Today we’re hosting for the Brain to Books Cyber Convention, so you’ll find little of the usual greydogtales sarcasm and general scepticism on display. And no lurchers, sadly. Instead, we offered a home to a guest piece which forms part of the Brain to Books circuit, something which is way too complicated for us. But they’re majoring in horror for three days, so we got persuaded, as it all looks jolly interesting.
Our own take on horror is that old greydog probably doesn’t write it – not quite. He produces strange fiction that occasionally intersects with the genre/zone. A kindly editor did once make a comment on jlg’s work which was appreciated, though:
“None of what I’ve read from you could be classified as horror…but it all is. There’s a fundamental… claustrophobia to it all. Your structure never fails to cause some tension while reading.”
So we’ve never really analysed horror, except for amusement.
That’s us done for now. Here’s the Brain to Books guest post, by author M L S Weech. Apparently this stuff all links up via the cyber convention, but that sounds like the sort of thing the CIA ought to be doing, so we’re keeping our heads down…
Horror: Fiction’s Scared Straight Program
It’s getting harder and harder to categorize stories these days. The more we create niche genres, the more blurred the lines from one genre to another get. I’m a simple guy in pretty much every way. Yes/No. Right/Wrong. Good/Bad. Because of this, I tend to want everything I do to be as simplistic in nature as possible. The same concept is true when categorizing books. All fiction breaks down to comedy or tragedy, but that’s a little broad even for my tastes. So we have the core genres we know and love today. Fantasy (others may choose to call this science fiction, but one man’s advance science is another man’s magic), Romance, Mystery, and Horror. It’s possible for a story to have elements of each, but at their core, books are about one key aspect, and each of the previously identified genres all have a unique aspect. Today, I’d like to talk about Horror.
If one is writing a novel or telling a story, and that story involves a key lesson that the creator uses fear to convey, the storyteller is using horror.
No matter how much gore, no matter how many monsters or surprises, every single horror story has a lesson conveyed that the big bad is responding to. Don’t have premarital sex. Don’t go out alone. Don’t do drugs. Don’t watch too much TV. Power is bad. Don’t play God. I could go on forever. The point is, whatever creep, freak, monster, or demon is hunting down the characters, they are reactions to choices the characters make. “If you behave, no bad guys will hurt you.” Oddly enough, the genre filled with gore, blood, monsters, and ghosts is more unrealistic in theme than it is in premise. (I’m not trying to insult horror, just trying to point out that the most chastened, innocent, kind, and law abiding person is every bit as likely to be mutilated, eaten or terrorized as the most rascally rascal in the world.)
You have your sub-genres of horror. A few one might mention would be demonic, slasher, thriller, and gore. But the impact moment of each arc is inevitably a “bad” decision on the part of the protagonist (or in some cases the protagonist’s parents. I’m look at you, Nightmare on Elm Street).
I’m a fan of horror works, especially at their core. They take a societal negative, and exponentially raise the consequence of that unsavory behavior to a satirical level.
As always, I like to do case studies. So I’d like to break down three of the genre’s most popular, and identify what I believe are the key elements of horror: 1) Social/ethical/moral violation. 2) Extreme consequence. Now, some may argue that horror demands a Soul Survivor. Well, I think most horror novels do fall under that umbrella, but I think it’s more of a custom than a law.
The following are just a few horror stories that I was either familiar with or could understand based on summaries.
1) ‘A Warning to the Curious’ by M R James: The title sort of makes this low hanging fruit, doesn’t it? It’s literally a warning about being too curious! Without spoilers, the protagonist digs up something that isn’t his and takes it. As a result, the item’s ghostly guardian stalks the main character.
Social violation: Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Extreme consequence: The MC gets haunted.
2) ‘It’ by Stephen King: This vastly popular horror novel presents an interesting challenge to my theory, but I think I can handle it. The kids aren’t the ones who broke the moral code. They are, in fact, the solution.
Moral violation: Don’t ignore what’s going on around you. At this point I’ll confess to watching the movie, not reading the book. (Seriously folks, I’ve had quite a few nightmares and simply HATE clowns for that movie alone, so don’t blame me.) But the townspeople ignore everything around them, and as a result, a monster eats their kids. (I suppose you could say the moral violation is, “Don’t ignore your kids,” but ignorance is the violation regardless. The more willful the ignorance, the more tragic the death.) I’d be curious to hear what those who’ve read this book think in comparison to the movie.
3) ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allen Poe: I don’t know if he’s truly the Father of Horror, but I think of him that way. And every story I can think of from him fits nicely in this box I’m trying to create.
Violation: Murder is a societal, immoral, and ethical violation. I like this example because the extreme consequence is a loss of sanity.
I like horror because it’s the polar opposite of fantasy. Where fantasy encourages us (Heroes do these things), horror cautions us (Don’t do this, or…). Both work because their purpose is to teach. We’ve done this in society for a long time. We caution those we teach by telling them what horrible things might happen if they don’t obey whatever code we create. It’s fear of consequences. Its beauty in intent is matched by its brutality in execution. You can dress up your consequence or violation however you wish, but the core of it remains. So long as there are things people fear, writers will continue to weave those fears to teach lessons.
Thanks for reading,
M.L.S. Weech is a native of Yuma, Arizona. He is an author of fantasy, paranormal, and supernatural fiction who spends his daylight hours teaching Journalism at the Defense Information School in Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. He’s currently published The Journals of Bob Drifter (2015) and Caught (2017).
Normal greydogtales service returns in a couple of days, after Brains to Books has done its horror thing…