13 September 2008

'Til I hear it from you

The candles flickered in the breeze from the open French doors, the dim light casting odd shadows in the darkest corners of the room, and fog tore and blew through the cool air...

"DON'T TALK!" ordered a teenage boy to the other kids in the room. "This is the best story..."

Anticipatory rustling from the floor and the chairs, along with a muffled giggle, a whisper.

"Once upon a time, an old man lived in the forest with his two hound dogs," I intoned in a quiet voice. I could sense rather than see everyone leaning forward slightly to catch the soft words. I'd already read for two hours that day, and my voice was rough and tired with the effort...and the occasional piercing scream, necessary when you're telling scary stories.

But most of the people in the room had heard the story in previous years, and the roughness of my voice only added to rustic tale of an old man in a backwoods cabin who runs into a monster.

"Times were tough," I went on, "and the old man had only eaten potatoes he'd grown in his garden and roots he'd been able to dig up in the forest. He was hungry and he wanted some meat..."

People have been telling each other stories since the dawn of creation, as a way to entertain, a way to pass the long winter nights, a way to teach. Every culture has its tales of creation, tales of mischief, and cautionary tales filled with gods and monsters meting out retribution to the greedy and willful.

"...but the strange animal he saw in the corner of his cabin moved faster than the old man, and he only had a chance to cut off the creature's long tail before it scurried through the hole in the corner of the room. The man was disappointed, but he shrugged, and said, 'Meat is meat,' and he cooked up that tail and ate it."

"Ewwwwwww," moaned a young female voice.

"SSSSSHHHHHH!" reprimanded the teenage boy.

The best part of storytelling is sharing the experience of a story that you like. When I read a great story, the first thing I want to do is pass it along to someone else so they can read it too. But actually telling a story creates a bond between the teller and the listeners, and I let the mood of the listeners guide me in the telling of the story: when to speed it up, when to slow it down and how best to draw out the ending...less is always more.

"...the man waited and waited, but the second dog never came back. Soon he heard the cry again: 'Tailypo...tailypo...just give me back my tailypo...'"

I wrote my first story when I was five, but I was reading aloud to my younger siblings, the dog, the neighbors, whoever would listen, even earlier than that. I liked reading aloud; I liked the sense I could capture an audience with words, mine or another's, and hold it in thrall.

My best audience was my two younger sisters, who are 5 and 9 years younger than I am. I told them stories that I made up, gathering up all the Barbie gear in the house in order to reenact War and Peace, or read them stories from the Alfred Hitchcock anthologies I borrowed from the library.

It turns out that a lot of people like to be read to, and like hearing stories even better. It turns out that a lot of adults cherish the time they were read to as children, and are unabashed in admitting they'd love it if someone read to them again. And that's how Spooky Story Night at my house was born, with the added encouragement of my children clamoring for me to read to the whole neighborhood. We'd send out the invitations and set the mood: candles, fog machine, and a darkened house.

"...and when he woke up from his troubled sleep, a huge weight on his chest, the old man saw that creature with the burning eyes standing on him, staring down at him..."

A soft squeal from the floor.

After a few years, as my children got busier and I went back to work, Spooky Story Night fell by the wayside. But I was proud we'd done it; a whole generation, it turned out, had never heard the jump tale "The Golden Arm," so I read the old stories we told each other as kids to the kids of my neighbors and friends, sharing the wealth as it were, making sure the old tales lived on. And I took the time between stories to explain why the stories existed, how they came to be, the archetypes, and the kids learned something without realizing they were.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the neighbors was visiting, and she said, "You know, I hate to ask, but do you think that you might start the scary stories again? B & I really enjoyed it when you did, and you know K wasn't even born yet...and P & J and their kids didn't live here then..."

Is it too awful to admit that I was really flattered that she asked? That she pointed out to me that I had a whole new audience to introduce to the old stories?

"'Tailypo...tailypo...'" I moaned softly, "'just give me back my tailypo...' The old man quavered, 'But, but...I haven't got your tailypo...'"

Silence. The candles bent in the breeze and the wax dripped.

"'OH YES YOU DO!'" I roared in a deep, guttural voice.

Surprised screams and shrieks from the assembled bodies sprawled over the living room floor, hanging on and over the back of the couch and chairs, followed by laughter.

"Don't ever stop telling that story," the teenage boy said with deep satisfaction.

Go listen to some good music: "'Til I Hear It From You" by the Gin Blossoms from the soundtrack to the film Empire Records. The web is loaded with storytelling resources and there are a lot of anthologies of creepy stories available. Gather up a group of friends and give it a go!

No comments: