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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Saturday, October 09, 2004 - 11:38 am:   

I don't want to get into a tired argument over generic labels here. I want, instead, to get a sense of what we think we're reading when we read Horror.

The reason I'd like to avoid generic labels is simple: Horror isn't a genre in the classical sense that, say, Epic is a genre, or the Sonnet is a genre. Horror is part marketing category and part mood or tone. It's one of those latter-day genres, like Children's Literature, which contains such a differing body of work that it can't be nailed into a neat frame. Horror simply is, and we can usually tell when we're reading it, even when the cover and spine have been torn off the book. And we can judge one work of Horror against others without recourse to a strict generic set of formal standards.

But what makes Horror what it is? For you. Personally. Is it that "mode of Winter" that Northrop Frye found in the Gothic, the sense of things growing darker, bleaker, less happy? Is it the presence of the supernatural, the psycho-pathological, the grotesque? What makes you know when you have read a work of Horror? More to the point, what prompts you to argue for the inclusion of formerly-excluded work into the category of Horror?

I'll try to pin down my own feeling about Horror. For me, Horror moves by employing shock, dread, and revulsion. These things can be of two types: physical or moral. A physical shock might be the sudden image of a decomposed body where one was not expected. A moral shock might be the revelation of a hideous deed that takes us by surprise. Dread is when we get the same kinds of things that shock us, but we have the squirmy feeling of seeing them coming beforehand. And revulsion, I think, is a layering-on of these elements to the point that we become non-plussed and feel like turning away (but of course, we can't, and that's the fun of Horror).

I'll give some examples to show what I mean.

The film Return of the Living Dead includes moments of all the elements I noted above. Though often dismissed as a cult B-movie, this film contains a lot more than is usually granted to it by critics. Dread is introduced from the moment we enter the theater, of course. The title alone tells us that the living dead are going to be walking around, most likely eating people. And in fact, they do. And in the process, we are shown physically revolting scenes, in keeping with the genre of the zombie film.

But the moral shock and dread come when, in among the comedy and the vulgar physical shock, we are told that "it hurts to be dead." Unlike the zombies of Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead, the zombies of Return are capable of understanding their own pain, and of seeking to alleviate it at any cost. Hidden behind this horrible idea is a sneaky appeal to ethics: If you knew that someone was in agony, and you knew that your death was the only thing that could alleviate that agony, even for a little while, would you sacrifice yourself? The answer that moves the protagonists is, of course, "Hell No!" But the simple fillip of adding self-conscious pain to the zombie antagonist makes of Return a very different film from Romero's Night.

Night has its own moments of moral shock, culminating in the final scene, which is so sudden and senseless that it feels like a sucker-punch. It also conjures up, in the lynch-mob aesthetics of its abrupt denouement, an irresistible parallel with racial politics, one which invites us to see African-Americans as the social Living Dead. Night also reminds us, in a single shot, that the real horror does not end when day comes; it goes on. It goes on in ways which can't be blamed on zombies, but must be laid at the feet of human beings capable of morally revolting deeds.

A third example is Nathan Ballingrud's gut-wrenching "You Go Where It Takes You"
http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/originals/originals_archive/ballingrud/ballingru d1.html

In Ballingrud's brief story, we are served not only the standard fare, the physical shock of the bloody and grotesque, the shock of the unreal-made-real which is the province of speculative fiction in general. We are also served a deeper shock, a moral shock, in Toni's final decision. And it is not a shock we can easily reconcile or pigeonhole, which is what makes us squirm: Toni is not a villain. She is not a monster. She is a human being who has become capable of doing the kind of thing people do every day in America. It is Toni's irreducible humanity which produces the horror in this story, not the bizarre skin-exchange demonstrated by Alex, even with all that scene's hints of something far darker left unsaid: Who is Mr. Gray? What happened to the former owners of the skins? All this, finally, does not matter. It matters, in fact, far less than Toni's abandonment by Donny, or Donny's shocking cruelty to Gwen. The very natural behavior displayed by Toni removes any need for supernatural explanations. In fact, all the skin-exchange scene and its mythology does is to underscore the idea that leaps of fancy, however grotesque, pale in comparison to what is all around us, all the time.

What these examples point to is what I personally look for in Horror. It is not escape. In fact, I think it is a tragic mistake to view Horror as an escapist genre. Good Horror--the best Horror--is the opposite of escape. Long after the physical effects of shock have left us, the moral effects of Horror carry on. They lift themselves from the page and implant themselves in us as reminders that this nightmare will not end when our eyes scan past the final period of the text. This is a human nightmare, and whatever strange devices or bizarre figures are left on the page of the story, something has burrowed into us, has come home with us. Better still, Horror calls to the surface something which has always been in us, always awaiting recognition. And that recognition, I argue, makes Horror one of the most morally important genres in literature.
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StephenB
Posted on Saturday, October 09, 2004 - 02:05 pm:   

In the anthology The Dark Descent edited by David G. Hartwell, he describes horror as having three streams.

1. Moral Allegory (mostly what you are describing)

2. Psychological Metaphor

3. Fantastic (which on the opposite end of moral allegory is usually completely ambiguous)

Now of course, much of the best horror can be a combination of the three streams described above.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Saturday, October 09, 2004 - 02:17 pm:   

Stephen, I agree that the best Horror, as you say, can combine Hartwell's conventions. Do you find yourself privileging one "stream" over another in your choices? As you've hinted, I tend to favor that Horror which calls attention to the difference between Who We Are and Who We Would Like To Be--call it moral allegory, I guess, though I think of it more in social terms, a kind of "fantastic naturalism" (if that's not too much of an oxymoron).
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StephenB
Posted on Saturday, October 09, 2004 - 02:36 pm:   

I guess it depends on your world view Neal. You could take the Christian idea that we are born with evil. Or you could take the more natural view that we are born basically good, and that the society basically corrupts us and creates evil. Of course that is over simplified, and there are many different views somewhere in between.

I tend to favor the second 2 streams, but I also love the first. The belief and exploration of supernatural evil can be fun. I personally like examining perceptions (because that is really what it comes down to when viewing the world), and playing with the nature of reality, and so I find the third stream stories appealing. Of course, like I said, being open to all three is ideal for me. Hartwell mentions that amongst horror fans the first stream is the most popular, while the third stream the least (could it be the influence of societies encouragement of binary thinking?). Of course when examining humanities darker side it really comes down to psychology anyway, it's all going on within our psyche. Who doesn't love a good monster tale?
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Saturday, October 09, 2004 - 03:06 pm:   

I would say that horror is that writing that sets out to take advantage of those two wacky elements of our psychology:

the uncanny

and

the return of the repressed


Dark fantasy doesn't necessarily appeal to the latter. Horror doesn't necessarily involve the fantastic (though when it doesn't, it often involves the absurd).
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Saturday, October 09, 2004 - 03:33 pm:   

Nick, interesting thoughts. I agree with you (and thanks for bringing Freud into the discussion, BTW; the poor bastard needs the work these days). The Uncanny would certainly account for part of the appeal of more realistic Horror; the notion of the familiar coupled with the threatening in our mental lives is indispensible to an understanding of what shocks us. And I'm not sure we could have any mechanism for Horror's brand of dark revelations if we didn't have the Return of the Repressed. Psychological Horror (as well as much of the best Detective fiction) would be rudderless without Freud.

