There is an ongoing discussion concerning the relative position of “horror” fiction as compared to other types of storytelling, and the more popular pre-conceived notions are rather distasteful. The horror genre is known as a gratuitous one, filled with feeble protagonists caught up in cheap twists of shock-theater, all leading to poorly foreshadowed scenes of hyper-violence that would transparently replace meaningful catharsis.
The problem is that horror, or at least developed horror, is not genre fiction to begin with. Genre fiction reads easily, presented in a surface text that follows a given formula while meaningful horror by design is anti-design, a rebellion against formulas, expectations, and trendy beliefs. Not that good horror is the voice of evil or counter-culture, but more a demonstration of truths, usually the darker ones harder to defend. Why? Because it makes for a better story when the bad guy isn’t shallow and cardboard. Because it makes for a superior reading experience if we learn something about ourselves through a reading process that strips away comfortable euphemisms.
Genre fiction, though a wonderful and valid art form in itself that creates the illusion of movement, remains inevitably predictable like one of those rants on Facebook defending some position most people have already decided to support. This kind of stance seems more like the teenager arguing in fits of righteous rage than the experienced adult who takes the time to identify the adversary’s two or three strongest points in order to prove him or her incorrect. In scholarly circles we call this dismantling the opposition, yet in layman’s terms it means winning the debates, the good heated ones, and not championing issues already weaved deep into the current public view. Moreover, the horror writer (or the good one at least), takes the initial positions of “A” against “B” and exposes the possibility that good debates can never be fully won, and that the universal answers to the world’s most difficult riddles are more painful and multi-faceted than anyone wants to admit. Then he gives examples no one wants to hear.
To give a more specific illustration, genre fiction could be represented by the social critic or unsatisfied parent who bashes the government for the pedagogical failures in urban and deep rural areas, crying out about the crumbling, overcrowded schools and the fact that children need a choice concerning which facility they might attend. To this there is a roar of public approval. Well, of course we need choices, and vouchers, and charters! Overcrowding causes mayhem, and dismal, decayed institutions breed dissatisfaction, bullying, and gangs!
“Ahh,” the politician answers smoothly from behind his own podium, “but once you move the individual please explain to this humble public servant what happens to the education owed to those left in the overcrowded classrooms, the bullies who could become computer experts, teachers, psychologists and social workers, and the gang members who could have been doctors and lawyers? It’s all about money, money, money, more money, and damn it, we need funds, stipends, scholarships, and equal spending across the board that would finally destroy the idea that it is acceptable, common practice to allow real estate taxes to determine the quality of one’s didactic experience!
Here, here, we have a winner! Bring up the house lights, roll credits, and I’ll meet you at the voting booth.
But out working the parking lot is the horror writer, nodding “Yes to all,” in absolute agreement, yet initiating a different kind of vision, exposing the underside harder to stomach, the part that borders impropriety and political blasphemy, by suggesting that there are those who sometimes tragically rehash cycles of failure as part of the culture, making it so toddlers are seen and not heard, eventually coming to these crumbling institutions ill-prepared for learning in the first place. The good horror writer then hands out flyers with a story printed on both sides, showing us a fictitious world through which the government passes litigation stating that parents who do not pass an eighth grade reading test and concurrently provide proof on video that they read to their small children each night, are denied welfare and food stamps. In this strange, controversial tale it is made clear that many of the parents were already priming the little ones for school and developing their pre-reading skills. Some who were not begin to adapt. Others refuse to comply and start to go hungry. They initiate campaigns of secret night time cannibalism, and if the horror writer wants to really connect some dots, he modestly proposes that they eat the children they were originally meant to read to.
Genre work tells a story, and lets us ride the wave.
Horror buries us under the foamy surface and makes us taste the saltwater.
The problem is that literary fiction has almost as distasteful a stigma as the “horror genre,” the former indicating a certain stuffiness or metaphorical level unattainable to the “regular reader” and the latter a misconceived stereotype that certain writers have bought into, attempting to pass off the condiment (gore) as the main ingredient (a mix of character, story-peril, sentence poetry, and tragic theme).
“Genre” horror shows us a serial killer in a long leather coat riding a jacked-up muscle car hotel to hotel and then killing people with a variety of “cool” weaponry. Good horror makes every moment real and gritty through style and clever syntax, not only illustrating the killer’s wake but his viewpoint in context. And if we can finally (or suddenly) understand it, the epiphany was in us all along, buried, dormant, and glossed over…that’s the horror, and it’s anything but “schlocky.” I suppose if we had to affix a genre label (or rather a “genre-image”) to horror we might go for the archetypes: Vampire, Werewolf, Witch, Warlock, Monster, Ghost, Zombie, and Water-Beast, but the artists using these historical models and using them well, are finding new ways to make them relevant by positioning them as devices that would dismantle the norm and expose the darkest corridors of the human heart. That’s a literary function, an intellectual endeavor, and it’s anything but stuffy and boring.
