By now, you probably know that unicorns and Santa Claus aren’t real, but wouldn’t it be great if they were? The human mind loves to believe in the unusual and unlikely. Some still believe that the crop circles of the 1990s were made by extra-terrestrials, even though the pranksters who made them have long since admitted it. And to this day, people visit the small English town where, in 1917, a girl was photographed with fairies. The man who took the photo admitted it was phony in the 1980s, but people are still searching for the fairies.
Why do we get wrapped up in these hoaxes and magical ideas? They provide explanations or evidence for unanswered questions, like whether aliens exist. They also express our hopes and fears, and, perhaps most importantly, reflect the complicated knowledge that the world can’t be put into order. Often that’s what we’re trying to do when we read—give the world a little order, and experience its unruliness through story.
But do we, as writers, satisfy that desire of the reader as often as we might? How often do we give them the opportunity to come to their own conclusions about what’s real and what’s not, what’s good and what’s bad? Mystery is a part of wonder, and we can all use a little more of that.
How to Add the Mystery
Stories don’t need hoaxes to include the mysterious. But they do need to begin with a sense of mystery. In Karen Russell’s collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,the character Osceola in “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” is frequently possessed by ghosts. But Russell doesn’t launch the story with a visit from the ghost. She opens the story with her protagonist, Ava, describing her home with an unusual tone. “Summer rain is still the most comforting sound that I know. I like to pretend that it’s our dead mother’s fingers, drumming on the ceiling above us. In the distance an alligator bellows—not one of ours, I frown, a free agent.”
Russell sets up the reader to think of the rain as friendly and familiar, only to twist that idea around by describing it as “our dead mother’s fingers.” That is a moment of eeriness. It’s followed closely by alligators, unknown alligators instead of known because there are both! That clarification lets the reader know Ava’s world doesn’t operate under the same rules as ours, but it’s also not divorced from our reality. At this point, she seems like she might be a member of The Addams Family.
Eeriness creeps up on the reader. It’s the stuff that leaves us wondering, ‘could that happen?’
If Russell had been trying to write fantasy, she probably would have started the story with one of Osceola’s ghost possessions. If she wanted to write horror, the alligators might be outside the door and Ava’s reaction would then be pure fear.
Instead she wants to evoke the eerie. Eeriness creeps up on the reader. It’s the stuff that leaves us wondering, ‘could that happen?’ Its familiarity puts it just on the edge of what we believe. Is Osceola possessed? Our narrator certainly believes so, and we know this because she first told us about other, small oddities.
One danger of adding the element of mystery is the temptation to make it mean something. Giving the mysterious a resolution that declares to the reader, “this is what it means,” kills the mystery. If you’re writing a mystery novel, the rules are completely different. But here, the reader gets to fill in the blanks, to imagine what another way of being or seeing would be like. It’s a little untidy, and because of that, it sticks in the reader’s mind.