I'm interested in your distinction between "the fantastic" and "the absurd." I hadn't thought of that division, but I think you're right. Would you say the absurd encompasses the grotesque (or vice versa), or are they two distinct effects?
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Saturday, October 09, 2004 - 04:02 pm:   

The absurd and the grotesque certainly overlap, though it is possible to appeal to the grotesque without it -- In Silent Graves manages simultaneous appeals to the grotesque and sentimental, for example.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Saturday, October 09, 2004 - 04:21 pm:   

Okay. This is the first time I've entertained thoughts of the overlap between the absurd and the grotesque. I have been accustomed to associate the absurd with the uncomfortably comic, while the grotesque, for me, was always associated with the kind of physical and psychological irrationality of (e.g.) Flannery O'Conner or Ambrose Bierce. Now that I come to think of it, though, there was always that in the absurd which verged on panic, on the feeling of being overwhelmed by circumstances which fail to fall into reasonable order. Alfred Jarry's Pere Ubu comes to mind: funny, but only in as much as it remains exteriorized; once it becomes lived experience, not so funny at all.
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des
Posted on Sunday, October 10, 2004 - 02:14 am:   

Conveniently, I've just re-published my 'Tentacles' article about the Horror Art from the mid-Nineties magazine Deathrealm here:

http://guestbooks.pathfinder.gr/read/Weirdmonger

Rather naive, in hindsight.

My latest view is that all creative literature is part of the Horror Art, so there is no point in defining Horror in isolation. All fiction defaults to the 'Ominous Imagination' (even Jane Austen as an extreme example!) because all expressed imagination inevitably carries the human angst virus.
imho.
des (ever naive)
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Sunday, October 10, 2004 - 10:44 am:   

Des--The human angst virus, eh? Is there an innoculatoin for that, or should I just wear rubber gloves and protective goggles when I read Jane Austen?

I'd have to know a lot more than I do about this "Ominous Imagination" and its viral etiology to comment on your post, Des. Care to expand a bit?

For example, if we can say that all expressions of imagination are part of the Horror Art (which I assume is in some way distinct from mere Horror as an effect), can we also say that all expressions of imagination are part of the Comedy Art? I mean, the gulf between apperception and expression creates absurd disjunctions, from the most obvious of misunderstandings and malapropisms, to the subtle differences between a thing and its representation. No representation maps perfectly over the thing being represented, and yet we seem to come out all right in the end. Hence Comedy, when misadventures work out all right in the end. Everything is Comedy, even Tragedy.

Is this not the kind of operation you're thinking of?
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al duncan
Posted on Sunday, October 10, 2004 - 01:02 pm:   

//In fact, I think it is a tragic mistake to view Horror as an escapist genre. Good Horror--the best Horror--is the opposite of escape. Long after the physical effects of shock have left us, the moral effects of Horror carry on. They lift themselves from the page and implant themselves in us as reminders that this nightmare will not end when our eyes scan past the final period of the text.//

I do like your description of Horror as being driven by shock, dread and revulsion. If I recall correctly, surprise, fear and disgust are three of the six universally recognised facial expressions, so it's tempting to see these as sort of 'core' emotions, more basic and with more import. I'd argue then that Horror is an attempt to capitalise on these, combining them for maximum effect, creating an emotional triple-whammy on the reader. And in exploiting these base emotions I do think Horror writers find there are certain buttons which are just crying out to be pushed. There's fear of the Other (the outsider and the uncanny), fear of the Dark Side (Freudian neuroses made flesh, Jungian Shadow let loose in the world), and more specific images and archetypes such as the Dead Child (Night Of The Living Dead, The Shining, Don't Look Now), simple images that just plain make our skin crawl like they're wired deep inside us. Yes. Horror plays with What We Fear, and quite often that seems to be What We Fear We Are. It faces up to our demons. I think the problem with some Horror, for me, is not so much that it's escapist then - an overused term that should be dumped in a big wastebasket labelled 'trite' - but that it's very often (though not always) 'excusist', to coin a phrase, seeking to validate those fears, to reinfore the boundaries by presenting what's on that dreaded Other Side as capital 'E' Evil - not just 'evil', but 'Evil', maybe even 'EVIL!'.

It's hardly new to draw links between Slasher movies and urban legends, so I won't trawl through all the hooks and teenagers in cars and yah de yah, but I do think you've hit on one of the key features of Horror as a sort of 'moral reminder' and that those two types of fiction exemplify it. Teenagers Who Have Sex Must Die, they tell us. Just Say No, Kids. In a wider context, vampires, satanists and all sorts of monsters used in Horror require us to accept, for as long as we suspend our disbelief, the mediaeval framework of morality they have meaning in. Sin stalks the world in human shape. It's coming for you. Evil is real and every one of us is a potential victim. This is where I start to get uncomfortable because what we end up with is neuroses being articulated in symbolic form and being used to reinforce an often reactionary worldview. I tend to make a distinction between morals (socially constructed rules which proscribe or prescribe behaviour) and ethics (individually constructed standards which describe behaviour as exemplary or as execrable), and I don't have a high regard for the former, to be honest. Imposed boundaries are fine for kiddies but any adult worth his salt shouldn't need bloody step-by-step directions to navigate life without going too far astray. I find a lot of Horror puerile in that sense, exploiting some of the most fucked-up fears we have - cripples and crones, for instance, strangers and sex - and using them to implant a moral message, as you say... but one that, to my mind, could actually do with a good kicking.

A total counterexample, I'd have to say, to do Horror justice, is that end-scene in Night Of The Living Dead. 'Sucker-punch' is right, and it's beautifully done. By my perhaps somewhat personal sense of aesthetics/ethics, I think of it as a boot in the face to your standard zombie flick. It takes the fear of the Other that the whole movie is driven by and, after the subtle critiquing of that fear all the way through, suddenly just turns it on the viewer and tells us the reality of evil, rather than just 'Evil is real'. So I classify that as an ethical message, as opposed to moral. The hick sheriff and his men are emblematic of the very fear Romero is playing on and of the moral we too often take from it. The Other is a threat. The Other must be destroyed. Dogs bark at what they do not know, a wise man once said.

