What Good is Horror?


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I hear it all the time: why do you spend your time on horror when there are so many other "good" things you could be writing?

And it's a legitimate question. A lot of people's opinions on horror are shaped by the images they see on movie trailers, or confined to the vague idea that horror is something best kept on the back shelves of the book store.

Certainly the average horror novel cover doesn’t do much to dispel that myth, either: disturbing images, creepy figures half-hidden (if we're lucky) in dark mists... about the only things they all have in common is that 1) they seem a bit less polished than, say, the cover for The Joy Luck Club, and 2) they are designed to elicit fear.

A lot of this is just economic realities: as one of the red-headed stepchildren of publishing, horror has often gotten less-than-prime marketing; has often had to settle for covers that were slipshod or second-rate. Not always, of course, and things are improving a lot as the years go by, but it's no secret that for decades the covers of horror novels pretty much all involved blood, guts, maybe a bit of flesh peeking out of a torn dress, and a half-seen monster or two.

And even now, when there's more money and care to be had, a lot of said money goes to things like Hostel Part 42 or Saw 18: The Last Gut-Wrenching. So again, no surprise that people have a concept of horror that often skews toward the obscene.

And the reality is that there is a lot of horror that's designed (or so it would seem) solely to elicit a gag reflex. Some so-called horror writers think the secret to horror is guts, gore, and gobs of goo. But they're not really creating horror.

They're creating pornography: a series of visual or mental images devoid of any emotion other than the minimum required to elicit a physical reaction.

Still, horror - real horror - is different. It's a special class of literature that serves to remind us that there is evil abroad in the world. That there is terror outside our houses... sometimes even right in our own bedrooms.

But that's only half the story of horror.

The other half is just as important: because horror, at its best, serves not only to terrorize, but to remind us that we are better than our fear. It drags us to the depths, yes, but then lifts us up again... and in so doing, reminds us that though we have a near-infinite capacity to fail and to fall, so also we have the ability to rise above ourselves. We can survive, we can thrive.

Evil and tragedy are realities, both in life and in fiction. Avoiding them only weakens the stories we tell. I'm not saying we have to dive into the sewers of our darkest impulses for no other reason than because we can, but I do believe that it is only after surviving the darkest hours that we can truly appreciate the brightest days.

A final thought on the brightness that is only possible in horror:

I have a beautiful wife. And by beautiful, I mean stunning. She is so pretty that the first few times I saw her I could barely talk - not a normal occurrence for me.

Now jump to another thought (I promise, it'll all link up eventually): my gorgeous wife and I lost a child. Years ago. It was - and continues to be - one of the hardest things that either of us have ever gone through. But juxtaposed with that memory, that true horror (one which I dealt with in later novels), is a memory of my wife's beauty. Because the time I remember her being her most beautiful was not the first time I laid eyes on her, it wasn't the moment I realized I was in love, it wasn't our wedding day or the births of our healthy children.

It was in a hospital. There was blood on the sheets, tears in our eyes. Our child was gone. And my wife, through her tears, looked at me... and smiled. She held my hand and said, "It's all right. It's all right."

She was so beautiful.

Horror takes us far beyond what is comfortable. It takes us far below what we feel we can endure. But on the other side of horror, there is light, and beauty, and peace.

And this, my friends, is why I spend my time on horror rather than on "good" stories: because horror leads, in the hands of the best writers, inexorably to the "good" stories. They are one and the same.