Is Horror Literature?
"I believe in Horror movies, I believe they can contain certain nuggets of insight and poetry and truth." - Clive Barker, from an interview in Pharr Out Online
Did cave-kids sit around a fire and try to scare each other silly with tales of what was creeping up in the dark? When did the first cave artist gain additional influence by telling of the horrors that could seep through all defenses and suck the blood from helpless victims, unless the people were guarded by special magic? When did warriors first test their courage against the psychological terrors of isolation, the dark, a god's challenge to their conscience and their sense of reality?
Probably shortly after we learned to use symbolic language. And the horror tale has been with us, in myriad forms, ever since.
The word "horror" is associated, for most people, with images from grade "B" movies: vampires, mummies, the walking dead, giant spiders, Freddie Kruger, a Texan with a chain saw. "If it bleeds, it leads" seems to work at the box office as well as in the newsroom. Many readers identify the horror genre as a combination of unmitigated evils, the supernatural bypass of logic, and crude shock appeal, and shun it like the undead shun the cross.
There are thematic elements in horror, however, that make it an important part of world literature. Not all horror novels are literature, any more than every novel in which an innocent man unjustly pursued by an obsessed policeman is Les Miserables. Many horror novels, however, are a perceptive treatment of the nature of reality and the human mind, the relationship between natural order and moral order, the shadow side of the human soul, the development of character, and how "good" and "evil" are judged.
As Peter Straub, one of the most literate horror authors, said in answer to an interview question about how he came to write horror: "And I was conscious that horror had a great literary history. Hawthorne, Henry James, Poe, many others had found a depth and seriousness in it which made horror, to me anyhow, more valid, more interesting and worthy, than the general run of mystery fiction. Horror was not about the invention of clever puzzles. It dealt with profound emotions and real mysteries, not who had left the footprints under the gorse-bush and how the key to the library had wound up in the Colonel's golf bag. Horror could touch people, change them, make them think. While it was certainly entertaining, there was much more to it than mere weightless entertainment." (Dark Echo)
Elements of Horror
There are certain essential elements to a "horror story":
- This can be Cthulhu the Old One; your neighbor who turns out to be a psychopathic killer; or a well-behaved and sensitive child who figures out that since bad people are supposed to go to Hell, it is only right to put rat poison in the teacup of anyone your parents refer to as bad.
- The unexpected, unpredictable and uncontrollable
- This may be the supernatural; the behavior of previously civilized people when civilization is swept away (Lord of the Flies, The Stand); the intrusion into your routine life of someone who acts completely outside the norm (not in a fun way); the psychological break of a friend you hadn't know felt that way about candles, you didn't know what Mommy used to do to him with candles
- In simplistic horror, the danger is the immediate physical risk of being torn into small bloody gobbets and chewed. In more subtle horror, the risk is corruption (The Turn of the Screw, The Other), betrayal of self or loss of sanity (The Haunting of Hill House), or (although this is a hard one to pull off) the philosophical terror of having everything you believed about reality overturned (the terror that Lovecraft strove for). One modern incarnation of the threat of questioning reality is the Sandman.
If The Shining were a novel about a frustrated alcoholic writer who gets cabin fever, goes into a homicidal rage, and tries to kill his wife and son, it would be a thriller but not necessarily a horror story. Domestic violence is, unfortunately, not a dramatically new and rare occurrence. It is the element of the supernatural that transforms this into a horror story. The supernatural is not always malevolent in fantasy. The teenaged werewolf who sings, "Do you love me now that I can dance?" is the star of a fairly standard coming-of-age character test, but not of a horror story. His family aren't evil, they just have the reverse of male pattern baldness in their genes. The only danger in the story is his temptation to give up the important values in life for fame and popularity. All three elements evil, chaos and danger must be present to make a story a horror story. These three elements also have implications that, when treated in depth, turn the horror story into literature.
The Catharsis of Danger
The main purpose of horror as entertainment is the excitement and release of a surge of adrenaline. Aristotle described the value of tragedy as "a catharsis of pity and terror." We turn to fiction for many kinds of catharsis: to be roused to rage by injustice and have the satisfaction of seeing the villain trounced; to sob over the larger-than-life griefs of larger-than-life characters that may, for awhile, dwarf our own griefs; to get the thrills of adrenaline from adventure without the muscular effort or the boring in-between parts. The same urge that crowds the lines for the Mad Ride Roller Coaster with people who will pay to scream and clutch their seats (or seat companions) as their car nosedives from the heights and pulls hairpin curves also crowds the lines to movie theaters where we will pay to scream "Look behind you!" as the guy with the big knife creeps up on the heroine.