So I guess for me the three streams Hartwell outlines can be seen as different aspects of the same process: psychological metaphor and fantastic imagery (the grotesque, the absurd, the Other) are tools, means toward the end, which is the moral allegory that Horror often seeks to implant in us, yes, "as reminders that this nightmare will not end when our eyes scan past the final period of the text". I'm altogether rather dubious of that aim, of the uncritical reinforcement of dodgy morals. Ultimately though, I suspect that the distinction I make between the moral and the ethical is not one that everyone would agree with, and - as the example above demonstrates - even accepting my suspicious view of morality in Horror isn't to say that this is what all Horror is. I think good Horror, for me, is that which has an even more surreptitious ethical meaning hidden inside the moral subtext. It plays on our easy, ignorant fears - with shock, dread and revulsion - and then hits us with the killer blow, challenging the very morality that those fears represent. What's truly horrifying at the end of Night Of The Living Dead is the callousness of the righteous ignorant, the brutality of humanity not as zombies but as zombie-killers. Fucking spot on, Mr Romero, I say. Show us what Horror can be if it has the balls.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Monday, October 11, 2004 - 09:51 am:   

Al, first let me say, Great Post. Thanks for the content and the food for thought. I'm anxious to see what others say about your ideas.

One thing I think I should correct, however, is your interpretation of my use of "morals." For me, morality and ethics slide back and forth. As an atheist and a materialist, my morals and ethics stem from the same place and work in tandem. If it makes you more comfortable to substitute the word "ethics" for "morals" in my original post, by all means, do so. I am not championing the kind of morality play you cite in Slasher films. Not at all.

And come to the matter of the Slasher film (and print Horror which is derivative of the Slasher film), I think you're quite right to point out an ethically bankrupt message wrapped in the candy coating of moral dogmatism. I'd go further, though. I'd say that Slasher films invert the old morality play in a number of ways.

What do I mean? Well, in a morality play, we all know what's going to happen in the end. We root for the good guy, and he wins. Bad people--or people corrupted by bad people--get theirs in the end, and everything is set to rights finally. The Slasher film follows this form, but it twists it. We all know that Jason will be back, that he will not be stopped. He becomes the hero. And in becoming the hero, he becomes our point of focalisation, our locus of projection. He collapses Id and Superego. He is simultaneously the twisted little shit living in the cellar of our minds (because he does the bad things we do not permit ourselves to do) and the brutal overseer who keeps the little shit locked away (because he punishes "bad" kids). We get to eat our cake and have it. The Slasher hero is the Return of the Repressed, just as he is the Denial which prevents full recognition of the drives being repressed. He is revenge for our fears and revenge for our self-denials all wrapped up in a hockey mask. He is killed in the end because he must be, but his death is false. It is a trick. We know he will return, just as we know the perverse drives he enacts will return.

Slashers would become more ethically valuable, I think, if all pretense to the structure of the morality play were dropped. But instead, Slashers have become mired in their own sense of self-parody. Latter-day Slashers are already satires of the Slasher genre. But they are not ironic. Pointing at scenes of escalating gore, absurd situations, and aestheticized violation, and winking at the audience all the while, does not make the Slasher ironic. It makes it self-aware. The wink and nudge only serves the same purpose the Slasher hero served from the beginning: we can project our vengeful desires away from us, watch them play out on the screen, and go home feeling clean. The Slasher film not only doesn't invite us to examine our own behaviors and desires; it doesn't permit us to do so.
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Nathan Ballingrud
Posted on Monday, October 11, 2004 - 09:25 pm:   

//I'm altogether rather dubious of ... the uncritical reinforcement of dodgy morals.//

Hear hear. If horror fiction is to continue to have any real impact, I believe it must force us to re-examine our moral structure; it must not reinforce fairy tale dogma (listen to your parents; don't go into the woods; bad children are punished). In my story "You Go Where It Takes You" (which Neal was kind enough to reference at the beginning of this thread), I tried to do this by encouraging the reader to sympathize with a character whose ethical structure is revealed to be grotesquely narcissistic in the story's end; if the story works as I hope, the reader, though appalled at her action, can at least understand it, and therefore is also implicated.

Going back to Romero, though, I think his subsequent Dead movies underscore the effectiveness of NIGHT, if only in contrast: neither of them had the courage to follow their storylines through to their logical conclusions. The protagonists in both DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD (the latter of which is, I believe, the best of the lot if you disregard the last few minutes) survive. They are released of their responsibility for their society's failures, and, by implication, so is the audience. The Grand Guignol scene at the end of DAY OF THE DEAD is, to me, the apotheosis of good horror story endings, and should have been the final reel of the film.

Good horror fiction in any medium MUST have the courage to render a guilty verdict on its audience, and in order to do this it must not let the protagonist wriggle off the hook. This doesn't necessarily mean that the protagonist must be killed off, but happy endings must be regarded suspiciously, and treated like dangerous animals. Cattle prods may be necessary.
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des
Posted on Monday, October 11, 2004 - 10:45 pm:   

I don't think there are any such things as happy endings - as the human mind naturally extrapolates (subconsciously, consciously or collective-unconsciously) the scenario of the fiction to its default of entropy and death, whatever the devious 'lightness' that preceded it.
des
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al duncan
Posted on Tuesday, October 12, 2004 - 04:57 am:   

//If it makes you more comfortable to substitute the word "ethics" for "morals" in my original post, by all means, do so//

Yes, I suspected that was the sense in which you meant it. I just wanted to make the distinction, really, because I consider it an important factor in "what Horror is" - to extend your description rather than take issue with it. I guess that for me it's as much a personal quirk as anything else, my thrawn insistence on drawing a big line between moral imperatives and ethical interrogatives. Thing is, I think the effect I like best in Horror is exactly that implication of the reader/viewer that Nathan is talking about above and it sounds like this is maybe (part of) what you're talking about as a "moral shock"; I just prefer to think of it as an open verdict on the audience. Rather than indicting the reader/viewer and leaving them with the certainty of guilt and shame - the comfort blankie of the neurotic fool - they're challenged to critique their own response, left with uncertainty. It's another aspect of the shock/dread/revulsion impact of Horror, arguably, this more subtle feeling of disquiet, and the Horror I like feels like it's delving deeper, to be truly disquieting, disturbing... while the stuff that makes me reach for Nathan's cattle prod is anything but. Happy ending or twisty ha-it's-NEVER-over ending, if that challenge isn't there what we come away with is, well, pretty shallow. The reactionary dogma of old school Slasher fiction, the adolescent power fantasy of goth chick-lit, the faux cynicism of the Scream derivatives you talk about. Blech.

Anyhoo, yes, I think you're bang on about Slashers, though I tend to think of them from a Jungian perspective as representatives of the Shadow (see below). That "twisted little shit living in the cellar of our minds", being everything we're not, gets to live out our sociopathic fantasies, our narcissistic rage, while the cipher of the Virgin Intact at the end gives the audience a get-out clause, the opportunity to walk away pretending that it was them we were identifying with all along... honest, guv. We're purged of the Joker and the Jock and the Slut in us, and the Killer that did the clean-up job is back where he belongs.

