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On Doing Something that Scares You

Published onJul 30, 2023
On Doing Something that Scares You

With another successful conference in the books, I’d like to acknowledge all the folks who spoke, presented or otherwise got up in front of their peers to share their insight and accomplishments from their own library systems. It takes both courage and organization, and I deeply appreciate the breadth of expertise and ideas. Public speaking itself is no small feat. While there may be some people who are able to breezily get up in front of others and talk (off the cuff no less!), I am not one of their number. I’ve always experienced some level of stage fright. Even now, many years after my first conference presentation, I can feel the sweat break out on my face the minute I sit down and look up to see multiple eyeballs trained on me. With all my fun physical reactions to public speaking, I could never have dreamed that I would voluntarily sign up for panels or even (gulp) presentations. Yet here we are. As clichéd as it is, I will begrudgingly admit that my fear has improved with practice and repetition. The 20th time sitting down at a panel is nowhere near as frightening as the second time. 

What, you may be thinking, does this have to do with reading? A few years ago, I identified a deep, dark scary hole in my Readers’ Advisory skills. I knew that the genre in question was popular, and I understood that my patrons were not being well-served by my ignorance, but my heart quailed when I thought of trying any of those kinds of books. That daunting genre is horror, and I would have rather done anything (even an impromptu presentation) than pick up a horrifying read. 

At first, I tried to laugh it off by calling myself the Wimpy Librarian. Then, I gingerly investigated lists and articles across various professional resources. This helped, but I still didn’t have that special level of knowledge that comes from reading and experiencing a book for myself. Something had to be done, so I grimly set myself a challenge: Every October, I would read all (or mostly all) horror stories. I’d try anything and not give up on a book unless it bumped up against one of my hard stops. As the Octobers passed, I found myself adjusting, learning, and even enjoying books I read in the horror genre. As I write this, there is even a horror book awaiting me on the hold shelf (Muckross Abbey: And Other Stories by Sabina Murray for the curious. Has anyone tried it?). Once more, repeated exposure and practice has come to my rescue. While horror is still not my favorite genre, I can confidently pick up and suggest horror reads for just about anybody. I’m no expert, but I thought I would offer some tips in case someone else out there would like to challenge themselves with a bit of horror reading. Meanwhile, remember to close your horror book by sunset, know that practice does not make perfect (but it can help!), and with the right preparation, you too can do scary things. 

Read About Horror

While reading about horror books was ultimately not enough for me, don’t let that stop you from checking out the many excellent resources out there. Some of the most effective RA folks I know can read about something and then are able to skillfully discuss it with patrons (How do they do this? My inquiring mind wants to know.) My one-stop resource is the blog RA for All: Horror, written and maintained by the terrifyingly talented Becky Spratford. Here you’ll find long and short form reviews, lists, suggestions, and even regularly updated presentations that you can view at your leisure. 

Know Your Hard Stops

Whenever we’re talking about the horror genre, I regularly quote a line from an old casino commercial; “know your limit, play within it.” There's absolutely no need for library staff to torture themselves with something that is too horrifying or hurtful for them, and our goal is for patrons to enjoy what they’re reading. We have a better chance of successfully matching books to people if we know what will make them abruptly stop reading a book. For me, that’s harming animals or children and/or everybody dies in the end, but it will be different for everyone. Knowing the amount of gore and the type of scares (Ghost? Survival? Monster? Cosmic? Psychological?) hiding within each horror read will really improve your RA.

Have Some Back-Pocket Books Ready

Keeping up with the constant barrage of latest and greatest reads is nearly impossible, but we can (and should) have some suggestions at the ready that will suit a variety of horror fans. Not only does this help mitigate some frantic Googling at the reference desk (skimming a listicle of Goodreads summaries while a patron waits impatiently in front of you is not it), but it also boosts your confidence during the RA interview. I strongly recommend having some go-to winners that you can bring out at a moment’s notice. Your back-pocket horror books will entirely depend on the content of your collection and what interests your patrons. However, if you need some suggestions to get started, I have a few options for you. 

Clay McLeod Chapman (try The Remaking or Ghost Eaters)

This author takes two thoroughly modern concepts (retelling ghost stories in Remaking and drug addiction in Ghost Eaters), and looks deep into the darkest shadows and finds something...extra lurking just beyond the light. Deeply creepy with nuanced characters, these are excellent suggestions for your regular horror readers.

Cassandra Khaw (try Nothing but Blackened Teeth or The Salt Grows Heavy)

I love Khaw’s books for her deft handling of intimate relationships, her acknowledgment that humans can be just as haunted by their pasts as anything ghostly, and her exploration of Asian mythology/stories. Blackened Teeth takes place in a Heian-era mansion in Japan, while the mermaid in Salt is much sharper and more ferocious than anything we know of from Western sources. Both suggestions are novellas, so if your patron wants to sample some well-written short scares, try Khaw.

Victor Lavalle (The Ballad of Black Tom or The Devil in Silver)

I’m so grateful to the talented authors that remind us that one of the most terrifyingly true parts of humanity is racism. Lavalle is known for his tributes to (and criticisms of) famous, xenophobic authors like H.P. Lovecraft and his riveting stories of characters on the margins. Devil in Silver might be harder to find due to its age, but it’s well worth seeking out. If your readers want a horror author who challenges as much as he entertains, look no further. 

Simone St. James (try An Inquiry into Love and Death or Silence for the Dead)

St. James is excellent for the cautious horror newbie. Romance, thrills, historical fiction, and mystery plots are emphasized just as much as the supernatural spooks. While there are some hair-raising moments (there’s a window scene that still haunts me from An Inquiry into Love and Death), St. James manages to resolve the story in time for a satisfying ending.

Smiling woman with sunkissed cheeks and brown hair up in a bun looks directly at the camera. She is wearing a floral print jacket with a yellow, button-up shirt.
Jenna Zarzycki is an adult services librarian at King County Library System who lives and works in South King County. She adores talking about books to anyone who will listen and regularly contributes to KCLS’ BookMatch and booklist services. Her favorite reads tend towards fantasy, romance, and narrative nonfiction, although any book has the possibility to become a new favorite.
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