There’s always a hook. It’s a staple to this story. A girl, a car, a late boyfriend on a windy night, a hook when she drives away. The other details may change, flicker like the way memory works or the short light of our lives, but the hook remains, dangling there from the door handle, the last sentence to the story.
* * *
She was a college girl. Fresh from the farm perhaps, or a world-aware city girl. Either way. Her roommate was Catholic or Evangelical, a girl who wouldn’t want the stench of sex clogging up her pores, so the girl—let’s call her Susan, and say she’s not naive—arranged to meet her boyfriend near the local version of Lover’s Lane.
The meeting would have been progressive for the time—who knows when this story started?—progressive enough there would have been a bit of admonition in the unfolding, a caution against assignation. A warning to young women to stay in their dorm rooms, otherwise, the hook.
* * *
Now we need the radio on, but of course she doesn’t hear it. She’s thinking of David’s eyes. Or maybe she’s only trying to make her father mad. Or her roommate and the sermons against sin. Maybe she’s thinking of her mother, pregnant too young. These are the minor details, though they might make the difference in the end—how well we’ve crafted them together, if we elicit a groan from the audience, or the gut punch of fear.
The radio is telling her, as she drives, checking the rear view to see if the lipstick has been applied properly, about an escaped patient, deranged from the asylum down the road. They’ll be some way of setting up the hook—there always is.
* * *
Because the hook is the reason you keep reading. The conflict is coming because the hook tells us it is. In this story, we know what the conflict is. It’s the hook, the wind, the lonely stretch of Lover’s Lane. It’s a young girl all alone, waiting for the wind to cease so she can hear herself over the sound of her heart. No matter what the particulars of the story are, that’s one of the constants—in our culture, the girl is always waiting for the hook.
* * *
The rest then, is the wait. The girl parks. She checks her lipstick again. Lover’s Lane is empty this evening, as if the story’s setting has moved forward to a time no one parks in cars to place their bodies together. The wind is whistling in the branches of the trees and Susan is a little scared. She’s hoping for headlights to appear. She’s hoping David arrives soon, because no one ever sees the madman until it’s too late.
* * *
In another version the boy is already there. They’re making out in the front seat. The wind is rising. David wants to move to the back seat, but the voice comes on the radio, repeats its warning about men with only one thing on their minds.
* * *
But of course that isn’t what it says, the voice on the radio. It says: Hook. It says: missing one hand. It does not say the greatest terrors are the ones we already know. It does not say: David.
* * *
Because in the best horror stories, there’s always the unexpected. We expect the hook-handed man to get Susan. We expect something to happen to her, because we’ve been taught that’s what horror stories are—the hook and the heroine. The waiting in the car, the wind in the trees, the scraping of leaves along the asphalt road. The moon coming up like a sail then disappearing like a song, and all the while we’re waiting for the detail, like the hook dangling from the car door, that gets us with the gut punch.
The power of the punch is that it comes from a different direction. Maybe it strikes the sternum instead of the stomach. Maybe it taps the throat, robs the breath from us. Maybe it strikes chords in the heartstrings, because this horror story holds too much truth inside it.
* * *
There’s also a story in which the calls are coming from inside the house. We all know that one, too: a girl, alone—aren’t they all?—protecting the children from things that go bump in the night. Only everything bumps, and the children are already dead because the calls are coming from inside the house. The moral of this madness is that no matter what she does, it’s already too late, because somehow—whether she didn’t lock a door or forgot to draw the blinds—she has let him in.
* * *
We can never see what’s right in front of us. Is that not the moral of this story? Or is it that sometimes we get a second chance? Susan gets spooked. She screams for David to drive, if you’ve chosen the version where he’s about to enter her, and he drives. He’s angry, but she’s hysterical, so he drives away as fast as the story is coming to an end, as quickly as their relationship will detonate after this night. They get back to her dorm. David, still reeling from the wild ride, still dizzy with her scent and how close he came to sliding inside her, asks if he can walk her up. In this version, she doesn’t see the hook dangling from the door handle. It’s there, but if she sees it, she doesn’t understand how she’s been given a second chance. She doesn’t know all stories like this are admonitions, cautions, warnings not to let the bad men in, so she takes David up.
And I’m sure David sees the hook, but chooses to ignore it, knowing it would ruin what he has planned for her, up in the room, in the dark, with the wind rising.
* * *
Some stories say the sound she heard was the hook. There might be drops of blood on the roof of the car, or maybe I’m confusing different stories. When you’ve heard so many, they all seem to run together, the ingredients mixing into a stew of horror.
There’s this though: they all end the same. Either she’s dead or catatonic. David will recover. The Davids always recover, while the Susans never sleep. They wake in the darkness whimpering, trying to remember the breathing techniques their therapist taught them, telling themselves there’s nothing there. There never was a hook. It did not dangle from the car door. There was no panicked drive from Lover’s Lane. No killer on the loose.
There was only pressure between her legs. David ignoring her repeated denials. The roommate was gone, locked in her own struggle with a man who wouldn’t hear her words.
So Susan transported herself back to the car. To the moment when she thought the world was lovely, and no monsters ever came out of the darkness wielding their hands as hooks to spread her open.
In her version the hook man was a savior who was only coming to save her from the monster she knew. What he left behind was not a hook, but hope, and it was never found.
Paul Crenshaw's essay collection This One Will Hurt You is forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press in spring 2019. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by Houghton Mifflin and W.W. Norton, Oxford American, Ecotone, Brevity, North American Review, and Glimmer Train, among others.