The Horror Of It All

Writers who give us the creeps don't get anywhere near the credit they deserve. What are their critics afraid of?

July 31, 2005|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

As the haze of August descends with its simmering days and oppressive, insect-layered nights, few of us won't be aching for some deflection from the misery of high summer. Something engaging enough to take our minds off the rising mercury. Something, perhaps, to give a little chill. Something like a really good horror story.

Nothing rivets like horror, yet it is the most undervalued and even outright dismissed of literary genres.

Books like Frankenstein, Dracula and most anything by Edgar Allan Poe have been excised from the genre altogether and placed into a separate category -- classics -- as if to preserve them from low-brow taint. When literary stylists like Joyce Carol Oates and Chuck Palahniuk write horror, as she did with Zombie, and he did in his skin-crawling new collection Haunted, they get kudos from horror fans for stepping outside the box, but critics suggest they're really slumming.

The artisans of the genre, however, legends who churn out book after creepy book (Stephen King, Anne Rice, Richard Matheson, Dean Koontz and Peter Straub) or newer stars (Poppy Z. Brite, Tananarive Due, Christopher Golden) and a cadre of superb Asian writers (Koji Suzuki and Koushun Takami) simply don't get the praise they deserve for making our hearts pound and forcing us to sleep with the lights on. Horror still hovers outside the margins of what is accepted as serious literature, yet horror is immensely serious, dealing with the most elemental of human struggles, the fight against Evil.

I predict that today's best horror writers are, like Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and Poe, destined to become literary giants once they have passed to the Other Side -- about which they write so compellingly.

Rice and King are superb writers of lasting import. Suzuki is a modern H.P. Lovecraft with some Sheridan LeFanu tossed in; a century from now The Ring will be a classic like The Thing on the Doorstep or Carmilla. These writers earn their place in literary history with their ability to terrorize readers with the deftest twist of phrase and plot and eerie imagery.

But beyond the simpler enticements of the writing itself is the more elemental aspect of what makes these books classic: Horror is ageless. What scares us isn't altered by trends, politics or social movements. We fear the suicide bomber today as much as we did the man with the club outside our cave millennia ago, because what chills us down to our genetic core is what lurks in the dark outside our door: It could be Poe's black cat or King's tommyknockers or Suzuki's drowned child. It is always something inchoate in our psyches: the thing in the dark springing out at us.

Thus, done right, a horror tale is a classic tale; and once classic, true literature.

Why is Frankenstein compulsively readable to this day? Shelley tapped into a tantalizing fear: loss of soul, and hence of what makes us human. Her commingling of Life and Death as arbitrated by man playing God leaves soul out of the equation -- to harrowing results. Shelley couldn't have envisioned the true horror of Nazi experimentation nor the eerie possibilities of cloning. Yet Frankenstein foreshadows both in stark, chilling detail while also telling its own morality tale.

Sneer as some might about horror's literary merits, we're fascinated by horror as we are by those whose imaginations plumb the darkest corners of the human psyche to tap that tender place that makes us jump at the slightest sound. Horror compels us, lures us away from "good" literature into what some consider true evil -- genre fiction.

Quite simply, horror satisfies our need to explore our deepest fears without actually putting ourselves at risk. Horror lets us look under the bed for monsters, find them, even taunt them, yet survive to see them vanquished. (Or see the monster do monster things to someone other than ourselves with no survivor's guilt.) Horror takes on the questions we're afraid to ask about life and death, checks our vulnerabilities, challenges our notions about what's real and what isn't, suggests our destiny may or may not be predetermined.

Horror regularly pits the innocent and vulnerable -- children and women -- against malevolence in duels to the physical or spiritual death.

Sometimes innocence triumphs as it does in King's The Shining, one of the most terrifying novels ever written. In King's story, all the real and imagined fears of childhood resonate through the life of one small boy as he must take on generations of Evil with only his pint-sized powers to protect him.

But sometimes innocence is vanquished, as it is in much of Poe or King's mesmerizing Salem's Lot or Anne Rice's phenomenal series, The Vampire Chronicles. Who can but fail to be horrified by the lurid, seductive, 5-year-old vampire and all she represents in Rice's Interview With a Vampire, the best existentialist horror tale every penned?

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