What I do find interesting, though, and the reason I tend to see the Slasher as Jungian Shadow rather than Freudian Neurosis is that I think there's a potential in the archetype to go beyond this "brutal overseer". As an example: while it doesn't really follow the Slasher formula, I think The Hitcher is working in the same territory but doing so in a much more interesting way. Rutger Hauer plays a similar role (demonic pursuer) to Jason, Freddie, et al., and the movie uses a similar structure - the innocent stumbling in desperate terror from one gruesome discovery to the next - but the underlying psychology is one of assimilation (face the Shadow, accept it, become it in order to overcome it) rather than the same old same old repression (run away and scream, praying to God and Mommy for the magic shotgun/spell/McGuffin with which to banish the bogeyman). And if there's a "virgin" in this movie, it's either the male hero or his love interest, neither of whom are really "intact" at the end, metaphorically or, in the latter case, literally. Either way, it's a whole nother can of worms being opened up here, and one that's left open because the audience is given a hero who, in the end, like them, has been secretly seduced by the charm and power of the Shadow. Maybe I'm giving the movie too much credit and it is just another self-validating power fantasy, but I've always felt there's a twisted bleakness to it which comes from a healthy reconciliation with the Dark Side rather than a neurotic denial of it.

To try and nail it down, I think it's not so much about the "happy endings" Des denies but about "cosy endings" - neat, pat, self-serving endings. I think those do exist and contrary to Des I suspect it's safer, more populist and more common for writers to deny "entropy and death", to show the darkness defeated, or even to acknowledge it but render it safe, all-powerful but exiled to the margins. I'm just glad to say that there are plenty of counter-examples showing that it doesn't have to be that way.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Tuesday, October 12, 2004 - 11:17 am:   

Reading Nathan's and Al's posts, I was reminded of three things: "Ravenous," "Alive," and the Donner Party.

All three involve elements of horror, but the one which comes closest to generic Horror (the film "Ravenous") is the weakest of the three. So long as the film stayed with the psychological struggle between Boyd and Colquhoun, it had ethical power of the kind we're talking about. When the Wendigo myth was introduced, that power was lost. It was lost because Colquhoun went from being a walking, talking Will to Power, to being a vessel for yet another supernatural no-goodnik. His willingness to do unspeakable things to obtain power was deflected from the human to the supernatural. So human flesh is eaten--big deal; the devil made 'em do it (or in this case, the devil's Native American stunt-double). Still an excellent film in other ways, but it lacks the courage Nathan mentions in his post.

"Alive" was better, partly because it was based on a real story and stayed close to real events. Despite a whiff of action-film melodrama (do real soccer players trapped in the Andes hear stirring or ominous theme music?), the situation was compelling. The Uruguayan soccer players were forced to consume the flesh of their dead companions and close friends in order to survive long enough to be rescued. Their price for a passage back to the sane morality of the real world was to spend a nightmare in a place which demanded they violate one of the most ubiquitous moral taboos in history. But they finally do get rescued, and they finally do get back to the safe world of normal morality. And anyway, their friends were already dead.

The tale of the Donner Party parallels that of "Alive," but it is darker. The Donner party, like the soccer players, was trapped in the mountains, food supply depleted, and had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. But unlike the Uruguayans, the Donner party didn't have enough already-dead meat to last the winter. So cannibalism becomes an adjunct to murder. And finally, things have gone as far as they can go when things have gotten as bad as they can get.

Notice that the last two examples are based on real events. Why is it, do you think, that so many writers insist upon ending their tales in ways the real world doesn't even seem to sanction? From the above examples, it would seem we could achieve more realistic Horror if we discarded the happy ending altogether.
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JV
Posted on Tuesday, October 12, 2004 - 11:23 am:   

I thought that "Ravenous" was much better than "Alive". It devolved a bit toward the end, but it took the horror story out of its normal contemporary setting, had good performances, etc., etc. It took you somewhere different.

"Alive" was just about some dudes deciding whether to eat the already dead for two hours. On a mountain top. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

JeffV
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Tuesday, October 12, 2004 - 11:23 am:   

Des: "I don't think there are any such things as happy endings - as the human mind naturally extrapolates (subconsciously, consciously or collective-unconsciously) the scenario of the fiction to its default of entropy and death, whatever the devious 'lightness' that preceded it."

Maybe this is why, when I get the Brady Bunch theme stuck in my head, it always seems to have such strange lyrics...

"Here's the story
Of a lovely lady
Who succumbed to ovarian cancer at age 63, leaving behind her three daughters who were variously struck by a pick-up, savaged by a mountain lion, and left alone to starve in a poorly-run elderly-care home
The youngest one in curls."
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Tuesday, October 12, 2004 - 11:25 am:   

Jeff, I'm not saying I didn't like "Ravenous." I'm saying it fails Nathan's test of "courage." I actually enjoyed the film, mostly on the strength of Robert Carlyle's performance.
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John M Bennett
Posted on Wednesday, October 13, 2004 - 02:30 am:   

Neal: But what makes Horror what it is?

After reading this entire thread more than once, I'm not sure I have the intellectual wherewithal to constructively contribute. Then again, a simplistic viewpoint might offer some entertaining contrast.

What makes horror? To me, the defining characteristic of horror is the intrusion of what is unknown and incomprehensible into the familiar world. Even though we might fear the masked gunman, he's familiar. We generally understand his motives and methods, and so he is not a figure of horror. In fact, the masked gunman is defeatable, if we are quick and clever enough.

But take the sound of a baby crying in a house where no baby lives. You know that there can't possibly be a baby crying in your house; you checked every room. Yet it cries. There is nothing familiar about that, no easy explanation, no solution. That's horror, because you no longer understand the rules. The gunman scares us, but the crying baby horrifies. The best horror (what a strange concept, huh?) takes us to the verge of understanding the unknown thing. It lets us peek through the door, but it doesn't turn on the light.

And why do we enjoy horror? I think the answer is real simple; we survived, and there's an exhilaration in surviving. I got out of Innsmouth alive, and I'm glad that I did. It's the same impulse that makes people ride roller coasters or jump out of airplanes. At least I think it is, although it would be interesting to see if roller coaster riders tend to like horror stories.

btw, this is a very interesting thread, even it some of it is above my head. I recently moved here from the Yahoo message boards, which are often the electronic equivalent of writings on an outhouse wall. Nice to read some messages that make me strain my brain a bit.

JMB
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Wednesday, October 13, 2004 - 04:43 am:   

John: "To me, the defining characteristic of horror is the intrusion of what is unknown and incomprehensible into the familiar world."

I agree. This is what Freud described in Das Unheimlich, what we call the Uncanny. It's a concept he built from the Horror tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann. Your crying baby is a perfect example. Here's another: You're in a little two-level studio, and you hear your wife walking around upstairs, taking her morning shower. No big deal. Until your wife walks in the front door, having just stepped out for milk and a newspaper before you woke up. Then it's Uncanny. The familiar, the comfortable, the heimlich (homely or homelike) is jarred off its axis, given a half-twist to the darker side of right. Who was that upstairs, going through your wife's dresser, showering, getting dressed? Who was that, come to think of it, beside you in the bed? Yes, this is horror. It's what most people mean when they say "the creeps."

To mangle a line from Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, "We live every day with the truth a permanent blur in the corner of our eye, so that when something happens to jog it into focus, it's like being ambushed by a grotesque." In a strange way, Horror is that "truth": it's the shocking and perverse in the buried heart of daily routine.

John: "And why do we enjoy horror? I think the answer is real simple; we survived, and there's an exhilaration in surviving."

There's certainly something to this. Many people would agree with you, including Stephen King. It's that crazy laughter that follows a scare, the tingly feeling of having dodged the worst of it. I like that, too.

But I also like Horror to linger, to hang out for a while. I think good Horror can do that. And I think the best Horror, like the best of any literature, makes us ask uncomfortable questions. And it doesn't always give us the answers to those questions.

I'm glad you're enjoying the thread, John, and thanks for your contribution. Keep 'em comin'.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Wednesday, October 13, 2004 - 07:48 am:   

A little note on the Uncanny... Several years ago, I stayed with my brother and his (then) four-year-old son. I had been given, as a gag gift, a pair of house slippers in the shape of enormous bare feet. I liked the slippers, and I wore them every morning. One day, my nephew was coming into the kitchen while I was getting coffee. He saw me, and his face lit up. He was very fond of Uncle. Then he saw the grotesquely misshapen feet upon which I stood, and he began to wail "No, no, no." He stood paralyzed in the doorway, apparently unable either to understand the feet or to take his eyes off them, and even after I had taken the slippers off, he was wary of me for the rest of the morning.

It isn't just the details that make the Uncanny what it is for us. The details change the totality. Those joke slippers made me not-Uncle. They altered the entire morning for my nephew. And sympathetically, they kind of gave me the creeps after that day. I couldn't wear them without thinking what my nephew must have experienced when he saw them.
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des
Posted on Wednesday, October 13, 2004 - 07:58 am:   

Horror is an Artist's camera obscura* designed to allow revelling in vulnerability.

*complete perhaps with a 'music mix' of tripswitches labelled 'reality', 'surreality', 'absurdity', 'weird' and some that still need labelling...
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2004 - 07:51 am:   

Des, how does this work? And how does the idea of camera obscura not also apply to other thematic genres such as the love story? If revelling in vulnerability is Horror's stock in trade (and I think it's certainly part of it), how is the operation different from that of the love story, where we also revel in vulnerability? I'm not saying you're wrong, just that you're not saying enough for me to grab hold of.
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des
Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2004 - 08:25 am:   

That comes back, Neal, to my original point on this thread that all fiction is intrinsically 'Horror'. And 'camera obscura' also covers this point, with 'obscura' having generic Horror connotations and 'camera' a direct filter - but with the trip-switches I described above. Much good fiction contains conceptual or visionary trip-switches ... like Robert Aickman's 'priest carrying his own skin'.

My definition re the camera obscura was an *attempt* to answer the direct question of the thread's title in as few words as possible. I'm even more pleased with it today, than I was yesterday! :-)
des
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2004 - 09:58 am:   

Des, I don't buy your universal claim that all fiction is Horror, but I do think we can turn it around and say Horror can draw from anything, including any other kind of fiction. Nick earlier mentioned a work called In Silent Graves which combines the grotesque and the sentimental, for example. Toni Morrison's Beloved combines Gothic Horror with the Slave's Narrative. The possibilities seem endless.

For me, though, any useful definition of Horror presumes that the effect of inspiring some variety of horror is the goal of the fiction, without which the piece would seem pointless. Does that make sense? Without getting into a hair-splitting genre analysis, I would just say this by way of example: although Dickens's Bleak House has moments of horror in it, I don't consider it (read: wouldn't market it as) Horror because those moments of horror are not essential to what the book, taken as a whole, is doing. There is a scene in the novel where two characters are speaking in front of an open window, and soot from a nearby chimney is falling on their clothes. Greasy, black soot. Soot that smears and smells. Moments later, they discover an old man with whom they were to meet has fallen face-first into his fireplace. The soot was from his burning body. That's a scene of horror, by my definition, but it doesn't turn Bleak House into a Horror novel...again, by my definition. Your actual mileage, of course, may vary.

Still, Des, I'm intrigued by the phrase you used--"revelling in vulnerability." Combined with the camera obscura image, it suggests a kind of voyeurism, as though we're peeping at someone not at his or her best moment. It also communicates a sense of Schadenfreunde as we watch the Bad Thing visited on someone else. Maybe this is why most Horror permits its reader to escape incorporation into the ethical structure of the fiction? I like this idea as a way of accounting for what Horror does, as well as for what it often fails to do (if it makes the attempt at all).
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John M Bennett
Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2004 - 11:43 pm:   

Neal: This is what Freud described in Das Unheimlich, what we call the Uncanny.

I should have known there was a name for it. Unfortunately, the only research I've done into the psychology of literature is the purchase of a copy of a book by Jung, a book I still haven't read yet. (This is a familiar flaw; I've spent three years trying to read "How to Learn Java in 21 Days.")

Neal: But I also like Horror to linger, to hang out for a while.

It certainly does that for me, which is probably why I don't read Horror these days. Some of the creepy incidents and stories I've experienced have stayed with me for years, but I think the only question they raise in my mind is: what if it was real? Of course that question can lead easily to others, which I'd rather not think about right now. Could someone point me toward a space opera thread?

des? Getting back to your earlier contention that there are no happy endings, I don't think that's true. Maybe some people extrapolate "the scenario of the fiction to its default of entropy and death," but I don't think that's a common reaction. Most of us get to a happy ending and call it a day. At least I do. And even if a story explicitly ends at death, it's not necessarily a horrific thing, is it?

JMB
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Friday, October 15, 2004 - 06:43 am:   

John, I'm guessing Al Duncan will have to address any questions or comments you have about the Jungian end of things. I stopped reading Jung years ago when I became convinced (by Freud, no less) that Jung was using social psychology to investigate individual mental lives, rather than the other way around. I preferred a more inductive approach, and I just wasn't getting it from Jung. Perhaps this is unfair to Jung, but it stopped me from reading further. I will say that the concepts of Jungian archetypes and the collective unconscious have great potential for the production of fiction, and especially fiction of the more fantastical sort (involving collective minds, species memory, and manifestations of Shadow), but it just wasn't my bag.

