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Archive for May, 2010

Ever wonder about the first horror story?

Of the five w’s (who, what, when, where, and why), it’s the last one I’m curious about—why did they do it?

Picture this—two Cro-Magnon men go into a cave looking for shelter. A saber tooth tiger leaps out of the dark and tears one of the men limb from limb while his friend watches helplessly. Later, the man who escaped stands in front of the tribe and pantomimes what just happened with snarls and screams, dramatic gestures and wild facial expressions. The message? Don’t let this happen to you.

Is that what horror stories are meant to be? Cautionary tales? Don’t go into that cave. Don’t walk down that dark corridor. Don’t talk to strangers.

If that’s true, then every horror story must end badly (for the human protagonist, that is). And most of them do exactly that. There’s the smell of doom (physical, psychological, spiritual) at the end of almost every horror story.

Which raises the question—must every horror story end that way?

A dear friend of mine told me she had to abandon writing horror because she didn’t like the way it made her feel. Another highly respected writer recently confided online that writing horror was starting to bum him out (although he later said he was just kidding.)

Is that what comes with the territory?  Is reading and writing horror fiction (as its detractors and a few of its fans say) a potentially toxic experience, one we need to take period breaks from for the sake of our mental health?

Of course, horror writers are not the only ones who deal with disturbing material. The short fiction of Andre Dubus is full of the horrific things human beings do to each other. Men beat their wives and fling their sons across the room against the wall. Wives run down their husbands in their own SUVs and then torch their houses. Fathers execute the men who murdered their children and hide the bodies of strangers their daughters kill in hit-and-runs.

But despite all of this suffering and mayhem, Dubus’ stories somehow end on an up-note with a sense of hope and redemption that never feels forced or simplistic.

What horror fiction does that? Do hope and redemption have any place in horror?

I can think right now of two stories that answer that question in radically different ways.

Joe Hill’s story ’20th Century Ghost’ ends with the death of a character we’ve come to know and care about. He dies after an encounter with the ghost  of the young woman who haunts his movie theater. But instead of the familiar horror-story-ending-sensation of the crypt door swinging shut, Hill’s story opens outward with a feeling of freedom and release that’s powerfully moving.

How does he do that?

If you’ve read Hill’s story (and if you haven’t, you should) you might mistake it at first for a love story between the protagonist and the ghost, one of those “supernatural romances” that are cropping up in bookstores and televisions everywhere. Then you might attribute the wave of emotion at the story’s end to these lovers-from-two-different-worlds being finally brought together (in that final ethereal ‘screen-kiss’).

But (fortunately) that’s not what Hill’s story is about. There is no real love between the protagonist and the ghost, no attraction, no romance of any kind (doomed or otherwise).

There is, however, a world of yearning inside the main character, a deep longing for the pure beauty and passion and perfection that he finds in the cinema, that you or I might find in the songs on a favorite album or the words of a story or poem that changed the way we see the world.

The reason certain music has the power to make us cry, someone once wrote, is because it gives us a glimpse of a pure beauty and perfection that we can never be part of. The protagonist of Hill’s story breaks through that barrier and enters a place we all wish we could go. So the tears that a reader sheds at the end of the story are not tears of frustration or regret, but tears of joy.

The protagonist of Mark Morris’ story ‘What Nature Abhors’ takes a very different type of journey, one that no person in his right mind would ever think of calling “joyful”. But there is, I’ll argue, a strange kind of joy in it, one that’s hard to recognize at first, but just as deep and real.

We start out knowing nothing about the protagonist of Morris’ story. In fact, he knows almost nothing about himself. Awakening alone on a train in a strange town, he has no memories, no purpose. Only a vague sense that something is terribly wrong. To find out what it is, he must find out who he is.

We follow him as he’s pursued through a landscape that becomes more and more nightmarish until the full horror of who he is, what he has done, and why he is here are revealed to him. And to us.

At one level, it’s a story of damnation so final and absolute that the only response ought to be to curl up in a ball or throw yourself off the nearest bridge. But instead, there’s an unaccoutable feeling of clarity and release that comes at the end of Morris’ story, a feeling of appreciative awe at how all these dream-like elements finally come together and make terrible, perfect sense.

It’s like a sinner who awakes in the afterlife, looks around at the Nine Circles of Hell, at the abysmal valley of grief, the infernal hurricane of unquenchable desire, the river of boiling blood,  then smiles, “Gosh—you mean you guys did all of this for ME?”

What both of these stories share—particularly in the way they end—is what fiction writer and editor William Maxwell called “the joy of getting it right”. That joy is doubled by the way the precision and momentum of the writing in these stories mirrors the inevitability of the protagonists’ fate. It’s a beautiful inevitability, one that we humans are only given to glimpse and understand for a fleeting moment. In that moment there is transcendence, the transcendence of accepting what was impossible or unthinkable just a moment before.

That’s what horror can do.

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