Now it is Michael R. Collings' turn.
Collings is a Professor Emeritus at Seaver College, Pepperdine University, where he directed the Creative Writing Program for over two decades.He has published over 100 volumes of poetry, novels, short fiction, and scholarly studies of such contemporary writers as Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Dean R. Koontz, and Piers Anthony. He has served as Guest of Honor, Scholar Guest of Honor, Poet Guest of Honor, and Special Guest at a number of science fiction, fantasy, and horror conferences, including HorrorFest ’89, Brigham Young University’s ‘Life, the Universe, and Everything,” World Horror Con 2008, and World Horror Con 2012. He has been an invited panelist on over 60 convention panels dealing with topics as disparate as Stephen King, the role of religion in science fiction, and the nature of horror poetry. With his wife Judith, he has also published a unique cookbook, Whole Wheat for Food Storage: Recipes for Unground Wheat, a revision and expansions of their first joint project, Whole Wheat Harvest (1980). He is now retired and lives in his native state of Idaho.
By Michael R. Collings
Why do I read horror, write horror, write about horror?
Probably most horror writers have been asked these questions or something close to them. There is, after all, something peculiar about spending inordinate amounts of time imagining, re-creating, or analyzing darkness, particularly when there is already much darkness in the ‘real’ world.
Perhaps therein lies the answer, at least in my case. There is much darkness ‘out there’, so many things that seem uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Through horror, writers—and readers—may assert a kind of vicarious control over them, and by doing so fit more comfortably into the ‘real’ world.
Let me explain:
In his 1981 study of horror fiction, Danse Macabre, Stephen King discusses three levels of horror:
I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud. (Ch. 2)Revulsion—the Gross-out—is, as King suggests, relatively easy to achieve. It requires primarily quantities of blood and guts, graphic descriptions, and graphic language. The most vocal arguments against horror as literary genre concentrate on this level. At the other extreme, true Terror, the moment that generates a frisson down the spine just before the monster is revealed, requires extraordinary facility with language, characterization, and setting to accomplish, and only a few masters—among them Poe and Lovecraft, as well as King himself—create it consistently. When it occurs, and when Terror, Horror, and Revulsion are used critically and carefully, such literature may demonstrate a number of useful traits.
At the thematic level, horror can speak metaphorically or symbolically. Literary monsters may represent literal monsters that threaten everyday life. A vampire suddenly appearing in a small town and systematically preying on its inhabitations may simultaneously condemn the contemporary sense of isolation that afflicts most communities. People live separated lives; they do not notice the alterations in or absence of their neighbors until it is too late, when the bonds of civility have already broken and the sense of community disappears.
The vampire may exemplify the allure and the tragedy of uninhibited lust. By virtue of its existence—neither dead nor alive; its mode of feeding—penetration and bloodletting; and the inescapably body-oriented nature of its attacks—usually male upon female, the vampire can slip from a figure of horror into quasi-pornography, especially when the transmission of blood is described in loving, overly sensual detail; and at the same time it can indict the contemporary obsession with sexualizing people, usually women, into little more than objects of physical release.
The werewolf may represent the abrupt, inexplicable intrusion of death into a family or community. Unseen and unsuspected until it lashes out in rage and inflicts carnage on its victims, the werewolf parallels disease—cancer, for example—and its insidious rampage within a healthy body. It may stand for accident or fate; there is no cause, no rational or purpose behind its sudden eruption—it simply is, and by its presence it disrupts order and security.
Zombies epitomize the loss of agency and rationality. Probably their unusual popularity at the moment reflects a cultural fear of helplessness and hopelessness in the face of global threats: wavering economies, potential if not probable warfare, pandemics facilitated by technology. Everything considered normal may dissolve at any moment, leaving survivors surrounded by mindless, unfocused, ravening monsters whose sole function is to destroy any remnants of civility.
Most other literary monsters may serve parallel functions. Amazons demonstrate the threat of sexual disparity; Creatures from Other Dimensions, including Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, embody the threat of the unknown, of the breakdown of reason and intellect into madness. Ghosts, Demons, the Haunted Place/Bad Place, and other denizens of darkness—each may in its turn speak volumes about the human condition.
