Monday, April 25, 2011

HORROR: A Constant State of Fear

On Horror 

Michael R. Collings

A cursory look at fiction offerings at Kindle, Smashwords, NookBook, Diesel, and other online outlets suggests that as a genre, horror is at the least holding its own. A search under “horror” in the Kindle Store leads to over 12,700 individual offerings. Title after title boasts vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghouls, ghosts, and other denizens of darkness and despair. Granted, some of the novels may be little more than mindless forays into blood and gore for the sake of blood and gore; and others may demonstrate little in the way of sophisticated writing skills; but the fact remains that horror novels—many of them very good horror novels—provide one of the mainstays of e-book publication.

Several months ago, while finishing the manuscript for a collection of essays, Toward Other Worlds: Perspectives on John Milton, C. S. Lewis, Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, and Others  (Wildside, August 2010; Adobe Digital Edition, September 2010), it struck me that it might be worthwhile considering some of the reasons why horror is popular right now, particularly in e-publications.

Certainly we live in a world that invites us to contemplate darkness in manifold forms. We fear diseases, including threatened and threatening pandemics that might sweep the globe at any moment. We fear natural disasters that seem to be coming faster and hitting harder than our preparations (when we even have any) can cope with. We fear political and social instability that leads to revolution and death. We fear alterations in the way the world itself functions, with battles-of-words—and often more—over such concepts as sudden climate change, overpopulation and resource management, genetic engineering, and many more. We fear…. We fear….

We live, as Michael Crichton wrote in one of his last books, in a persistent State of Fear.

So why do we find ourselves drawn in such numbers to fictions that seem designed to manipulate and heighten that state of fear by extending it to the supernatural?

In a word…why horror?

In his 1981 study of horror fiction, Danse Macabre, Stephen King discusses three levels of horror:

I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud. (Ch. 2)

Revulsion—the Gross-out—is, as King suggests, relatively easy to accomplish. At its simplest merely requires sufficient blood and guts, painstakingly detailed in graphic descriptions, accompanied in many cases by graphic language. At this level the most vocal arguments against horror as genre take place. It exploits base instincts and antisocial behavior. It is excessively violent, even for a culture in which violence has become almost commonplace. It imports creatures of darkness when our world already hosts more than we can manage. It lacks in subtlety and realism. It is escapism (although why one would want to escape to such worlds is problematical at best). It is grotesque. It is obscene.

At the other extreme, true Terror, the moment that generates a frisson down the spine just before the monster is revealed, requires extraordinary facility with language, characterization, and setting to accomplish, and only a few masters—among them Poe and Lovecraft, as well as King himself—create it consistently. When it occurs, and when Horror and Revulsion are used critically and carefully, such literature may demonstrate a number of useful traits.

At the thematic level perhaps, horror can be applied metaphorically or symbolically. The literary monsters may stand for literal monsters that threaten everyday life. A vampire suddenly appearing in a small town and systematically preying on its inhabitations may easily transform into a condemnation of the contemporary sense of isolation that afflicts many if not most communities. People live separated lives. They do not notice the alterations in or absence of their neighbors until it is too late—the bonds of civility have already broken and the sense of community disappears.

The vampire may also be, and often is, sexualized until it exemplifies both the allure and the tragedy of uninhibited lust. By virtue of its existence—neither dead nor alive; its mode of feeding—penetration and bloodletting; and the inescapably body-oriented nature of its attacks—usually male upon female, the vampire can easily slip from a figure of horror into quasi-pornography, especially when the transmission of blood is described in loving, overly sensual detail.

The werewolf may represent the abrupt, inexplicable intrusion of death into a family or community. Unseen and unsuspected until it lashes out in rage and inflicts carnage on its victims, the werewolf parallels disease—cancer, for example—and its insidious rampage within a healthy body. It may stand for accident or fate; there is no cause, no rational or purpose behind its sudden eruption—it simply is, and by its presence disrupts order and security.

Most other literary monsters may serve parallel functions. Zombies epitomize the loss of agency and rationality; Amazons demonstrate the threat of sexual disparity; Creatures from Other Dimensions, including Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, embody the threat of the unknown, of the breakdown of reason and intellect into madness. Ghosts, Demons, the Haunted Place/Bad Place, and other denizens of darkness—each may in its turn speak volumes about the human condition.

