Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Some Probably Useless Thoughts on Horror

So, I've thought bit more about "horror," why I like it so much, and why the name as a descriptor for fiction makes me nervous. What follows is in no way meant to be taken as my own gospel on the subject. As I have recently been reminded offline, I know better than to make broad generalizations about any genre, specifically one as fractious as this. Furthermore, discussions of this sort are as old as the hills, and nothing is more tedious than someone who claims to have The Answer to a question that has been asked, ad nauseum, for years. So what I offer here is entirely personal.

I believe that horror fiction, at its best, can be the highest order of genre fiction available to us. This is because it seems almost specifically designed to address our own moral and ethical structures. I mentioned this in my post on "S.S." though I didn't go into much detail. Now, horror's focus on moral structure serves to undermine the genre's effectiveness when it serves only to buttress long-standing social structures, which evolved as a tactic to encourage conformity and punish transgression from cultural norms. You know what I'm talking about: promiscuous or adulterous sex is punishable by death, children who don't mind their parents are visited with grotesque punishment, arrogant scientists are persecuted by their own unholy creations. Fiction of this sort works against the genre's strengths by encouraging groupthink, by reinforcing the status quo. It becomes a calcifying force.

I think horror is at its best when it functions as an adversarial literature. To get at what we fear (and what is the essence of horror, if not fear?), the horror writer must be willing to make the reader uncomfortable. Too many writers, I think, settle for the standard tropes -- these can range from vampires and zombies to abandoned mansions and cabins in the wood. While good stories can certainly come from these tropes, their very familiarity works against generating a true sense of horror; I'd argue that they actually breed a sense of comfort. Readers know what they're getting, and no matter how much bloodletting goes along with it, there's very little real horror involved at all.

Having said that, I enjoy the hell out of many, many stories that use these tropes. I might call them dark fantasy before I'd call them horror, but that's a personal thing that really has very little to do with the merits of the story, which is what's most important. The ghost stories of Glen Hirshberg are an excellent example of this. He's using very recognizable genre elements -- ghosts and, sometimes, Halloween -- but he uses them to explore the flaws and sorrows of his characters. I wouldn't call it horror, but who cares? It's wonderful psychological fiction, and often it's very spooky as well. Neil Gaiman's ghost stories -- I'm thinking particularly of "October in the Chair" and "Closing Time" -- are beautifully spooky and sad, and are two of the more memorable genre stories I've read in some time. They're about ghosts, but they're about much else besides. Again, they don't fit my own narrow definition of horror, but it doesn't matter. They're not hampered by their use of convention; on the contrary, those conventions are used to great effect, to make a larger statement about growing up, and abandonment, and about death.

I think the most of the failures associated with the genre come from the novels. And I think this is because the very existence of a horror market encourages some writers to think of themselves exclusively as horror writers, which has the immediate effect of shallowing their pool of ideas. A writer who only writes horror novels will be repeating himself in no time. In my opinion, the best horror stories have come to us from people who do not consider themselves specifically horror writers. I would much sooner trust someone who calls himself a fantasy writer, or even a dark fantasy writer, to produce a good horror story than I would someone who calls himself a horror writer.

I realize my own definition of the word is narrow to the point of being useless when discussing horror -- especially in marketing terms. I make the distinction between horror and dark fantasy, but it has no practical value. It's just a categorical quirk in my brain.


At 2:46 PM, Blogger Derek Johnson said...


It's interesting that a lot of your thoughts mirror those that Douglas Winter shares with us in "The Pathos of Genre." Have you read that essay?

At 8:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is is, still available on Event Horizon, my old webzine.


Ellen Datlow

At 9:07 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

No, I haven't read that essay. Thanks for calling it to my attention.

And thanks for the link, Ellen!

At 3:24 AM, Blogger Gone said...

My usua

At 2:20 PM, Blogger Gone said...

Dammit. Your blog is SO racist! I'll try to reconstruct my brilliance later.

At 2:58 AM, Anonymous Michael Kelly said...


Really enjoyed your thoughts here, which closely mirror my own.

Is there an RSS feed for your blog?


At 8:40 AM, Blogger Nathan said...


I'm told there is, although I have to admit I don't really understand how they work. I think someone said they got it through livejournal ... ? Sorry. Once I become more blog-savvy I'll figure out a way to provide a link directly.


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