The other day my lovely and extremely patient girlfriend was telling me about a soon-to-be-ex-coworker whose ambition is to be a roadie for Bon Jovi. “She’s only missed six out of forty-four Bon Jovi concerts this year,” said Ashley. “And she’s quitting her job because they won’t give her time off to go see him in Massachusetts this weekend.”
“Sounds kind of stalkery,” I said. “Maybe Jon Bon Jovi’s going to wake up with two broken legs and her standing over him with a sledgehammer.”
Ashley, being a horror buff, got the reference immediately. In my head, of course, it didn’t end there. This was Massachusetts, so J.B.J. had probably been scheduled to play in a certain decaying little college town, and Roadie had allowed herself to be impregnated by the eldritch thinghood of Yog-Sothoth in exchange for nothing less than the soul of Bon Jovi, who would be sacrificed in front of standing stones sacred to the Black Goat on Walpurgisnacht unless Ashley and I (Tool’s more my speed, but I’m not averse to Bon Jovi) rescued him, an act that might or might not include Tommy guns and dark pacts with deities from the Mayan underworld. Horror, right?
Not really. I’m amused to an endless (and probably unhealthy) extent by the above scenario. It reaffirms all the things I secretly (or not-so-secretly) want reaffirmed in life: the world is filled with fantastic and mysterious things that regularly intrude in human affairs; a life of dangerous but thrilling adventure is not only possible but likely; all that’s necessary to solve life’s problems is courage and ready access to antique weaponry. That’s not scary–that’s comforting. So despite all those trappings–psycho fans, dark bargains with bloodthirsty gods, the Cthulhu Mythos–I’ve spent the last four hundred words describing a situation that really isn’t horror at all. In fact (to my perhaps diseased mind), the idea of all this happening to the guy who sings “Livin’ On a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name” is pretty funny. So why am I wasting time for you, the committed horror fan?
Douglas Winter famously claimed that horror isn’t a genre at all, but an emotion. I’ve seen some call Twilight horror based on the reasoning that if it has vampires in it, it must be horror. But when was the last time you really thought vampires were scary? Bad-ass, cool, maybe even sexy, depiction depending, but not really frightening. Horror is one of the few types of genre fiction determined not by its window-dressing but its attitude. Put another way, if I write about a wizard in a castle it’s definitely fantasy of some kind. Even if I make him a necromancer surrounded by zombie servants, it might not be horror. To make it horror, I have to show you something uncomfortable. Our necromancer’s isolation. His mental decay. The way his dick stirs when he looks at the shapely, stiff, pale legs of his maidservants and slides his tongue between their dry, rictused lips. Or, as Jeanne Cavellos says in her essay “Innovation in Horror,” “The horror genre has one requirement for membership: The story must make the reader feel. . .horrified.”
I’ve often found myself in disagreement with both sides of the Literature vs. Genre debate. As much as I railed in college against the expectation that we write nothing but plotless little stories about middle class suburbanites, the genres I love are often guilty of equally mortal sins. One of the worst is the tendency to core a story of all humanity in favor of barely original twists on extant props, like vampires that sparkle instead of burning up in sunlight. If there’s a defense for horror (and I don’t think we need to fall back on any such “it releases our inner devils” bullshit–I’m not drawn to this genre for catharsis), it’s that for horror to work its creator has to understand the human mind.
So imagine a young man who wants to be a writer, unhappily employed at a menial job he despises, having difficulty rising above the realization that he will always work behind that desk or stocking those shelves. When the supernatural intrudes, it isn’t a time for actualization, but a further tightening of the lock. Drawn into a conspiracy involving a musician our protagonist doesn’t much care about one way or the other, our would-be writer realizes, listening to the chanting from the next room, that a nationwide manhunt will result if the musician disappears. But the protagonist? Totally overshadowed, he won’t even have anyone beyond a few close friends to bemoan the fact that he was “cut off before his time.” The novel he’s agonized over for years will probably be thrown out. The girlfriend will move on. Death is the gate of obscurity, and worse than anything he might be subjected to by the secret society that has imprisoned him, he realizes that in a few years he will be almost totally forgotten.
I don’t know if you’re scared, but I am.
 Called Xibalba–“The Place of Terror.” It’s referenced extensively in the Mayan epic referred to as the Popol Vuh and was both underground and underwater, across three rivers: one of blood, one of pus, and one of scorpions. Once these Barkerian obstacles were surmounted, one faced giant bats capable of biting off human heads and gruesome death gods with hands instead of lower jaws. So next time some New Ager tells you about how Native American culture was all about nurturing Earth Mothers and Happy Hunting Grounds, kindly remind them that Mayans were telling each other stories about charming figures with names like Blood Gatherer and Stab Master before Freddy Krueger was a sick little gleam in Wes Craven’s glazed eyes.