Peter Straub: "Fear and I were old buddies, despite my best efforts to the contrary. I knew his whole family, his older brothers Terror and Panic, his little sister, Nightmare, their charming parents, Chaos and Destruction, and all their cousins, Rage, Depression, Denial, Guilt, Shame, and the rest of the brood. I had first made my acquaintance with these enlightening folks in my seventh year, about twenty seconds before being struck by a car and at the moment I noticed the proximity of the vehicle to myself and understood that an unhappy collision was in the cards."
Anxiety and the Supernatural Catharsis
There are deeper terrors to exorcise. Our daily life depends on some degree of understanding and control of reality, and one of our most basic fears is that we don't really understand or control it at all. The supernatural horror story plays directly to this anxiety. "What you consider the natural order is really a thin and fragile tightrope over chaos," it says, "out of which Something might arise at any moment and turn your world upside down."
The theme of the "weird tale", including Lovecraft and other writers who have continued the Cthulhu Mythos, is a challenge to our rationality and our understanding of natural order. This is usually played for thrills; in the hands of some writers it can be truly disturbing and philosophically challenging.
Peter Straub himself considers his horror novels to be "about reality, imagination, narrative unreliability, surreal intrusions into daily life, shifting points of view and intertextual pile-ups..."
Science fiction is uniquely adapted to examining the question, "What is human?" Fantasy is uniquely adapted to examining the question, "What is reality?" Horror fantasy, like the books of Peter Straub, Clive Barker and Robert McCammon, questions the nature of reality and the human mind more sharply.
While in many fantasies the supernatural, magic, or otherwise not-normal-reality can be benevolent or at least neutral, in horror it is always threatening, physically, mentally and morally.
Natural order and moral order seem related, at least in human perception. Chaos=Evil; Order=Good. The weird tales of Lovecraft twined together supernatural invasion of natural order, moral corruption, and mental decay. The Thief of Always by Clive Barker is very much like the episode of Pleasure Island in Pinocchio's story; a young man disatisfied with his life is drawn into a place where every wish of a child is indulged and nobody gets old, but finds a darker underside to the dream and realizes that he and the other children are being exploited through their own weaknesses. The protagonist here, as in other fantasy coming-of-age stories, must not only make moral decisions but must also make decisions about the rules of reality and what reality he wants to live in.
The dark side of reality and the dark side of the human character are subjects that serious literature has to confront. I consider it one of the purposes of writing. The original Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and other horror novels that are accepted as classic literature are accepted partly because their theme is the exploration of human faults and evils.
I identify several distinctly different treatments of evil in horror literature.
- Horror movies, the witch and vampire novels of Anne Rice, the "Splatterpunk" novels of Poppy Brite, all in their own way explore evil with a morbid fascination. Although the evil may be vanquished by the hero, either by killing the monster outside or by overcoming the monster within, these stories also contain most admirable villains.
- How much can humans understand and control reality anyway? In one school of horror novels, the answer is, "Very little." H.P. Lovecraft's stories carry the unremitting theme of "We don't really understand; chaos rules the universe; evil can invade our lives at any time." Many horror writers wring the last shiver out of the story by implying that the evil is not permanently banished, the monster will be back. In Fear, a classic little horror navella written by L. Ron Hubbard, demons destroy a scientist's mind and his life because he denies their existence and they choose to prove how little science really understands. This theme did surprise me coming from the founder of Scientology, whose ideal is the individual who is completely at Cause over his reality, and not at Effect. Did Hubbard write this little fable as a way of exorcising the fear of always being at the effect of some cause that we do not fully understand?
- In this school of horror, the attempt to understand and control may work against us. Frankenstein's monster was not the first scientific experiment to turn against its creator. In The Stand, by Stephen King, a virus created by humn science decimates humanity and turns society into a chaos that provides entry for a supernatural evil that is only vanquished when the protagonists surrender their own efforts to control the situation and turn it over to Providence. In another novel by King, Pet Sematary, a man's attempt to keep death away from his family destroys them all one by one. /dd>
- In most horror entertainment, "Heroes 'R' Us" and the good guys do win in the end, the monster is trounced. The "Anita Blake, Vampire Slayer." series is a good example of this bravado in the face of evil.
