Horror appears in so many great pieces of literature, yet it still seems that calling a novel a piece of horror cheapens it in some reader’s eyes. The more I swim in writer’s circles, I’m discovering some writers embrace the term Horror Writer, some prefer dark fiction, others coin their own terms. All of this with the hope that their work is properly understood. Well, whatever the term, it is my belief that horror provides perhaps the most powerful, visceral, and deeply moving ways to experience art. Not only that, but the darkest of horror writers have the finest hearts around.
Sure, in Horror, people are often harmed. People get hurt. People are killed. There’s evil. There’s blood. You feel threatened by dark forces. Well, I would argue that something gets cut open in any novel, each story has something that bleeds, (even if it’s just Holden Caulfield’s innocence, for example) and the hinge upon which all fiction swings is escalating conflict and the fear that the protagonist won’t get what they want.
Fiction is the drama of life with the heat turned up, and when done right, it boils out the insides of characters and reveals who they are, and better yet, transforms them into something stronger, like metal into fire. Or perhaps when the novel ends in tragedy, they aren’t strong enough to handle the flames. Horror does this wonderfully.
In this way, I think of horror as much as a literary device as a genre. The term horror is just a marketing tool. Put a different cover on the novel American Psycho, and it would no longer be read as an illustration of our society of privilege, financial cannibalism and materialism gone mad. Instead, it’d be slasher and torture porn.
Let me set the premise for an epic horror story. One which will be the tome upon which civilizations are built, wars are fought, children are baptized, and bodies are buried:
Imagine a story where the dead are raised, where babies are slaughtered, where plaques destroy cities, and where the main character has spiritual powers but is shunned, eventually betrayed, until the day comes he has to carry the device of his own torture. A crown of thorns bloodies his head, his flesh is punctured by nails, and his body hangs until he dies. But wait, it’s not over, because then his very soul will have to harrow hell for 3 days, gathering the ravaged souls of those before him, until he finally ascends to a higher plane.
To commemorate this event, we all kneel in front of the same ancient torture device. Then we perform a cannibalistic ritual to honor his sacrifice in Holy Communion as solemn music plays in the background.
Yep, you got it (don’t throw stones, please) put a different cover on it, and you can market The Bible as horror.
The iconic horror writer Stephen King rewrote this story, only it was much more tame, and it stared Jon Coffee, instead of Jesus Christ, both spiritual superior beings put to death, just texts written at different times. Scour great horror and dark fiction, you’ll find great literature.
What makes Stephen King shine is his characters, not just the horror, and when his work is at its best, the macabre highlights the internal strife of the character. Horror works best when it is a metaphor for the dark places the character is already traveling through. It isn’t easy to draw a picture of our dark psychological recesses, so you pull the insides out, put different faces on them, and give them a name.
Like It, or Cujo.
The story of Cujo serves as a model for me. The huge, killer rabid St. Bernard who has trapped a woman and her young child in the tiny pinto of a car. But it’s not about a dog; it’s about alienation, isolation. I am alone, everybody has abandoned me, and here I am suffocating in this car, alone, trapped, with the jaws of the world trying to kill my most precious child.
This is why I think horror writers have the finest hearts around. The only way a writer can scare you is to first prove they understand you. A writer must first be ultra-sensitive to the human predicament, and show they can get into the hearts and heads of humans. Otherwise, it all falls flat. I would love my daughter to marry a man with the heart of a Stephen King.
To take a step further, it is by destroying your protagonists, after giving him hopes and dreams and struggles, that can make you fully empathize with him. None of our physical lives come to happy endings. No one here gets out alive.
Of course, there are works that exist simply for sake of a bombardment of the senses. This still takes art, I would argue, even if it is horror just for horror sake. I love the Evil Dead, but I’m not going to say it has the same psychological layers, but it is incredible campfire storytelling.
The horror of all this inner-psyche drama sticks around like ghosts in your basement in a house you can never leave. You can't just kill the past, you have to deal with it, otherwise, the ghosts in your basement remain. They haunt your psychological dark spots, always ready to fragment your spirit, destroy your dreams, and yes hurt your children.
Horror works best when you are watching it and realize that, “hey, that’s me; I’m living a life of fear. A live of quiet desperation - screaming in terror on the inside yet quiet on the outside”.
Horror reminds us that We are all infected. The secret of season 1 and 2 of The Walking Dead, that we are all infected is what makes horror as a genre thrive. We are all infected with this human experience. It's a virus that lasts approximately 70 years, give or take a few decades, and during that time we look for meaning. And when done right, horror offers us a great peek into this unique affliction, but if not, it at least gives us some riveting drama to enjoy and makes our predicament a little more tolerable.
At least for a few hundred pages or more.