In Praise of Horror that Horrifies

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The Horror genre can evoke a panorama of emotions in its audience. Dread, lust, anxiety, giddiness, and even joy often arise, sometimes in paradoxical combinations. Peculiarly enough, it seems that the one emotion the genre evokes most rarely is the one from which its name is derived. In plain speaking, the genre is rarely frightening. In fact, the bulk of contemporary Horror seems to have cast its nets toward other effects. Many contemporary artists in the field are apparently more interested in disturbing rather than frightening.

Now, I’m all for disturbing art, for works that make one ill-at-ease. This is certainly preferable to the current trend of hip, postmodern detachment, a creative mode which suggests the motifs of terror are best employed as mere playthings that can be slyly re-jigged in order to illustrate how fear is so last millennium. Here, cleverness is deemed more virtuous than any attempts to freeze the audience’s blood.

One could argue that these self-referential and detached works are symptoms of humanity’s ongoing process of sophistication. After all, armored with our iPhones, satellite-controlled home security systems, and voice-activated SUVs, the chances of us trembling from the idea of a bogey scratching at the window are somewhat slim, yes?

Yes, slim.

Slim…but not impossible.

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I suggest that the reason some Horror opts for the philosophical, the gory, the silly, or the purely strange has less to do with the genre outgrowing itself than it does with a simple, age-old fact: scaring an audience is extraordinarily difficult.

Please note that it is not my intention to dismiss the genre’s various other emotional and intellectual qualities. The greater the emotional and intellectual range, the stronger the work, I believe. But that being said, achieving the goal of making a reader comfortably uncomfortable, of temporarily chilling his or her bones, of serving up what M.R. James aptly named “a pleasing terror,” is a rare and beautiful thing.

Perhaps this is why the field is often piled high with mangled remains and laden thick with grue: because if you can’t scare ‘em, shock ‘em. Or repulse ‘em, as the case may be. Again referring back to a comment from M.R. James, this one in regard to the rather blood-laden British anthology series Not at Night: “It is very easy to be nauseating.”

I believe that a genre should be judged not by its failures or near-misses (for these will always be the more common commodity), but rather by its masterpieces. One piece of advice I would offer any aspiring Horror writers is not to succumb to the strong temptation to survey the genre’s dregs and think, “I can do better than this.” Instead, study the great classics, the enduring works that have made spines tingle for generations, and then try to fashion your own work that equals, even surpasses, the impact of these watershed works.

“Achieving the goal of making a reader comfortably uncomfortable, of temporarily chilling his or her bones, of serving up what M.R. James aptly named ‘a pleasing terror,’ is a rare and beautiful thing.”

While my own fiction also works on a fairly broad canvas when it comes to emotional and philosophical themes, I also love raising hackles. There is something so fine, so utterly pure, about experiencing a shudder from a work of imaginative literature. What a testament it is to the hard-wrought artistry of authors to have readers, in some cases centuries after the writers themselves have passed, respond on a visceral level to the visions they conveyed. It is a fabulously fine balance between word-selection, plotting, imagery, the reader’s mindset, and personal fears that perhaps fester beneath the radar of conscious awareness.

Charles Lamb offers a succinct explanation for the enduring power of supernatural imagery in his 1821 essay “Witches and other Night-Fears”:

 Gorgons and Hydras and Chimeras — dire stories of Celaeno and the Harpies — may reproduce themselves in the brains of superstition —  but they were there before. They are transcripts, types — the archetypes are in us, and eternal. How else should the recital of that which we know in a waking sense to be false come to affect us at all?

So yes, Horror can do more than scare. But at the same time, I believe that being “scary,” however juvenile that may sound, is important. And noble. In fact, I’ll wager that, more often than not, whenever readers pick up a book of Horror fiction, there is part of them that hopes this “pleasing terror” will be achieved.

Of course what frightens us will differ widely. But for your own pleasure, dear reader, allow me to list thirteen works that afforded me that rare joy of white-knuckle, check-over-your-shoulder, afraid-to-turn-out-the-light fear:

  1. “The Striding Place” by Gertrude Atherton
  2. “The Trains” by Robert Aickman
  3. “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs
  4. Julia by Peter Straub
  5. “Petey” by T.E.D. Klein
  6. “Negotium Perambulans” by E.F. Benson
  7. “Again” by Ramsey Campbell
  8. “The Other Wing” by Algernon Blackwood
  9. “The Human Chair” by Edogawa Rampo
  10. “Pigeons from Hell” by Robert E. Howard
  11. “The Upper Berth” by F. Marion Crawford
  12. “Apparition” by Guy de Maupassant
  13. “A School Story” by M.R. James

Happy reading, ghouls.

