Letters to a Young Horror Reader, Part One

Sophie writes, “Do you get creeped out when you read horror? I am so easily unsettled by what I read. Which makes me feel like maybe I’m just not cut out to read creepy books. But then I think, maybe being unsettled is the goal and the problem is that I just don’t like the feeling. Which is really just to say, I’m so creeped out right now! Why am I such a marshmallow!!”

Horror is the only genre named for its physical effect on you. The root of horror is horripilation, hairs standing on in response to cold, fear, or excitement. There is viscerality in horror, and we respond to that on a deep, primitive, emotional level.

I tend to talk about horror fiction with theme-park metaphors. Roller coasters, tilt-a-whirls, dark rides. They’re all devices trying to provoke a gut response. Trying to tap into the emotions we suppress in polite society.

William Hope Hodgson, an author of ghost stories who died in WWI, referenced “that delicious shiver” of a good scary story, where you feel like something is crawling up your spine. And I’d say that sensation is what most horror fans are seeking from the genre.

Like a roller coaster, it’s a moment of feeling out of control, even though you’re in a tightly controlled situation.

But there’s more to it than that. I like horror because I like monsters. And monsters help us explore the human condition through the mechanism of the inhuman.

Clive Barker and Poppy Z. Brite are a couple of authors who explored the human condition very effectively in their early work, and are also notable for using the form to examine and explore LGBT themes…

…with monsters.

Horror is also about transgression. Breaking rules. Putting yourself in a monster or killer’s head.

And it can be used to explore political or social themes in a way mundane literature cannot.

Because it’s willing to take on the outsider’s perspective.

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