when he looks like a man, who wants to drag me down to live in his crystal palace under the sea and drown me and roof the palace with my hair if I ever decide to leave...what?!
When I found out this month's blog theme—fear and disguises and other Halloweeny type things—I immediately thought of the first book that ever really scared the some-word-I'm-allowed-to-say-in-front-of-my-new-baby out of me: Mollie Hunter's 1975 middle grade novel, A Stranger Came Ashore.
This is the cover of the edition I read. Scary, no? This would scare anyone. Also, it was dusty and stained and generally gross in the way a library book from 1975 is apt to be.
I encountered A Stranger Came Ashore sometime during a childhood of library summer reading programs, but I didn't remember much except that it was about the Great Selkie taking the form of a man and trying to convince this kid's elder sister to marry him so he could do the whole dragging her down to the bottom of the ocean and roofing his palace with her hair thing. That and the scene where the stranger is creepily playing the violin and charming the family dog (who knows what's up) into submission. And I remembered being really scared and knowing I better not tell my parents lest they make me stop reading.
I read it again recently to see if it was as scary as I remembered. Alas, no. This is the cover now:
I'm not sure how scary the book was meant to be. Like many of Mollie Hunter's other books, it's set on a remote Scottish island and uses traditional Scottish folklore as a starting point. While I'm not as scared of the Great Selkie as I was at ten—never any need to fear because I'm a brunette, and the Great Selkie only goes for blonds, as he's also into a certain victim profile—I understand what scared me so much then.
When the Great Selkie hides his selkie skin and comes ashore as the man Finn Learson, he's as much in disguise as anyone could be—visibly, anyway, he's changed species. Finn Learson is cocky, too: he gives clue after clue about his true identity, but twelve-year-old Robbie spends most of the book as the only person who knows Finn Learson is the Great Selkie and thus as the only one who can save his sister. That's the stuff of nightmares: being the only one who can fight a monster only you can see.
I'm not sure how well the book would play in today's more monster-friendly climate. A Stranger Came Ashore is a literary folktale, with all a folktale's emphasis on good and evil. Make no mistake, Finn Learson is a monster. Sure, he romances Elspeth away from her human sweetheart, but only so he can kill her. He doesn't fall in love with her and regret the monstrosity that compels him to drown her at the bottom of the sea. He genuinely means her harm, but he hides it so well that all anyone can see is what a great guy he is. Except Robbie, who sees through the disguise. Even I kept expecting something I missed on that childhood reading, some nuance to give me sympathy for the Great Selkie, but no such luck. He's not even lonely—he has plenty of Lesser Selkie companions. Drowning blond girls every time he needs a new roof is just his jam.
A monster who regrets being a monster is one thing, but a monster who has no problem with who he is? That's scary stuff. (Side note: Is this what makes the Daleks from Doctor Who scary? Because they have terrified people for over fifty years while carrying toilet plungers and egg beaters.)
I've never written horror or thrillers, but this rereading experience got me thinking about what might make a character in any genre scary.
Do you remember the first book that terrified you? What made it scary? It's almost Halloween, so unpack that fear in the comments.