This requires context. It’s an essay I wrote for a course called ‘Novel & Genre’. I decided to focus on horror specifically because it was something new for me. This essay was a learning process for me. I found (and I write about) how some of the key aspects of horror are actually very present in books I class as influential to me. The main feedback I received from the marker was that I needed to extend the discussion of my own writing, and also use it to complement the theory I chose to discuss.
The horror genre is deceivingly difficult to define. When does a novel cease to be gothic and become horror? What is it that makes a certain book a horror and the next a fantasy or a mystery or a thriller? These are the questions that raised their ugly heads throughout my research into the subject. My answer to them was to look beyond the sensational tropes of horror – the invocation of fear, the violent and gruesome depictions and the otherworldly monsters (human or otherwise). It’s true, all these things can and do belong in a horror, but they are not the fundamental ingredients of it. The key aspects of the genre are far more abstract and they depend on one achieve horror. In this essay, I approach the core structure of the genre as a whole – those elements and tropes that were derived from the gothic, and which developed over time into a separate entity. These are the qualities that frame and give context horror’s subject matter of violence and gore, and it’s ability to scare us. I explore how these fundamental aspects work in the literary fiction that has influenced myself as a writer, and further extract these to propose how I might consciously use them to write my own horror novel that innovates within the genre.
The idea of a credible setting is a key element of horror novels, and one that is regarded as instrumental to their imminent success – or failure (Castle, 1987). These stories often take place in familiar settings – in the ‘normal’, which is to be disrupted as the story progresses. The life of the characters is established, as is their place within it, and the reader recognises this. Stephen King is often cited as an example of this technique, and Hanson (1990, 142) articulates this: “The surface of life is peeled back… to show the abject which lies ‘behind’ it, that which is ‘secret’.”
Lloyd-Smith (2004, 144-145), using the language of philosopher Lacan, identifies horror by a dichotomy between what he refers to as “the Symbolic” and “the Real”. He argues that where gothic fiction may invoke the uncanny and terror by disturbing or reorientating symbolic meaning within the story, “…horror comparably, is occasioned by the incursion of the Real” (2004, 144). This relates directly to the disruption of normality, which itself is defined by the symbolism of the story and the language in which it is told (Lloyd-Smith, 2004, 145). Setting, characters and events are disrupted or completely upturned by “the Real” – an event that is inescapable, lawless and impossible for the characters of the story to understand (Lloyd-Smith, 2004, 144-146). By way of this, horror is realised by the reader.
What readers actually find frightening about this, according to Saricks (2011, 19), is that these ‘real events’ are fuelled by what she calls “the unknown”. She says that fear is derived from “Not knowing where the horror comes from or when it will strike…” (2011, 19) and this is what works in conjunction with the establishment of normality and the intrusion upon, and disruption of that to help define the genre. Saricks argues that this is not only a tool to achieve sensation in readers, but a key identifier for the horror genre. She states; “…once the author starts offering rational explanations for the source of the horror, he has lost me as a horror reader…” (2011, 19). Saricks uses Justin Cronin’s The Passage as an example; “The explanation may not make the book less scary, but it does make it a fast-paced and suspenseful scientific thriller, not a genuine horror novel” (2011, 19). Compare this to historical examples such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Both are widely recognised as staples of the genre, dealing with significantly different subject matter. Today we can look at Frankenstein and perhaps apply scientific rationale to it, however for the time in which it was published, readers had no point of reference for the atrocities told by the story (Saricks, 2011, 19 and Seidman, 1992, 35). Dracula, deals with the supernatural – an undead being, the existence of whom readers cannot rationalise, even today. Herein lies “the unknown.” Bloom (1998, 14-15) contrasts this theory against opposing philosophical notions that horror is brought by those things we recognise in ourselves. Bloom does not disregard these opposing theories entirely, but cites Stoker, Lovecraft and Streiber to confirm that horror has significant stake in “… that which cannot be (against nature) and not something familiar but repressed” (1998, 16).
Freud’s (1919, 50-51) account of “the uncanny” is a theory with far-reaching application in fiction writing, and a useful way to locate what Bloom and Saricks are talking about in their arguments. Freud explains the uncanny as “…something which ought to have been kept concealed but which has nevertheless come to light…” (1919, 50). This statement consolidates the ideas of the ‘unknown’ (or ‘uncanny’) as what frightens us, as well as their manifestation and subsequent interruption upon the normal – their disruption of symbolism within a piece of fiction.
Seidman (1992, 35) acknowledges that a horror novel relies on the body of literature that has come before it to inform certain aspects of how a writer must operate within the genre. He states: “You cannot cavalierly have your werewolf immune to a silver bullet without explaining why. That “why” has an impact on other aspects of your story…” (Seidman 1992, 35). This addresses the mythology and folklore that have formed the foundation many horror stories are built upon – readers recognise archetypes of the genre, and with that recognition comes certain expectations. Seidman’s argument offers depth to Saricks’ commentary on innovation within horror, and leads to the notion that this is a very difficult thing to achieve, if a work is to remain a “genuine” horror.
