Steve's Essays

Fictional Horror and The Horrors of Real Life

Like most writers of horror fiction, I'm often asked why I write what I write. The attitude of the questioner varies from a mild, conversational interest to a genuine, and sometimes appalled, puzzlement. Usually I'll provide some lame explanation: because I think fear is important to write about, particularly when that fear comes from finding out something terrible about ourselves, omitting the more obvious, less "serious" reason that it's just plain fun. The second sort of questioner stares at me blank-faced, then responds in one of the following ways:

A. "Don't you think fiction is supposed to be uplifting?" another variation of which is,

B. "Fiction is supposed to make us feel good about ourselves. We identify with the main character and if something terrible is happening to that main character it lessens who we are."

C. "Isn't that a pretty adolescent and masochistic thing for a writer to do? Why make yourself feel bad all the time? And isn't that a pretty sadistic thing for a writer to do to a reader?"

But the objections finally come down to:

D. "Don't you think there are enough horrors in the real world without your inventing more?"

Answer: Sure, there's more than enough horror in the "real" world. Unfortunately, we haven't been given nearly enough ways to deal with that horror. Horror fiction--when it's good--provides us with another means of coping. (A number of horror writers will argue that such a statement is pretentious. "It's just good entertainment!" they'll say. But of course the vast majority of us cope simply by keeping ourselves entertained--however passive a strategy that may be, for most of us it is the only coping mechanism we have.)

Following that old rule of literary criticism that everything comes in arbitrary twos, the sources for two different kinds of horror fiction can be found in our attitude toward the horrors of real life.

1) Horror fiction is an entertaining ritual that maintains our distance from the horrors of real life.

The strategy may be structural, as in the formal Jamesian ghost story which distances us through such devices as nested points of view. Or it may use a kind of black humor, running the gamut from occasional Jamesian "one-liners" and witticisms to the baroque, exaggerated "splatter humor" of a film like Reanimator, and in fact like most horror films of the last decade.

This is similar, I suppose, to the social convention of the funeral as a safe container for grief. Public rituals such as funerals and parades are in part designed to protect us from our own messy emotions by imposing a formal order on our expressions. An influential strain in American literature, beginning with the Fugitive poets, appears to share this intention. For these writers, intellect becomes the distancing device; fear and violence and grief are contained within various intellectual constructs or symbols, which render them safe because they are less identifiable with ourselves. I think some horror writers use horror motifs as similar intellectual constructs. A werewolf, for example, might become a safe container for violent impulses, and the vampire a safe container for the infatuation with death and entropy.

The writer in this distancing kind of horror fiction helps us escape from the crime in the streets, grueling jobs, failing relationships, doubts about who we are. We can view the fictional horrors from a safe distance--from the other side of a plot device or joke. Ultimately they become safe horrors because we do not quite believe in them.

And yet, if the writing is good enough, the imagery will be so powerful that these distanced horrors will resonate with our own real terrors, the ones we find so difficult to face directly. Then, some relief does come.

Traditional horror motifs have enormous potential to disturb, however distancing the approach, simply because of all the uneasy parallels between vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, etc. and the relationships/problems we have with others in "real" life. However much you joke about it, you're still disturbed to see a man eaten alive by his dead lover in a zombie film. That particular scene reminds us too much of the very real fears we have in relationships, both for and of the other person. And few of us have not at some point desired to completely lose control, and act as if we were an animal, perhaps even a werewolf.

Much has been written to the effect that humor is intrinsic to horror fiction. My only argument with that is that it is, at best, intrinsic only to this first, distancing, sort of horror fiction. Humor in horror fiction generally relieves tension and permits us to take our fears a bit less seriously. Humor distances us from our fears and makes them seem more bearable.

2) Horror fiction is an exploration and an explanation of the horrors of real life. It helps us understand.

Many mysteries of human behavior are poorly explained by psychology, sociology, philosophy, and history. The dimensions of human experiences are poorly charted by the sciences.

