One of my birthday presents was a kindle copy of Time Waggoner’s Writing In The Dark, a how to book on horror fiction. I’m finding it very useful so far. At the end of each chapter are helpful exercises and I thought I’d share my response to the first one: what does horror mean to me.
I was a shy, nervous child who, because of Lewis Carroll, was sure she was going to die before her 13th birthday. And that wasn’t even my first experience of terror. I was blessed with imagination and cursed by bullies for being different. Monsters are in my DNA.
I am fascinated with folk horror, the myths and stories that seem to exist across all cultures. They share a common truth, a human need to exorcise that which scares us. Horror shows us that yes, evil exists, but here is how we deal with it, this is how we can at least cope with it, if not defeat it, albeit temporarily. Older horror fiction is more black and white: there is a monster and by the brave acts and sacrifices of a community, this monster is destroyed. Modern horror fiction is much more nuanced. The monster is not necessarily vanquished and even if it is there is the acknowledgement that it’s temporary: there will be another one along soon, bigger and more evil than the last and it will have learned from what happened before. This is life. A never ending battle between black and white, good and evil, and the understanding that we need to live on the cusp betwixt the two.
We are living in a world of peak oil and pandemics. We have fucked the planet and it makes sense that the old gods – and monsters – will have something to say about it, the creator as destroyer. In some ways our fight against the monster is a fight against ourselves, our own selfish actions. We are the monster and that is such an interesting concept to play with.
Watching the news is a true horror show. The actions of individuals and governments destroy people in ways that even Lucifer couldn’t have imagined. We are complicit in nourishing the monster and the old gods must be ready to rise again, surely? But horror doesn’t have to be on a world sized scale to work. We can describe the whole by looking at one, small story. We can experience the terror, the hope, the despair, the exaltation of the vanquishing in a single room to a single protagonist over a single hour. Their monster is our monster, their terror is ours.
Horror is also a means of revenge, of dealing with those who have wronged us without leaving a permanent mark on our soul. Does that make us evil? Are we the monster? Maybe. Probably. But isn’t that interesting? How do we fight ourselves? How can we acknowledge the darkness, admit to it? Society will lock us away if we do so publicly, but under the guise of a damned good story, we could literally get away with murder.
Does this make horror and crime fiction the same? No. There are similarities, for sure, but horror is about something more visceral, something older. An ancient rumble, an evil infrasound leaving us with a feeling of shared cultural unease.
Horror is vengeful ghosts. It is ravening monsters and selfish despots. It is conscious, deliberate evil and eldritch spirits seeking to redress imbalance. Horror fiction, good horror fiction, is a way to address our fears, known and strange, and a prompt to see the world through different, more ancient eyes.