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Re-Examining My Stance on Horror

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Introduction

Ever since I started Notes in the Margin back in the late 1990s, I’ve been saying that I don’t like, and therefore don’t read, horror literature, particularly books about vampires, werewolves, and zombies. However, lately I’ve read several articles about horror that have convinced me it might be time for me to re-examine my position on reading it. After all, the whole world is currently experiencing a particular kind of horror.

This summer, as the world was thrown into uncertainty by a pandemic and our collective sense of normalcy was lost, readers flocked to horror novels, propelling tales of terror onto bestseller lists in a way the genre hasn’t seen in decades.

Michael J. Seidlinger

I understand that vampires, werewolves, and zombies can function as metaphors for the state of human existence. I just don’t like reading about them. I can’t really explain why, just as I can’t explain why I don’t like liver. I just don’t. 

But I do like a good ghost story

I recently read and enjoyed The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James. In her discussion of the difference between thrillers and horror, Anna Gooding-Call says that this novel is horror rather than a thriller because it involves actual ghosts. And that makes me wonder if there are other kinds of horror literature that I might like as well.

What Is Horror Literature?

To start at the beginning: What is horror literature?

The New York Public Library Literature Companion defines it this way:

Horror story: “A story designed to frighten its readers. Fear may be evoked through some combination of supernatural and fantastic elements, the suggestion of violence, the macabre, and psychological torments, the latter particularly important as many writers have exploited the dark and profoundly terrifying reaches of the reader’s own mind. Its roots are intertwined with those of the Gothic novel; the two genres emerged in the 18th century as a form of amusement that thrilled through terror” (p. 650).

The website Literary Terms offers a similar definition:

In literature, horror . . . is a genre of fiction whose purpose is to create feelings of fear, dread, repulsion, and terror in the audience—in other words, it develops an atmosphere of horror. The term’s definition emphasizes the reaction caused by horror, stemming from the Old French orror, meaning “to shudder or to bristle.” . . . Horror feeds on audience’s deepest terrors by putting life’s most frightening and perplexing things—death, evil, supernatural powers or creatures, the afterlife, witchcraft—at the center of attention.

Most of the definitions of horror that I’ve read are descriptive: horror literature creates an overall atmosphere of feeling that can range from generalized dread to outright fear. As Anna Gooding-Call puts it, “The goal of horror is to evoke existential terror, disgust, or revulsion. If it’s eerie, it’s horror. Look for lots of supernatural goings-on and big metaphorical statements about society.”

A salient characteristic of horror literature is that it presents dualities, things that both attract and repel us. Just as people can’t resist slowing down while driving past a bad accident on the highway, we can’t look away. Horror literature produces the ambivalent feeling of both pleasure and disgust.

During my research about horror I found particularly interesting discussions about the overlap between what we commonly call literary fiction and horror literature. Christopher Shultz offers a list of 10 novels, ranging chronologically from Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus (1888) by Mary Shelley to The Fever (2014) by Megan Abbott, “that effectively utilize horror elements.” 

Marc E. Fitch goes so far as to say that all literature is based on horror:

Literary fiction, while often embracing a wider range of human emotion and experience [than horror], is built on a foundation of suffering, despair and the prospect of each individual’s approaching death. Death—and the forms it takes—is the ultimate human fear.

Much literary fiction, Fitch argues, “[causes] us to confront our mortality through the everyday tragedies of life.” Fiction deals in our feelings of guilt, remorse, and unfulfilled longing. “Literary fiction, in its attempt to confront reality, is built on a foundation of insanity, meaninglessness, brutality and death.”

I find Fitch’s view of literature and life overly pessimistic, but I sympathize with his notion that literature often examines human imperfections in our efforts to understand and cope with the realities of existence.

But I agree with the notion that there’s a close relationship between crime fiction and horror. I read a lot of mysteries and psychological thrillers, and many of those books, with their emphasis on fear, push right up close to the boundaries of horror fiction. I didn’t realize just how close the two genres (crime fiction and horror) can be until I read Anna Gooding-Call’s article about the differences between thrillers and works of horror.

Max Booth, III, also appreciates the close relationship between crime fiction and horror:

the great thing about these two genres is, they so often tend to blend beautifully together. When I think of crossover genres, horror and crime are perfect companions. They’re the peanut butter and jelly of genres. Sure, you can have one without the other, but . . . they blow your mind when you combine them. 