In my first year of college, I visited a ward of hydrocephalics and other congenitally malformed children, a large percentage of whom would die simply from not being held. Like most of us, the nurses kept these "bad dreams" at a distance. The very fact that such humans existed and that their images had never before entered my consciousness shook me badly, and very little that I read could give me a hint of the mind or spirit which might exist in those physical forms which had been made so fluid, so plastic. In my dreams over the next few months I would find myself on some street corner grabbing passers-by, showing them pictures of these children, telling them stories about them, insisting that they visit that ward and try to experience the lives of these children. I was convinced that to remain ignorant of some shape or image of humanity was to remain less than human oneself.

Every year since then I have dipped into the genetic textbooks, the yearbooks of congenital malformations. Again, the facts have told me very little, but I'm mesmerized by the photographs of these children. They are like were-creatures frozen in mid-transformation, a dream of quickened evolution. And for answers I've finally come to the imaginative synergies found in fantasy fiction, dark fantasy in particular.

I've had this same sense of indecipherable mystery when I read about the crimes of say, Jack the Ripper. Until recent years, most of the popular accounts and fictional treatments of the Ripper story omitted the actual gory details, the extent of the bestiality of these murders. Perhaps authors and their publishers considered all this too bizarre for public consumption. Maybe they thought it irrelevant.

Reading the full story for the first time is a startling experience. And one soon discovers that these details are anything but irrelevant--they are telling features in the landscape of the Ripper's mind.

I've always found realistic or detective-story treatments of the Ripper story frustrating--specifications with no understanding. A similar frustration occurs when I read most contemporary accounts of mass murderers. The material is distanced, remote. Thomas Harris' Red Dragon is quite a contrast. In this book the author takes the imaginative risk of entering the killer's inner world, a world closely resembling the landscapes of dark fantasy. Here we get closer to an understanding of why this horror is occurring.

I've been told that the Nazis' concentration camps are poor sources for fiction. I've been told that it's extremely difficult to write good fantasy fiction about the bombing of Hiroshima or the atrocities committed against the Armenians, or against the Cherokee nation on the Trail of Tears, or against children in any era you'd care to name. I've been told that fiction, particularly horror fiction, is inadequate, almost silly, in the face of real horrors of such a devastating magnitude. Instead, I am told, we must rely on history, on nonfiction reportage. And yet I find these methods inadequate to the subject. Thousands of accounts of the Holocaust seem to have brought little understanding of this event--most of us still cannot understand how human beings could possibly act this way. We distance ourselves to the extent that we think of the Nazis as "inhuman," or as some subspecies of human stock, as distant from us as the Neanderthals. We feel threatened when we look too closely at what the details of the Holocaust tell us about the psychic landscape of humanity.

The reason so little understanding has come from all this reportage is that it concentrates on what is thought to be the "real" world, an external world of observed fact. But that is only half the story. Horrors real or imagined originate from the inside, within our fantasies, our dreams.

Horror fiction provides a peek into this psychic landscape, presenting supernatural explanations for seemingly unexplainable events. The meaning of these explanations is not always readily apparent because the language of the internal life is different from that of the external: it is a language of dream images, of analogues for experiences we have few words for. The writer's job is to express the inexpressible, to explain what cannot be explained.

I read accounts of such human dramas as the concentration camps, Hiroshima, and the Ripper killings because of their dramatic and ritualistic aspects. Similarly, I read such folklore and fairytale classics as Gilgamesh, the Volsunga Saga, Beowulf, Red Riding Hood, and the legend of Pandora's Box. These tales tell us who human beings are and what they are capable of by presenting fantastic dramas taking place on an internal psychic landscape.

Thus: as we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima we also blasted a piece of humanity's interior out into myth. Those who engineered the Holocaust were enacting their roles in an important human legend. Killers like Jack the Ripper and John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson, whose methods of killing and arrangement of bodies and generally ritualistic approach resemble so much a small child's fantasy play, were characters in dark fairytales about who we were, and are.