On a more literal level, horror may work in a manner similar to classical tragedy. When written effectively, with an eye on creating terror rather than mere revulsion, horror may combine pity and fear to achieve a kind of Aristotelian catharsis—one focused on the purging of specific strong emotions, including fear itself. Horror allows the reader to confront an object or objects of pity, usually the victims, frequently innocent or inoffensive victims; and an object of terror, horror, or revulsion—the monster or monsters. And by juxtaposition of the two, the reader may legitimately feel, even experience fear in a safe, controlled environment. This fear may in fact be physically expressed, through a rise in heartbeat, increased rate of respiration, even a literal chill up the spine. In any case, the physical response allows the reader to undergo and thereby purge the effects of fear without physical danger.

And finally, the reader of horror is more often than not exposed to the most literal sort of morality. Unlike in the experiential world, in the worlds of horror, evil, wrong, or even misguided actions have immediate consequences. Cause and effect are clearly linked. If a mad scientist creates a monster, eventually the monster will turn on its creator. At least as far back as Shelley’s Frankenstein, this has been a leitmotif of horror fiction. The responsibility of creator to creature—and for the acts of the creature—in part defines the plot itself. If a teenage couple have illicit sex and thereby participate in an adult action without being prepared to accept the concomitant responsibilities, they die, frequently during the act itself. There is no reprieve, no opportunity for a second chance. Transgression leads to death.

It is possible for horror itself to be essentially immoral. Novels exist in which characters are introduced and almost immediately destroyed, merely for the sake of blood and gore. The monster itself becomes little more than a killing machine and the plot determined not by causal relationships among episodes but by the simple need for more blood. The horror of unrelieved revulsion, in other words, runs the risk of existing solely for the sake of that revulsion, with little thought of creating the more transcendent horror or terror. Such fiction verges on the immoral, if not the obscene, not through the representation of unacceptable language or events but because of its cavalier attitude toward characters and their lives.

On the whole, however, those writers most frequently cited as masters in the field—Poe, Lovecraft, King, Koontz, McCammon, and a handful of others—consistently provide tales that, however close they come to mere revulsion, ultimately lead the reader to a heightened sense of morality, of catharsis of fear, and of the relationship between story and life, between characters and the reader.

This is one reason why I write horror. My first such novel, The House Beyond the Hill (Wildside, 2007; Kindle, 2011) explicitly concentrates on fear. In fact, my editor affixed a subtitle to the book when it was first published, “A Novel of Fear.” But it is simultaneously a novel of redemption. Fear exists. In the world of the novel, it quite literally destroys, and in doing so condemns both body and soul. But by understanding fear and combating it as a community my characters overcome their own private horrors and ultimately redeem even the dead.

My second novel The Slab (Wildside, 2010; Kindle, 2011) works on a slightly different level. It’s subtitle reads: “A Novel of Horror.” In the world of The Slab, things—most specifically, houses—may be inherently evil and inflict horror and terror upon those who live there. One reviewer compared the novel to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, writing:

In Haunting, the house was built off-center to resemble the mind of its architect; the house is crazy. In The Slab, the house's foundation is cracked, corrupted and disturbed to the core and a hopeless cause-and that is the literal sense. In the spiritual sense, it was built by a corrupt man and is destined to destroy anyone who lives there.

From such evil there is no easy escape. The house consumes everyone. None remain unscathed.

It was a fascinating novel to write because I lived in the house I describe for nearly a quarter of a century…and it came near to literally driving me mad. Almost everything in The Slab has at least a tangential connection to something that happened to me or my family…carried to the nth degree of horror and terror. And, in the end, I was able to bring my own anger and fury at the house (and the builder, and the people who sold it to us knowing its serious construction flaws) to bear on a safe object—I could destroy the imaginary construct that stood, in my mind, for reality.

My current novel-in-progress, Images, deals with the question of identity. We fear the loss of our identity—our selves­­--in many ways. Literally, evil people comb through garbage cans seeking bits of information by which they can insinuate themselves into innocent lives and steal at leisure. Others strike deeper, at our sense of who and what we are, challenging the assumptions that lay at the root of our beings. What it means to be male, what it means to be female, how one sex relates to the other, where boundaries between them might lie—these questions lie at the heart of Images, mediated through the metaphor of television and film.

In each case, the novels confront some element of our world that is in jeopardy. The frisson of fear, of terror that each might create in the reader is part of its reason for existence. If we can confront that fear, that terror through imaginative fiction, and walk away strengthened, then to that extent it might be easier to confront the horrors of daily life.

Author bio: Michael R. Collings has published nearly 120 books over the past thirty years, many of them studies of horror literature as exemplified by the works of Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, Robert McCammon and others. He is considered to be a ranking authority on King. He has also published horror novels and collections of dark short tales.  

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