Horror, Science Fiction’s Unholy Spawn…and Father

Tuesday , 27, January 2015 7 Comments

Bad Miracles of Medicine Have a Rich Tradition in Science Fiction

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:

Emotional content.

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.

I’ve got posters on the wall, My favorite rock group KISS, I’ve got Ace Frehley, I’ve got Peter Criss

 

Unpalatable ideas like:

  • Man is a lone victim of scientific abuse. (Frankenstein)
  • The beloved Empire is not forever, and the dead will rise. (Dracula)
  • The world would prefer you as its slave, and will seduce you there if necessary. (The House on Haunted Hill)
  • Single motherhood is symptom of social decay, no matter how noble an individual mother. (Cujo)
  • Societies divide ever into nations and they will always fight, so know your side. (The Stand)
  • Sins do not wash clean in silence (Ghost Story)
  • The world is fundamentally unfair and rigged against faith. (The Exorcist)

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.

7 Comments
  • Jill says:

    At core, horror faces the shadow side of humanity. If it does so honestly, it gives us the impetus to face our own shadows rather than denying them. It’s a relief to expose darkness for what it is. This is why I find utopianists and utopian fiction more horrifying than horror. I don’t know if utopian fiction is the same as what you all call “pink”, but I’m sure there is a convergence.

  • Daniel says:

    I consider the double utopia story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” to be one of the creepier horror stories around. The primary utopia is disturbing enough in all its cacophonous pageantry and orgiastic sublimity before you find the eternally tortured child who makes it all possible. The second utopia is the brave, brave, brave courageous running away of those few heroes who can’t stomach it.

    • I really enjoy that story, partially for that reason (I also think it’s a cool writer’s trick to add an entirely unbelievable and unexplained element to the story that paradoxically makes the whole thing seem to make MORE sense).

      I’m not sure this interpretation was the author’s intent, but I sure see it that way.

  • Daniel says:

    We dug into this one even deeper last summer. I think it came up in light of how the SFWA played a role in covering up/maintaining memberships/defending revered pedophiles:

    The Ones Who Walk…discussion

  • VD says:

    It is telling and the epitome of Pink SF to describe those who run away as courageous, those who stay and do nothing as the norm, and to not even CONSIDER going in with a flamethrower and ending the abomination.

    They can’t write heroism and principle and virtue, not because they can’t stomach them, but because they can’t even envision them.

  • Scooter says:

    I concur: moderns like horror because they get to believe in Hell again, but from a safer, less sulphuric distance

  • Steve says:

    I’ve read both of David Wong’s books (“John Dies At The End” and “This Book Is Full of Spiders”)

    Much as I hate and no longer visit the unfunny SJW toilet bowl that Cracked has become, Wong can write. He has a breezy style, humour and imagination. I liked his books.

    But I didn’t realise till now that they were supposed to be horror books. They aren’t scary. They’re gory and violent, but that’s not the same thing. And at no point in reading either book did I care about what might happen to the characters. There was nothing memorable about any of them, except John Cheese.

    Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 is a good book, with much stronger characterisation than Wong’s efforts. It’s still not scary though. But it does do creepy very well.

    I love the Dresden Files and Jim Butcher is one of those authors who will get my money any time he cares to publish a new book. But if those books are horror, it’s horror in the same sense as the “Goosebumps” series.

    Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the best horror story I’ve ever read. The darkest horror isn’t zombies or vampires or ghosts, it’s other human beings. And sickness. And want.

    It’s the fear that every father feels tickling the back of his cerebellum on sleepless nights – what if something happens, and I’m not able to protect my woman or my child?

  • Please give us your valuable comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *