Thursday, July 16, 2009

O! The horror, the horror!

horror novel, the--a genre which the reader knowingly seeks in anticipation of experiencing fear and possible revulsion; narratives which exploit the hidden menace in ordinary characters and details.

Just as historical fiction has morphed into a convenient hybrid force combining it with the likes of romance, mystery,fantasy, and speculative fiction, horror fiction has proved agreeably flexible. So long as one or more characters is placed in chilling, frightening circumstances, horror stories are appropriately set in past, present, or future surroundings in which other generic categories play supporting roles.

The quintessential late twentieth- and early twenty-first century horror writer is Stephen King, whose prolific output of fiction might cause the reader to overlook his text-book-perfect 1981 publication, Danse Macabre, a personal-but-highly evolved history of horror fiction and, via the frontage road of subtext, an excellent resource for horror writers.

The primary goals of horror fiction include frightening the reader, unsettling, disorienting, and bombarding the reader with potential conspiracy theories that often involve supernatural elements. Haunted houses are so plentiful in horror fiction that they have become a sub-genre. Vampires are another recurrent horror theme, with zombies and werewolves representing yet another fork in the road.

Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde, certainly fits the category as does Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Another contemporary writer to consult for insights into the medium is William Peter Blatty (1928--), whose The Exorcist uses the extreme vulnerability of a twelve-year-old girl as a host for invasion by a malevolent, deamonic force, and allows a natural match-up between dark forces and religion.

Henry Farrell (1920-2006) produced instructive examples of horror fiction with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and How Awful About Alan.

In Danse Macabre, Steven King has credited Ira Levin's 1967 novel, Rosemary's Baby, a progressively more horrifying novel in which a vulnerable protagonist is impregnated by a demonic force, as his early inspiration.

Not to forget William Faulkner's notable horror story, "A Rose for Emily."

Nor to forget Howard Philips Lovecraft (1890-1937), whom Steven King has also called out as the greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale in the twentieth century. Lovecraft, a brooding cynic and pessimist, was in his way a polar opposite of the religion-based optimism of C.S. Lewis; he relentlessly took on such major icons as Romanticism and Enlightenment, saving major dramatic thrusts, almost as though he were a Cyrano de Bergerac in a sword fight, against Christian humanism.

Until Stephen King's popularity became established, horror fiction was more likely to be shelved in libraries and bookstores as weird fiction or weird stories. Indeed, a major pulp magazine published between 1923 and 1954, and which featured stories by Lovecraft, was called Weird Tales.

Hint: If the explanation for the horrific or supernatural elements in a story is too rational, the work is more likely science fiction or at least speculative fiction than it is horror.

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