Combining your response to my comment about lingering horror, and your critique of Des's "no-happy-endings" scenario, I think you make a case for escapist fiction. I mean truly escapist, not just literature the big-L types don't know what to do with. Some literature really does provide us with escape, and I think there are positive social uses for such literature. I'm not alone in this: literary critics and historians, and especially those working on nineteenth-century shilling shockers, story-papers, romans-fueilletons, dime novels, and sentimental romances seem to agree these days that some literature with "no redeeming social value" has social value precisely because it does not.

Sound paradoxical? It isn't really. Theories range from the standard "we-need-downtime" idea that few of us would dispute, to more radical ideas that reading "trash" literature is productive of a sense of self-possession in the face of increasing demands on one's time and attention, and as a form of defiance against a master-culture that seeks to dictate both external and internal use of resources. Reading Doc Smith when we "know" we should be reading Joyce, or reading comic books when newspapers are available, is like a declaration of independence. It isn't meant to improve our minds, but it does, precisely to the extent that it lets us feel we are still in charge of our own tastes, and that we do not have to measure up to some external culture-cop's standards. We can take our fun where we will, and the professors be damned! All hail trashy books! (And we all know these books are not as "trashy" or "useless" as we have been told.)

Now, having said that, I think there's something to be teased out of Des's mini-thought. While I don't think I'm taking this in the direction Des would have taken it (and he will have to speak for himself here), someone else's genuine happy ending is a wonderful playground for a writer who wishes to bring the tools of extrapolation to bear on that ending, or who wants to expose the unhappiness and wrongness buried in a text that seems happy and right in its denouement. This is the relation, for instance of John Gardner's Grendel to Beowulf. By moving our sympathies from the Anglo-Saxon hero to the monster, Gardner forces us to see the tale as one of invasion and deprivation, of the fall (rather than the rise) of a protagonist, and as a twisted Bildungsroman showing a damaged "boy" and his relation with a monstrous mother. Another good example is Robert Coover's Pricksongs and Descants which, like some of the best work of Angela Carter, revises fairy tales and childhood legends to make them darker, more complicated, less comfortable. With a little thought, even Hans Christian Anderson becomes Horror. Because Horror is everywhere, just waiting to be told.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Friday, October 15, 2004 - 07:11 am:   

A thought about parrots and traces...

Re-reading Kate Chopin's The Awakening a few days ago made me stop and think of the place of the verbal "trace" in literature, and especially in literature which achieves horror. The book opens with the words of a parrot: "Allez-vous en! Allez-vous en! Sapristi! That's all right." (Go away! Go away! For God's sake! That's all right.) This is all we are given at first. It is down to us to fit these traces in with later discoveries about the lives and peccadilloes of the characters in Chopin's Creole community. But the trace itself, the words broken off and moved away from context, is a powerful image, and a fitting opening salvo in a book that argues for an understanding of human placelessness.

I don't want this to sound too theoretical. When I say "trace," all I'm saying is that some things serve as distant placeholders for other things, for larger things, for scenes and events we are not permitted to look at. In the case of Chopin's parrot, we get a trace which finally fits into the social parlor-lives of Creole women and the fawning men who visit them. But that's not the whole story. The trace itself has emotional power. Think of stories in which characters have picked up fragments of lost speech or writing. The fragment as fragment has a life outside of whatever recomposed whole it finally falls into. (This, we could argue, was one reason for the popularity of early Gothic fragments, tales with no ending, whose very suspension of conclusion was calculated to chill the audience.)

A television commercial for a video game aired not long ago. In this commercial, we are shown a panorama of destruction, a hellish, blackened earth of bombed-out buildings, rotting corpses, and improvised funeral pyres. The only voice in this wasteland is that of a parrot. He keeps repeating, "Make it stop! Please make it stop!" It's a nice effect. Please make what stop? Who said this? We don't know, but the trace takes us back to an omitted process, a story we are left to guess at (until screen capture footage shows us armed cars blasting away at one another, and the effect is compromised to sell the game).

The trace gives us just enough information to make us want more (and often at the same time to fear what we will get). The broken voice message transmitted from the ghost space vessel warns us to beware of something lurking in the ship, but it doesn't give us enough information to know what that something is. The scrawled note, the torn page, the partly-incoherent mumbling of the bag lady, these can all serve as traces for something else left outside. In a Mystery, we are permitted the satisfaction of reconnecting the trace, of re-embedding it in the larger set of which it is metonymic. But in some kinds of Horror, that satisfaction is denied us; instead, we get the satisfaction (another kind altogether) of being denied that perfect fit, of being locked forever outside an event which must have been horrible. We can only guess at it, and our guess will probably prove more effectively horrible than anything the writer could have put on the page.

A little girl's crayon drawing of herself and her father--He is huge, with gaping mouth, his sketchy stick figure bent over her like an L--She is small and sprawled, with a little orange sock on one foot, the other foot bare. The girl is missing. What happened? And what happens to us when we read this, and when we later find a little orange sock beneath the soiled cot in the basement? What we recompose is not something out of "Low and Order: Special Victims Unit." It is instead the apotheosis of that crayon drawing, with its monstrous father and its crudely drawn girl. "Allez-vous en! Allez-vous en! Sapristi! That's all right."
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des?
Posted on Friday, October 15, 2004 - 07:48 am:   

Neal says: For me, though, any useful definition of Horror presumes that the effect of inspiring some variety of horror is the goal of the fiction...

****
Neal, I agree with your observation as exemplified by 'Bleak House' (in my top ten of favourite novels) - but only vis a vis *marketing*. (I refute any knowable intentional aspect of a 'goal of the fiction', however).

********
John says: des? Getting back to your earlier contention that there are no happy endings, I don't think that's true.
********

I must have been revelling in vulnerability (or 'ravelled in dream') when I made that intentionally(!) provocative ego-centric Jungianism vis a vis my own personal version of the Collective Unconscious.

yours, des?
http://www.nemonymous.com
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des?
Posted on Friday, October 15, 2004 - 07:55 am:   

Neal says: Now, having said that, I think there's something to be teased out of Des's mini-thought.
**********

I never have mini-thoughts!
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Friday, October 15, 2004 - 11:08 am:   

des, re: intentionality. I'm not trying to second-guess a writer. I don't even believe writers can completely second-guess themselves once the product is out and away; what they meant to do and what they achieved are often two different things, or even several different things, once we bring the reader into the mix. Perhaps I should have phrased my statement as "any useful definition of Horror presumes the evocation of horror in the reader as the major effect of the work," but then we're almost back where we started. The problem here is that we are assuming a common reading experience. Problem because what scares or horrifies one person will not necessarily scare or horrify another. That's why I generally resort to marketing categories rather than either (a) try to nail down one generic definition or (b) throw my hands up and say "All literature is one literature."

