horror fiction

Literary Horror — Too Much of A Bad Thing?

Recently I read Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree, and now I’m engaged in a struggle to finish Nick Cutter’s The Deep. Both books are in the horror genre, and both, in my opinion, are problematic.

The thing is, these are not straightforward genre books. They are literary horror. And that’s the problem.

Before I go on, I’ll just say that I have no problem with the writing itself. Kiernan and Cutter are skilled writers whose prose is artful and compelling. It’s the entire reading experience I want to dissect.

First, what is horror? It’s fiction whose purpose is to provide the reader with a vicarious experience of something terrible that is outside of reality. (This distinguishes it from thrillers, in which the threat is reality-based). It may be gory and graphic, it may be subtle and inexplicable, but whatever the fictional characters experience must be vividly shared by the reader. The best horror fiction lingers in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished, providing jolts of terror at unexpected moments.

Literary fiction is character-based. The characters and their inner lives drive the plot. Whatever happens to them is of less importance than how they change in the course of the narrative.

Strong, fully fleshed-out characters are thought to be a mark of superior fiction. Readers (this one included) who post reviews of books often complain about “cardboard cutout” or stereotypical characters. But I’m wondering if that criticism applies less to horror fiction.

Think about it — in horror, it’s the situation that’s the star of the show. It’s the house with something dwelling in the cellar, the forest full of malign presences, the stealthy noises in the walls. The reader should be right there, cheek by jowl with the character experiencing these things, trying to figure out what’s happening, becoming terrified, confronting the fear, discovering the terrible truth. If the point-of-view character is also a complex personality sorting through messy personal baggage and possibly struggling with mental health issues, the story sometimes becomes muddy and tedious.

Unreliable narrators are practically a given now, even in genre fiction, and they can add texture to a story. But the degree of unreliability should be limited, and the reader must be given a fundamentally sympathetic character to travel with and root for.

In both of the books I mentioned at the start of this post, the main characters are troubled to start with, as a result of unhappy childhoods or traumatic events in the recent past. Add the bizarre or dangerous situations that underpin the plots (a tree with a weird history, a research station 8 miles underwater that’s gone incommunicado) — and who is surprised when they start to crack? But the reader who just wants to experience a series of terrifying situations while sitting comfortably on the couch may get impatient when their companion character breaks down and needs psychoanalysis. It’s like when you’re on a hike in challenging conditions and your only companion starts to lose it. Yes, this ramps up the tension (always a good thing in fiction), but once a character’s psychological issues become more important than the shapes in the shadows, you have a different type of book.

And indeed, many readers enjoy the combination of literary + horror, as shown by the ratings of both these books on Goodreads. I may be in a minority, preferring a greater degree of separation between the two. For what it’s worth, I think the literary/horror balance is a bit better in The Deep. The main character, although overburdened with personal issues, including a most peculiar upbringing, is basically sympathetic. In both this book and The Red Tree, however, the psychological is too tightly entangled the with the horror for my taste.

Critics have commented that H.P. Lovecraft’s main characters are not well developed. They are usually types — New Englanders of an academic bent faced with evidence of weird goings-on, often in the form of documents or artifacts that lead to the situations and settings that were HPL’s darlings. The characters are merely vehicles to take the reader to those situations. Aside from the basics (name, residence, scholarly interests, family background) little detail is provided. And really, it doesn’t much matter. The reader is sucked right in, reading accounts of R’lyeh rising from the ocean, traveling haunted rural roads to Henry Akeley’s place, exploring the city of the Old Ones in Antarctica. Who cares about Francis Wayland Thurston’s mental quirks, Albert N. Wilmarth’s love life or William Dyer’s childhood?

When I read Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator,” I thought Herbert and the unnamed narrator had potential when it came to character development. What led Herbert to reanimate corpses? Why did the narrator remain loyal to West even when he began to fear him? These questions don’t really have much to do with the corpses lurching around, but they led me to write my novel The Friendship of Mortals. “Herbert West, Reanimator” is definitely horror; some have called it the first zombie tale. Re-Animator, the movie based on the story, is horror of the splatter and gore variety. But my book? Answering the character-based questions that compelled me to write transformed it from horror to psychological/supernatural.

 

 

 

Don’t Kill the Dog!

I’m halfway through reading Nick Cutter’s The Deep, having heard a feverishly enthusiastic endorsement of it by a local radio commentator. For the most part I can’t argue with his opinion — the book has all the right stuff for a can’t-put-it-down horror/thriller:  a research station at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a mad scientist and a crazed one, a lurking evil, and a couple of people who descend from the surface to find out what’s going on. And some experimental subjects — specifically two dogs.

So far, I’ve met only one of the dogs — a skinny, anxious chocolate Lab. Don’t know what’s happened to the other one, but I’ll bet it’s something bad. And I have a bad feeling about the ultimate fate of both dogs and all the humans. This can’t end well. It’s that kind of book.

Here’s the thing: suspecting a bad end for those dogs gets in the way of enjoying the story. I’m fine with the scientists going crazy, with the humans encountering everything from claustrophobia to terrors behind closed hatches to depth-induced nightmares. That’s the whole point of reading a book like this — experiencing terrible things vicariously while reclining on your couch with your favourite cat and a bag of snacks. But expecting to share the experience of an already frightened dog suffering and dying is too real to be enjoyable. When I get to that part, I will skip over it, or just close the book and put it down.

