Monday, September 12, 2011

The Darker Side of Speculative Fiction

Horror.  We love it, but oftentimes don't really know why.  It's been suggested before that it really isn't a genre of fiction.  In fact, Douglas E. Winters said exactly that in the introduction of the horror anthology Prime Evil, - "Horror is not a genre...horror is an emotion."  He's right, to a point.  Until Stephen King took it to completely new heights, horror wasn't marketed as such for readers.  It was just literature.

But I think now it's become as much a genre as any of them, and that includes a lot of other genres that haven't been around long either.  Genres are changing.  They have a place, and that is to tell us as readers what kind of story to expect when we read it.  They'll only get more diverse, and that's good for literature.

Scraesdon Fort © Bill Booth, Licensed for further use under Creative Commons License

Good horror often has the fear of the unknown.  Much of what scares us is simply something banal which we do not fully understand.  Looking at a deep, dark set of steps leading down into nothingness sets our imagination on fire, especially if it's in the context of horror.  There's no telling if the stairs lead down to things that go bump in the night, or just a bare room full of cobwebs.

Spooky in Broad Daylight © Jonathan Billinger, Licensed for further use under Creative Commons License

A graveyard is not nearly as unnerving in the daylight, when we know the histories of those entered.  It's a place of history, of silence and solitude.  Of loss and reflection.  Sadness is not the same as horror.  Not by a long shot.

Logie Kirk © Marc Curran, Licensed for further use under Creative Commons License

But add a touch of the unknown, and the possibility of danger and things unnatural, and it becomes an unnerving place.  Make those things a probability, or even an eventuality, and it becomes terrifying.  In fact, it becomes so much so, it has been a staple feature in horror film and literature since horror was first written.

Even a touch of fog changes an old graveyard into something straight out of a horror film.  Just imagine walking through there at night, with nightingales and hoot owls calling in the surrounding trees, and maybe a dog or two snuffling around in the brush, just out of sight.  All harmless creatures, but one certainly wouldn't be assuming they were harmless in such a scenario.

Part of that fear of the unknown includes the supernatural.  Our minds make it morph into something dangerous, deadly.  Even if we've never actually seen ghosts, devils, demons, ghouls, zombies or any other supernatural creature, and even if we truly don't believe they exist, they'll scare the bejesus out of us with the right setting and plot.

West Cemetery Chapel © Hugh Mortimer, Licensed for further use under Creative Commons License

Horror affects us based on what we let our minds get away with.  There's nothing in a book or movie, in spite of what we've been told by writers of the genre, that will hurt us.  We can sit down and read the words of a horror novel off the page as easily as those from any other genre.  Nothing inherent in the movie itself will hurt us watching it in the movies or on our television screens, but we sure jump at the parts the director wants us to.

The topic is certainly worthy of discussion, and is actually one that will be addressed in the new horror exhibit at Seattle's Science Fiction Museum beginning October 2011.  They'll take a look at some of the psychological aspects of horror, according to EMP's Senior Curator, Jacob McMurray, and "why we as a culture are drawn to these macabre narratives, and how fear and horror are a vital component to our human identity."  I'll be visiting that exhibit sometime before the end of the year, and will report back my experiences there, so stay tuned for that.

I have a buddy who says he doesn't like horror at all.  "Not a bit!" he proclaims.  "I hate the way it messes with your mind."  Actually that last part is a G-rated paraphrase of what he said, but the point is the same.  Now he's read several of my horror stories and loved them.  Couldn't put them down.  In fact, I got an awesomely nasty voice mail message one day telling me he hadn't been able to put my novel down until he finished it at three o'clock in the morning, when he had to get up and go to work at six.  Nice.

© Jonathan Dalar

One has to ask, why, besides the fact that he was a very good friend, would he finish a book in a genre he doesn't like?  Or more precisely, why couldn't he put the book down and finish it at a more reasonable hour?  My first reaction was that it was a damn good book.  I'd like to think so anyway.  I'd like to think it was all my writing.  I'd love to believe it was written so well, so gripping, that it's almost impossible for the majority of readers to put down.  And I wish I'd kept that message!

But in spite of my devoted interest to fantasy and things that don't really exist, I'm a realist.  I understand the psychological aspects of it, and I think the horror itself was what contributed largely to his sleepless night with the book.  I think it's personal, and the reason he couldn't put it down lies in the genre.

Horror is an emotion, and it drags us in a little closer than some of the other genres do.  It's more invasive.  It gets all familiar and moves into our head.  How many times have you woken in a cold sweat from reading romance or mystery, after all?  I didn't think so.

From the time we're very small, we're on regular speaking terms with horror.  It's the thing that goes bump in the night.  It's waiting for us under the bed, after our mommy tucks us in.  It lurks just around the corner, waiting for us to drop our guard just a little bit.  It's the embodiment of all the bad that could be, and all that might be.  It calls on our deepest emotions and provokes that instant and primal fight or flight instinct that lies within us.

And it's also a rush of adrenaline and endorphins - our body's own morphine-like substances which dull our pain and make us feel good.  These are the same chemicals we produce during exercise, excitement, love and even orgasm.  It's no wonder we're somewhat attracted to horror, even if we profess we don't like it.


  1. Great post and great photos. I LOVE graveyards in winter. Brr...

  2. Thanks Luke. Not my photos, but was fortunate enough that the guys who took them licensed them for further use. The one of Logie Kirk is especially chilling, and that's without any makeup - just a graveyard in winter.

  3. Agreed. If a film or book doesn't engage me emotionally on some level (empathy, fear, desire, horror, etc.) then I'm not going to like. This is why I also am generally antagonistic towards sci-fi but love well-done horror. It has to be plausible for me to enjoy.

    The best found-film footage is what really, really gets me. Blair Witch was perfection. I'm in the minority.

  4. Found-film footage is great if it's done correctly, Justin. I think it worked very well in Blair Witch because it was novel at the time. The concept worked well in District 9 even when it wasn't new, but I've seen examples where it was done completely wrong.

    The empathy level is probably what makes horror an either love or hate relationship. You either like the commitment or you don't with it. I think such emotions can be blended with other genres to work though, such as dark sci-fi, dark mystery, etc. In any case, it's the more primal of our emotions which cause the biggest reaction.

  5. You know you have a good book in your hands when it's 3 am, you're still reading and you keep checking the shadows in the corner to make sure there's nothing there. I think you've pinpointed what attracts us to horror stories. They really do stir emotions. I suppose that's true of any good book, but being frightened is definitely an emotion many people either love or hate. And those are great photos that you found for this post.

  6. Thanks, Jack. Those books that I've not been able to put down are always on my re-read list, usually in the re-read as many times as I'm reminded of the book list.

    I love great horror, but there is a huge difference between gore and blood and shock, and the more psychological horror stories. Put me as a much bigger fan of the latter. To me, gore is cheap thrills. A solid psychological horror story, even without anything life-threatening, is much harder to do, but much more satisfying a read in the end.

  7. Great post, Jonathan! I love Horror - always have. What I don't like, as you've stated, is that slasher pics (gore, blood, shock) have taken over the genre. Hubby and I call those Gorror. I agree with you completely. Love a good scare: that rush that leaves you either laughing or weeping. Or, if it's really good, both :)

    Love the pics, too!

  8. I don't know if shock-value horror has taken over the genre. There certainly is a lot of it, but there's plenty of psychological stuff out there as well.

    The great thing about psychological horror is that it can span other genres. You can have "dark" anything - dark fantasy, dark science fiction, dark mystery, you name it. There are lots of elements of horror evident in the other genres.

    And yes, those pictures are awesome. Everyone seems to like them. So glad I found them.