At the literal level, horror may work in a manner similar to classical tragedy. When written effectively, with an eye toward creating genuine terror rather than mere physiological revulsion, horror may combine pity and fear to achieve a kind of Aristotelian catharsis focused on the purging of one specific strong emotion, namely, fear itself. Horror allows readers to confront an object or objects of pity, usually victims, frequently innocent or inoffensive victims; and an object of terror, horror, or revulsion, the monster or monsters; and by juxtaposing the two, feel legitimate fear while in a safe, controlled environment. This fear may in fact be physically expressed, through a rise in heartbeat, increased rate of respiration, even a literal chill up the spine. In any case, the physical response allows the reader to experience and thereby purge the effects of extraordinary fear without physical danger.
Finally, on an ethical level, readers of horror more often than not confront the most literal sort of morality. Unlike in the experiential world, in the world of horror, actions that are evil, wrong, or even misguided have immediate consequences. Cause and effect are clearly linked. If a mad scientists creates a monster, eventually the monster turns on its creator. At least as far back as Shelley’s Frankenstein, this has been a leitmotif of horror fiction. The responsibility of creator to creature—and for the acts of the creature—in part defines the plot itself. If a teenage couple have illicit sex and thereby participate in an adult action without being prepared to accept the concomitant responsibilities, they die, frequently during the act itself. There is no reprieve, no opportunity for a second chance. Transgression leads to death.
It is possible for horror itself to be essentially immoral. Novels exist in which characters are introduced and almost immediately destroyed, merely for the sake of blood and gore. The monster itself becomes little more than a killing machine and the plot impelled not by causal relationships among episodes but by the simple need for more blood. The horror of unrelieved revulsion, in other words, runs the risk of existing solely for the sake of that revulsion, with little thought of creating the more transcendent horror or terror. Such fiction verges on the immoral, if not the obscene, not through the representation of unacceptable language or events but because of its cavalier attitude toward characters and their lives.
On the whole, however, those writers most frequently cited as masters in the field—Poe, Lovecraft, King, Koontz, McCammon, and a handful of others—consistently provide tales that, however close they come to mere revulsion, ultimately lead the reader to a heightened sense of morality, of catharsis of fear, and of the relationship between story and life, between characters and the reader.
In a recent afterword to his 1987 novel Shadowfires, Dean R. Koontz considers the question of what constitutes horror and why it is so often shunned as a genre. One of his conclusions is that horror concentrates its images and effects on death—death as theme, as plot device, as indicator of character. And in large part, what he suggests holds true. The major “monsters” of horror fiction are, by and large, the Revenant Dead, the Undead, and the Walking Dead—ghosts, vampires, zombies, Lovecraftian Great Old Ones long since vanished from this plane and seeking to re-enter it. Even the werewolf is in some ways a figure intimately associated with death—although the lycanthrope is still alive, he is an outcast, an ‘other’ essentially dead to the larger community.
Death is the beginning and end of much horror. It triggers the appearance of the monster, either literally, as the monster is called from death; or figuratively, as its victims announce the presence of the monster. It is the punishment meted to the unwary, the unethical, the unrighteous. As noted above, teenagers who engage in sex before understanding the adult responsibilities implicit in the act are punished by death. Mad scientists—and often even inadvertent meddlers in the true order of the universe—suffer death at the hands—or claws, or teeth—of their creations. Even the innocent die, often in gruesome ways, in order to underscore the leveling power of horror…and of death. It is not accidental, of course, that so many horror novels sport black covers; the archetypical cover may be the first paperback edition of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, almost pure glossy black, with no title, the embossed face of a girl…and a single crop of crimson blood. The essence of the novel was communicated forcefully and directly.
These are the things I consider when I read horror, when I write horror, when I write about horror. The experiences become passages through darkness into something else…the light, perhaps, or understanding, or consolation, or at the least relief—that the world ‘out there’ is not yet as terrifying, as terrible as the worlds of the imagination.
[Portions of this essay appeared as “The Peculiar Case of Horror” in Toward Other Worlds: Perspectives on john Milton, C.S. Lewis, Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, and Others (Borgo/Wildside, 2010). The original material has been rewritten and expanded.]