6 thoughts on “Is It Horror?”
Horror — I think some people try to force the eroticism into it and try to pass that off as horror. It takes a lot of anger to write horror fiction and combine that with imagination, it’s harder than actually punching osmeone in the face or throat. With one story if you write the thing and they support a certain subject matter with all their heart, and then this one story comes along that rips this subject apart. They will want someone’s blood for doing it. Horror says something, I mean — true horror is dark, menancing, frightening and most of all it said “fuck you.”
Thanks for the response! I don’t know that you have to be angry to write horror, but I DO think you’re right to point out that the best of the genre has a menacing and subversive quality, from Lovecraft down to us. I disagree that eroticism has no place in horror, though I think what you’re getting at is less an author like Clive Barker, who has frequently and successfully explored erotic themes in his work and more the loathsome trend towards “paranormal romance.”
Horror is a difficult creature–both to pin down and to create. I’ve tried (in both instances) and haven’t quite been able to do either.
As a CNF writer, fiction was always a bit intimidating. I’ve always clung to the “write what you know” advice that gets dispensed at every step along the way.
However, as an avid reader (of many genres) as well as a huge movie junkie, I decided to try my hand at fiction. I found that many things were very easy to create (which led to a nice book deal), but horror is one of those things that I haven’t quite mastered.
I could write a paranormal romance novel for you… any day. Will it be the best? Probably not. Will it be good enough? Yes, I’m sure of it. However, the complexity of horror still eludes me. Beyond a few (shoddy) short stories, I haven’t been able to fully grasp “horror.”
I am under the impression that very FEW people every really “get” horror as I can count the movies/books that have actually frightened me on one hand, but perhaps I am wrong.
Thanks for the comment (and sorry it took a while to get back to you–I was out of town and away from the computer). You bring up a very interesting point when you say that very few of the movies/books you’ve seen/read have really FRIGHTENED you. I totally agree. To whit, I can think of “The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and (make fun of me if you must, it really scared the shit out of me) the American remake of “The Ring.” Nothing really links any of the above thematically or even narratively–“The Colour Out of Space” is Lovecraft’s cosmic horror masterpiece, “The Ring” is a ghost story, and the incredibly disturbing “Henry” is, well, a portrait of a serial killer. Each of them frightened me in different ways, sometimes enjoyably (I have fond memories of being kept awake in 7th grade by “The Colour Out of Space”) and sometimes not so much (“Henry” is a masterful film, but watching it during a bout of depressionwas not an especially smart choice on my part). But those three works hardly exhaust the list of horror pieces I’ve enjoyed.
Fear is a deeply personal, deeply subjective thing. I have a friend who hardly so much as shivered at “The Ring” but was frightened and disturbed by “The Exorcist,” a film that doesn’t do much for me in terms of scares. This friend is a devout Catholic; I’m deeply agnostic.
Moreover, while I often tell people I write “horror,” most of what I do is closer to a gonzo dark fantasy. I love seeing good horror, but do I have the patience to build that atmosphere? Almost never. But one thing is certain: nothing I write will ever be called paranormal romance!
Ha! Paranormal romance is all the rage these days. It’s hard to not jump on the bandwagon. Plus, I have no objection to the genre.
As for horror, you’re right it is personal. I laughed my way through both The Blair Witch and The Ring. I tortured my first college roommate with “7 days” phone calls (mostly because I’m a terrible person) But, and laugh if you want, the 1987 movie DOLLS terrifies me.
The same goes for horror novels. While Stephen King writes enticing stories, I’ve never been scared of any. However, David Morell’s “Creepers” and “Scavenger,” both disturbed me.
I was also a little creeped out with Joe Hill’s “Horns.”
But, as with most things it’s all a matter of perspective and experience.
The movie that terrified me is Stir of Echoes — one R rated horror film that didn’t use the eroticism to scare people. Clive Barker is basically the poster boy for this kind of horror, but as a horror writer myself I can do the Barker scare without the sex. I am not influenced by Barker at all but I speak as a writer who appeared on Barker’s website in 2000 for a story I did that didn’t have sex in it. There are writers like Andrew Wolter who shove it down our throats within my generation. My generation is desensitised to sex and violence so that is why our generation’s horror fiction entires are so damn violent and macabre. To write horror with actual power behind it you have to be pissed off to some extent.
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