In Praise of Horror that Horrifies
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?
Slim…but not impossible.
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:
- “The Striding Place” by Gertrude Atherton
- “The Trains” by Robert Aickman
- “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs
- Julia by Peter Straub
- “Petey” by T.E.D. Klein
- “Negotium Perambulans” by E.F. Benson
- “Again” by Ramsey Campbell
- “The Other Wing” by Algernon Blackwood
- “The Human Chair” by Edogawa Rampo
- “Pigeons from Hell” by Robert E. Howard
- “The Upper Berth” by F. Marion Crawford
- “Apparition” by Guy de Maupassant
- “A School Story” by M.R. James
Happy reading, ghouls.