99% of people do not know what a horror book is.
If you’re in the 1% that do know, you can stop reading right here. You can go relax with a beer and check out some fine specimen of the genre, like Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. But you may want to stick around anyway . . . just to learn how to handle Uncle Gilbert when he asks you why you read that “gory trash.”
As for everyone else: You don’t know what in the Nine Hells you’re talking about.
Here’s a quick question. What is the one thing that a story needs to make it a horror story?
Blood and guts?
A knife-wielding psychopath?
Torture? Rape? Murder?
Zombies? Vampires? Werewolves?
Not even close. Sorry, chum.
There’s only one thing all horror books have in common: fear. They induce fear in the main characters and/or the reader. That’s it.
Horror books don’t necessarily have brutal murders, excessive amounts of gore, cackling psychotic villains, the shuffling undead, or flesh-eating monsters born of nightmares. They might — but to say that they all do, or even that most of them do, is grossly inaccurate.
Fear is the unifying factor.
So, before we get into why that’s so important, how did so many people get the utterly wrong idea about what a horror book is?
A different medium can take the blame here: movies.
Let’s be honest here, as much as it hurts for a wordslinger (and one accustomed to making stuff up, at that). People consume a fuckton more movies than they do books. And even when they haven’t watched a particular movie, they’ve still been inundated with information about it. Trailers on TV. Sidebar ads on the internet. Movie posters.
It’s all there, whether you want to see it or not. And it’s all visual. And in the case of horror movies, usually pretty fucking gross.
So then, based on the mostly lowest-common-denominator, shock-value, torture-porn output of the horror film industry over the past couple of decades, the average person comes away thinking:
“I know what horror is. And I don’t like it.”
Unlike, say, sci-fi or fantasy, when somebody decides they don’t like the genre of horror, they decide that they really don’t like it. They mean that they’re disgusted by it (not just a particular work, but the genre!), and they often indicate this disgust verbally with a “Eugh” or a pretend vomiting sound.
I was reminded of this special status of the genre last night during a trustee board meeting of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project, a nonprofit organization that puts on events for writers.
I had just finished explaining to the group why creating genre-specific writing critique workshops would be ideal, rather than mixing writers from different genres into the same workshop to critique each other’s work. The reason, I said, was that everyone has their own biases against certain genres.
“Oh, that’s not true,” somebody spoke up. “I read everything. I read all genres.”
“That’s great,” I started to say. “That’s rare . . .”
Then she amended herself: “Oh, you know what? Except for horror. I don’t read horror.”
I guarantee you this person didn’t come to a careful consideration of her feelings about the genre after reviewing the classics, such as The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson or “The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft or House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. No, this flat denial from a person with otherwise ecumenical reading habits can only be a reaction to the horror movie idea of what horror is.
So what’s the big deal? What are 99% of people missing out on, when they refuse to give horror books a chance?
In short, explorations of the human condition. Just like the best of any other genre. The only difference with horror books is that fear is your companion and your guide through those explorations (as opposed to, say, wonder with fantasy, or curiosity with science fiction). And fear can take you places that our other primal emotions cannot go.
To go back to my examples above:
- The Haunting of Hill House is an amazing, intensely uncomfortable character study of a repressed woman searching for a place to belong. Her fear of rejection by other people is even stronger than her fear of the “haunted house.” There is no blood shed in the story, unless I’m forgetting a scene where one of the characters stubs a toe. And almost nobody dies. We don’t see a single monster. (Contrast with the faithless 1999 horror movie adaptation, The Haunting, which features monsters, explosions, face slashing, near-drowning, and a decapitation.)
- “The Call of Cthulhu” is a meditation on dimensions of space and time beyond our capacity to understand, and our powerlessness in the face of a vast and uncaring universe. Sure, there is a (now famous) gigantic tentacle monster. But what that monster existentially represents is far more terrifying than any immediate threat it poses to those unlucky enough to cross its path. This is not the literary equivalent to Godzilla — this is the embodiment of our fear that we are nothing. (And yes, there’s some virulent racism in the mix, a part of Lovecraft’s legacy that horror writers are actively grappling with today: see The Ballad of Black Tom and Lovecraft Country, two novels that both came out last month.)
- House of Leaves is a dizzying metaphorical exploration of a marriage, a satire of academia (reams of fake citations, footnotes within footnotes, whole stories appearing within said footnotes), and a deconstruction of storytelling itself, all at once. Even the layout of the text begins to break down and assume strange new shapes. The reader’s fear is rooted in disorientation: in the story, on the page, in the margins. It becomes impossible to tell what’s real and what’s a fictional construction . . . and then you start imagining the endless hallways that might be lurking in your own life, just beyond the corner of your vision. (Side note: do not read this one as an e-book.)
And I won’t even go into the breadth and depth of the work of Mr. Stephen King — an author that many people will read without acknowledging he is a horror author. During a panel at the recent science fiction convention Boskone, the horror writer John Langan mentioned that the same people who tell him they “don’t read horror” will say just moments later how much they like Stephen King.
Fear is key to understanding who we are. It’s about facing the things we don’t want to face, and learning from what happens as a result.
This chronic avoidance of the horror book genre may be the fault of bad horror movies, but I believe there’s an unwillingness to face fear as well. Maybe I’m way off on this. But I’m guessing that many of the readers who categorically reject horror are the same readers who stick to genres that offer the comfort of a predictable experience. Say, romance with the implicit guarantee of a happy ending. Or mystery with the implicit guarantee of solving the crime by book’s end.
My challenge to these readers is this: check out a story that makes you nervous. You’re not really afraid of this horror stuff, isn’t that right? You were just turning up your nose at excessive blood and violence. Which is perfectly understandable.
So now that you know that horror books aren’t all about buckets of gore and gleeful sadism, why don’t you start by taking a look at one of the subtler, psychologically focused titles in the genre? Say, Hill House. Remember, Owen Wilson doesn’t get his head chopped off in this version.
I mean . . . you’re not scared, are you?
Welcome to the 1%. We’re all facing our fears here. And we’re having a blast doing it.
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