It may come as a shock to some, but the battle over Horror as literature is waning. While the folding of the genre into newly formed categories and older, more established, more “respectable” ones may provide a contributing factor, the genre itself is the source of its own immutable proof. While there is still a measure of professional name-calling, and a sense of resistance among the older ranks of critics to acknowledge Horror as literature, if one respects the very lines drawn by those same literary critics, then one must also separate out the wheat from the chafe.
Horror is like any other genre: we have our junk and we have our treasures; disregarding that fact is to intentionally put on the blinders and is critically irresponsible.
Yet quite surreptitiously – or perhaps we just failed to notice – things are changing in the halls of academia and the ivory towers of literary criticism have begun to crumble. Horror is being transformed along with its critics. It is as though we have caught a glimpse of a gloriously full moon and something preternatural has taken hold… And it is time to rejoice.
There has been a kind of renaissance among literary critics and reviewers which started most noticeably in the 1990’s that has wedged open the door to literary recognition for the Horror genre. But paradoxically, this is not about overcoming literary prejudices and dragging the war-worn Horror banner onto the field of battle to be planted in victory. It is not about overwhelming the other side with sheer numbers. Rather it is a battle that has been won the way it was waged: with the pen.
Since its early days, Horror has had its champions. There are criticisms and treatises, essays and commentaries written by some of the genres best over the years (all still available for public consumption, by the way). But something significant happened in the 1970’s when American Horror went “viral” in our culture; Horror – no matter how deftly wielded or drowning in schlock – infected a generation that became our contemporary filmmakers, novelists, poets, playwrights, and musicians.
A whole generation that grew up with the Summer Blockbuster and the blossoming of the New Age wanted to know exactly what it was about those silly little moments of terror that we fondly recalled populating our youth (and which ultimately seeded our adult perspectives) that had such staying power in our adult lives. Why are so many of us Horror junkies?
Once some of these same people entered colleges and began to search desperately for a career in the arts, the curiosity began to feed other fields and genres. Believe it or not, Horror became an interesting topic for researchers in sociology, in brain science, in philosophy, in psychology, communications, linguistics, language composition, and our most tangible hand-held mirror – film criticism.
Everyone wanted to know: what is it about Horror that seduces and connects directly to the primal nerves in all of us, and what is it saying about humanity in general? Furthermore, can we learn more about ourselves and about learning itself by understanding that question?
The collection of essays in A Dark Night’s Dreaming: Contemporary American Horror Fiction, edited by Tony Magistrale and Michael A. Morrison, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, c1996 tries to answer this point:
“At its most significant level of meaning, the art of terror is concerned with detailing the tragic consequences of social and personal disintegration – it is the essential aesthetic medium of our time…The best horror fiction must be viewed as contemporary social satire that reveals – and often critiques – the collective cultural fears and personal anxieties of everyday life.” (p.3)
Whether we write it or just like to curl up with a good scary book on dark nights, fans of Horror have to admit that there is something going on with us when we read and enjoy Horror, when we connect to the unsavory. This is especially true for those of us who never “outgrew” the genre, but still seek it out for a “fix” now and again. But what we have to admit aloud is that other people are just as curious about the “how” and “why” of it as well. Perhaps it is the movie production company that wants to create the next newest, coolest, special-effect infused blockbuster…Or perhaps it is the parent trying to convince their child that there are no monsters under his or her bed, or the psychologist studying PTSD, or the sociologist studying mass hysteria, or the social outcast wondering if he or she is not quite “normal.”
We are all of us social creatures, even when we are anti-social. Who and what we are is often mirrored culturally in our arts. Therefore what is called “Horror art” or “Art-Horror” (which includes fine art, film and fiction) takes on a cultural importance that no self-respecting scientist can resist. Continues Magistrale & Morrison:
“Much of what occurs in horror art is symbolic; that is, its deepest meanings exist on a subtextual level. Beneath its veneers of tormented maidens, madmen, monsters, and the other archetypes of the genre, horror consistently reminds us of human vulnerability…all around us our cocoons of self-preservation and denial show signs of stress and breakage: subway riders on their way home are murdered by strangers, young men are assaulted and killed for straying into the wrong neighborhood, women are raped in toilet stalls, children are pushed from rooftops for candy bars and designer sneakers.… Some people escape from the imminent realty of such horrors by denying their existence and by clinging to a perpetual suspension of disbelief. Horror art, on the other hand, prefers to see the reality flushed out into the open…” (p. 2).
