The box, and especially its contents, has been a horror staple for many a year. You’ll excuse me, if during the course of my article I neglect to mention any number of what I’m sure are a great deal of stories containing boxes. Feel free to leave some stories with the cursed shape in the comment section below.
The most famous box in horror literature, (yes, this article will be an exercise in avoiding innuendo, hard as it may be), is the lament configuration, Lemarchand’s box, from the brilliant novella by Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart.
This creation, from the exquisitely brimstone-laden mind of Barker, opens up a doorway to the gates of Hell, and releases the Cenobites. If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of The Hellbound Heart, apparently you’ve been living under a rock, and you can go Google it. The Cenobites of course went on to give fashion advice to the lead singer of Cradle of Filth.
You opened the box, we came, and gave you fashion advice. We never told you to put in blue hair extensions.
That shit is very tacky looking.
Another brilliant, though somewhat lesser known story containing a box, is Jack Ketchum’s aptly titled story The Box from his infinitely rereadable short story collection Peaceable Kingdom.
This story is about a man on the train two days before Christmas with a “red square gift box,” who lets the narrator’s son Danny look and see what’s inside his present. Unfortunately, said glimpse leads Danny to lose all appetite, and he withers away and dies from starvation. Though, Danny is perfectly content, and does not complain about being hungry. One night, mere weeks before his death, Danny tells his sister’s, Clarissa and Jenny, what he saw in the box. Soon, they stop eating. Soon, the narrator’s wife stops eating as well. It’s a heartbreaking, and incredibly scary, story.
Here, we are presented with a particularly effective device used to scare. Stephen King discusses the concepts of this tool in Danse Macabre, when he discusses, to paraphrase, the concept of the thing behind the door. King references what he heard an author by the name of William F. Nolan say at the 1979 World Fantasy convention. The text can be found starting on page 110 of the 1981 Berkley edition.
What’s behind the door or lurking at the top of the stairs is never as frightening as the door or the staircase itself.
And because of this, comes the paradox: the artistic work of horror is almost always a disappointment. It is the classic
It is common sense, as King goes on to explain by giving the example of a huge bug behind the door.
You can scare people with the unknown for a long, long time (the classic example, as Bill Nolan also pointed out, is the Jacques Tourneur film with Dana Andrews, Curse of the Demon but sooner or later, as in poker, you have to turn your down cards up. You have to open the door and show the audience what’s behind it. And if what happens to be behind it is a bug, not ten but a hundred feet tall, the audience heaves a sigh of relief (or utters a scream of relief) and thinks, “A bug a hundred feet tall is pretty horrible, but I can deal with that. I was afraid it might be a thousand feet tall”…
The Box by Ketchum, is not a typical example of a Ketchum story, as he normally doesn’t use this style of leaving most everything up to the reader’s imagination. However, it is a very efficient scary story, and it is the ambiguous nature of what this boy, Danny, saw within the red present box, which is so terrifying. The closest we get to an explanation of its contents, is on page 29 of the 2003 Leisure fiction edition of Peaceable Kingdom.
“I don’t know. It was just…the box was empty.”
He looked at me as though it was impossible for him to understand why I didn’t understand. Empty was empty. That was that.
Something in this present box, made Danny, his sisters, and eventually their mother, lose all desire to eat. This leads the reader to fret over what it could have been in the box that could have such an effect on four people, of different ages. To add to the dread, only Danny actually saw what was in the present box, and the rest merely heard about it. We don’t know if it is the power of the thing in the box, whether it spreads some kind of disease of the mind; we have no idea what the contents of the present were, whose only gift appears to be a slow death.
Though he is rarely thought of as a horror author, and rightly so as he is primarily a transgressive fiction author, Chuck Palahniuk has a wonderful story from his short story collection Haunted entitled, also fittingly enough, The Nightmare Box.
The Nightmare Box tells the tale of Mrs Clark, and her fifteen year old daughter, Cassandra. Cassandra disappears one day, weeks after she has been to an art gallery containing something known as, you guessed it “The Nightmare Box.” It’s a box on “three tall legs,” “A tripod,” and it used to be in an antiques store, before it made its way to the gallery. It is described as “black,” and “the size of an old-time camera.” Each side of the box has “brass handles,” and you have to hold onto both while staring into the box to “complete a circuit.” The box has a “brass peephole,” on it, for you to stare into while you hold onto the brass handles. Long story short, you stare into the box, and you are playing Russian roulette with your sanity. For, not everyone gets to see anything, but for a very unlucky few, they see something so scarring, so horrifying, they have a nervous breakdown. They become withdrawn and hopeless. Needless to say, Cassandra is one of these unlucky people. There seems to be a lot of people who find this story, and indeed this collection, lacking. To those people, I say with utmost sincerity, you’re entitled to your opinion, but I love this story, and this collection.
We can go back to Danse Macabre, to read more of King’s opinions on this, the thing we can not see.
There is and always has been a school of horror writers (I am not among them) who believe that the way to beat this rap is to never open the door at all. .
So this article doesn’t end up as just one long-ass Dance Macabre quote, let me go through the rest of what King says quickly. He mentions the film adaptation of the book by Shirley Jackson The Haunting of Hill House,which is directed by Robert Wise. It is the thing behind the door that causes it to “bulge grotesquely inward until it looks like a great convex bubble,” King is intrigued by, and its effect on the human imagination. He goes on to mention how “Lovecraft would open the door… but only a crack…” Let us skip to the end, where the rest of the meat of the discourse can be found, on page 113.
My own disaproval of this method-We’ll let the door bulge but we’ll never open it-comes from the belief that it is playing to tie rather than to win. There is (or may be), after all, that hundreth case, and there is the whole concept of suspension of disbelief. Consequently, I’d rather yank the door open at some point during the festivities; I’d rather turn my hole cards face-up. And if the audience screams with laughter rather than terror, if they see the zipper running up the monster’s back, then you just gotta go back to the drawing board and try it again.
While it is unfair to apply this quote to the stories and authors in question, as they usually don’t rely on this device in their fiction, it does bring up a valid critique of the method. Of course this device is effective; one doesn’t have to show anything. It’s the same approach as shutting off all the lights in your film or show, and relying only upon sound. The imagination is vastly superior and pumping in the fear, then any writer could ever be. Yet, it’s fun to read stories like Ketchum’s The Box and Palahniuk’s The Nightmare Box,for they allow us to use our imaginations.
Finally, let us look at Richard Matheson’s story Button, Button or as you might know it, The Box which was the name of the film it was adapted into. It tells the story of a couple who receive a box, with a button inside. They are told that if they press the button, they will receive 50,000 dollars, but someone will die, and they will have no idea who this person will be. As you can probably guess, one of the two in the couple presses the button. You can listen to an excerpt from the audiobook version below.
Button, Button is another variation on the unknowable effect if the box, much like in The Hellbound Heart. In this instance, the couple does not know who will die, rather than what the occupants of Hell will look like. Yet, isn’t each just a different take on the thing behind the door, which we can not see? The difference in this case, is we do get to eventually see the things brought by the Hell box, or the person who dies because of the button, in the box. But it is the unknown which is still the cause of apprehension and dread. And this is the power of the box with the horrible consequences as a literary device. This unknown effect, whether seen or never seen, is at the root of all good scary stories. It is this give and take which causes the fear response. And the box is a perfect metaphor for the concept of the unknown. The classic example is obviously the tale of Pandora’s Box. So, it’s been shown to be a lasting technique. Human curiosity leads one to open the box, and thus human curiosity brings about the undoing of man.
Keep your eyes peeled for part 2 of this series, in which I explore the box as a container of terror in film.