Ask the given professor with the given MFA in creative writing what makes something a piece of literary fiction, and you will often get a slippery, dichotomous response, first claiming that a valid story according to our rich Anglo/Saxon history built upon strong western philosophy is structured in three acts, the first staring with an opening image leading to a set-up, a theme stated overtly or with subtlety, a catalyst, and a dilemma. Act II would consist of a new journey, a thematic revisit, a midpoint where antagonists close in, and an “all is lost” phenomenon including a dark night of the soul that would lead to a literal or metaphorical death. Finally in Act III we enjoy a rebirth, an attempt to rise from the ashes, and a merging of character and theme with a victory that comes with a price. The irony here, is that going hand in hand with this ludicrous rigidity is the misguided idea that “literary fiction” isn’t “about anything,” in its attempt to show real people facing ordinary issues that would disguise some cerebral, cleverly buried, deliciously complex, multi-leveled paradox teaching us about ourselves as seen from a variety of intellectual viewpoints.
Still, anything following even the most basic of dramatic structures is “about something” and in reference to the viewpoint riddles, well forgive me, that’s horror.
To briefly digress, I would also argue that the Three Act Roadmap is no more than a template to build from, like the five paragraph essay is only the starting point for expository prose, and I would also claim that concurrently, good horror fiction doesn’t have to have a nice but dumb cop, a Goth girl, a hideous murderer, and inevitably someone who goes up to the attic against better judgement, or falls down for no reason, or says “Let’s split up,” when it is obvious that there is strength in numbers. If things of this sort define the “genre” portion of horror everyone keeps talking about and using as a label, I would point out that five paragraph essays in Comp 101 are for freshmen at the beginning of the first semester no less, and there are four years of more advanced writing required for an undergraduate degree. In other words, maybe “genre” horror is a throwback to what was once new. Maybe “genre” horror” is our current starting point, something to build from.
Good horror makes us think, makes us feel, makes us question ourselves with flashes of terrifying insight in regard to the human experience. Hannibal Lecter is incredibly human, not in the sense that he kills and devours his victims of course, but more in that we share his immediate affection for Clarice Starling. Congruently, Buffalo Bill is not just a serial killer, but a man who wants to transform, to sew the skins of his victims together so he can become something he would consider beautiful. He also loves his small dog, and though he is evil, repulsive, demented, and cruel, there is a brief flash where we might connect with his love for the small dog.
Aside from these moments of strange empathy, there is also the issue of the writing, down in the trenches technique for technique, and I am in no way claiming that there isn’t a lot of bad horror out there, “genre” or otherwise. With Amazon and other self-publishing platforms absolutely decimating the bookstore industry and providing a pulpit for a lot of white noise, there is a “trendy” sort of pressure out there to tell it and tell it quick. I see a lot of work that celebrates brevity to the point that we are actually starting to accept exposition as plot as opposed to the more difficult (and antiquated) pleasure of refusing to listen to the guy sitting across the desk and reading the protagonist’s confidential file to him, reminding him (and informing us) of all his character traits in one quick, cheap exhalation.
Good, developed horror takes its time. It has to. If one tries to do horror quickly, or formulaically for the sake of joining a trend, or with a scattering of tiny two-to-three sentence paragraphs where characters tell each other all the backstory then run down a dark hallway screaming, we get comedy, and unless you are into the wacky bizarro-stuff, that is death to a horror writer.
You don’t speed up to see a car accident.
You don’t tell a hideous deviant to get on with it already and kill you.
Horror text is thinking text, and the more we ruminate, the more frightening the hallway, the closet, the shed, and that dark patch of woods. Metacognition and figuring out dangerous puzzles is the mainstay of developed, literary horror, and thinking is the primary instrument of the scholar. The difference is that the scholar works in the library and the horror writer makes his home in the psyche, the dark part, where he forces the reader to question his morals. And if the horror is written well, with intricate ideology and poetic imagery, our reader might realize he isn’t so far away from the dark figure waiting with an ax down in the basement by the rolls of old insulation and chicken wire.
The thing we need to do as horror writers is finally concede that the game has changed since Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We have to understand that stereotypes and archetypes are not staples, but launching points for what might scare people in an age where even the most violent acts of murder and road rage are shown on national television in prime time. What scares us is us, but we’ve become desensitized by seeing it on You-Tube, once removed by hiding behind email, and allegedly absolved by bitching about it on Facebook. Horror writers need to find a way to interpret the world and lift off the cover of euphemism in a way “Little Brother” does not, through poetic prose, through a literary experience, by making readers think and get their hands dirty.
Because again, times have changed. Monsters are not necessarily frightening any longer, yet more the wax figures we keep going back to for posterity, and as a result, of all things, security.
But horror is not safe.
And neither is good fiction, and maybe this essay is meant for all writing, genre-specific or not.
That said, whether live in the skin of some horrid beast or hiding behind the gentle eyes of a “loving father,” horror exposes points of view we normally choose not to acknowledge. And modern horror writers have to work harder than their Victorian predecessors. For Stevenson invented the antagonist Hyde and made him a dwarf in order to show that man’s evil side was smaller than his moral one.
Maybe it is the job of the modern horror writer to claim Stevenson got it wrong.
Maybe it is the poetic charge of the modern horror writer to force us to think harder about our position in the universe, making us see that our own “Hyde’s” are closer to the surface than we’d once thought, that they reside in both the heart and the fiber, and if drawn out and “categorized,” they might not be personified as the ugly little munchkin in a top hat with a cane anymore, but rather the dark hulking figure standing tall, eye to eye.