- I am not the only one to ever wish that I could allow myself to just once take a chainsaw to somebody who richly deserved it. Instead I advise my fellow writing workshop members, as I do myself, to write a story in which hideous acid-slavering monsters tear the miserable wretch into little bloody gobbets. The theme of vengeance is epitomized by the Crow, the archetypal figure played by Brandon Lee in the movie, and continued in a series of stories by many authors.
- Those who unflinchingly confront evil, both outside themselves and within, can transcend it. That is the theme of such horror writers as S.P. Somtow. Somtow's vampires are not urbane sensualists who delicately sip at a neck like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Comte St. Germaine; like his werewolves, they tear their victims apart with explicit gore. They are not prettified. We are told, "This is the beast within, not some romantic fantasy." In stories like these, the horror writer digs through our humanity to find the deeper beast, then digs through the beast to find the still deeper humanity.
- Delicious Decadence
- Indulgence in corruption, self-will and all forbidden things has its own fascination, deliciously explored by writers as disparate as Anne Rice and Michael Moorcock.
Test of Character
Another theme of horror literature is testing a human character to the limits. When this is well done, the character visibly grows and develops in the course of the story.
The theme is epitomized for me in the title of a review of Intensity, a book by Dean Koontz: "Chaining Chyna to a Chair." (Newsday 7 Jan. 1996, by Peter Blaumer)
As Dean Koontz said of his latest novel, Fear Nothing : "This is a story about taking the terrible injustices of life and transforming them into blessings. This is a story about being different, about being an outsider but nevertheless finding a way to be part of one's community. About being alone but finding friends. About forsaking self-pity and fear. About opening oneself to the world to build an extended family for shelter against the vicissitudes of life. About leading the fullest possible life of the mind and senses regardless of the limitations imposed by nature. About indomitability and perseverance and commitment.
"I find the human condition to be both enormously hopeful and terrifying, and when my characters truly come alive, I'm moved by their plight because it is, in essence, my plight as well--and the plight of all of us who pass this way."
The tersting and character development does not have to come about through terror and danger. Many of Clive barker's novels can be characterized as quest stories. Clive Barker: [Interzone, no. 14, Winter 1985/86] "A good quest story isn't naturally linear. A great quest will have, maybe, a circular structure, leading you from external wisdom to internal wisdom."
The Comic Catharsis
One of the mainsprings of humor is outlandish contrasts. When the Evil Magician has an allergy to white mice, is driven to distraction by the sight of pink bunny rabbits, can't read a map and keeps assaulting the wrong places, it's a lot funnier than if our nephew has the same handicaps. Laughter is also a catharsis, a powerful way to banish evil, and a healing force. Any really good novel, in my opinion, has some humor in it, whether it is dry wit and irony, comic release, or philosophical absurdity; many humorous novels have human insight, character development and thoughtful philosophy woven in, making the comedy richer and more satisfying. Stories in this genre, like Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, or Christopher Moore's novels from Practical Demonkeeping on, treat all the themes of horror evil, trauma, the instability of natural order, the test of character with the catharsis of humor.
Combos to Go
Few stories are simple examples of just one theme. Often several elements are combined. The writer's thrill of making the reader look sideways out the darkening living room windows and turn the heat up because of a sudden chill combines with the bard's drive to dig deep for archetypal guilts and dreads and the craftsman's fascination with the turn of a character.
Dean Koontz: "Fear Nothing is a thriller but also a novel about friendship; a tale of adventure but also a mystery story; scary yet sometimes humorous; a novel about personal courage and a cautionary tale à la Michael Crichtonalso a dog story."
These themes are covered in other fiction. Peter Straub himself has turned writing other novels besides horror: "It was no longer possible to wield the metaphors of horror after I understood what they had represented for me; I wanted to address what lay beneath them. After understanding that all along I had essentially been writing about trauma and its resonant after-images, I could approach the subject directly, without the transforming filter of genre, and one sure way into it was through the lives of Vietnam combat veterans, people with whom I felt, maybe arrogantly or misguidedly, that I had a lot in common. I wanted above all to write about what I really knew. " Orson Scott Card has used the horror novel to put his characters through the wringer, in Lost Boys, Treasure Box and Homebody, but Orson Scott Card puts his characters through the wringer in everything he writes, including science fiction, fantasy, historical noves and mainstream fiction. The fact that horror literature deals with themes of the nature of evil, the nature of reality, confronting trauma and pain and death and transcending them to grow as a human being, does not mean that no other literature treats these themes. They can be approached through many different metaphors, or directly and with no metaphors at all.
These eternal human issues, however, are also subject matter in what can legitimately be called horror literature.