Among the books Booth discusses in his article about horror-crime crossovers is Red Dragon (1981) by Thomas Harris, the novel that provides the backstory of one of recent literature’s most notorious villains, Hannibal Lector: “it’s the way Thomas Harris portrays the Red Dragon’s voice that cements this one as a perfect horror/crime crossover.” I have read Red Dragon and found it riveting, but I continue to refuse to read (or see the movie) The Silence of the Lambs because I don’t want to read about cannibalism. 

One of my particular areas of interest is the intersection between literature and psychology and what literature can teach us about psychology. The Silence of the Lambs appeals to me because of its purported psychological interplay between Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling. But despite the book’s appeal, I’m not going to read it because I don’t think I could stomach the cannibalism.  (My stomach feels queasy from just writing about it.)

And here I think I’ve finally found out what I wanted to know when I began thinking about horror literature: given the relationship between thrillers/mysteries and horror, I need to understand exactly where my boundaries between them lies. Max Booth’s article has helped me begin to figure that out. 

I’ve read two of the other books Booth discusses, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn and In the Woods by Tana French. He calls both dark thrillers, and I certainly agree. But neither of them bothered me the way thinking about reading The Silence of the Lambs bothers me. Booth’s description of French’s book applies here: “There is always a hint of something … deeper going on in her books. . . . We’re dipping our toes in the possibility of something cosmic happening, but we’re never actually taking the full dive.” 

At the other end of the spectrum is the other book from Booth’s list that I’ve read, Sarah Pinborough’s 2017 novel Behind Her Eyes. As Booth acknowledges, you can’t say much about this novel without giving too much away, so I’ll just say that this is the novel that prompted me to think about what horror literature is and isn’t. Although I see this title on a lot of lists of horror works, I don’t classify it as horror. Thinking about this novel doesn’t make me queasy, as The Silence of the Lambs does. It just makes me angry. I know that’s cryptic, but it’s the best I can do here. If you’re curious, read the book (but don’t say I didn’t warn you).

creepy ghost and spooky house: Thoughts on Horror
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Why Horror Appeals to Us

If horror literature makes us feel uncomfortable emotions like fear and disgust, why does it appeal to readers so much? Michael J. Seidlinger explains the appeal this way:

readers continue to turn to horror to confront reality, as well as for a good old-fashioned, albeit terrifying, escape. It helps when the escape gives readers the chance to trust in the narrative and know well that the horror on the page is far more controllable than the horror outside their front doors.

Or, as Xavier Aldana Reyes writes, “With horror novels and films, you know you’re experiencing fear in a safe space that you ultimately control.” 

But Reyes also writes, “In a sense, what scares us most about horror is often ourselves, where our minds will take us, which is coloured by our experiences and tastes.” And this is the experience that all literature gives us, the opportunity to learn about ourselves by watching what fictional characters do.

In fact, Reyes’s discussion of horror arrives exactly at the heart of where literature and psychology intersect:

There’s nothing more fearful than the mind; it’s where all our fears collect. When you’re experiencing fear through the psychology of someone whose grasp on the world is already compromised by their circumstances, that makes it even more powerful. The scariest of literary horrors are, in my view, not just conceptual, but also linguistic. They activate something personal. And that’s why horror is both shareable and private.

Books to Read

Reyes’s point about horror as a personal experience reinforces my earlier suspicion that I need to examine my own limits in terms of what horror I care to read. I think I’m still not terribly interested in zombies, werewolves, or vampires, and I know I don’t want to read pure gore (splatterpunk) such as a title like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre suggests. From my research, I’ve compiled a list of five recent novels that may allow me to probe further my horror comfort zone. 

The descriptions here are from Goodreads, followed by my reasons for choosing each book. 

1. Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

No visitors. No nights spent away from the apartment. No disturbing the other residents, all of whom are rich or famous or both. These are the only rules for Jules Larsen’s new job as an apartment sitter at the Bartholomew, one of Manhattan’s most high-profile and mysterious buildings. Recently heartbroken and just plain broke, Jules is taken in by the splendor of her surroundings and accepts the terms, ready to leave her past life behind.