Not until we treat these events as mythic in their implications are we able even to begin to grasp their meaning. I can think of no form of writing better suited to this task than horror fiction.

Because of this sense of significance, of a meaning beyond the events themselves, these acts of mayhem and murder, of human evil, are acts of the imagination, just as such "higher" acts as creating, loving, and raising a child are acts of the imagination. Perhaps most of us would prefer doing this higher sort of imaginative act, but if for some complex of reasons we are thwarted in this, then we will do the other. For the organism must perform the imaginative act, whether dark or light. That is what makes us live and grow.

Even the human personality is an act of imagination. The integration of all its separate schizophrenic pieces is the task of the imagination. Perhaps the imagery of fantasy--dark and light--shows us some of the missing pieces needed for a full understanding of the human personality and its contradictions.

That is why I think the type of horror fiction which probes, exploring explanations, seems so dangerous and threatening to some. It strips away the distancing aspects of fiction until the reader comes face to face with a sense of responsibility, a definition of the darker aspects of humanity which includes us all. Such horror fiction supplies supernatural structures to provide the explanation. Actually these structures are not "super" natural at all, but fantastic images dredged up from a valid, internal world to be analogues for the unexplainable and mysterious.

Both of these approaches to horror fiction are valid, of course. But it may be obvious that I have a preference for the second. This is the type that moves me, that makes me want to read more.

That isn't to say that I dislike the first type; I love movies like "Reanimator." I think most writers using such grim materials welcome the diversion of horror with a large dose of humor in it. However crude, gore can be a kind of satire.

But I have come to see the effects of these two types of horror to be so different as to make them almost two completely different genres. They share a subject matter of fear and terror, but their views are quite different.

Some horror writers have learned how to combine the two types almost seamlessly. And certainly finding ways to keep the horror somewhat distant until the appropriate dramatic moment is basic, and necessary, technique. I think this is one of Steve King's great strengths, for example. Clive Barker's exuberant horrors also may almost make us smile, but the grim seriousness of his themes keeps us from gaining much distance.

It is only when the humor or other distancing technique crosses a certain threshold that we get fiction which begins to have a different affect from that of disturbing the reader. It certainly may still be entertaining, but it is also a rather safe window for viewing the horrors of the internal and external worlds.

I think the limitations of realistic fiction in explaining/describing the horrors of real life led to this thing we call horror fiction in the first place. These same limitations often make realistic techniques alone inadequate to portray these horrors.

Much has been made recently in the field concerning "graphic" versus "quiet" horror. But I'm uncomfortable with how the question is drawn. For me the question has more to do with the fact that graphic, clinical descriptions of mayhem have the same limitations as the documentation of the real-life horrors I have mentioned. They don't explain enough; they don't show us the whole picture. Often, they simply aren't imaginative enough. The bottom line for me is that they fail to answer enough of the questions we need answered.

That's not the same as saying that graphic techniques are not useful and convincing. It's just that the graphic images must go beyond the realistic techniques of the mystery, the sociological or historical study. They must be charged with imagination. They must be transforming. I think there's a big difference between the work of, say, a Clive Barker and the usual run of authors known for the explicit violence in their work. It's not a question of graphic violence, but one of transforming imagination.

When graphic imagery goes beyond the merely explicit, and is informed by the imagination, we feel ourselves moving closer to an understanding of what had before seemed too violent, too evil, too inhuman to have accessible meaning. Reading writers like Barker is like taking a trip through the Hydrocephalic Ward. We are awed and amazed by what we see. We did not know such things existed. That knowledge had been suppressed and censored. We did not know how we could ever understand such things.

I believe that such transforming, imaginative work is the best we can achieve in fictional horror, which potentially may tell us far more about ourselves and the darkness in which we dwell, and which we are, than all our objective reporting of the horrors of real life.

ай copyright 1988 Steve Rasnic Tem

Originally appeared in Paul Olson's Horrorstruck.

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