Image: “Pigeons from Hell ad” via Jim Barker under Creative Commons

About Richard Gavin

Richard Gavin is the author of CHARNEL WINE, OMENS, THE DARKLY SPLENDID REALM, and AT FEAR'S ALTAR. He has been praised by Publishers Weekly and hailed as a master of numinous horror fiction in the tradition of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and H.P. Lovecraft. S.T. Joshi calls him "one of the bright new stars of contemporary weird fiction." Richard lives in Ontario, Canada.

Posted on January 21, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Echoes from Hades, Writing & Creativity and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Awesome. A few months ago I realized that I hadn’t been really frightened by a book or movie since I was a child. Since then I have been on a quest. Hopefully I can get all the items your list, because I want to be scared by something. Then I want to back engineer what scared me so that I can do it for others.

    • That sounds like a fun endeavour. What really did me in as a kid was Magic The Gathering the card game.. it had some really far out artwork and I thought about it when I opened the packs in the sense that I didn’t know people had ever painted like that before seeing those cards. It wasn’t like other fantasy art it was really surrealist and seemed to exist exclusively for that card game in its own space its own category.
      As terrifying authors goes I got a kick out of Communion by Whitley Streiber. I read it before there was any internet and the TV told me that aliens could be real. It was a weird time when the paranormal got a lot of interest and attention.
      These days I struggle to find the paranormal in things anymore. Reiki is a very odd thing. Therapeutic Touch that becomes spiritualism for people seemingly out of nowhere. I got into that as a teenager and it has held me. but I regard it as Shinto and not really as therapeutic touch.

  2. Right-on! Some modern critics in the genre seem to want to dismiss horror that has no foundation of author philosophy or world view, &c. But, for me, the first duty of weird fiction is to DISTURB, to fill one with a sense of unease, vague or paramount.

  3. Thank you zeno, Daniel, and Wilum. I appreciate the comments. Personally, I’ll always strive to evoke fear and disquiet in my readers. It’s one of the reasons why I consider myself a Horror writer: fear is always a creative aim of mine. Perhaps not the primary aim, but an aim nonetheless. A “pleasing terror” is one of the great effects of weird fiction. To be repulsed, deflated, or shocked, one merely needs to tune into CNN for a few minutes. The world will always outdo art in terms of atrocity and pain. But the delicious chill of a well-crafted work of art is an enriching experience, for creator and audience both.

  4. I very much appreciated your post. Thanks!

  5. You’re very welcome, Danielle. Glad you enjoyed it.

  6. A good list. I’ve never cared for Klein’s “Petey”. It just never worked for me. I didn’t get it after several readings and when it was explained to me I didn’t feel that knowing what it meant added anything to the effect of horror (which was absent).

    • Fair enough, James. One of the things I find endlessly interesting about the genre is that no two readers have identical lists of tales that work for them. I suspect this is because Horror tackles such deeply personal themes, emotions and images. One person’s meat is another’s poison, as the saying goes. :-)

  7. Just read Campbell’s “Again” last night and having a difficulty time shaking it. What is so effective about this story? (Another on-line blogger had suggested it as well). Horrifying.

  8. I literally clapped my hands aloud when I read your denunciation of our current culture of ‘cleverness.’ I don’t consider this advancement, but rather an unwillingness to think or feel deeply. As you said: detachment. Reality is much too fascinating and beautiful and terrifying for such posturing! Even though many horror writers seem misguided with the gross-out, rather than aiming higher for awe, it’s infinitely preferable to smirking at the entire exercise.

    Great list, btw. I’ve read maybe half of them, so now I’ve got new ones to seek out. I recently read Aickman’s “The Trains,” and I’ve found my mind returning to it again and again for months now. Same with E.F. Benson’s “The Room in the Tower,” so I’m excited to check our your Benson recommendation.

  9. Glad you enjoyed “Again”, Mark. It is genuinely chilling.

    Thank you for your comments, Chris. I am in agreement with you concerning the underlying shallowness of “clever” Horror.

    I hope you find the other stories to your liking.

    All best,
    Richard

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