As she gets to know the residents and staff of the Bartholomew, Jules finds herself drawn to fellow apartment sitter Ingrid, who comfortingly, disturbingly reminds her of the sister she lost eight years ago. When Ingrid confides that the Bartholomew is not what it seems and the dark history hidden beneath its gleaming facade is starting to frighten her, Jules brushes it off as a harmless ghost story—until the next day, when Ingrid disappears.

Searching for the truth about Ingrid’s disappearance, Jules digs deeper into the Bartholomew’s dark past and into the secrets kept within its walls. Her discovery that Ingrid is not the first apartment sitter to go missing at the Bartholomew pits Jules against the clock as she races to unmask a killer, expose the building’s hidden past, and escape the Bartholomew before her temporary status becomes permanent.

I enjoyed Sager’s two earlier books, The Last Time I Lied and Final Girls. But I put off reading the last two (this one and Home Before Dark) because the descriptions sound as if they may feature supernatural elements.

2. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

. . .

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today.

I heard of this novel in relation to the HBO series based on it. I’m particularly interested in reading the book to see how it uses horror elements as symbols (personifications?) of racism in U.S. society.

3. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find – her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

. . .

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

This book has gotten almost universally good reviews. But I particularly want to read it because I’ve read a couple of articles in which the author insists that the novel is gothic horror. This book most likely illustrates the relationship between horror and the gothic novel.

4. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Set on the obligatory English moor, on an isolated causeway, the story has as its hero Arthur Kipps, an up-and-coming young solicitor who has come north from London to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The routine formalities he anticipates give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister and terrifying than any nightmare: the rocking chair in the deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and most dreadfully–and for Kipps most tragically–The Woman In Black.

The Woman In Black is both a brilliant exercise in atmosphere and controlled horror and a delicious spine-tingler–proof positive that this neglected genre, the ghost story, isn’t dead after all.

As I said at the beginning, I like a good ghost story. This book also has roots in the gothic novel genre.

5. Home Before Dark by Riley Sager

In the latest thriller from New York Times bestseller Riley Sager, a woman returns to the house made famous by her father’s bestselling horror memoir. Is the place really haunted by evil forces, as her father claimed? Or are there more earthbound—and dangerous—secrets hidden within its walls?

This is the other Riley Sager novel that I’ve hesitated to read. (See entry #1.) Here’s another potential ghost story as well as the trope of a writer as character.

Study Notes

Articles mentioned in This Post

Booth, III, Max. “20 Essential Crime and Horror Crossovers”

Fitch, Marc E. “Literature Is Built on a Foundation of Horror”

Gooding-Call, Anna. “Thriller vs. Horror: Your Guide”

The New York Public Library Literature Companion, ed. Anne Skillion (New York: The Free Press, 2001)

Reyes, Xavier Aldana. “The Scariest Books”

Seidlinger, Michael J. “Bookish Trend: Horror Returns From the Dead”

Shultz, Christopher. “Where Lit-Fic and Horror Converge: Ten Literary Chillers”

Additional Resources

Andrews, Jazlyn. “Unable to Turn Away: Exploring Inescapable Experiences of Horror”

Jones, Stephen Graham. “How Horror is the Puppet of Your Own Terror”

McCormack, J.W. “Interview with Brian Evenson” in The White Review

Temple, Emily. “10 Works of Literary Horror You Should Read”


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Author News Last Week's Links Literary Criticism

Literary Links

14 of the Scariest Books Ever Written

Halloween reading season is upon us. Leila Siddiqui, declaring that “as readers, we love the sensation of being scared—it is adrenaline-inducing and addictive,” offers her list of reading material for the season.

THE WOMEN WHO SHAPED THE PAST 100 YEARS OF AMERICAN LITERATURE

This article from Smithsonian Magazine spotlights a show at the National Portrait Gallery that features “such literary giants as Toni Morrison, Anne Sexton, Sandra Cisneros, Ayn Rand, Jhumpa Lahiri, Marianne Moore and Jean Kerr. Collectively, the museum notes in a statement, the women represented have won every major writing prize of the 20th century.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen, 1st Asian American Pulitzer board member, on how his new role transcends literature

Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016 for his first novel, The Sympathizer. Now the Aerol Arnold Chair of English at the University of Southern California, he has been appointed to the Pulitzer Prize Board as the first Asian American in its 103-year history.

“In all the realms of artistic productions in this country, it’s really in literature that Asian Americans have been the most prolific and successful,” said Nguyen.

