For as long as people have been telling stories, horror has been one of the most popular elements to get their message across. Look at the myths of the ancient Greek gods with some of their undoubtedly terrifying aspects–the minotaur, anyone, half man, half beast creature living in a maze and eating people he finds there? The legend of Beowulf, one of the oldest stories ever told, included no less than three hideous monsters that did not hesitate to rip men apart. Even Shakespeare used horror to great effect with ghosts and witches scattered throughout various tales. And don’t forget Titus, where the title character kills a woman’s two sons for revenge and feeds them to her at a dinner party. That’s about as clear a horror element as I’ve ever seen in a story.
There are many other examples of great works of horror throughout history. Chistopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus still resonates to this day with its notion of making deals with the Devil. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a seamen brings a curse down on his shipmates by killing an albatross. The crew are all killed one by one, the ship sinks and the mariner is left to wander for eternity telling his tale. Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first of his three part epic The Divine Comedy, is a tour through the nine circles of torment in Hell. Horror, perhaps more than any other literary technique, echoes down through time.
Horror has always been a crucial aspect of literature, and it remains so to this day. Unfortunately, we’ve lost sight of its true value and rich history. Generally these days, horror writing is squeezed into one of the many limiting genre boxes, right alongside mysteries, westerns and romance, among others. There are some who even dismiss horror as throw-away pulp writing, and you can forget trying to convince some in the higher circles of the writing world that horror fits any definition of “literary” at all.
It’s true that there are a lot of throw-away horror books out there, efforts that depend on cliched vampires or other creatures, lowest common denominator gore, or hanging their hat on a “shocking” twist we’ve read or seen 50 times before. But that’s no different than any other genre, even so-called literary fiction, which can be pointless and self indulgent just as frequently or more so than it can be exceptional. The amount of bad or mundane works is something attributable to all genres of writing, literary or otherwise.
When done well, however, few mediums are able to express broad ideas, translate powerful emotions, or make a tale stick to our ribs as readers, as it were, like horror. Despite this proven and time-tested capacity, to today’s supposedly evolved sensibilities, it’s almost totally dismissed as a true art form.
But if you look closer, some of the most famous and far-reaching tales in the English language are horror stories. How much would Halloween be diminished if Washington Irving had never written The Legend of Sleepy Hollow? How much would Christmas be diminished if Charles Dickens had not penned A Christmas Carol? And what of Edgar Allan Poe, a man who could arguably be considered the greatest American writer, or at the least, he’s on a very short list. Poe wrote some of the darkest, most disturbing stories ever penned and in a style almost Shakespearian in its rhythms. No one can read Poe and deny that he was truly an artist of the first order. And he wrote horror best and above all else.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is, in essence, a philosophical treatise on the nature of life and existence. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a fierce attack on the repressed nature of Victorian England, particularly with regards to sex. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a sociological study in class structure and morality. All three of these books have saturated our culture to the point of reforming most people’s conceptions of their original intent. These were no mere toss-away monster stories. They were crafted using horror to express ideas about the cultural issues of the days in which they were written. Those same matters still resonate to this day, primarily because the monsters and the horrors they wrought, have stayed with us. Even somewhat perverted as their title characters have become by mass culture, can you imagine a world with no Dracula, no Frankenstein’s monster, or no Mr. Hyde?
Horror literature brings out the worst and the best in us. It calls us out on our cruelties, our excesses and our hypocricies, deftly employing the monster as metaphor to challenge our very beliefs and actions. And for all of this, what do we get? A small shelf in the back of the bookstore, and a subservient position behind the literary and mainstream fiction worlds, lumped in with other segmented genres so as to be easily definable, categorized and kept on the fringes. For all it’s done over the centuries, all the issues it has tackled head-on that other forms of writing were either afraid or incapable of addressing, horror fiction deserves much better.
Horror has brought so much more to the world than the stereotypical monsters and unmitigated gore that makes up its popular representation today. In its heart of hearts, horror writing is a true art form, one without which, we would be left with a giant vacant place in our souls. We should respect horror not simply for all the things the form has done in the past, but for all it has yet to accomplish. We’re living in dark times these days. We need horror to reflect that darkness back on us, and to show us the way toward the light.
Click below for more fright-filled stuff. And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…
The 13 Days of Halloween