Re: mini-thoughts... Okay, mini-expressions, then. Petits-fours of parlance. Verbal hors d'eouvres.
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des
Posted on Friday, October 15, 2004 - 11:49 am:   

Sorry, Neal, my thought about mini-thoughts was indeed a mini-thought.

And I take your point about 'intentionality' and I do recall a longish debate we once had on a Nick Mamatas thread about this.


This is a wondeful thread you've started and I hope others will contribute.
des
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Saturday, October 16, 2004 - 12:16 am:   

Des, thanks very much. I hope so, too. And I hope you will continue to contribute, mini-thoughts or not.
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des
Posted on Saturday, October 16, 2004 - 01:12 am:   

For several decades, my greatest love in fiction has been the 'Horror/Dark Fantasy' core that I find in most sorts of literature, old and new, literary and otherwise.

For me, this core should be and is being expanded by the current vogue in fiction genre-crossing and genre-betweening (Interstitiality), i.e. acting like a magnet, and making other fiction traditions conducive to the 'Horror' spirit or, as I would like it to be called, The Ominous Imagination. Indeed, I believe, most good fiction is (and has always been) imbued with and steeped in this type of imaginative spirit, in any event.

This is really what, when articulated, I have been trying to do in ‘Nemonymous’, especially if you ignore its radical aspects of Anonymity etc. for a moment. All issues contain stories each of which are representative of a different fiction genre/tradition as well as stories that, actually within themselves, contain various genres/traditions -- but all, inevitably, with the Ominous Imagination.

However, those who publish genre-specific outlets in the Horror fiction field perhaps allow the hard-fought beach-heads of 'Horror/Dark Fantasy' to crumble and separate out, thus also allowing these particles of fiction already gathered for the 'Horror/Dark Fantasy' core to escape from that core because such genre-narrowing outlets tend to crystallise that core as a core rather than as a magnet.
des
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des
Posted on Saturday, October 16, 2004 - 11:50 pm:   

Thanks to an exchange overnight on the 'Weirdmonger' discussion forum, the word to describe this is 'disturbing' rather than frightening, horrific, gut-wrenching etc. And a good example, I feel, is THE KING IN YELLOW by Robert W Chambers. One feels one is being told or shown forbidden things - and here fiction weighs in with the force of truth, it's so artfully done - especially the way *as a novel* it builds up (accretes) with mostly 'ordinary' fiction 'stories' as well as infiltrations by straight frightening unself-conscious horror (and exemplifies perfectly, I feel, my recent description of 'The Ominous Imagination' above and on my
http://www.nemonymous.com site).
Some novels/stories have more of the so-called 'ordinary' than ostensible 'horror', and vice versa, sometimes to the complete exclusion of each other, but always retaining the ominousness or High Disturb and/or High Weird factors (in disguise?).

Art surely holds everything within itself (whatever its intentions) and it's up to the recipient of that Art to take from it what is best for them, and many would ignore those 'horror' factors, others revel in them, and, perhaps, others absorb them somehow without consciously realising this.

Camera Obscura metaphor and 'revelling in vulnerability' in addition to above.
(Just remove a single white space and you have 'revelling invulnerability'!)
des







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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Sunday, October 17, 2004 - 03:30 am:   

Des, your two previous posts seem to be arguing for cross-genre treatments and publications. And you remind us of a good point when you claim that overly-narrow treatments of genre make genre a "core" rather than a "magnet."

I agree, and we can all think of our own examples of both models. The vampire-erotica anthology, for example, has already become a running joke for Horror1. Same thing with High Fantasy and the Mercedes-Lackey-style "Magic Sisters and Their Amazing Animal Friends" school. These things are (or have been) very popular, and also mostly very mediocre (at best). And when they become generic cores (or subgeneric cores), mediocrity (in)breeds more mediocrity.

So while I wouldn't dismiss the mediocre and popular (I think it serves a purpose, just like bland television sitcoms serve a purpose), I do think we should pay more attention to what genre is capable of doing, and less to what it "is." Perhaps the title of this thread should have been "What Does Horror Do?"

Still and all, in a recent discussion with Nathan, I learned that George Romero had specific messages he wanted to convey with each of the first three "Dead" films. So, working from within the "zombie film" subgenre, Romero was able to manipulate its conventions to serve his own ends. Single-genre treatments can do this, and we see it all the time.

Still, I think the cautionary note of your posts (and especially the next-to-last) is merited. When genre starts to become about itself, rather than a tool for a story which is about something else, then we have problems.

1. We could launch a whole new thread on what the vampire-erotic "means." Liberation of thwarted (homo)erotic desire through death-rebirth, the ultimate "outing"? A means of overcoming the post-AIDS equation of any sexuality with death--death as the ultimate prophylactic? Peter Pan syndrome trapped in perpetual puberty? Whatever. I just know I'm damn tired of it, and I don't think I'm alone.
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des
Posted on Monday, October 18, 2004 - 11:52 am:   

Thanks, Neil. Just noticed the latest story I've re-published of my own here on Nigh Shades:

http://www.nightshadebooks.com/discus/messages/8/2533.html?1098119452#POST55659

is an example of 'revelling in vulnerability' via, I sense, the lens of some camera (the camera being the I-character who is his own self-voyeur - maybe!).

And Stepehn King often does this (much better, of course!) with his several cameras of I-points all cross-sectioning on to the same event.

Vampire-erotic thread, you suggest? Makes me think how far one could or should 'nail down' genres to cater for every taste. Like a book of SF Westerns or of Sports Horror. Market niches for every conceivable fiction plot-type.
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des
Posted on Monday, October 18, 2004 - 11:54 am:   

Sorry, Neal - I meant Neal, not Neil!
des
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Tuesday, October 19, 2004 - 04:57 am:   

Des: "And Stepehn King often does this (much better, of course!) with his several cameras of I-points all cross-sectioning on to the same event."

Samuel Beckett has a screenplay (I don't remember the title, and my Beckett is all packed away right now) in which the point-of-view is central, is in fact the subject. We watch a character moving down a street, and we become aware of a cameraman following him. Beckett directs the angles of view meticulously (some might say too meticulously), and there is one point in the play (which has no plot to speak of) in which the initial person being followed (who is now the first of two, including the cameraman following him) becomes aware that he is being watched. The moment comes as a kind of shock to the reader/viewer, as though we were caught peeping. It's an interesting effect, and one which depends, I think, on the use of the inserted/visible cameraman as primary voyeur to take the responsibility off the ultimate voyeur (us). But it also underscores the mediated nature of narrative. There is, in any story, a voyeur between the reader and the subject, sometimes more than one. What we do with these POV voyeurs can control the mood of the piece. I enjoy a story in which some serious thought has clearly been given to the role of POV character as interpreter of the action.

