I love roller coasters so much that I put one in my new young adult novel, EIGHT DAYS ON PLANET EARTH. My main character, Matty, introduces his alien friend Priya to the thrills of the Kennywood amusement park, including riding the Racer which is a real-life dual-train wooden coaster, a classic.
As the coaster climbs the first hill and Matty feels Priya squeeze next to him, he protectively wraps his arm around her, even though that means he can’t raise his arms up as the car goes over the hill, something he always did as a kid. He finally understands why couples go to scary movies: to cuddle closely, united in temporary fear.
The thrill of a coaster or any scare ride lies in knowing it will end. There is a finite amount of time you will be thrashed around inside a small compartment with perhaps a strap of nylon across your shoulders or a thin metal bar over your lap. Those two and a half minutes might feel like a lifetime but in very soon, the ride is over and you are safe, feet back on the ground again.
(Your head might spin and your stomach might feel a bit queasy but that’s a topic for another day.)
In the same way, I approach books as finite moments of danger. A story, be it something supernaturally scary like Stephen King’s The Shining or horror of the suburban variety like Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, is limited to the pages between the covers. At any point, if I’m overwhelmed, I can close the covers and take a breath or get a coffee or otherwise give myself a break from the horror.
I can try on the evil narrator of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (actually, all of her books’ narrators are of questionable moral fiber!) and then step away and back into my normal life without ever having actually betrayed my husband or killed my lover.
Then there are Stephanie Kuehn’s YA novels which I both love and fear because they are so wonderfully written yet also so horrifying they burrow into my brain and live there for a long time.
(Perhaps these authors’ novels are more like haunted houses than roller coasters!)
Over the years, what I have found scary or dangerous or thrilling has changed a great deal. The type of character whose mind I want to inhabit for a few hundred pages has evolved too. I used to look for narrators who were more like me, teen or young adult me, who might be facing situations I was facing and I was looking for guidance – either what to do or what not to do. I remember reading Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary as a singleton and finding resonance in her reactions to her love life – or lack thereof. Love at that time was indeed a frightening subject for me!
These days, I look for characters who are the total opposite of me; I want to read about situations that I would never find myself in. Sometimes that means a series like Harry Potter, where the danger is not necessarily realistic but thrilling all the same.
Or it might mean revisiting some classic Ray Bradbury or Madeleine L’Engle. Tesseracting my way through space with Meg and Calvin might not be as dangerous as tracking a killer in a JD Robb novel but it’s a great way to experience familial danger (losing a parent in this case) – and then closing the book and walking away.
Whatever the reason – and everyone has her own – visiting a fictional world someone has created, whether it’s a rural town like Matty’s or completely made up like Priya’s – is one of the safest ways to experience new things.