This makes most of us uncomfortable. We shift self-consciously in our seats; we busy ourselves with sitcoms. What could be normal about envisioning or paying to see a depiction of such unsavory things? What does it say about us?
Horror Theory is saying it says more about the human condition than us personally. It says we are trying to make the irrational rational, to learn through playacting and experimentation what might enhance our ability to survive a predatory and unforgiving world while navigating tremendous social constraints. Sure there is a weird titillation of the senses, a “rush” of adrenaline and excitement that frequently accompanies a near-death experience and a collective sigh of relief. Most of us planted those seeds reading the likes of Bentley Little, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Anne Rice and Stephen King. And we have Hollywood to thank for putting Miracle-Gro on those very seeds that put Horror over the top. But it is the film critic who started to connect the very dots that so many Horror fans had long insisted were always there but had been unable to name. Best of all, they put it in critic-speak so that it is now being taken seriously.
Therefore, those of us in the fiction cadre have the film critics to thank for this most visible boost. It is the film critics who formulated a concept of “Horror Theory” that has itself started take on solid form and to spread. Take Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart, New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, c1990… This is a must-have title for those who really want to understand how literary theory is developed and applied. It is the hard-won product of an author who is a philosopher, cultural theorist and film scholar whose research still serves as s a major work used in many film theory classrooms…it is a “poetics of Horror in the tradition of analytic aesthetics”… (back cover).
It is not easy reading. It is not self-aggrandizing. Fans of Horror, this is sometimes the stuff of late-night insomniacs’ dreams. This is a technical examination of Horror for the purpose of establishing a theory of literary Horror. Prepare for statements like “In both the discovery and confirmation movements in horror stories, a great deal of ratiocination may be exhibited” (p. 102)…Critics, rejoice.
Yet it is exactly books like these that will change the literary landscape for the genre of Horror. If you write it, film it, criticize it, or want to do any of the same…This is a book you need to read.
Once again, literary criticism is a weird science…it operates on theories. Sometimes those of us in the “real” world look askance as such speculation with disdain: how can our greatest works be “reduced” to some theoretical formula? How can writers across the ages “contrive” fiction based on theories no one identified in their respective times?
First one has to understand that literary critics are not saying that writers are “writing down” to us when writing great fiction. In fact, most writers are just writing…just hoping what they create is good enough to put some food on the table. What critics are saying is that there are interesting coincidences that merit our study and attention when certain works seem to transcend their plots and time periods. Second, one must accept that literary critics are a kind of scientist; they are looking for proof of ghosts.
Literary critics (the academic kind) look at semantics, at word choice, at alliteration, and semiotics – at the bare bones of language construction all the way out to the cultural flesh that hangs from those bones. They look at philosophy, at sociological consequences, at gender, at cross-cultural contaminants, at geographical isolation or clusters. They look at class and government structures. They are curious about how this wondrous thing that becomes literature is constructed. As such, they struggle along with the rest of us to define literature. They just use bigger, more complicated words with more mystifying analytical roots than the rest of us. Most of the time that equates to very boring-sounding avenues of research and discussion; but if one intends to cast stones at the “Establishment” one should also know whereof one speaks.
Literary critics are not the enemy. They are nerds.
They are curious as to why and how word choices came to be, how it impacts a reader, and what it reflects about the author’s times, style, genre, class, and language development. Such obsessions are extant even among authors, who frequently rebut critical assumptions – much as Poe did in his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition” where he tersely explains how he composed “The Raven” (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/poe/composition.html). Indeed, overthinking compositional choices seems to irk most writers and fans. However when one consumes the volume of literature that critics do, it is the interesting questions of composition and construction that nag the linguist and seduce the theorist mystified by the act of creating literature.
Is creating a divine act or a contrived one? Is it subliminal, or conscious, or some unholy marriage of all things?
You see, critics are as mystified as we are as to why a piece of writing is different from the others on the shelf – they only see that it is different, and struggle to define the how and why of it. There is an element of unpredictability that does not seem to be in anyone’s control yet maddeningly…repeats.
Small wonder, then, that over formalized genre writing has frequently been dismissed. Genre formula can dictate that there will be certain plot conventions, a generalized story arc that is recognizable and comfortably familiar, standard characterizations, cookie-cutter settings. Yet this does not mean that great literature cannot stem from genre fiction. So once again the mystery creeps in…
Literature is to genre fiction is as jazz is to music. It is not what is notated on the staff …it is what happens between the lines that make it great.
