Many readers may be surprised at the association between ‘Jewish’ and traditional horror writing, but as this collection shows, Jewish history and legends hold strong roots in depictions of horror. The Jewish Book of Horror presents both sample stories and introductory discussions of the tradition.
Rabbi John Carrier kicks off the survey with “An Orchard of Terror: Scary Stories and the Jewish Tradition.” This provides readers with a historical and literary backdrop for the connection between horror and Jewish experience, offering a scholarly but lively inspection of the Jewish psyche, its dilemmas, and its incarnations in the horror genre.
He also points out that “If you dissect the stories herein, you may be stricken by themes, vocabulary, or a particular sense of humor that set them apart from horror that is not explicitly Jewish. The ingredients speak more to “our” demonology or eschatology. What we fear (and what we don’t) may be different based on our unique historical experience. Ultimately, what makes Jewish horror, I believe, is that a Jew made it.”
And yet, the sources of these legends and their influence have a long tradition of being “…all carried around in our heads for the first thousand years or so, or at least carried in the heads of specialists who, like Homer, stored vast collections mnemonically to be shared at hearth, by campfire, and from one dungeon cell to the next.”
The experiences of the Jewish people and culture carry over into these diverse explorations and will prove delightful reading to both horror genre readers and those of Jewish descent, who will find them uncanny and satisfyingly creative.
One example of this diversity lies in KD Casey’s “The Last Plague,” which opens with a reference to a Jewish tradition: “My mother sends me to open the back door to admit a prophet. “Be quick and don’t let out all the heat from the house!” she says. Pesach is early this year.”
As the young narrator depicts a Seder dinner that, like Groundhog Day, seems destined to repeat (albeit with different outcomes to being sent to welcome in a prophet), Pesach changes…and so do the lives of the Jewish people who celebrate it.
As life changes for the narrator over a period of Pesachs and time, readers receive powerful inspections of its downfall: “I dream of our life before, our backyard and our family, and wonder if Jerusalem smells like chicken fat and onions…We do not go to Jerusalem but to a farm in upstate New York, rented from an Amish farmer my mother pays in cash. My father no longer writes; his last letter said there is a paper shortage.”
The true horror lies on the impact life has on this Jewish family through the eyes of a young observer of tradition and change.
In contrast, Lindsay King-Miller’s “How To Build A Sukkah At The End Of The World” holds some of the same elements of faith during end times, but with a different focus on not just survival, but preserving traditions when the logic for having the celebration has vanished: “The ready-made sukkah your mother put together and took apart each year was stored in the basement. You’ll improvise. Three walls and a roof made of branches – there are more rules than that, but these are the ones you remember. A sukkah must be beneath the open sky, so you can see stars between the branches. Well, that’s an old rule from when there were stars.”
The Jewish Book of Horror excels in portraying different forms of horror. But its real value lies in explorations of Jewish identity and changing tradition that depict the real horror: the erosion of facets of Jewish culture that face vast changes and horrors that range from sorcery to insurrection.
Each tale comes steeped in a background of Jewish lives and traditions. Each holds a powerful key to understanding the varied sources of horror in adversities that challenge heart, soul, and spiritual wellsprings alike.
While The Jewish Book of Horror will likely be a literary addition to Jewish collections, it should not be missed by gentiles, either. Its inspections, lessons, and sources of true horror make its diverse tales standouts.