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Kings of Terror
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Mary, who is a great fan of ghost stories, has been collecting links to online tales of the supernatural for our website. Recently she came across Fitz-James O'Brien's, What Was It? A Mystery.

I recalled the story with a shudder of fondness. It was included in a collection of ghost stories I found on the bottom shelf of a bookcase in an obscure corner of the local library when I was a kid. I retain a lingering impression of an unnaturally thick, worn volume, a dark cover of some sort, but the title will not come into focus. Venturing into those pages, I encountered such classics as Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad by M. R. James and The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions.

The Fitz-James O'Brien tale impressed me mostly, I suspect, because of a question posed to the protagonist by a friend: “What do you consider to be the greatest element of Terror?”

There seems to be no easy answer:

"The question, I own, puzzled me. That many things were terrible, I knew. Stumbling over a corpse in the dark; beholding, as I once did, a woman floating down a deep and rapid river, with wildly lifted arms, and awful, upturned face, uttering, as she sank, shrieks that rent one’s heart, while we, the spectators, stood frozen at a window which overhung the river at a height of sixty feet, unable to make the slightest effort to save her, but dumbly watching her last supreme agony and her disappearance. A shattered wreck, with no life visible, encountered floating listlessly on the ocean, is a terrible object, for it suggests a huge terror, the proportions of which are veiled. But it now struck me for the first time that there must be one great and ruling embodiment of fear, a King of Terrors to which all others must succumb. What might it be? To what train of circumstances would it owe its existence?"

Although the conversation offers several other possibilies, such as disembodied voices, subsequent events reveal a better (or should I say "worse") answer, albeit not perhaps satisfactory. At least not to me.

The most interesting questions are the unanswerable ones. My friends and I participated in any number of debates about the King of Terrors, usually in dark places. We hunkered down by the bushes in the back yard just out of reach of the porch light or huddled with a feeble flashlight in a tent as far from a house as possible or in the crude lean-to we'd built at the edge of the woods not far from the glimmering white birch we liked to pretend was haunted.

We never reached a consensus. J_ reckoned that it would be terrible to be chopped to pieces by a maniac or skinned alive. I countered that physical torment, bad as it was, could not compete with the absolute wrongness of, say, a phantom -- something that chopped to pieces and skinned alive our very concept of reality. Well, J_ riposted, how about being chewed up, alive, in the mandibles of a giant ant. That would be painful and horribly, horribly wrong too. We emphasized our intellectual points by grabbing the flashlight and holding it under our chins, turning our faces into convincing masks of grotesque shadows.

As I become older I tend to believe that terror related to the supernatural, is nothing more than a metaphysical draught from the abyss of oblivion which surrounds our brief lives.

We didn't think that way as kids, though. At some point the discussion got around to whether ghosts could bite and how hard and whether ghosts with razor teeth would be more or less frightening than insubstantial phantoms. At the appropriate moment, when we had been scaring each other for long enough, someone would, without warning, turn off the flashlight. That wasn't the King of Terrors, but something like it.

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