I’m not a huge reader of horror, and I think that’s largely because I generally don’t find conventional horror fiction scary. I’m not sure why. I find horror films scary, in a way; not in the sense that I’m genuinely scared, but in the sense that I experience the cheap shocks and I appreciate the immediacy of the danger. I don’t feel scared in the same way when reading horror, however.
I’m talking about conventional horror here, by the way. Things about ghosts and vampires and werevolves and monsters and things.
Talking of which, Dracula wasn’t really a horror story. Not really. Nor was Frankenstein. The characters were converted into horror staples by film studios like Hammer, but the original novels were less about horror and more about the nature of life, the nature of existence, and the fact that the Victorians weren’t supposed to enjoy sex. Frankenstein’s alternative title – The Modern Prometheus – underlines that it is more about the ethical and existential implications of mankind playing at being god than about scaring the reader with a monster. Even I Am Legend wasn’t particularly scary; it too was more an exploration of what might happen to the “obsolete” forms of man if the species evolved into a new form. It’s more speculative fiction than horror.
The common factor between all of these “horror” novels was that there was no real sense of fear conveyed by the narratives. And I think that if it isn’t about fear then it’s not really horror.
Fear is one of the most basic human responses, and it evolved as a safety mechanism to protect us from the teeth and claws that lurked outside the light of the fire (essentially, if you weren’t afraid of sabre-tooth tigers then you probably wouldn’t live long enough to pass on your fearless genes, whereas all the scaredies would avoid getting eaten long enough to pork). As such, fear is deeply ingrained in the human consciousness and is possibly one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of the horror genre.
There are, perhaps, three different types of fear, which for want of better terms I’ll call Shock, Terror and Dread. Shock is the sharp, instantaneous response to a sudden, unexpected event, such as the apparition of a ghost in your bedroom or an alien leaping out of a dark tunnel, or, if you’re cheap and shlocky, a cat bursting out of a cupboard and yowling noisily. Terror, in this sense, is the emotional response to a dangerous situation that has occurred or is occurring, such as a shark biting at your legs or a ghost clown stalking you through your house with a lawnmower. Dread, finally, is the emotional response to a dangerous situation that has yet to occur, such as walking into a dark cellar that you suspect to be haunted, or becoming aware that the world will slowly but inevitably be overrun by Nazi horses.
The first two, shock and terror, don’t really work in written fiction; the first because reading about a shock is nothing like experiencing a shock, and the second probably because a book isn’t experienced in real time and if you put the book down then the “risk” disappears. Dread, on the other hand – the fear of what might be – works. If something hasn’t happened then the anticipation of that thing can take place at your own pace, and is not spoiled by putting the book down. It still remains there in your imagination.
This is why the books that I find the most scary tend to be the ones that are built around some kind of dread, either involving a situation in which the protagonist finds himself, or (and this is probably only true of science fiction or speculative fiction) a situation that could potentially occur to you or to the whole of mankind in the future.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy scared me, because the entire setting and atmosphere were built around something bleak and empty that could just feasibly happen to any of us. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, which I didn’t really like (for many reasons too tedious to go into here), scared me, because it highlighted the vacuity and mundanity of murder and showed how anyone could be a murderer. The Pit And The Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe scared me, but not because it involved impending evisceration; it scared me because the protagonist had no idea why he was there and because he had no apparent hope of escape.
I wrote a collection of three horror stories for Hallowe’en, called Totentanz (German for “dance of death” – the mediaeval allegory that death comes to us all, regardless of profession, rank or class), and rather than try to emulate traditional, conventional horror I wrote about the concepts that are scariest to me…which meant focusing on dread. The first story is about a man isolated in a strange country who sees unexplained images on his television and doesn’t know what they mean until it is too late. The second is about what it might be like to be a zombie, or, in other words, to be trapped in a body that you can’t really control (I think this must be some subconscious fear of paralysis or coma on my part). The third is about a magician who makes a decision early in his life that hangs over him for his entire life and ultimately dooms him.
There aren’t any shocks, nothing really gruesome or gory happens, and there is no sense of “terror”, but I think it’s pretty scary in the sense that it generates “dread” (one reviewer said that one of the stories “creeped him out”). It’s available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, if you’re interested.
The books I mention above, including my own, aren’t really “horror” stories in the traditional sense. They don’t involve mummies or aliens or poltergeists. But they are scary, and I think they are scary in a more profound way than any tale of the paranormal.