As to market niches, I think the broader ones can be useful; in an ideal world, I could dispense with categories because I could choose a random text from a random shelf and be assured that it would suit my tastes, but not in this world. My point, however, was to agree with your distinction between "core" and "magnet" (useful terms, I think). When I write, I try to use genre merely as a springboard to productive thought, rather than crafting a story made-to-order for a particular set of generic conventions. I do this for two reasons: first, I think writing slavishly within genre serves only to produce an entropic winding-down of the genre; and second, I read what the major markets in genre fiction print, and I see in their selections no justification for a slavish adherence to generic convention. Now, if I ever get a piece published, I'll be able to speak with more authority. Until then...
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des
Posted on Sunday, October 24, 2004 - 02:14 pm:   

Further thoughts...

Horror fiction, at its best, enters our individual territories and becomes part and parcel of a revolving realm with Death at its core: and, in this realm, all the flotsam and jetsam of life (and the richest life is one generated by the imagination as well as by the day-to-day interaction of our minds and bodies) spin round, some colliding only to ricochet off, others sticking together, some being swallowed whole or bit by bit.... Eventually, the various items are sucked into the core where they are minced up or refined into streams of sense (or apparent sense or, even, nonsense) which are then released from that realm into other revolving realms which create new collisions, fusions and spin-offs. This is using Death as a positive tool, as it surely is. Without Death, we’d be nothing.

Furthermore, horror fiction shares a bed with surrealism and humour as well as with the more usual ingredients of grim acts, monstrous creatures and ghostly visitations. Literature, indeed, uses all kinds of devices, tropes, figures of speech, call them what you will, to make the welding of reality and unreality as seamless as possible. But why make something seamless, when there are no seams in the first place? It only takes a few lateral thoughts or, as I have proposed here, spinning ones. Horror fiction can accomplish this feat with some degree of logic, because the realms actually created by it are indeed real - and perhaps that is because there is nothing more horrific than being real in reality as we know it.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - 07:37 am:   

Des, I had to give your previous post some thought, and I'm still not sure I'm entirely clear where you're going with the "revolving realm," but I do agree there is something which connects surrealism, humor, and horror. Could it be the sense of the incongruous?

Anyway, about revolving realms. Your post recalled to my mind a couple of Poe pieces, including "Descent into the Maelstrom" and "The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym." In the latter story, there is a scene in the subterranean caverns when Pym's death-urge (which has been haunting him since Augustus nearly killed the both of them in a drunken boating accident) overcomes his conscious will. You'll recall the scene I mean, when he contemplates dropping from the ledge into the black abyss, and finally does so, only to be caught by his companion. It's a moment that's important to Horror, I think, for what it says about the Sublime.

What do I mean? Well, according to Burke's model of the Sublime, what we face in the Sublime is something with which our reason cannot grapple. He posits this in terms which are equally applicable to natural enormities (tidal waves, immense canyons, glaciers, etc.) and religious mysteries (looking upon the face of God, for example). But Poe comes at the Sublime from a slightly different angle--as a failure of Reason in the face of some enormity already within us.

I think this is important because there are few things more frightening to human beings than loss of control--over our bodies, over our futures, over our minds. When Poe takes that last step and makes Pym take his last step, he goes further than most Horror writers bother to go. It isn't just the risk of losing control that we find in Pym, but a creeping sense control is already lost, that restraint is merely a veneer, that human will is incapable of holding back buried urges which will out, sooner or later, regardless what we prefer.

There's something in this which prefigures the deterministic philosophy of the naturalist movement, I think, except that Poe is not using it to deliver a social message, but a psychological one, as much good Horror will do.
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des
Posted on Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - 09:47 am:   

I thought it was about time Thinkers progress from having mere lateral thoughts to having spinning ones...

Horror - film techniques of the 'Peeping Tom' camera revolving round the protagonists: or being protagonists with one's eyes watching their audience spin round them.

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Zack
Posted on Thursday, July 21, 2005 - 03:29 pm:   

It is an emotion. Unlike pointy eared elves/martians, i.e. Sci-Fi.
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des
Posted on Monday, December 12, 2005 - 08:30 am:   

Continuing above discussion in 2004:

There should be an academic discipline called Horror Philosophy, dealing with the Horror Arts: Horrorism? (You will notice I eschew the word ‘Terror’ for use in this context!)

Some initial thoughts brainstormed to kick off Horrorism:-

I feel Horror literature (that's *called* Horror) is for being cheered up, because you want to be horrified by the act of reading it and, if it's done well, it does horrify you. Mission accomplished.

This begs the question: books that are not labelled Horror or do not have a Horror cover, do they have the potential to horrify to a greater degree, by giving the reader a false sense of security? They are not so well primed for horror, so the horror becomes more effective?

And should Horror be grim downers or escapist supernatural grotesques?

Are these alternatives (and the generalities for which I intend them as shorthand) mutually exclusive?

If the style of doing utter 'grim' is admirable, can this admiration cause ‘pleasure' as well as ‘depression’ from the grimness expressed, and thus be stylistically counter-productive? A well-honed tale expressing Horror of utter grimness becomes less grim because the way the grimness is described so effectively is felicitous in itself?

And other extrapolative questions from that trend of thought - which I hope you can read into the above - that need to addressed & then answered.

There are many paradoxes and oxymorons like these along the way, I suggest, before nailing down what 'Horror' is or should be.

Is Horror, as one example of a paradox or oxymoron, entertainment?

Entertainment can be by various means. Horror seems to represent the one means to entertain that is most difficult, because it comes with so many mixed emotions.

But surely Horror's purpose is not simply to horrify on an aesthetic level. Its purpose is to *truly* horrify, I suggest, without any *apparent* intervention of Art or Artifice in so doing. Otherwise, why call it Horror?

... but to *truly* horrify, I also suggest, does not necessarily entail using extreme horror. In fact, I find extreme horror counterproductive, quite often, in accomplishing the true horror effect, for various reasons of overdose or dulling the horror centres of the nerves.

So, Horrorism has a conundrum.

Example:

Do we want to be shown (a) our loved one dying in a pool of blood for real or (b) a believable fabrication that gives us a similar jolt of horror as (a)?

I agree we'd want (b), not (a).

It's how to create (b) that is the conundrum. Or to reconcile why anyone would want it as entertainment.

Many would only be able to stomach a perceived fabrication of (b), ie. a fabrication of a fabrication?

Horrorism is, therefore, the study of fabrication levels in Horror Artifice, and how these levels interact with Horror’s purpose ((a)moral? cathartic? aesthetic?) or its purposelessness.

Purposelessness seems to me to be the ideal medium for Horror to work within, but a purposelessness paradoxically having margins and well-tempered effects that do not breach most readers’ own purpose in thus testing their optimal thresholds of disbelief and taste.

Just a few thoughts.



DF Lewis - Horrorist

Read my novel "The Hawler" and its sequel "Klaxon City" on-line:

www.weirdmonger.com
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