My favorite thing about Halloween is the mood and atmosphere. I like it so much, that I try to stretch it out for a whole month, like people do with Christmas. I used to prolong the holiday by watching only horror movies during October, but I don’t have time for that anymore. This month, I’ve tried to replace it with scary stories.
My favorite to revisit is Neil Gaiman’s “Click-clack the Rattlebag.” More specifically, his 2014 reading of it at the New York Public Library.
Most of the story consists of a dialogue between a young man and a child, sitting in the dark, discussing a scary story about something called Click-clack the Rattlebag. That’s all I can really tell you, plot-wise, spoilers and all that.
“Click-clack the Rattlebag” isn’t the nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat, unsettling-aftertaste, traumatizing type of horror story. It’s creepy, sure, but strangely gentle – at least it is the way Gaiman reads it. He has a deep and resonant voice, and this specific reading is done in an echoey room. The effect is just comforting.
And then there’s the story’s structure. It’s tight and to-the-point, to the extent that it’s cliche. There’s foreshadowing, characterization through dialogue, strong narrative voice — everything’s in its place. No rules are broken. It’s the type of thing a middle school english teacher might teach with. Some may find it predictable.
But cliches become cliches because they work, and this story works, and works fast. The reading is 10 minutes long, and I’ll forgive a story of much if it’s concise. And, most importantly, Gaiman knows how to make words sound good. They’re fun to listen to. Just the sharp tics of “click-clack,” and the rickety, saggy sound of “rattlebag” proves that. Gaiman knows that too, and he relishes it in his reading. I’ve never been able to figure out the science of dialogue, what makes it good or bad, but Gaiman knows how to use whatever makes it good. Every word and tone choice Gaiman makes gives you the feeling that you’re in the hands of an experienced storyteller — you’re safe.
What I like most about the story is that it takes the starts-innocent-gets-scary structure, but scrambles it a bit. Gaiman will venture into the creepy zone but back out of it and get jovial just as fast. But maybe it’s pointless for me to try to explain. Just listen.