Literary criticism is the search for that something. It is the science of squishing art into a containment field so it can be observed outside of its natural habitat. It is the kid with the magnifying glass who accidentally now and then sets the grass on fire. For those who hate what criticism stands for, it is the dissection of art by analysis. But it is also a study of humanity, and the human brain, of how we relate to each other and process those relationships, of why we do what we do whether we are stringing words together in eloquent composition or jumping out of the shadows in fun. Writing – like all human endeavors – says something about how we are put together.
Stuffiness aside, let’s all be honest here: no literary critic can transform a work magically into Literature. It either is or it isn’t. Literary critics were just among the first to begin trying to point out the differences, and publishers saw the advantages of a good critique.
Horror as such was dismissed because to early critical views, its sights were not set high enough. The purpose of Horror seemed to be simply to titillate and amuse, to shock and sensationalize. Its authors were frequently ne’er do wells, misfits, and often women. Its “messages” were unwelcome and therefore trivialized. It exploited superstition and ignorance and gullibility in a time of enlightenment and technological growth.
But Horror has never really been locked into one dimension, because even at its worst and most trite it says something about our culture. As literary criticism began a free-fall into its stagnant period during the 70’s and 80’s, it became evident that criticism itself needed to grow and change because the few theories that it had on the books were no longer adequate to explain or contain the explosion of works that saw publication during the heyday of print and the subsequent renewed interest in classics and definitions of literature. In other words, it became clear that literary theory was indeed onto something, but did not have enough depth, substance and/or versatility to continue in its current state.
Like all things, writing, criticism and literature were emerging from a man-cave. It became clear that sometimes writings were meant to identify cultural or societal issues that did not fit neatly into the established boxes of literary criticism. Changes had to be made or whole genres would be forcibly excluded from literary criticism. The sheer number of those works, their popularity, and the growing suspicion that something more than simple plots were being executed in them became the smoking gun. Horror languished as one of those genres – until Hollywood got into all of our heads.
With the growth in film as entertainment came the renewed need for reviews and criticism, and the undeniable popularity of Horror began to exert its influence and bleed all over the literary critic. But here’s the thing: with the ease of publication comes the slipping of standards.
The critic is right to worry that a high volume of fiction fraught with grammatical errors and editorial questions signifies an erosion of our ability to compose literature. Just look at the numbers of amateur writers today who assume it is the editor’s responsibility to “fix” the mistakes of the writer. Why shouldn’t the critic fear such blatant forays into illiteracy when the same critic has not yet unraveled the mystery that started it all? From the mass production of Horror in the 70’s and 80’s to the internet explosion of today, “uncontrolled” volumes of writing do pose curious threats and challenges to the literary critic who is used to a tightly executed editorial process.
While in retrospect we can justify the glut of mediocre works with the appetites and opportunities that some decades afford us, most writers at every level of publication are simply writing to survive. They tend to hope someone in their ranks is writing literature sometime. What new literary critical theories are revealing is: someone is, and very probably was creating real literature. And this time around, Horror is not exempt.
When Horror grows beyond the disgust, the indescribability, the revulsion and shock to expose a failure of self, society, religious or cultural norms, it is speaking to something greater than fangs and drool and the element of surprise. And in doing so, it suggests and invites theoretical analysis.
So whether one wants to shiver in a dark theater or set forth elaborate premises on the origins of Horror in relation to the Enlightenment and postmodernism, or to advance psychoanalytic or feminist theories about the aesthetics of “how it is possible for audiences to derive pleasure from any genre – including not only horror but tragedy as well – whose objects were things that ordinarily cause distress and discomfiture” (Carroll p. 179), the fact remains that the genre as a whole invites speculation and discussion. Horror has transfixed us with fear and loathing and some of us want to know not only how – but why.
Doesn’t this confirm that Horror has arrived on the doorstep of literary criticism at last?
Scholars like Carroll, Magistrale & Morrison seem to think so. In fact almost everywhere one looks in quality anthologies of the genre there is active discussion and theorizing in play. Whether one wants to explore the essays of S.T. Joshi, China Mieville, or those of Poe and Lovecraft, writers, fans and critics of Horror have been struggling to define the genre in literary terms from its early history – to explore its interests and effects, its creation and creations.
Therefore, I suggest to those fans of Horror who have long borne the colors onto the field of battle that the walls of the Establishment have been breached. Right now there is a need and function for the new literary critic and his or her ever more fascinating ideas about Horror Theory and how writers do what they do. In fact it makes for some darn interesting reading. Using the very weapons of criticism – theory and conjecture, discussion and analysis – Horror will at last devour the naysayers it cannot transform… because it will outlast them all.