Tuesday, June 06, 2006


I've always been amused by the constant, unending dismissal of the horror genre by mainstream literary critics. You could just about do a book on the subject; hell, it took nearly a century for H. P. Lovecraft to get the credit he deserved, but that's the way these things work most of the time. Rafferty is then, of course, obligated to get his apology out of the way in the first paragraph of his piece, but once that's done, he gets into some interesting waters:
The ability to embody your fears and anxieties and revulsions metaphorically may or may not give you pleasure or contribute in any measurable way to your mental health, but it's a perfectly legitimate function of the working brain: one of those operations that help you maintain the appropriate respect for the power and weird beauty of unreason, its relentless prankishness, its capacity to prick us with sudden joys and sudden dreads. Horror fiction, even at its direst, frequently betrays an unexpectedly giddy quality, a sense of heedless, headlong freedom that's the proper effect of a good metaphor, building and rolling and breaking like a wave of the sea.

As with all genre fiction, horror writers work too much and too fast, too often rely on serviceable but weary conventions to get themselves through a rough patch of plot and are generally rather too quick to sacrifice aesthetic unity to speed and raw shock. But the reckless grip-it-and-rip-it approach to storytelling is less damaging to this genre than it is to, say, detective fiction, because the feeling of being at least a little out of control is basic to the experience of horror. What's terrifying in a story by Stephen King or Peter Straub is, finally, nothing less than the sensation of pure helplessness, of confronting something that cannot be conquered — or regulated, or even understood — by reason alone. At its worst, horror is just a scary, kind of exhausting amusement park ride. But at its best, it can produce effects close to Rimbaud's ideal: the derangement of all the senses. If that's your thing.
I always responded to the metaphorical side of top-notch horror lit; the sense that the worst nightmares were all around you, in the everyday world. Gore and bloodshed weren't really the attraction; I grew up in farm country and saw more than enough carnage to numb me to its fictional counterpart. Few, if any, horror books/movies ever really frightened me; suspenseful they could be, yes, but not necessarily terrifying in the sense that I had to go to sleep with the nightlight on and the closet door flung wide open.

But the horror genre is one that not only embraces the dark side of humanity, but runs towards it, to learn more. Of all the writers I can think of with an esteemed literary pedigree, only Joyce Carol Oates comes to mind as an example of a writer who's taken horror conventions/tropes and bent them to her will, and not gotten blackballed as a genre hack in the process. (I'm waiting for someone to correct me here...) Horror, to me, is an immensely fertile ground for metaphor and drama, a genre you can really put to interesting use if you're so inclined, and Rafferty's piece is a very welcome exploration of its possibilities.

So anyhow... go say hi to Damien today.

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