Thursday, October 20, 2016

What is Horror?

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!
Greetings, boils and ghouls!  Ah ha ha ha ha ha!

If you're too young to know who this is...sigh.

Did you stop by the blog today looking for treats?  Well, all right!  I've got two for you.  First, HUNTER OF THE DEAD is on sale for $1.99 all month long.  And if you swing by Amazon October 24-25, BRAINEATER JONES will be on sale for only $0.99!  Happy Halloween!

As your resident horror author, Halloween is my favorite time of year.  This is the time when all the muggles come over to the dark side, at least in some capacity, even if the scariest thing you can handle is "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."

The ultimate in grueling terror for at least some of you.

Which leads to the topic of today's post.  What exactly is horror?

Earlier this week the AV Club posted a clever little comic addressing just that subject.  And, yes, to some extent "horror" is all about personal preference.

Definition-wise, horror is fiction that seeks to induce fear or dread.  Of course, what everyone fears or dreads is different, meaning that what constitutes horror can vary from person to person.  Some people are terrified by the slightest blood or bodily injury.  I suspect Johnny Knoxville would not be.  Parents are usually haunted by the thought of something bad happening to their kids.  For someone without children like me it's a very abstract worry.

Horror is also a very new genre in a certain sense.  In the 1920s, what we call horror today would have been wrapped up along with science fiction and fantasy and called "weird fiction."  So there's quite a lot of cross-pollination between the old "weird fiction" genres (what we'd call "speculative fiction" as an umbrella term today.)

For instance, do you consider "Aliens" to be sci-fi?  It certainly is.  It was also one of the most terrifying movies I've ever seen.  Do you remember the "Hardhome" episode of "Game of Thrones?"  It's been called one of the greatest zombie pieces ever made by greater minds than mine.

Or to flip the script a little, "Looper" fits pretty comfortably into the sci-fi arena.  And yet to this day I am still haunted by the scene when one of the loopers tries to run.

There's already a lot to unpack there.  And that's without even looking at the other side of the coin of horror being a newish genre.  Horror is also one of the ancientest genres.  Hell, "Gilgamesh," which is the earliest extant piece of fiction, featured corpses rising from the dead.  Fairy tales and folklore are often explicitly meant to be horrifying, as cautionary tales, which means that much of oral tradition is, in the strictest sense, horror.  Even FRANKENSTEIN, considered the first modern horror novel, lumbered to its 200th birthday this year.

But setting aside the squishy stuff for a minute, and because I know you all love listicles, let's take a look at some of the most important horror genres.

1.)  Quiet Horror - Quiet horror will tend to lack all the telltale attributes of the genre.  Instead of trying to get your heart thumping with a breakneck race through the woods, it'll try to get your spine tingling with a look at the shadows the trees cast.  The goal of quiet horror is not to induce instant tension and revulsion, but rather to slowly evoke an unsettling feeling, that can become so deep it swallows you up.  Think of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven."  Nothing particularly scary happens.  And yet the narrator is reminded, even assured that his deepest dread is real.  A hundred and fifty years later it still haunts even the modern mind.

2.)  Extreme Horror/Hardcore Horror/Splatterpunk - On the far opposite end of the spectrum is extreme or hardcore horror.  I've written some of this, and the goal is to gross out the reader with ever more over the top disgusting situations.  Edward Lee, Wrath James White, and Monica J. O'Rourke are three modern extreme horror authors whose works will sear your very soul.  "Mr. Torso," oof, man, I can never unread that.  And I included splatterpunk which I think of as a movement and an era, which harnessed the power of extreme horror for a certain political purpose and ethos.  Not all extreme horror is splatterpunk, but all splatterpunk is extreme horror, if that makes sense.  David J. Schow would be an exemplar of splatterpunk.

3.)  Body Horror - Body horror stems from the very real worry that our bodies themselves are betraying us.  We've all probably noticed as we get older we seem to get slower and fatter.  A pregnant woman might feel like she's no longer in control of her own body.  Sickness or injury can cause us to question what makes us us.  Body horror takes these simple and reasonable impulses to another extreme.  What if your pimple was really you growing a second head?  What if your pregnancy was really an alien monster?  What if, as in Clive Barker's THE INHUMAN CONDITION, your limbs had minds of their own and tried to chop themselves off?  Think of any great eighties movie when the human body was twisted and deformed out of all reason by those mortifying practical effects, like the transformation scene in "An American Werewolf in London."  Body horror, especially in film, can be terrifying for all the same reasons as the blood and guts of extreme horror, but it also strikes at a very real and very human fear that something can get even deeper than under your skin.

4.)  Gothic Horror - Often quiet, though sometimes bloody, Gothic horror is sort of like the O.G. horror.  Anything that takes place in a winding castle, like FRANKENSTEIN, or a spooky mansion, like DRACULA, or on a fog-swept moor.  Think of 19th century mores and traditions, usually European, but occasionally American.  Gothic horror often has to do with doomed romances among the dismal and dying gentry, dressed in far too much elegant clothing. set against a Victorian backdrop.  Modern Gothic horror apes the sensibilities of those times, even if relocating the story to the present era.

5.)  Psychological Horror - Psychological horror could be quiet, like "The Yellow Wallpaper."  Or it could be quite extreme, like "Jacob's Ladder."  In any case, it has to do with the human mind and often its descent into madness.  These stories can have a dreamlike quality, and will tend to have unreliable narrators if there is a narrator at all.  The story will be less about what's actually happening and more about the main character's attempts to parse out his or her own hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions from what (if anything) is real.  Something haunting like "Donnie Darko" would be psychological horror, as would something with an extreme and violent descent into madness, like "The Shining."  Another can't-miss modern day example would be "The Babadook."

I could go on and on for...well, books.  But I'm interested in what you think.  What was the most horrifying thing you ever read or watched?  What images or stories can you never forget?  What genres of horror do you love (or hate) the most?  Let me know in the comments!


Cheryl Oreglia said...

My worst horror experience was watching Psycho one cold, stormy night in my first year of marriage. It totally freaked my out. Then a few days later, in the evening, I reached into he shower to grab my wash cloth, and my "want to be a comedian" new husband had placed a life sized cardboard man in the shower from a work display. I screamed bloody murder, ripped the display to shreds, new husband slept on the couch. Took ten years off my life. To this day I avoid late night showers! Great post Stephen!

Brenda St John Brown said...

I'm not a horror fan AT ALL. I remember reading Stephen King back in the day and I really, really shouldn't have. Not that long ago, I tried to read The Shining Girls by Lauren Buekes, which isn't really even horror and I couldn't do it. So, you can imagine how I'd do with movies. I'd never sleep again.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

This is one of the greatest stories I've ever heard, hands down.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

It's not for everyone, and if it was, it wouldn't be special to the people it's special to. :) Thanks for the comment, Brenda!

Unknown said...

Great article! Love these categories, and the old-timey genre "weird fiction." I'm into all of those genres so the label makes me smile. I actually lost sleep over "The Yellow Wallpaper" in college. As a child it was anything with internal organs that would keep me awake in terror, though, especially hearts. Some episode of "The Outer Limits" where a heart in an anatomy book came to life and started beating for a second freaked me out so deeply that after that I'd have nightmares about human hearts. Even just hearing one in a movie would make me lose it. You can imagine what a problem I had with the heart room in the Franklin Institute.

Carrie Beckort said...

I used to read Stephen King when I was younger, and might try to read a few more of his books I still have on my TBR shelf. I definitely can't do the kind with lots of gore. I also struggle with the kind of books you mention that feed my real life fears (such as bad things happening to kids). My husband sometimes likes to put on the scary movies that always play this time of year. It's the perfect opportunity for me to go to bed early and catch up on my reading ;)

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

I think I remember that "Outer Limits!" So did you just avoid the whole heart room altogether? I know we went to the Franklin Institute a lot for school but I can't remember if it was when we were in the same class.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

He he. Sounds like you're more of a quiet horror fan (if "fan" is even the right word.) I like my stuff bloody, personally, because that's easier to shake off as "not real." Some of the more psychological stuff can really get under your skin.

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