What Is the Purpose of Literary Criticism?

In this partial transcript of a podcast discussion, Rumaan Alam talks with Charles Finch, author of the Charles Lenox mystery novels and the literary novel The Last Enchantments

A key part of the conversation is Finch’s notion of the purpose of literary criticism. He describes his job as a critic this way:

For me, books evoke a feeling first, and then you have to try to feel lucidly in words. When I read Ali Smith’s most recent book, it stirred up all these interesting and strange feelings in me. Then, as a critic, I had to go back and look at where I put an exclamation point in the margin, and I have to try to cobble together something lucid and intelligent and rational about that. That’s the art of criticism to me: trying to explain emotions, which, in a way, all art forms are trying to do through different means.

You’ll find a link for listening to the complete discussion if you’d like to hear more.

Thriller vs. Horror: Your Guide

With Halloween coming up, there’s a lot of discussion in literary places about thrillers and horror books. But what’s the difference between the two genres? Anna Gooding-Call offers some advice on telling them apart.

Thrillers, she says, usually build incrementally toward a climax. “Thrillers tend to be rooted in reality, albeit a reality filled with psycho killers and murderous butlers. Plot is important in a thriller, as is a good, strong villain.” But what you don’t usually find in a thriller is a ghost.

But while a thriller “builds toward a scream,” she writes, “horror is all about the background moan”: “The goal of horror is to evoke existential terror, disgust, or revulsion.” Horror characteristically features “lots of supernatural goings-on and big metaphorical statements about society.”

Gooding-Call lists a few examples of each to illustrate the difference.

With His New Mystery Novel, John Banville Kills Off a Pen Name

Here’s an interesting look at one reason why a writer might choose to publish under a pen name.

Charles McGrath describes Irish novelist John Banville as a perfectionist who typically takes “four or five painful years” to complete a novel. When, in 2005, Banville found himself writing a mystery novel, he was surprised at how quickly he was able to complete it. That novel, Christine Falls, was published under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Banville didn’t try to hide his identity as the book’s author but used a pen name to indicate that “John Banville had a dark other half who was up to something different.”

The author has published ten more books as Benjamin Black, but when his most recent novel, Snow, a mystery, is published in the U.S. next month, its author will be named on the cover as John Banville.

“What happened, Banville says, is that in rereading some of the Black books, he decided they were better than he remembered.” When he realized that he liked the Black books, he decided he no longer needed “this rascal.”

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Last Week's Links Literary History Reading

Literary Links

Looking at Epic Poetry Through 21st-Century Eyes

“New translations of the ‘Aeneid,’ ‘Beowulf’ and other ancient stories challenge some of our modern-day ideas.”

Classical epic poetry has been the basis of the Western literary canon for centuries and has helped shape social values and political identities as well as literary history. But new translations of such epics as Vergil’s Aeneid, Beowulf, and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene aim to bolster “a sense of urgency about restoring nuance to the public’s understanding of the [epic] genre”:

As a series of political crises have, in the West, posed fresh challenges to the stories that have shaped our norms and principles, those who study epics see critical readings as an increasingly vital endeavor.

Why Stories Makes Sense of Our Lives (and Relationships)

“What is the essence of a person? When we profess to know someone, that is, really know someone—like a close friend, or a husband or wife—what is it that we know?”

In this excerpt from  The Act of Living: What the Great Psychologists Can Teach Us About Finding Fulfillment, clinical psychologist Frank Tallis illustrates why “We have a natural inclination to think of ourselves—our past, present, and future—as an ongoing story.”

The Scariest Books

“Whether you’re scared most by graphic body horror, the uncategorisable, or the blurring of boundaries between supernatural menace and psychological unraveling, this list will have something for you.”

Xavier Aldana Reyes, editor of Horror: A Literary History, discusses five scary books. “With horror novels and films, you know you’re experiencing fear in a safe space that you ultimately control,” he writes.

Joan Frank ~ I Say It’s Spinach

Author Joan Frank explicates what she calls a tendency “to editorialize in the course of storytelling” that she began noticing in literary fiction a few years ago. She began noticing novels and stories that contain an agenda, “bearing a Message, with a capital M.”

