This post is a bit of a cheat; I actually wrote it for an undergraduate English class. I apologize in advance for the length—I did edit it quite a bit—but it says exactly what I want to say about today’s H word, Horror.
What makes horror in a story work?
Stephen King is one of the country’s best-selling writers. Most of his past works are horror, in short fiction and novels. In 1981’s Danse Macabre, a nonfiction analysis of horror in print and film, he wrote regarding substance:
The melodies of the horror tale are simple and repetitive, and they are melodies of disestablishment and disintegration…but another paradox is that the ritual outletting of these emotions seems to bring things back to a more stable and constructive state again.
King essentially stated that by scaring ourselves, we gain control. In subsequent chapters, he detailed what scares people in various time periods. When examining different works by authors from Bram Stoker to Richard Matheson, he focused on the elements of horror.
These vary through different times, according to what people perceive as a threat. If one examines the themes, they are remarkably similar; the foremost issue is the fear of death.
During the emergence of the Gothic novel in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the primary threat came from outside victims, in the form of vampires and other monsters who acted upon people. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, brought a futuristic element of science fiction into the horror story. Mary Shelley was fascinated with the latest information on galvanism, or the animating of dead flesh by means of an electric charge. Her scientific interests and a stormy night of ghost stories with her peers in Switzerland in the summer of 1816 combined in her imagination to produce a nightmare that has become an archetype.
In the twentieth century, the blend of science fiction and horror became the creature from outer space, as in Jack Finney’s marvelously creepy novel The Body Snatchers and the film The Blob. The monster is still an outside threat, however.
The Victorian era, named for revered Queen Victoria of England, encompassed her reign from 1837 to her death in 1901. It was an age of manners and morality. Social codes were incredibly strict. With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the vast amounts of money to be made from it, the gap between the haves and the have-nots increased.
The Victorians were also extremely religious. Their devotion to morals, correct social behavior and the improvement of oneself is reflected in their literature. In horror stories of the time there are plenty of ghosts and other entities that come at a whistle, or leer around the neighborhood “haunted” house. But the inner evil of man was beginning to emerge as a frightening element.
The scariest thing to a proper Victorian was losing one’s place in society or in heaven. In Bram Stoker’s1897 novel Dracula, the evil Count threatens not only the protagonists’ lives, but their afterlives. He dooms the hapless Lucy Westenra to a soulless existence as a parasite, until her fiancé Arthur Holmwood frees her with a well-aimed wooden stake. Interestingly, Dracula proved so popular that in over a hundred years, it has never gone out of print.
Changes in lexicon over the years date a piece of literature. One could look at Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” with its elaborate prose, and definitely say that this was a writer of the nineteenth century, while Robert Bloch’s story “Floral Tribute” would be obviously of the twentieth. The Poe story sets its reader in a murky, gas-lit world of dark, musty corners, black cats and eerie mystery:
During the whole of a dull, dark and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.
And Bloch’s matter-of-fact language is more like the brightly lit, modern parking lot in a suburban mall, spare and revealing:
They always had fresh flowers on the table at Grandma’s house. That’s because Grandma lived right in back of a cemetery.
“Nothing like flowers to brighten up a room,” Grandma used to say. “Ed, be a good boy and take a run over. Fetch me back something pretty….”
Both writers have created atmosphere with words; both opening passages tell us where we are immediately. The difference is in the use of the language. In one, circumstances are labeled; in the other, they are not.
Poe used many descriptive and emotional words to establish the setting – dreary, dull, soundless, oppressively, melancholy. Bloch did the same thing with fewer words. All he tells you is that it’s a cemetery. Your mind fills in the rest.
Would Bloch’s minimal prose be difficult for a Victorian reader? “Floral Tribute” is a story so subtle I had to read it several times before I understood that the main characters, except for Ed, were dead. The house behind the cemetery would scarcely be imaginable to a reader used to being told exactly where everything is, what it looks like, feels like, smells like and so forth. Without the help of the lexicon he was used to, the Victorian would be lost.
The writer’s task is to set the imaginings down in such a way that the reader is able to recreate his imaginings easily. By using elements of style and themes aimed squarely at the state of mind of the reader, the writer can touch the emotions and leave an impression that may stick around long after the lights are out.
So settle in bed and read W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” or Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows.” After lights-out, you may lie awake, staring into the dark, visions of resurrection and haunted groves of trees clashing through your frightened brain and wait for dawn, or sleep, or whatever comes first for you…
Share your recommendations for scary books or short stories, classic or contemporary, in the comments.