copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
In previous posts, we have provided not only a justification for horror fiction but also several ideas as to its value beyond that of entertainment per se. This post discusses a similar, but broader, topic in an attempt to offer, if not the answer, at least an answer to the question of what is at the heart of fiction in general (and, consequently, of horror fiction in particular).
The answer--or an answer, at any rate--is mystery.
Mystery not in the sense that writers of mystery and detective fiction use it, but mystery in the sense that philosophers, theologians, and mystics use it. In this sense, mystery touches upon meaning and, if one sees teleology in the workings of the universe, probably, upon purpose, both of which (meaning and purpose) touch, in turn, upon value.
For some, life is invested with meaning by the creator, and this meaning is infinite and eternal. For others, life has no meaning but that which each individual imparts to his or her existence. For these folks--existentialists, for the most part--this meaning is not only finite and temporal, but it is also elusive. For others still--the absurdists, we may call them--life has no meaning. It is nothing more than a cosmic accident in which blind chance, rather than God’s will or personal choice, determines what becomes of all persons, places, and things.
Like any other genre of literature, horror is adaptable to any of these points of view, depending upon the writer’s worldview and that which his narrator adopts. Because it is so adaptable to even something as fundamental as one’s Weltanschauung, literature, horror fiction included, can address the widest array of natural, social, historical, psychological, philosophical, and theological considerations. There is room in the inn for all.
No single book, whether of science, sociology, history, psychology, philosophy, religion, or theology, can give a definitive answer to the great questions of human existence to which all will agree. Literature, however, is not this book or that book, but all books (and movies, too, for that matter). It is not only the stream of human consciousness, but the sea of knowledge and the mountaintops of wisdom and understanding as well--and the depths of the unconscious mind and the pathways to the stars. Literature is a telescope, a microscope, and a looking-glass, all in one. It is a catalogue of visions, complete with themes, or lessons, or morals.
In one story, a man may come to believe in God. In other, a man of God may lose his faith. A story may recount a knight in search of the Holy Grail, the chalice being a symbol for faith or, perhaps, for only the will to believe. A story may explain--or seek to explain--why there is no God or to show that the only gods that exist are the ones we make in our own images.
That’s what the mystery comes to, in the end. God is at the center, or, alternatively, nothing is at the center, of life. If God, he gives to existence the meaning he decrees it shall have. If nothing, either we impose meaning upon the world and upon ourselves or there is no meaning.
Horror fiction doesn’t solve the mystery of existence, nor does it demonstrate the purpose or value of life, any more than any other literary genre does. Thank God or goodness! For, if the mystery were solved, what would there be to write about? The wonder, the awe, the possibilities of existence would end. The stories would become The Story, advancing not another way of seeing or thinking or believing or hoping but simply another reiteration of the constant, unvarying refrain, and a refrain, beautiful and informative though it may be, is not a story.
How does the mystery of existence pertain, specifically, to horror fiction?
This genre addresses itself to the dark side of life, to evil and suffering, to what the Bible has called “the mystery of iniquity.” Evil is as mysterious, in its way, as life itself, for there seems to be no need for evil and no desire for it, among the normal and the sane, at least, and, yet, it exists; it persists. No one knows what to make of it. The ancients thought that it was either the result of ignorance or the result of merely negating the good. In other words, it was an act of the uneducated or it was a sin of omission. Evil was a passive phenomenon, in such conceptions, unable to do much by itself. History has since taught humanity a different lesson, not only with the holocaust, although the holocaust of itself might be a sufficient lesson--and is a sufficient lesson to those who are neither stupid nor of ill will toward others. Therefore, the question remains, Why is there such a thing as evil, and why does it persist?
Horror considers just such a mystery--“the mystery of iniquity”--and the great among its many authors have given, each his or her own, answer. None is definitive, but each is, as it were, a part of the gigantic jigsaw puzzle that is the heart of horror. In “Evil Is As Evil Does,” we mention the thoughts--or the conclusions--upon this matter of several masters of horror fiction. Is the search for the answer--or even an answer--to the question as to why evil exists itself a fruitful or a fruitless quest? The answer to this question must be answered by each individual, but we have suggested our own view concerning this question in the post “Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear.”
In this post, we are satisfied to conclude with just a syllogism, the validity of which is to be determined as you see fit:
All phenomena have a cause or causes.
Evil is a phenomenon.
Therefore, evil has a cause or causes.