Thursday, February 12, 2009

Four Flavours of Horror

After a long hiatus, I've been reading and thinking about (and even writing, a little) horror fiction again. My father introduced my brother and I to horror as soon as we were old enough not to wet our pants and start crying. He read us Dracula by Bram Stoker, one chapter a night. He read us the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe, swooping his voice up at the climax, making me almost jump out of my skin. When I became a teenager, I went through the usual rite of passage of reading my way through the works of Stephen King.

But as an adult, I drifted away from King and horror in general, tired and bored of blood and guts. King once said, "If I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out". He's far from being alone, and therein lies the problem. The easiest, laziest thing you can do in horror is be gory and disgusting. It's not a coincidence that this easiest of routes is also the least effective. I remember that ho-hum feeling creeping over me (not the kind of creeping the horror writer wants to induce) when I read Brian Keene and Steven L. Shrewsbury's short story "Death Comes For All" in Apex Magazine (vol. 1, iss. 12). Going nowhere and making no sense, this story features an army of zombies that emerge from the sea and have to be cut down in the usual tedious, limb-chopping way. Zombies have been so done to death (ha!) that their mere presence in a story usually signals mediocrity. This kind of thing gives horror a bad name.

The trick is to find horror that does something other (or at least more) than gross out. Sometimes you have to turn to the classics to remind yourself what horror is supposed to be. Poe had the ability to put the reader into the mind of his rage- or madness-driven characters. King, at his best, achieves this too. He develops Carrie and describes her miseries so well that even when she goes on her murderous rampage the reader cannot help but sympathize with her. This second flavour on offer in Horror's freezer might be called "psychological horror."

This is a bit parenthetical, but I'd like to mention that what made Poe a horror writer of unparallelled greatness was his ability to orchestrate the climax of his story so beautifully, getting it to land not merely on the last paragraph but on the last sentence or even on the last word. One of Poe's best-known stories is The Telltale Heart, and rightly so, for the climax is in the last two words. But though The Black Cat is less-well known, in it Poe achieves something even more impressive: a single-word climax. If you have not yet read these stories, do so now. Poe made horror into poetry. (Appropriate, given his name.)

H.P. Lovecraft came along about a century later than Poe but is no less influential. I hadn't read any Lovecraft until quite recently, when I played Munchkin Cthulhu and decided to find out what all that Cthulhu business was about. Somebody told me that Lovecraft stories are psychological. I disagree. Poe was much better at that sort of thing. Lovecraft makes his characters go mad a lot too, but it isn't as convincing. He seems to have conceived of the human mind as terribly fragile, as if you could go mad after finding something gruesome in your box of Cracker Jacks.

He also differentiates himself from Poe by his fondness for monsters. Many of Poe's short stories have nothing of the supernatural in them, and that is their strength: the recognition that every manner of evil arises from human beings, alone, unaided. Lovecraft, on the other hand, loves a good monster. To him, there is something monstrous about life already--"Life is a hideous thing," he wrote in his short story Arthur Jermyn, and I believe he meant it. So it was not a great leap for him from humanity to monstrosity.

Consequently, his flavour of horror is not so much the horror of psychology as the horror of the icky idea. A man breeds with an ape and produces a line of half-human creatures. An isolated family becomes so corrupted over generations that they transform into killing, burrowing creatures. Lovecraft was the master of concepts that were interesting in an awful sort of way.

The Holy Grail of horror is, of course, to genuinely frighten the reader. To induce not merely a wave of nausea or suspense or pity or laughter but actual fear in the reader, to keep him from dropping easily off to sleep that night, to affect his dreams--that is surely the horror writer's ultimate achievement. Few have managed it. King never has, and probably won't. I don't think Lovecraft did either. Poe could do it, in brief flashes. Curiously, the most frightening thing I have ever read was in not a horror but a science fiction novel.

Ventus by Karl Schroeder is mostly concerned with terraforming robots that are slipping out of control and need repair. But there's also a man who is part machine, and he's operated as a machine for so long that his humanity is completely lost to him, for a time. During this time, three grave-robbers cross his path in a catacomb. He murders one. Another escapes. The third has the worst fate:

Choltas had heard the footsteps of the devil fade away. He knew it would be back unless he stayed very still. This was the thing's home; it world not venture out into the world above. So though he couldn't hear it, he knew it was there. If he stayed completely still, wrapped around himself in this corner in total darkness, it might not find him. But if he so much as sneezed, he knew it would be on him instantly.

Even now it might be creeping up on him silently. He wrapped more tightly around himself, and tried not to breathe. Time passed, but Choltas did not move. When thirst began to torture him. he stayed still. He wet himself and shat in his pants, quietly. And eventually, delirium overcame him; he heard his mother's voice, saw drifting pictures of his home.

He kept his arms around his knees, and his face buried there against his own flesh. And he breathed weaker and weaker, aware at last only of the murmur of his own head and the torment of cold and thirst, overridden by a fear he could no longer identify.

Stay still, stay still.

Its hand hangs above me.

This is the most perfect depiction of primal, frozen terror I have ever encountered.


Heather said...

I think shatting pants and wetting yourself is pretty typical of the genre. King used the term "making fudge factory in the pants" used to garner much satisfaction from a 14 yr old reader. I enjoyed the Tommyknockers, was completely baffled by IT (the Spider in the cave bit), but love love loved the work he did with Peter Straub, The Talisman. I'm a wimp...just about anything can scare me!

Anonymous said...

Getting away from the written word, the first 20 minutes or so of Silent Hill 2 was one of the most unnerving experiences I've ever had in a video game, which is impressive considering that nothing happened the entire time.

If you would be interested, this site has a series of freeware adventure/horror games called the Chzo Mythos that are really well done and genuinely frightening. In order: 5 Days a Stranger, 7 Days a Skeptic, Trilby's Notes and 6 Days a Sacrifice.

Vivian said...

Oh, speaking of scary computer games, did you ever play Zork Nemesis? Very creepy, and a good reversal of expectations. My favorite of the graphical Zorks.

Speaking of Zorks (I could segue all day), this January's issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction has a story in it that takes its title from a line from the original Zork. I looked at it and thought, where have I seen that line before? Oh yeah...

Thanks for the link, raine.

Heather, it's not the shitting in pants that made me find it scary. It was the sitting in the dark, paralysed with fear, thinking that the killer could be inches away and you just don't know. It brings back childhood terrors.

Raine Lawliet said...

I never really played any of the Zork games or, for that matter, any FMV games, and I wouldn't know where to find them. I might watch a playthrough on YouTube, but I'm sure that it wouldn't have the same effect.

Hope that you enjoy those games.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm late to the discussion, but I just followed a link from Karl's own posting about a review of "Ventus", itself years post facto, and that reviewer mentioned your blog... phew!

And I agree. That sequence really got into my head too. Creeping dread, unlike any of the "Creeping Horror" that Lovecraft conjured. Lovecraft's post-Victorian body-horror always skittered over the surface and was never felt viscerally by the reader.

Vivian said...

It's never too late, because I subscribe to my own comments feed, so I can see when new comments come in even for the older posts. And... squee! Somebody mentioned my blog? I wish you'd put the link in your comment.

The night I read that chapter in Ventus, I lay awake in bed, spooked by it. That's why I remember it as the scariest bit of horror writing I ever read. Thanks for writing, qraal!

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