Thursday, April 17, 2008

Joy From Horror?

A few weeks ago, I appealed to joy to defend reading fiction, the idea that we all seek our own delight and such delight isn’t illegitimate just because we derive it from a narrative. I recently found myself reconsidering that supposition on flight from Illinois, which I whiled away with a collection of horror stories. Some were filled with grue. Others crackled with menace. Still others made your spine want to detach itself from your body and seek shelter elsewhere. I loved almost all of them. But then I wondered: Is it legitimate to discover joy in works primarily intended to arouse fear?

I think the answer is yes, for at least two reasons.

Despite its grim tropes, there’s as much potential for beauty of form in horror as in any other method of storytelling. Structural symmetry, depth of characterization, lyrical prose -- it’s all there, or at least can be. We admire Poe’s foreshadowing in “The Cask of Amontillado” as his unnamed narrator leads Fortunato deep into the nitre-encrusted crypts. Ray Bradbury’s “The Emissary” tugs at our heartstrings by introducing a bed-bound boy whose only connection to others is his free-roaming dog. Then it gives them a sharp twist when the faithful canine brings home a visitor from beyond the grave. Even the Bible has its horrific moments, one of the more ironic being the tale of
Sisera. Routed in battle, the mighty pagan warrior is dispatched in his sleep by a humble peasant -- who drives a tent peg through his temple and into the ground.

The second rationale is a little more high-minded: Horror can be an effective ethical instructor. At the very least, the genre makes us consider death, something we Westerners try very hard to avoid doing. And when it fires on all cylinders, it can drive home crucial themes. Neil Gaiman’s blistering “Other People” reminds us that we hide our wrongdoings even from ourselves and that knowledge of them can be worse than physical torment. Ever think your troubles would evaporate if you could just realize your dreams? W.W. Jacobs’ classic “The Monkey’s Paw” draws attention to the unintended consequences of our desires. The Addiction, a quirky black-and-white film by Abel Ferrara, openly grapples with philosophies about the nature and origin of evil.

Not that any of this is intended to give a carte blanche to the horror field as a whole. There are plenty of despicable stories that urge you to love the things you ought to hate, to revel in bloodletting so visceral it’s almost pornographic. (Films such as Cabin Fever and the Final Destination series spring to mind.) There’s dross in every genre. But discerning readers on the hunt for literary gems ignore horror to their own detriment. Terror has treasures all its own.

(Picture: CC 2006 by


K.C. said...

Cruising by your blog and loved what you wrote. You really are a good writer yourself. I do believe that you can find your own morality and ethical issues in horror stories. If that is even putting it right. I think that most writers have an underlying theme of good within most of those stories waiting to be displayed. Anyway, that is my two cents. Hoping you had a good flight and continue to have a good day. KC

R2K said...

: )

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks, k.c. Stephen King said in Danse Macabre that horror is the most moral genre, but I would say "can be" is more appropriate. There's a lot of amoral junk out there. (In the film world, The Ring and Hostel come to mind.)