Steve's Essays

The Subject Matter of Horror

A typical question posed of writers of horror (pointedly at times by non-fans of the genre) is "Why do you write about such things?" A more difficult and basic question, I think, is the one which asks, "So what do you write about?"

Writers and long-time fans of the genre always seem to know the answer to this question--perhaps they think that answer should be all too obvious. Of course they know what the subject matter of horror is. "Well, I know it when I see it," they say, or perhaps they list archetypal figures, settings, themes: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, serial killers, nameless dreads, haunted houses, phantom ships, madness, decay, loss of faith.

I must admit that I don't always know. But I still experience some dissatisfaction with the way the subject matter of horror seems to be defined by so many writers, publishers, and book packagers in the field. Looking at much of the current product, one might conclude that horror is a genre of limited theme and variation, with a one-note emotional range (fear) which it plays quite into the ground.

Or could it be that the transformation of horror into a "genre" has in itself created these limitations?

Douglas Winter puts it well in Prime Evil when he says that "Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction . . . Horror is an emotion."

But defining that emotion of horror is not easy. And it is here, I think, that much of horror fiction loses its ambition. Most commonly, that emotion of horror has been equated with "fear," what Lovecraft called "the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind." The words "horror" and "fear" are often used interchangeably. Horror has been referred to as "the literature of fear." I think this has been a mistake.

This is not to say that "fear" does not play an important role. And at the lowest level of the horror reading experience, the writer often tries to shake the reader with fear. In many ways fear is an easily accessible emotion to write about. But it is only one emotional element in the texture of the experience that is horror. At its best, horror deals with the range of feelings--awe, terror, compassion, fear--which people experience when faced with the darkness of existence.

Horror, I believe, is a much more recent emotion in the psyche of the human animal than such primal responses as fear and anger. Fear and anger possess a certain physiological functionality in their origins (flight and fight). Horror has a much stronger psychological component, and perhaps began in the form of a very rudimentary sort of self-reflection. (Dogs, for instance, may experience both fear and anger, but I do not believe that they are capable of experiencing horror.)

Fear enables us to run away from danger. Anger spurs us to fight and defend ourselves. It may be that the ability to experience horror prevents more of us from turning into killers. Perhaps it also aids us in achieving some sort of balance when faced with our own mortality and that of the ones we love.

Do serial killers experience horror? I suspect most do not.

As a somewhat vague beginning, let us say that horror is a complex emotional reaction to dark areas of human experience. We may assume that these dark areas include the human being's capacity for violence and cruelty, the anticipation of one's own death, the fear of pain and loss. But it is the horror writer's job to recognize that the darkness shifts, that the shadows do not lie across the same regions for everyone, and sometimes the writer must seek out and find--or even anticipate--the new darknesses as they develop in our culture.

It is also commonplace to assume that a person's reaction to these various darknesses will be a fearful jump, in some instances a full-fledged terror. Yet how often do we react so simply to the true darknesses of "real" life?

It is my belief that "a literature of fear" describes only the most simple-minded horror fiction. And I think that a single-minded intention to create fiction which will "scare" the readers has led to the production of so much unreadable work in the field.

We may respond to the darkness of the unknown with unease and apprehension. We may respond to the darkness revealed with religious or philosophical awe. We may respond to the darkness of actual or anticipated loss with numbing grief. We may respond to the darkness of human cruelty with shame, and the shock of self-recognition. We may respond to the darkness of our own approaching death with anger, pity, reverence, and yes, even fear.

The best horror draws on a number of these emotions. It is in their interplay that horror occurs.

As in any literature of complexity, emotions in good horror fiction are heightened in relationship to each other. Often the strength and complexity of the horror is directly proportional to the strength of the love and fellow human feeling evoked in the piece. The intense passion of terror is a direct development of the writer's, and reader's, compassion for the characters.

In those tales in which the darkness is suddenly and miraculously revealed, resulting in the awe experienced in some classic ghost stories, or in Clive Barker's best examples of reality-revising "anti-horror," a hunger for vision and revelation must first be established.

Intrinsic to the creation of horror, I think, is an attempt to integrate a direct confrontation with our darker apprehensions. In horror we aspire to see the dark both as part of the everyday and as a realm which goes beyond the everyday, not something to be suppressed or by which to be overwhelmed. If horror has a larger developmental purpose in the consciousness of an individual or a society, then perhaps this is it--to end the estrangement between the experiences of dark and light, so that living a life "in pieces" might not be necessary.

Horror, I believe, is an emotion most of us need. Most of us, including the healthiest of us, have blocked and suppressed the darker aspects of human existence. Sometimes we may even go so far as to consciously decide that these dark areas have no function in our lives. But when this darkness is faced, even metaphorically, I believe that a certain sense of liberation occurs which is healthy for people--it is the liberation of integration, the relief that comes when we realize that no more dirty, closeted secrets remain.

But this liberation should not be confused with the "morbid fascination" some people indulge themselves in, and which writers of horror are often accused of (for the most part mistakenly, I think). Morbid fascination with dark materials is characterized by a kind of self-punishment. These are the readers who appear to flagellate themselves with the horrible aspects of life. No self-integration takes place because none is desired. The context of fellow human feeling for the horror experience is lost on such readers because they have cut themselves off from their fellow human beings. They are interested only in the dark.

Bad horror tends to encourage this perversion. The simple-mindedness of bad horror fails to liberate because it does not provide the complex emotional context and materials to make integration possible. In fact, bad horror aids readers in their avoidance because it isn't about anything central to the human conflict. Like a drug, bad horror fiction further distances readers from their true apprehensions, at times to the point of making these feelings almost inaccessible.

There was a time before the formulaic marketing of horror when a reader had to seek out the experience of horror in the available reading material. In the world before the time of a "Horror" category label printed on a book's spine, or painted in dripping letters across a book's cover, horror might be discussed as simply one aspect of literature or of an individual work, whether it was in the work of a John Fowles, a Kafka, a Kosinski, a Jim Thompson, or a Fuentes. Perhaps the horror was the most interesting aspect of a specific work, but it was heightened, made more effective, within the context of other concerns. One might go so far as to say that this "buried" horror had more to do with the experience of being human than do the garishly-packaged works we see so often today. The average horror novel today seems to have little to do with the conflicts of the human heart, and is more often just another facile presentation of predigested horror icons.

The creation of a horror marketing category has provided more of us with an opportunity to sell our work, but in an aesthetic sense it has damaged the literature as a whole. Although the arrival of horror packaging has focused a great deal of creative attention on this writing, it has also worked to simplify it, to reduce it to its lowest common denominator, in effect to dumb it up.

However, I don't look for the clock to turn completely back. I am looking forward to the day when the word "Horror" disappears from book spines. But I would have little problem with a less formal categorization to help readers find their way to what used to be called horror fiction: say an imprint which specializes in a wide range of "dark" fiction, or in a particular collection of authors who tend to write about dark concerns. I also wouldn't mind if the covers of these books evinced a certain darkness or reality distortion, as long as the covers did not make the contents of these books more predictable.

What I would like to see is a redefinition of the horror category which focuses more on the larger human context of the horror emotion and less on the more transitory images which are used to express this emotion. Current horror writing and publishing have tended to confuse image with content, apparently thinking that merely populating a novel with vampires say, or werewolves, will make it the quintessential horror novel. I don't believe it does.

Breaking the monolith the horror category has become might enable editors to select a much wider range of material. Writers might be encouraged to loosen their own ideas of just what is the subject matter of horror. Writers might focus more on the broader, human emotional experience that horror entails.

And writers might become better qualified to probe the darker conflicts of the human heart.

copyright 1992 Steve Rasnic Tem

Originally appeared in Necrofile #3, Winter 1992

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