Have you ever met people who wonder why you read horror stories, and react either with a “But it’s not real,” “There’s already so much pain and suffering in the world, so why on Earth read about it too?” or, in a similar vein, “But it’s so horrible and depressing — why would you want to read about that?”
If you’re a horror or weird tales buff I am sure you have. We all have, and I am always wondering why people react like that.
I could say many things on this issue — and will in future posts — but for now I want to talk about the basic idea of Reality and Horror. Or, as many see it, Reality vs. Horror. It will be a somewhat brief and of a note-like quality, for which I apologize in advance. The subject has turned out to be much broader than I originally envisioned when I started to write this blog post and I have not managed to complete it for this post (I wouldn’t be done ’till Christmas if I tried;-)). So for now it is a general reflection, and one I hope will spur you to write a comment or two, dear reader. Perhaps we can start a discussion?
First of all, let me make one thing clear: All stories of fiction are fiction — even those that are about real life events and people. It’s so elementary it goes without saying, right? One would think so, but many people actually react against horror stories on the naïve belief that their own favored kind of fiction stories are different. Sorry folks. No matter how realistic a story is it remains fiction. It may be classified as the most realistic portrait of something ever created (perhaps even of a real-life person), be the most socially succinct of social realist novels, the most unbelievably realistic crime setting — yet it is and will always be fiction. That goes for a horror story too, of course. So no, it’s not real. But neither is any other kind of fiction. They are not supposed to be.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s take a deeper look at the issue. For saying we’re talking about fiction doesn’t mean it can not deal with something that’s real or something that has anything to do with Reality. And, obviously, many people mean something else when they say horror is not real. (But many don’t.)
We do live in a world with terror and pain — the terror attack this Friday, July 22, 2011, in Oslo, Norway, is an all too close reminder of that. And we know that everywhere around the world terrors are a deadly, daily reality; something we just don’t like or want to delve more into. So the gut reaction against horror stories on such grounds makes sense in that light. To a certain extent.
The crux of a horror story is, obviously, that it aims at horrifying the reader. It’s as simple as that. Many (who do not read horror) believe this to be merely about gore and descriptions with lots of blood, vomit, brutal murders or torture — in other words: believe that it’s all about physicality in some twisted way. Yes, it can be about that, and this is interestingly enough the approach many popular crime story novels nowadays have to easily “grab” the reader’s attention. But it is in no way restricted to that. There is another kind of horror — the more subtle and, ultimately, profound kind of horror. I belong to the camp of people who agree with Lovecraft. He makes a fine case for why “the true weird tale” must inevitably produce a sense of horror in a reader (and so the two terms are here connected), and he says about the true weird tale:
The one test of the really weird simply this — whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the heartbeating of black wings or the scatching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim. (“Supernatural Horror in Literature”, Collected Essays Vol. 2, p. 84. Hippocampus Press, 2004.)
Some people will probably read this quite literally — “heartbeating of black wings,” “scatching of outside shapes…” etc., but that’s only a couple of illustrations of the larger picture, of course; Lovecraft’s point is more abstract (something many “realist readers” have a hard time comprehending, apparently). The point I want to make here, quoting the Father of Modern Horror, is the simple one that, done the right way, the right hints (the “subtle attitude of awed listening”) can cut into the reader and plant a sense of horror that is much more than the merely physical — it is planted in our mind and gives us glimpses of the unknown itself. And we fear nothing more than the unknown — the more unknown something is the more we fear it. As Lovecraft also says, the “oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (ibid., p. 82), perhaps a little over-the-top statement but the essense is quite true.
Fear is one of the basic ingredients of this thing called Life. In other words, fear (and by extension, horror) is a basic part of reality. For while we may not always agree on the details of what is part of reality (and that is a large subject that must wait for another blog post, I can tell you) what is certain in our understanding of reality is that it means for something to exist, to be real in the world. That’s the general, abstract framework. And it is also true that the unknown — dreadful as it ultimately is — is always present in our Life. Both on a daily basis (no matter how frequently we tend to forget this fact) and when we start to contemplate about it. And both the feeling fear and this “unknown” that we inevitably fear are real.
The distinction I mentioned in the beginning of “Reality vs. Horror” is essentially wrong. It is more substantial to talk about “Reality and Horror.” And except, perhaps, from horror tales that are only going for the cheap thrill, the pure entertainment level of things, I hold that horror stories are a mirror — a reflection — not only of ourselves but of the Reality we live in… There can be real, dreadful truths in fiction. For, yes, “Life is a hideous thing,” as Lovecraft wrote in one his story “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermin and His Family.”
That alone is a good reason to read horror stories, I think. It can help you get a better understanding of the world and of Life. Much better than if you shy away from it.
(This is an abridged version of what I’ve written. There’s much more in the wing. But I hope it’s been interesting to read nonetheless. Feel free to comment, either here on in an e-mail.)