While these agendas—on topics such as human rights, climate change, gender fluidity—may be well intentioned, she argues that they are not art. She argues that, although such causes are worthy and important, “They are not the story.” Furthermore, “I must insist that art that is art—at least in terms of literary fiction—wants nothing to do with lobbying or lobbyists.”

Also see propoganda novel.

An Elegy for the Landline in Literature

I am old enough to remember when a phone ringing in the middle of the night indicated that something very bad had happened. Of course, that ringing phone was a landline, the only kind of phone we had back in those days.

“Since its invention, in the nineteenth century, the landline has often been portrayed as sinister—the object through which fate comes to call,” writes Sophie Haigney. She discusses how the landline was used in literature “as an open line of possibility, just waiting to ring,” that has been eliminated by the ubiquitous cell phone.

How to read more books

kid with books

“Modern life can feel too frantic for books. Use these habit-building strategies to carve out time for the joy of reading”

I avoid advice on how to read more books that advocates speed reading because I believe that reading requires more time for interacting with the text than speed reading allows. Reading better is more important than simply reading more.

But this article is aimed at people who in the past have loved their reading life but, because of the proliferation of forms of information delivery and entertainment, haven’t been able to give pleasure reading the attention they’d like. 

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Author News Book Recommendations Fiction Last Week's Links List Writing

Last Week’s Literary Links

10 Best Whodunits

I love a good mystery! Here mystery novelist John Verdon (his latest book is Wolf Lake, featuring NYPD homicide detective Dave Gurney) offers a list of “ten remarkable works, each of which has a special appeal to my whodunit mentality”:Cover: The Crossing by Michael Connelly

  1. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
  2. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  3. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  4. The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald
  5. On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill
  6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
  7. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
  8. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
  9. Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason
  10. The Crossing by Michael Connelly

I love that he has included literary classics as well as classic mysteries. And since I’ve only read four of these books (numbers 1,2, 8, and 10), I have yet some more titles to add to my TBR list.

Where Lit-Fic and Horror Converge: Ten Literary Chillers

While researching horror literature I came across this article by writer Christopher Shultz. Shultz addresses the snobbish discrimination between literary fiction and genre fiction (such as horror) to end up with a chronological list of 10 novels and short stories that use horror elements (dark subject matter, entities of a sinister and often supernatural nature, a sense of dread and terror) while also achieving standard criteria of literary fiction (complex characters, existential questions, and elegant prose):

  1. ‘Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus’ by Mary Shelley
  2. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
  3. “The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen
  4. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
  5. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates
  6. ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ by Ira Levin
  7. “The Companion” by Ramsey Campbell
  8. “The Paperhanger” by William Gay
  9. ‘Black Moon’ by Kenneth Calhoun
  10. ‘The Fever’ by Megan Abbot

I usually avoid horror, so I’ve only read three of these (numbers 1,2, and 4; and I’ve seen the film Rosemary’s Baby, if that counts). From Shultz’s descriptions I’m also thinking of adding numbers 5 and 10 to my TBR list.

SIX WRITERS ON THE GENIUS OF MARCEL PROUST

In honor of Marcel Proust’s 145th birthday on July 10, six current authors comment on why his work remains so important today. Contributing authors are Siri Hustvedt, Francine Prose, Edmund White, André Aciman, Aleksandar Hemon, and Daniel Mendelsohn.

The Failure of Language and A Dream of the West: An Interview with Bonnie Nadzam

Bryan Hurt interviews his friend Bonnie Nadzam, whom he describes as “someone who felt a dis-ease with conventional fiction and who sought to experiment and push against the boundaries of expectation and form.”

Nadzam is the author of two novels, Lamb (2011) and Lions (2016). Here are some of her statements about how and why she writes:

knowing a character is as complex a process as knowing myself. Both seem to involve a process of patience and observation, and of allowing space for unexpected things/motivations/behaviors to arise.

with Lions in particular, I did try to make the reader a character in this story, to the extent that the reader is tracking signs and assembling and telling stories alongside everyone else in the book. And everyone is mistaken; and also, by the end, everyone is also peculiarly exactly right.

I can’t just write fiction as though language were functioning and reliable. I also, however, don’t want to write heady philosophical fiction. So that means experimenting to find ways to drop into stories that are as unreliable as the language in which they’re written.

I suppose when I write fiction, it’s because there’s something I feel the need to express that I can’t get at intellectually.

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown