‘Horror Literature through History’ – Full Introduction and Table of Contents
It’s less than two weeks until the official publication date of Horror Literature through History: An Encyclopedia of the Stories That Speak to Our Deepest Fears (available from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere). It’s presently the subject of a feature article in the 2017 Halloween issue of Rue Morgue magazine. With these things in mind, I have obtained permission from the publisher to present my full introduction to the encyclopedia here at The Teeming Brain, along with the full table of contents. (You can also see the full list of 70 contributors, along with further information, here.)
A Preliminary Word about the Contents
As you’ll observe when you read the TOC (see the link below), the encyclopedia is structured in a unique way that makes it a special kind of reference work on the topic of horror literature and its long and rich literary history. Specifically, it’s divided into three broad sections. The first, titled “Horror through History,” consists of a series of sequential essays laying out the history of horror literature across time, from the ancient world to the present. The second section, “Themes, Topics, and Genres,” presents essays on major themes and issues in the field, such as apocalyptic horror, young adult horror, ghost stories, horror comics, horror video games, weird and cosmic horror fiction, and the relationship between horror literature and topics like religion, gender, and ecology. The third and longest section consists of alphabetically organized reference entries on authors, literary works, and specialized topics, such as horror awards, different types of monsters, important literary techniques, and various important elements in the field, such as haunted houses, ancestral curses, and the idea of forbidden knowledge.
Basically, the three sections mutually illuminate each other. As explained in the official publisher description, the first section with its deep tracing of horror literature’s historical evolution provides an overarching context for understanding the reference entries by placing them within the sociocultural, intellectual, and artistic currents of their respective eras. The second section expands on important topics to provide a greater depth of understanding about specific genres and forms, and about the multiple cultural and philosophical issues with which horror has always been intertwined. The final reference section provides informational “close-ups,” as it were — some short, others quite long and in-depth — on matters broached more fleetingly in the large-scale examinations of the first two sections.
I’m also pleased to to point out is that there are in fact many more authors, works, and topics covered in the encyclopedia than what’s listed on the TOC. For example, there are 150 sidebars accompanying the main entries, and quite a few of these are mini-essays on various horror stories. For example, the entry on E. F. Benson is accompanied by a sidebar essay on his classic story “Caterpillars.” The entry on Nathaniel Hawthorne is accompanied by a sidebar essay on “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” The same treatment is given to stories by the likes of Robert Hichens, Edgar Allan Poe, Daphne du Maurier, Robert E. Howard, Shirley Jackson, Fritz Leiber, Thomas Ligotti, Richard Matheson, and many more. The sidebars also provide timelines, story excerpts, commentary, and further types of contextualizing information to help illuminate the main entries.
Additionally — and this is something that I really want to emphasize — the encyclopedia’s first two sections provide space for discussing a broad range of authors, books, stories, poems, and topics that aren’t included as separate entries in the final reference section. For example, in the entry “Horror in the Twenty-First Century,” contributor Xavier Aldana Reyes (of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies) devotes a paragraph to the novels of Adam Nevill. He also mentions many additional authors who don’t have their own separate entries, but who definitely merit inclusion in a work like this, including Sarah Pinborough, Nicole Cushing, Sarah Langan, Tim Lebbon, Simon Strantzas, Richard Gavin (who also, btw, wrote two entries for the project), John Langan, Quentin S. Crisp, and Livia Llewellyn. Other entries in Part Two similarly expand and enrich the encyclopedia’s coverage. In the same vein, I myself make use of the encyclopedia’s master timeline of literary horror to mention a few worthy items that aren’t mentioned elsewhere, such as Jon Padgett’s remarkable 2016 horror collection The Secret of Ventriloquism. So this is all to say that the encyclopedia covers a vast swath of territory — more, in fact, than the (already extensive) table of contents indicates.
Finally, and importantly, something else that’s not visible on the TOC is that the separate entries on Laird Barron, Ramsey Cambell, Ellen Datlow, Caitlin Kiernan, Joe Lansdale, Thomas Ligotti, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro are accompanied by original interviews that I conducted with them specifically for this project.
But enough with the preamble. Here you go.
Click the link above to open a PDF showing the full contents.
– INTRODUCTION –
Spookhouses, Catharsis, and Dark Consolations
From the outset, a reference work like this one begs an important question, and one that strikes right to the heart of the stated project: Why horror? Why do people seek stories, novels, movies, plays, and games that horrify? It is an old question, and one that has become virtually clichéd from overuse, as many horror novelists and movie directors can testify after years of having been asked some version of it by multiple interviewers, often with an affected attitude of mild amazement or disbelief: “Why horror? Why do you (or how can you) write, direct, imagine, envision, such unpleasant things? Why do you think your readers/viewers flock to them? Why are we insatiably addicted to tales of horror and dread?”
What Is Horror?
In answering this question, one could immediately jump into offering various theories and speculations, but to do this would be to beg yet another question, one that is usually missed or ignored by those attempting to deal with the “Why?” question, but that is properly prior to it: namely, the question of horror’s definition. The very word and concept of “horror” is a noun, and also an adjective (as in “horror novel” and “horror movie”), that is too often left uninterrogated. Not by everyone, to be sure, but by a great many of the people who read the books, watch the movies, and play the games labeled as “horror” year in and year out. Many such people, if pressed, would likely say something to the effect that horror has something to do with being scared, and leave it at that. They would assert that “horror” is simply another word for “fear.”
But a moment’s reflection is enough to disabuse one of that notion. Certainly, horror does involve fear, but simple introspection shows that the word refers to something more than this, to fear plus something, fear with an admixture or addition of something else. A person may fear losing a job, or facing a tiger, or being mugged or beaten up; this does not mean someone in those positions is experiencing horror. Conversely, one may witness, say, the emotional abuse of a child, or the despoiling of an ecosystem, or the ravaging of a loved one by cancer—things that do not involve the supernatural trappings or operatic violence and gore associated with many books and movies bearing the “horror” label—and yet say in all honesty that one feels horrified. What exactly is it, then, about the emotional response to such situations that warrants the use of the “h” word to describe it?
These, along with a multitude of additional possible examples, may allow us to triangulate the inner element that makes horror horrifying, and to identify this element as some quality of wrongness or repulsiveness—physical, metaphysical, moral, or otherwise—that leads one to shrink from someone, something, some event, some idea, a monster, the sight of blood, a situation of gross immorality or injustice, or any number of other things. Horror, it seems, involves an irreducible element of revulsion or abhorrence, centered on a primal gut feeling, often implicit, that something should not be, that something is somehow fundamentally wrong about a given person, creature, act, event, phenomenon, environment, or situation. (Additionally, and significantly, there is a distinction to be made between horror and terror—another word that is of critical importance to the type of art generally labeled “horror” today—and this is addressed in the pages of this encyclopedia.)
In his 1990 study of the aesthetics of horror titled The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart (1990), the philosopher and film scholar Noël Carroll famously noted the interesting and revealing fact that horror as a genre is named for the chief emotional reaction with which it is concerned, the emotional reaction that we have here called into question. Horror horrifies: it sets out to inspire a sense of fear and dread mingled with revulsion. Or, if one follows the lead of Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943), and other significant representatives of the expressive theory of art, one might argue that the works of horror that actually achieve the true status of art as such (defined as imaginative works possessing and displaying an intrinsically higher level of quality than “mere” genre or formula fiction, whose purpose is to entertain) do not so much seek to inspire horror in the reader or viewer as to communicate a sense of horror that has been experienced by the author. The horror critic and scholar S. T. Joshi, in such books as The Weird Tale (1990), The Modern Weird Tale (2001), has advanced the idea that what distinguishes the most important and enduring authors of weird and supernatural horror fiction is their tendency to imbue their work with a consistent vision or worldview. In keeping with this, and regardless of the overall merit of Joshi’s specific assertion (which some have disputed), it may well be that one of the distinguishing qualities of the greatest authors in this area is an uncommonly and acutely deep personal sensitivity to the more fearsome, dark, and distressing aspects of life, so that these aspects become a true source of fear, suffering, and, yes, horror. Following Tolstoy and Collingwood, one would say that when this quality is present in an individual who possesses (or is possessed by) the inbuilt drive and skill that motivates some people to become writers and artists, it will naturally lead such an individual to tell the rest of us the truth about these dark insights and experiences. And it will empower such a person to use the vehicles of prose fiction, and/or poetry, stage drama, film, television, comic books, or video games, to communicate to others an actual experience of horror by recreating it, to some extent, in the reader, viewer, or player.
Horror involves an irreducible element of revulsion or abhorrence, centered on a primal gut feeling, often implicit, that something should not be, that something is somehow fundamentally wrong about a given person, creature, act, event, phenomenon, environment, or situation.
Interestingly, and as demonstrated repeatedly over the long history of horror literature, this does not necessarily mean that such writers and artists convey their horror in just a single, easily identifiable type of work that can automatically be given a category or genre label. Horror, as has been persuasively argued—perhaps most famously by Douglas E. Winter in his 1998 speech, and later essay, “The Pathos of Genre”—is not really a genre, defined as a type of narrative that has developed recognizable characteristics through repeated use, which can then be used as a kind of formula for producing other, similar works. Rather, it is “a progressive form of fiction, one that evolves to meet the fears and anxieties of its times. . . . [S]ometimes it wears other names, other faces, marking the fragmentation and meltdown of a sudden and ill-conceived thing that many publishers and writers foolishly believed could be called a genre” (Winter 2000, 182). In other words, horror in art is not a genre but a mode that can be employed in any form or genre. Horror has thus had a long and fruitful relationship with, for example, science fiction, from such Ur-texts as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936), to the advent of the “New Weird” at the turn of the twenty-first century in such works as China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000), to the fifty-year reign of zombies over the realm of apocalyptic and postapocalyptic horror that began in 1968 with writer/director George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which was itself partly inspired by Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 horror/science fiction novel I Am Legend. And there are also horror Westerns, horror romance novels, religious horror stories, horror thrillers, horror mysteries, and so-called “literary” horror (with “literary” denoting nongenre writing).
Being so portable, as it were, horror can spread out into all types of storytelling, and indeed, this is what has been happening with increasing visibility and pervasiveness in the horror renaissance of the early twenty-first century, to the point where the creeping spread of horror throughout the literary and entertainment landscape is one of the defining characteristics of this new era. Horror has become unbound, and its fortunes have become those of literature at large. In this new state of things, horror’s reputation has begun to transcend its former questionable status, as some darlings of the literary establishment have produced works that could be considered pure horror even though they do not bear the category label. In fact, if these had been published during the great horror boom of the 1980s, when not just Stephen King and Anne Rice but a host of lesser authors virtually owned drugstore bookshelves and bookstore window displays, they would have been every bit as horrifying as (if not more so than) any 1980s paperback novel with garish Gothic typography and a leering monster on the cover.
Again: Why Horror?
So these, then, are some of the issues involved in identifying and defining horror in life and art. But the question with which we opened still remains: Why horror? Even having answered—perhaps provisionally, arguably, necessarily incompletely—the question of why some writers write it (because they are themselves subject to a deeper-than-average experience of the horrors of life and consciousness), the question remains as to why readers read it. Fear and loathing are conventionally unpleasant emotions. Why do people seek to be subjected to them?
There are a number of customary answers to this question, many of which have been resorted to repeatedly by the interviewees mentioned above, and all of which carry some merit. For instance, what has sometimes been termed the roller coaster or funhouse theory of horror is surely true to an extent. There is something pleasant, even delightful—so this answer has it—about absorbing fictional stories of darkness, danger, and dread while remaining safely in one’s easy chair. There is something purely entertaining and enjoyable about entering an imaginative world of horror, rather like a carnival funhouse ride, in order to enjoy the thrills to be found in such a place. From this point of view, seeking horror in fictional, cinematic, or any other form is no different in principle from seeking an adrenaline rush by reading a thriller or seeking a laugh by watching a comedy. And some people do approach all of these things on this very level. Some horror fiction, including most (but not all) of what appeared in Weird Tales and the other classic horror, fantasy, and science fiction pulps of the 1920s through the 1940s, as well as most of what was published during the late twentieth-century horror boom, seems precisely aimed at fulfilling this function.
