Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
It would seem that horror fiction, based as it is upon the appearance and elimination or neutralization--or the attempted elimination or neutralization--of various threats, would be a permanent fixture of literature, that its place among narrative and dramatic works would be secure, that its life, as it were, would be as eternal as some of its paranormal or supernatural antagonists’ existences. Oddly, such may not be the case. Fans of horror fiction may, someday, have to find their chills and thrills elsewhere than in pages or on film footage that is devoted to the horror genre.
It’s not that the world itself is any less dangerous a place today than it was in times past; if anything, the world is, in some ways, more dangerous than it has ever been before. (In other ways, of course, it is far safer.) Plenty of various threats remain. The problem seems to be that the authors of short stories, novels, and screenplays continue to write about the same old monsters: beasts, demons and devils, ghosts, ghouls, vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies, and the like, or, when they do, rarely, experiment with something new, as M. Night Shyamalan did in The Happening, the experiment is frequently less than chilling and thrilling and is likely, in fact, to be a dud, as M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening certainly is.
For a while, Stephen King, almost single-handedly, revitalized the horror genre by bringing ancient (and sometimes contemporary) horrors to modern, small-town America. Indeed, the townspeople of castle Rock, Derry, Jerusalem’s Lot, and Chester’s Mill are themselves shown to be, in their own ways, as monstrous and threatening as any of the paranormal and supernatural threats that appear in King’s fiction. However, even innovation, vigorously applied, soon breeds clichés (and, in King’s particular case, tends to produce quite a bit of smug, condescending, and self-indulgent diatribes against Republicans, conservatives, and fundamentalists, to name a few of the author’s favorite targets, among the corpses that typically litter his literature).
Out with the old threats and in with the new seems to offer a solution to the tried and trite, but this solution poses a problem of its own: from whence are horror fiction’s new nightmares to come? There are but two general sources for threats: internal and external. Internal, or psychological, threats are apt to be derived from either reason gone wrong, which is to say madness, or from emotion gone awry, or hysteria. The wellsprings of external threats seem, at first glance, to be both more plentiful and more diverse, but, in fact, they are limited as well, being either social or natural (unless one includes the supernatural realm as a dimension of reality). With only two types of threat, the internal and the external, at their disposal, horror writers seem limited, indeed, as to the sources for things that go bump in the night. Monsters, after all, cannot (yet) be ordered from mail-order catalogues or bought from fiendish supply warehouses.
What horror writers can (and should) do is what writers of other genres of fiction do: expand their concerns to beyond that of simply the introduction of monsters or monstrous threats and include areas of concern to human beings as human beings, which is to say, to matters that pertain to ethics, aesthetics, ontology, epistemology, metaphysics, theology, history, science, politics, art, athletics, economics, and so forth. Instead of the monster’s being the story’s be-all and end-all, he, she, or it should be subordinate to the story’s human characters, who, too often, exist (but seldom live) as only the antagonists’ targets and victims. Although horror fiction authors treat of such matters in a superficial way at times, few of them make human concerns the primary consideration of their short stories, novels, and screenplays. Writers who do treat such concerns with the depth and complexity that these matters deserve may well find themselves among the celebrated few whose works are among the best narratives and dramas of any genre, horror or otherwise, including William Shakespeare s’ Hamlet or Macbeth, Dante’s Inferno, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Charles Dickens’ “The Signal-man,” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and The Jolly Corner, Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque, William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds. Moreover, and more importantly, horror fiction will be a much better genre and one that is well worth reading (or watching).