I do stress that being into science fiction and fantasy in a really knowledgeable way…was not in any way associated with nerd-dom or geek-dom. Being into that was more associated with finding yourself, with some degree of alienation, with the counter-culture, with various degrees of nature-ism or questioning modernism (in its plastic/boring sense), with political disaffection, with mind-expansion, and with being kind of a pain in the ass. Tons of really tough and messed-up kids I knew were heavily into science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
Ron Edwards, Game Designer (speaking of the 1970s and early 1980s)
We don’t need to debate whether or not science fiction starts with Shelley’s Frankenstein to understand that horror (or, as Boris Karloff preferred to call them “Tales of Terror”) is one of the three major subgenres of science fiction. The real question is Why?
I’ve got a Dungeon Master’s Guide
I’ve got a 12-sided die
I’ve got Kitty Pryde
And Nightcrawler too.
~In the Garage, Weezer
Now, this isn’t just a question that concerned mothers are asking of their 12-year old sons (or not asking of their 12-year old daughters) but it is also one that carries some deeper weight.
Horror in particular has always been the poster child for the respectable rejection of Science Fiction in general. When Stephen King was at his peak, so was his controversy, and the battleground was teenage readers. Before that, E.C. Comics (Tales from the Crypt) were the flashpoint for a major crackdown on comics in the 1950s, and the establishment of the Comics Code. Lovecraft’s legacy was nearly buried with the man after his death, and was only given revival through the earnest, if flawed, efforts of Arkham House Books.
Horror has always had a reputation for gore, violence and base, visceral unholiness. This is not always fair, but it is hard to argue with such a critique today. Take a look at the very “best” of contemporary horror and you will find Chuck Palahniuk, David Wong, Joe Hill and if you want to be very generous with the genre, China Mieville, Charlie Stross, Jim Butcher, (really squinting now) J.A. Konrath and Neil Gaiman. Palahniuk, Hill and Wong are really the only ones that go for the unadulterated, single genre “shivers and scares” of traditional horror.
And they are bloody awful.
I don’t mean in quality (at least not necessarily in quality) but in the centrality of the guts. Clive Barker became famous for out-gutting the competition with “Books of Blood” and the satanic charm of Hellraiser, and somewhere along the line, the potential gore element of horror has now become not simply the main element, but in many cases the only element. This is why contemporary horror movies have become dominated by – not just violence, but – torture porn and/or post-modern deconstructionist splatterfests (like The Cabin in the Woods).
Horror, on the grand scale, has lost what brought it to the genre dance in the first place:
The three subgenres approach and reveal truths in unique ways. Science Fiction examines the present through the lens of the near or distant future, providing anticipatory direction. Fantasy reflects on the traditions of the past (or pasts!) as a means of mooring the chaos of the present to its roots. I would argue that, in horror, it is the emotional content of the story which reveals unpalatable truths that slice through delusions.
Now, these truths are not necessarily central to the story, but they emerge in the telling, and cause unsettling realizations. Unsettling, not for the sake of subversion or shock, but for the sake of softening the reader to old – if unromantic – ideas.
Unpalatable ideas like:
I think that – at least for some of the “rough” kids – this is the appeal of horror. A lot of pop psychology basically boiled down the troubled “horror” kid into someone who sought the comfort of violence in books, because it was a reflection of the chaos in his life. The opposite is true: the monster is a talisman, a token of the truth that the kid can find in horror that he won’t find in the waking, enslaved world.
The very best of horror provides not the comfort of a soothing mother whose going to make everything better. It isn’t an ally in tragedy, either. The very best of horror is a teller of truths, no matter how scary those truths might turn out to be.