There is also surely something to the more profound theory of horror as catharsis, a position first advanced by Aristotle in his Poetics and still invoked more than two thousand years later to explain all kinds of artistic engagements, but especially those of a powerfully stark and unpleasant nature. Aristotle was talking specifically about Greek tragic plays, which brim with grief, betrayal, dark secrets, and unhappy endings, not to mention supernatural horrors and gruesome violence (as in, for example, Euripides’s Medea and Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy, both from the fifth century BCE). Such productions, the great philosopher argued, serve to purge viewers of their pent-up emotions of fear and pity in a safely walled-off fictional world, thus preparing them better to deal with the anxieties of real life. One would be foolish and naïve to deny that today’s horror fiction (and other forms) may serve this kind of function for some, and perhaps many, people.
Perhaps, for some people, the great works of horror provide a deep, visceral, darkly electrifying confirmation of their own most personal and profound experiences and intuitions.
But even granting the validity of these views, there is another and deeper answer to be given, and this is where the possible sensitivity of the reader meets the sensitivity of the writer who uses imaginative literature to convey his or her own sense of profound horror at the vicissitudes and strangenesses of life, the world, consciousness, and everything. Perhaps, for some people, the great works of horror provide a deep, visceral, darkly electrifying confirmation of their own most personal and profound experiences and intuitions. After the spookhouse ride has let out, and after the catharsis has come and gone, horror in art, as Thomas Ligotti put it in his essay “The Consolations of Horror,” may actually, weirdly, provide some readers with a kind of comfort by showing that “someone shares some of your own feelings and has made of these a work of art which you have the insight, sensitivity, and—like it or not—peculiar set of experiences to appreciate” (Ligotti 1996, xxi). What is more, horror accomplishes this artistic-alchemical feat not by denying or diminishing the dark, dismal, dreadful, terrifying, and horrifying elements of life, but by amplifying them. Never mind the possible therapeutic or other conventionally beneficial results that might be imputed to such a thing; the point, for both writer and reader, is simply to confront, recognize, experience, name, and know horror as such, because it is in fact real. It is part of the human experience. We are, from time to time (and some of us more often than others), haunted by horror. The type of art named as such is an expression of this truth, a personal and cultural acknowledgment of and dialogue with it, a means by which we know it, and affirm it, and “stay with” it, instead of denying it and looking away, as is otherwise our wont.
Like all art, horror literature and its associated other forms play out in ways that link up with a host of additional issues: historical, cultural, sociological, ideological, scientific, artistic, philosophical, religious, spiritual, and existential. It is the story of how exactly this has played out over the long span of human history, especially, but not exclusively, since the birth of literary Gothicism in the eighteenth century with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), that is the central focus of this encyclopedia. Whatever the reader’s purpose in picking up this work, and whichever the level at which he or she tends to engage personally with horror—as funhouse ride, cathartic tool, or personal consolation—it is hoped that the contents herein will help to clarify and illuminate the history, present, and possible futures of horror in both literary and other forms, while also fostering an enhanced appreciation of the central mystery and core of darkness that lies at the heart of the whole thing. It is in fact this darkness that serves as horror’s source of enduring power, and that makes it an undying and undead form of human literary and artistic endeavor.
Carroll, Noël. 1990. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge.
Joshi, S. T. 1990. The Weird Tale. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Joshi, S. T. 2001. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Ligotti, Thomas. 1996. The Nightmare Factory. New York: Carroll & Graf.
Winter, Douglas E. 2000. “The Pathos of Genre.” In The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, 176–83. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Also available at http://omnimagazine.com/eh/commentary/winter/pages/0799.html.