Thursday, 1 March 2012

The horror, the horror...

So, if you've found your way here (and I'm guessing you have), you've probably also seen that last weekend I stepped into Al Boudreau's Cage Match series, with the genre being fantasy/horror. I had an absolute blast doing it, and I offer my congratulations to Joe on beating me (grrr).

But the whole affair got me thinking about horror as a genre, horror writing, and scary stuff in general. So, blog post.

Anyone who knows me well is going to have been seriously surprised to find me having anything to do with the horror genre. Probably no other mentally healthy adult male in the western world is more scared by horror films than me. I manage a little better with horror fiction, by which I mean that the last horror story I read (Lovecraft's 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth') only cost me three hours of sleep on a single night, instead of for the better part of a week (the result, a couple of years earlier, of reading Alan Dean Foster's novelisation of 'Alien').

Last year, when I had to watch 'Evil Dead 2' at work (yes, had to. I realise I have a pretty awesome job - better was getting paid to watch 'Casablanca', 'The Grinch' and '12 Angry Men', among others), I spent my first three or four hours in bed each night for the next week or so staring wide-eyed at the darkness and envisaging the ridiculous tree-monster from the end of the film (spoiler alert: evil tree. Deliberately naff special effects) looming over me.

Yes, I know 'Evil Dead 2' isn't scary.

Yes, I know it's a comedy. (Indeed, I'll acknowledge that Bruce Campbell's performance is brilliant, particularly the 'possessed hand' sequence).

Shut up. I was scared, alright?

I could speculate round and round in circles forever about why, though the essence of the problem is that I've never had a very tight rein on my imagination (this is the main reason I'm a writer) and, while I know that what I'm seeing isn't real, I can't help but imagine what it would be like if it were. Incidentally, this is why I find certain kinds of situational comedy almost as frightening as horror, but that's an even more embarrassing blog post, and one for another time.

The point I'm making is that I have no business being in the horror genre at all. Here's where it gets weird. Despite the fact I can't actually read or watch horror, I love it.

My favourite fantasy mythos, beyond Robert Jordan (who's back in my good graces thanks to the frankly stunning 'Knife of Dreams'), beyond Brandon Sanderson, beyond Terry Pratchett's Discworld and probably even clear of Janny Wurts' magnificant Athera, is Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. Yup, the same mythos that scared the ever-loving everything out of me with 'Innsmouth'.

As a fantasy mythos, the Cthulhu mythos came the better part of a century ahead of its time. The central theme - that the true nature of the world is so alien to human understanding that it drives any human who perceives it mad - is a possibility philosophers of logic are only just beginning to wake up to (I actually get to claim some expertise here, what with teaching logic classes on a university-level philosophy course. The idea that there are things we might not be able to understand is still a deeply unpopular fringe theory, though I'm a firm believer).

The Cthulhu mythos is valid for more than just its underlying philosophy, though. The thing that really attracts me is the sheer wealth of narrative opportunity in it. There are so many forces at work in so many different ways, with competing interests that we can't really understand, that you can put basically any story in there and still have it come out rich, deep and challenging.

Also, it gives space for a much richer understanding of the term 'horror' than mainstream culture. I've said before in various contexts that I love horror, I just don't like being scared, and most of the time people have laughed at me, but fear is only one part of horror; similarly, grossness is only a part of it, and a shallow one at that.

The essence of horror, as far as I'm interested in it, is to be disturbing on the deepest level you can. Were I to risk reading a horror story, what I'd be looking for would be for it to leave me profoundly unsettled, perhaps by stripping away my illusions of self-importance or sucking me into complicity with horrific acts. I guess the core idea would be to disrupt the reader's sense of place in the world - destroying the comfort zone rather than merely lifting them out of it.

Maybe that's going to result in books that are unpleasant to read (though I don't think it has to; a couple of examples from cinema would be 'Chinatown' and 'The Dark Knight', though neither is strictly horror), but that's the kind of horror I want to read. It's also what I want to try to write, because it seems like it'll require getting a stronger grip on the reader's emotions and imagination than any other kind of writing, and that's the kind of writing challenge I really look for.

The big question is whether I can do this effectively without reading any more horror...

1 comment:

  1. I like you blog, lots to read so have become a follower..

    Follow me also at

    Nice to connect..