It happens to all of us at one time or another. We’re at a party, the wine is flowing freely, and it comes out that we write, read or view stories of a particular genre. And to keep the conversation going, one of the other party-goers wonders: why would we wish to dwell on the ideas and feelings that emerge from that particular genre? Doesn’t real life have enough of those things, without having to dwell upon them further in fiction and film? Or, to get right to the subtext: Aren’t we a little unbalanced, for turning our imagination there, and away from more wholesome things?
And we always respond: What is wrong with enjoying a little vicarious despair through the occasional re-reading of Raymond Carver’s stories in Cathedral, or samples of the little-known Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s early ouvre? What have you got against a bit of vicarious frisky lovin’, such as Jennifer Cruzie pens? Aren’t there enough of those things extant in life, without having to dwell upon them in story?
Well, we don’t really. Because really, nobody suspects the morals of people who enjoy mainstream realistic fiction, or worries about the mental health of people who write and read a lot of romance (well, not much). But we who enjoy horror fiction – we raise questions… insinuating questions.
Sometimes, those questions can also be provocative and illuminating. The other night, I was out with friends at a party, and a fellow I’d never met started in on those lines. “I have to admit that I don’t like horror,” he said, to me and a few other horror writers. “Why would you wish to dwell upon such a thing constantly?”
He was coming at it from a Yogic perspective. If I took him correctly, he was starting from the notion that literature ought to help us reach for higher planes beyond the realm of the physical, and was curious as to how horror fiction could possibly fit into such a notion. To his mind, the genre was all about generating a simulacrum of mere physical fear and by that definition alone, it could not get beyond the Body, couldn’t be worthwhile to a reader interested in growth. So what good is it?
This is a tricky question for an artist to face – tricky, verging on ugly. Jiang Qing, the wife of Chairman Mao, was infamous during the Cultural Revolution in China shutting down performances and works of art that she believed did not reflect the tenets of the revolution. Measuring the worth of art to the extent that it either services or subverts an agenda is to set foot upon a very slippery slope.
The other writers present had the good sense to step off that slope, and one by one note the hour and excuse themselves. I myself did not. I have some ideas about horror fiction that I think do elevate it, and I trotted them out.
To begin with, I pointed out some obvious matters: horror fiction can be about spiritual matters and often is. Transcendence is a major theme in modern horror. The difference is that horror fiction often brings a skeptical eye to the idea of transcendence. The protagonist in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House certainly transcends the physical when she enters Hill House; by the end, her transcendental experience takes her from her body, and into the house itself.
One might argue that transcendence is also a powerful operant in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. There, little Regan catches a glimpse of the other side – and the other side comes here for a visit – through the cracks in the cosmos that emerged, as far as we can tell, from the unintended side-effects of Vatican 2.
The works of H.P. Lovecraft all speak of transcendence – with great and thoughtful nervousness. The ancient beings that inhabit the higher planes of existence are a constant presence, and Lovecraft’s protagonists are forever transcending towards them, screaming all the way.
It became pretty clear that I wasn’t selling my new friend on horror fiction. At one point, he suggested to my companion that he thought women might like horror better than men “because it gives them an excuse to cling to men” and repeated the notion that horror seemed to him to only deal with us as physical beings.
Given the context, I hope I can be forgiven for gently suggesting that while it might be helpful to think of ourselves as spiritual beings, the preponderance of evidence so far suggests that we are no such thing. And that if one found that notion distasteful – or simply the idea of horror distasteful – that my friend need read a coffin full of horror fiction no more than I need to read a stack of cozy mysteries.
But back to my quest to show horror as a legitimate read for people contemplating transcendence. I think it’s fair to say that horror fiction has a lot to say about the spiritual yearnings of humanity. Transcendence, and growth, and illumination are powerful themes in the collection of stories, novels and films that make up the genre of horror.
It’s just that horror’s not selling the idea of transcendence any more than is mainstream literature, cozy mysteries or hot category romance.
For that, you have to go to science fiction.