So…it was the end of the millennium and, with the current (at the time) crop of doomsayers predicting the end of the world, I started getting into reading and writing horror.
Starting out, my definition of horror was as limited as many people’s. I lacked perspective. Certain things stood out (Stephen King, the Friday the 13th films, the Nightmare on Elm Street films, the Halloween films, etc.) but I could not see the landscape, so to speak.
I at least knew that I did not know very much. I had interest. A new(ish) taste for darkness. It was provoking my creativity and thinking. But I knew I needed to go to school.
Several books were important primary sources. Stephen King’s Danse Macabre provided a wide ranging, entertaining, and informative exploration of horror in all of its popular incarnations. On the fiction side, having decided to focus on writing short fiction, I picked up David G. Hartwell’s enormous, landmark anthology, The Dark Descent. It was my introduction to the work of a host of authors. In combination with Ghosts: A Treasury of Chilling Tales Old and New, edited by Marvin Kaye, I learned some important facts.
- Horror is not confined to some dark alley where only writers of ill repute with crude skills ply their trade. Like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Shakespeare’s Macbeth? Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? Poe’s short stories? Those are just a few of the works bookstores label ‘literature’ that could just as easily be labeled ‘horror.’
- Horror is not confined to stories featuring monsters.
- Horror is not confined to stories featuring some combination of blood, torture, dismemberment, physical agony, or death.
Reading led to more questions led to more reading and I’m still learning and I hope to keep right on learning until I go wherever my ticket is punched for next.
Because horror is huge and it’s subversive and it evolves. It cross pollinates with other genres. It rattles under the surface of stories, bursts out for a scene or two, and then dives back into hiding.
A popular, somewhat pointless exercise at horror conventions is to try and define the term horror. No answer makes everyone happy. Because horror doesn’t fit neatly in a box.
Which I rather like, actually. Who wants to be stuck in a box? It’s cramped. There’s no TV. And you might accidentally get shipped somewhere, which would be really inconvenient.
But I digress. Here’s what I think is really going on in horror, and why I love to read and write it:
Horror is a no holds barred examination of our fears and vulnerabilities.
Some of the very oldest stories, the one’s painted on cave walls, are horror stories. Big monster came. We fought with spears and fire. Monster killed big leader. Brave hero killed monster. Big leader’s spirit rose. Brave hero new leader.
A lot hasn’t changed. We fear the dark. We fear death. We wonder (and worry) about what happens after death.
It’s the details that change as time goes on. Why it’s dark. How death can occur. The ideas about what happens afterwards seem a bit more constant.
And horror remains the best and most accurate lens both to explore and project all of that.
It’s also the best lens to use when examining how haunted we are. By the past. By choices. By relationships. More on that next time.