Friday, June 24, 2011

McKinley on Horror and Escapism

On Days in the Life, Robin McKinley (Sunshine) reacts to a Twitter follower dubbing her novel Deerskin horror. Excerpts (and spoilers) follow:
[T]he reason I find the suggestion that DEERSKIN might count as horror distressing is because what is horrible about it is real. ... [T] the horror of DEERSKIN is the rape. The rest of it is straightforward fantasy. There are no zombies or vampires, and the toro is just a great big animal. And rape is real. I hate the idea -- and let me reiterate I'm not saying DEERSKIN's readers do this, only that this is my reaction to the suggestion that DEERSKIN might be classified as horror -- that anyone reading it could, as it were, get out of it by putting it in their minds with the zombies and the vampires. Rape is real.

The line between fairy tales and horror for me -- and for a number of you who have posted or commented or tweeted to this effect -- is that fairy tales tend to be about working through your traumas, your horrors, your fears, your great big insurmountable obstacles. Horror tends to plonk them down and say yup, there they are. Trauma, horror, fear and insurmountable obstacles. Have fun. People die in fairy tales and the happy endings may be a little crinkly around the edges but generally some kind of something worth having is won through to.
Read the whole thing. Where to begin? Well, McKinley's antipathy to the horror label is understandable. Have you ever seen a "horror" aisle amongst the "crime" and "fantasy" and "literature" rows at your local Barnes and Noble? Of course not. Horror's mainstream legacy (think the Friday the 13th and Saw franchises) has so tainted the genre that few see it as anything but splattery escapism. Indeed, horror authors prefer to market their titles as supernatural thrillers or dark fantasies or paranormal romances just so they can have a chance at selling.

But McKinley surely goes too far in claiming that horror tropes don't thoroughly deal with or automatically distance readers from a story's theme. Yes, horror -- like noir and classical tragedy -- almost always has a downbeat tone. No getting around that. Yet the conventions matter less than what an author wants to do with them, and often he wants to deal with the stuff of universal human experience in a deep way. Mull over a few examples, keeping in mind that content warnings may apply: Horror can recall desperate childhood loneliness (Nathaniel Lee's "Terrible Lizard King"); consider the oversized impact of a parent's death (Tim Burke's "I.C.U."); ponder the problem of evil (Dan Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer); acknowledge the existence of universal human depravity (Ray Bradbury's "Touched With Fire"); and perceive how such depravity necessitates spiritual renewal (Abel Ferrara's The Addiction). Sure, plenty of horror pieces don't rise to this level. But any story can provide objectionable escapism if written with the wrong touch -- fantasy and fairy tales included.

(Picture: CC 2006 by (jennY); Hat Tip: Chestertonian Rambler)


AidanF said...

I find her equation of horror with vampires and zombies interesting. I'd never equated those as being makers of a story being horror.

Of course, like you mention, there isn't a horror aisle in the bookstores these days. I am one of those who would volunteer for an apocalypse camp over a viewing of a Jason/Freddy film. I'm probably part of the problem on the whole book-aisle thing. I probably got turned off the genre with books like Aliens (which I classify as horror) because I don't like waking up in the middle of the night scared (I read this at ~13).

More recently, I've read The Passage, Feed, Fevre Dream, and Let the Right One In (*) and of these I'd only classify Let the Right One In as horror (and yet I loved the story... and will read this in Swedish).

AidanF said...

(*) I watched the swedish-film version of this story.

Loren Eaton said...

I find her equation of horror with vampires and zombies interesting.

Great point, Aidan. Horror is as much a tone or feel as it is subject matter or trope. I've seen stories about deathbed vigils, without any supernatural element, that are horror.

By the way, Let the Right One In was an amazing movie. Didn't read the book, but I understand its author wrote the screenplay.