The elements of the horror genre I have discussed here are not mutually exclusive. One cannot identify a work of fiction as horror without incorporation the other. The establishment of normality, reinforced by strong symbolic language, both of which are disrupted (for both characters and the reader) by inexplicable, impossible, or uncanny ‘real’ events - borne from that which is unknown, and other than human. Variables, and certainly other defining aspects of the genre include depictions of violence, accounts of the supernatural or explorations of madness. However, these elements must be placed within the horror genre by more abstract ideas. What I’ve discussed are the techniques I believe to be the underlying foundations of the genre that allow us to truly be scared by the stories that adhere to them.
I recognised these elements as ones at work in my own circle of influence. Whereas in horror they must exist simultaneously, certain aspects have been effective in texts I consider as important imprints on my own writing. While Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho is impossible to classify as a horror, it makes use of some of horror’s key elements – beyond the depiction of violence. The unknown and the conscious omission reasonable motives are both elements commonly at work in Easton Ellis’ work, and something that has heavily informed my own writing. Lunar Park shows how Easton Ellis fully embraced his own influences to write a “genuine” horror novel, and serves as a clear example of how the genre can be blended with literary fiction, as well as a host of other themes, techniques and generic conventions. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian uses heavy symbolism, which is at times disrupted by violent events beyond our rationale. Thus, characters and landscape are divorced from their symbolic meaning in the book.
Having analysed these elements – identifying their purpose and origins in horror and also their application in other styles of writing – allows me to now consciously apply them. My aim is to write a novel that remains a genuine horror, and one that maintains the influence literary authors such as Easton Ellis and McCarthy have had on my work. My approach, based on the research of this essay, will be to introduce conventions from other genres into the framework of horror I have outlined here, rather than attempt to extract or reappropriate the conventions of horror themselves.
Under the working title With It, He Goes On All Fours, my novel delves into Navajo history and mythology, and the legend of evil witches known as ‘yenaldlooshi’, or skinwalkers. Set in the early 1970s, we follow the story of Alisha, a young woman of Navajo descent. She lives and works on her family’s dude ranch in Arizona, where they rely on tourism to make their living. She returns home one day to find her family murdered and their bodies mutilated, and is subsequently hunted by the ancient and vengeful witches across badlands and through small-towns. Incorporated into the story is the significance of The Long Walk of the Navajo, as well as the socio-economic state of the country in this time period.
Immediately recognisable are conventions of the Western, in regards to setting, and also the travel narrative. Also involved here is an element of historical fiction, with the use of a factual history as a basis for the story. This historical element will heavily inform the symbolic language of the book – themes of nature and landscape and the wider notion of culture and human rights. The supernatural element of the witches constitutes the unknown, mirrored by Alisha’s venturing into the vast wilderness. The brutal violence exacted upon the characters by the witches is the disturbance of the symbolic - the shock of “the Real.” Making use of Western tropes, I have the hope that this shock will be more profound for the reader, as certain clichés are attacked by the uncanny. These things will frame those sensational aspects of horror – namely violence and gore, and the entry into the world of the supernatural.
To conclude, it seems horror conventions are widely recognised and applied to various forms of writing in order to create an atmosphere of uncertainty or genuine fear. However, these elements alone do not qualify a book as ‘genuine horror’ – the genre isn’t defined by simply saying, “It is frightening.” Of course, if a book isn’t frightening, it isn’t horror either, but what is important here is how that fear is addressed, and how a reader’s mind is manipulated to feel the fear. The fear felt in a horror novel is one rooted in not-knowing. Not knowing if what you are seeing is accurate, not knowing what is going to come next, and not knowing where the monsters of the story have come from, how they can exist, or what their motives are.
Bloom, Clive. 1998. “Introduction: Death’s Own Backyard”. In Gothic Horror, edited by Clive Bloom, 1-22. London: Macmillan Press.
Cart, Michael. 1997. “What Walpole Wrought; or, The Horror! The Horror!” The Booklist 94(4). 395-395.
Easton Ellis, Bret. 1991. American Psycho. London: Picador.
Easton Ellis, Bret. 2005. Lunar Park. London: Picador.
Freud, Sigmund. 1919. “Extract from ‘The Uncanny.’” In Gothic Horror, edited by Clive Bloom, 50-51. London: Macmillan Press.
Hanson, Clare. 1990. “Stephen King: Powers of Horror”. In American Horror Fiction, edited by Brian Docherty, 135-154. London: Macmillan Press.
Lloyd-Smith, Alan. 2004. American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction. New York: Continuum International Publishing.
McCarthy, Cormac. 1985. Blood Meridian. London: Picador.
Nance, Kevin. 2008. “Invasion of the Genre Snatchers.” Poets & Writers 36(5): 12-15.
Saricks, Joyce. 2011. “At Leisure: Reconsidering the Horror Genre.” The Booklist 107(22). 19-19.
Seidman, Michael. 1992. “The horror novel.” Writer’s Digest 72(10). 35-35.
Castle, Mort. 1987. “Reality and the Waking Nightmare: Setting and Character in Horror Fiction.” Horror Writers’ Association. Accessed September 1, 2011. http://horror.org/writetips-castle.htm.