Weird, isn’t it? In a world where millions of factory-farmed animals die every day, where small children endure terrible conditions in refugee camps, I can’t bear to read about the suffering of fictitious dogs (or, even worse, cats). Maybe it’s because I’ve witnessed the illness and deaths of three cats in the past 20 years. Maybe because unlike humans, animals don’t have any concept of hope for the future or self-sacrifice for a good cause. They are simply swept up in humanity’s projects and become unheeded debris along the road to… whatever. (But then, so are those kids in the refugee camps).

Conclusion? Horrors are great to read about, as long as they aren’t too real. As long as reading about them doesn’t bring us to a place where we don’t want to be, reminding us of the sadness and tragedy inherent in our mortal lives. Which is why many readers simply avoid the horror genre altogether, and some of us read it with relish only if we know no animals will be harmed in making the mind-movie.

The (Dubious?) Delights of Darkness

“…it’s a jubilant celebration that explores human darkness with a profound lyric tenderness…”

This is how one reviewer describes Rene Denfeld’s book The Enchanted. I just finished reading the book and can attest to the truth of this assessment (well, I’m not sure about the “jubilant celebration” bit). A day after reading the last pages I feel the literary equivalent of eating a meal of rich, exotic ingredients — queasy-uneasy, almost wishing I had never opened the book and started reading. It has left a layer of disturbing images in my brain (as well as a few gorgeous, heart-rending ones) that will take a while to fade. Which speaks highly of the author’s efforts.

For some reason I’m intrigued by books that promise darkness, as long as it’s delivered by means of enticing, artful prose. Being something of a misanthrope, I suppose I’m attracted to writing that shows the dark side of humanity. And perhaps I’m looking for explanations or even scraps of hope.

Reading these books can be a strange experience. It goes something like this:

You leave the familiar trail to take a path you’ve never noticed before (but which, when you see it, is too inviting to pass). It twists and turns through a wood full of strange plants and intriguing glimpses of dim, green clearings among tall trees. You keep thinking you should go back, but the path leads you along. It must go somewhere. When you reach a viewpoint or a creek, or if the path starts to peter out, you’ll just turn around and go back the way you came. Easy. (But how long has it been since you left the familiar trail? It feels like a long time, and the things you know are very far away). You come to a house snuggled about with vegetation — unpruned fruit trees, roses and brambles gone wild. It’s never seen a coat of paint and the roof is sagging, but the windows aren’t broken. The path you’ve been following leads to rotting steps that take you to the porch. A solitary chair, a mug half-full of coffee, an ashtray with a single butt. The door is ajar…

So you peer in. And you hear sounds. Wet, ripping sounds, thumps and grunts. Against your better judgment you follow the sounds to a room at the back of the house, where you see a thing of horror being done. Your brain doesn’t have a category for what you’re seeing, so you keep watching. And watching, while the horror goes on and on.

It’s a long way back to your familiar milieu. You can’t stop remembering, seeing those scenes on infinite repeat, feeling the sick and delightful roiling of your sensibilities as you process the images. Because you kept on looking (reading). Because on some level, you enjoyed the experience. You’re not the person you were before you took that path (read that book).

A couple of other books that had this effect on me are Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game and his novella 1922. But The Enchanted beats them both, because it feels less fictional. The fundamental horror is real.

 

 

 

Mr. King and I

A few weeks ago, as I began reading 11/22/63 concurrently with Dr. Sleep, I realized that I’ve had a decades-long relationship with Stephen King.

I bought a copy of Carrie in a used book store in Vancouver B.C. in (I think) 1975 and found it horribly fascinating, not so much because of Carrie’s paranormal power or the bloodbath at the end, but the stark picture of high school culture. Salem’s Lot is a true horror, but told with more subtlety than is common in that genre. The Shining is the same, only better, combining human drama with supernatural evil in a totally compelling way. Then there’s The Stand, the ultimate “what if” scenario. I was on board for just about all his books for years, but I never did get involved with the “Dark Tower” saga and eventually I began to lose touch with Mr. King. While I love big, fat books, I got tired of cataclysmic conclusions (as in Needful Things and Insomnia, for example). The Tommyknockers and It are saved (barely) by memorable characters. It also features one of King’s trademarks — a vivid portrayal of childhood and the past. I’ve read The Dead Zone, Firestarter and Christine more than once, and Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game are among my favourites. Oh, and Pet Sematary — now there’s a perfect blend of human tragedy and supernatural evil, just as good as or better than The Shining. Over the years, I’ve spent many enjoyable hours reading (and re-reading) King’s books. As immersive entertainment, the best of them are hard to equal.

Some people don’t seem to realize that Stephen King is not simply a writer of horror fiction. It’s true that his early books were squarely in that genre, and just about all of his writing includes some element of the paranormal, but many of his books could also be called psychological fiction. Their common element is not horror (meaning evil supernatural entities or powers) but people dealing with difficult, even impossible situations, some caused by evil supernatural entities, but others resulting from bad luck and human frailty. (Think of Cujo or Gerald’s Game). Most of them seem to originate with the question “What if…?” Maybe “speculative fiction” is a better label. Readers who are put off by horror may avoid King altogether, missing out on some great reads.

I was sparked into writing my first book (The Friendship of Mortals) after reading King’s On Writing. This slender book made writing seem do-able, something not beyond the capabilities of a person with a full time job. Before reading it, I had always supposed that the only way to be a writer was to write for a living, preferably after completing a degree in Creative Writing and hanging out with bohemians in some writers’ utopia. I already had an idea for a novel — to explore the personality and motivation of H.P. Lovecraft’s character Herbert West, with a librarian at Miskatonic University as narrator. King’s book got me started, and brought me to this point, writing a blog post in tribute to this versatile and wildly successful author.