On Horror

11 December 1998

After nine months of reviews, why no vampires? Why no Stephen King? Why, indeed, no horror?

Before answering, let's try to define a few terms:

  • Genre, n. (OF cognate GENDER). A category of artistic, musical or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content. Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary. This definition is spectacularly unhelpful. Unfortunately, the term is not defined in The Oxford Companion to English Literature (5th ed.).
  • Trope, n. (L tropos, to turn). The use of a word or expression in a figurative sense. Webster's Tenth. Again, an unhelpful definition that is not clarified by the Companion.
  • Horror, adj.. Seemingly no relevant definition at all.

Well, that was a nice exercise in futility, wasn't it? I suppose I shall have to resort to one legal definition of obscenity (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 US 184 (1964)): "I know it when I see it."

Horror is not a genre. (Neither are "fantasy," nor "science fiction," nor "magic[al] realism," but in a different way. That is an argument for another time.) It is, at best, defined not by a "particular style, form, or content," but by an emotive effect. This effect is often far more powerful in works not usually considered to be "horror." For example:

  • George Orwell's 1984: A Novel includes a number of fairly disgusting scenes, usually revolving around rats. The real horror, though, is the pervasive thought control, culminating in the true death of Winston Smith. His body continues living, but his identity has died. For anyone who was politically aware during the 1960s or 70s in the United States, or who has dealt much with cults from the fundamentalist right to the loony left, this is more horrifying than another splatterfest at the drive-in.
  • Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, particularly in the uncut British edition, adds "ultraviolence" to Orwell's brand of horror. Kubrick's movie is a faithful adaptation of the book—in many ways too faithful, because much of the power of Burgess's work comes from the prose descriptions that the camera overwrites and softens.
  • The last "book" of the Christian Bible describes the end of the world in fairly graphic terms, and makes quite clear that most of humanity will perish in that apocalypse. The real horror of this book is in its implications. If taken literally, the book implies that there is some large, but limited, group of people predestined to be "saved." More orthodox doctrine indicates that (the right kind of) faith is what leads to be saved. In a metaphoric sense, the book has almost limitless meanings, many of them extremely disturbing.

So what is this beast that the marketing dorks in New York call "horror"? Is it just the presence of monsters and the unnatural? If so, then works as diverse as the Bible (again) and The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark qualify. I don't think this is what they have in mind. (If it is, Anne Rice will be out of a job very shortly.)

No, contemporary horror's unifying effect is an attempt to scare the living daylights out of the reader. Disgust isn't enough. That's why splatterfests fail so miserably, particularly for anyone who has really seen blood and guts splattered. TV reports just aren't quite good enough.

As I've remarked elsewhere on this site, though, the mass-produced horror peddled by the novel-writing machines in New York never leaves the whitebread for the rye—let alone pumpernickel. One can almost hear the creepy music starting when someone impoverished or "of color" comes on stage in such a book. I'm old enough to remember school before busing for integration left the South and swept the country. Most of these books are still pre-busing, in a sense, even when dressed up in contemporary scenery. As a member of another reviled minority group myself, I find this completely unacceptable. Even aside from race, though, the socioeconomic stratification in these books is enough to cause projectile vomiting that would amaze Linda Blair. When someone outside the protagonist's social class comes on stage (servants excepted), the Immense Gong of Pretentious Portentiousness clangs about an inch from one's metaphoric ear.

Well, what about all those vampires? With few exceptions, being a vampire just sucks. They're almost always independently wealthy, have unhealthy sexual appetites (but little difficulty in satisfying them), the IRS never asks for back taxes, and any angst they feel at the suffering they inflict is more than balanced by a rather extended lifespan. Actually, that sounds like a lot of high-ranking politicians . . . who, come to think of it, do a pretty good job of sucking the lifeblood out of their constituents.

Nonetheless, somebody is buying all of those horror books. I'm not sure how they choose, though. Thanks to the novel-writing machines, they're all very much the same. The audience is getting scared over and over again by the same book with different packaging. One could say the same about the Interminable Fantasy Series and much contemporary science fiction, with some justice. So I try to be very selective in my reading. And I don't read, and thus don't review, contemporary horror.

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