Sunday, January 25, 2009

Alone With The Horrors

I never used to think of myself as a horror fan. In fact when people used to ask me if I read Horror I would say "Only H.P. Lovecraft and the occasional Stephen King book." And for many years that was true. My problem with the genre back then was that I considered it to be a negative genre in that most of the time most or all of the protagonists died. Even in Lovecraft, who interested me more for his cosmic visions than his creepy crawlies, the stories usually ended with the protagonist killed by some gibbering slavering thing. That's just not the way my mind works. Not the sort of thing I write. Like Jim Kirk, I don't believe in a no win scenario.
But over time I found that I could sort of see why horror is written that way and that it works with a completely different set of emotions and symbols that other forms of fiction, and part of the structure requires that everybody or most everybody dies. Because at its deepest darkest heart, horror is about death. In Stephen King's non fiction book Danse Macabre King puts forth the theory that the horror tale is a sort of rehearsal for death. A way of walking up to the grim reaper and shaking hands but still being able to back away. I'm not entirely in agreement, but I think their are definite elements of that in horror fiction. Other genres deal in death. Mystery, suspense, even fantasy. But none of them smack you right in the face with it the way that a well told horror story does. (And truthfully many 'mystery novels' come closer to horror than whodunit. I'm thinking of serial killer books in particular, where it's all about lingering over death and suffering.)
Anyway, looking over my reading for the last couple of years I find a large amount of horror fiction has crept in. There are a couple of reasons for that I think. One was my growing conviction that the best sword & sorcery stories are horror stories at the center. Robert E. Howard, who could write a mean horror tale when he wanted, set his heroes against the same sorts of dark menaces that appeared in his 'straight' horror tales. And yes, in many Conan and particularly Solomon Kane stories everybody or almost everybody dies. Being series characters Kane or Conan or Kull manage to escape at the end but often everyone else meets a gibbering slavering end just as surely as if they were in a Lovecraft tale. There are other connections between the S&S and horror genres. When Karl Edward Wagner wasn't turning out tales of his immortal warrior Kane, he was writing and editing mountains of horror fiction and he once noted that the Kane stories were really horror stories with just enough swordplay and action dropped in. Reading Ramsey Campbell's S&S tales of Ryre led me to reading his horror stories and novels. Reading a single story by F. Paul Wilson in a collection of S&S stories led me to reading Wilson's horror novels. Many connections as you see.
The second reason comes from my study of the Gothic novels of the 1700-1800s. Reading about The Mysteries of Udolpho or The Monk often led me to other Gothic tales and to discovering authors with whom I wasn't familiar and that led to reading more stories of horror. H.P. Lovecraft's Book of Horror, which I reviewed a few posts earlier has a good cross sampling of the authors I discovered or re-discovered.
So now when people ask me if I read horror fiction I say yes. I'm still pretty particular about what I read, but I've definitely become a fan of the genre. Don't look for me to write any pure horror anytime soon though. I still don't believe in a no win scenario.

1 comment:

Dark Worlds Club said...

I've always felt that sword & Sorcery is one part Fantasy and one part horror. A great example is "The Slithering Shadow" by Robert E. Howard. People lying around stoned out of their minds waiting for a slimy critter to come and eat them. That's horror. The fact that Conan kills it in a great fight scene pulls it back from being completely horror, thus S&S. This was HPL's influence over REH.

GW