Last evening I was in attendance for a reading at a local library by contributors to a collection of spooky stories. I enjoyed myself and I was happy to become acquainted with some fellow authors who live nearby. (By the way, here’s a link to the book on Amazon–I recommend it.)
The readings all ended where things just began to get interesting. They wanted listeners to buy the book, after all. Since I had already purchased the book, I knew how some of the stories ended. (I haven’t read them all, yet.)
But the experience got me thinking. I don’t consider myself a fan of the horror genre. This may surprise some people since my own writing for young adults could be classified as horror. Why, I’ve even written about H. P. Lovecraft in my spare time. (See here, and here.)
I suppose the reason I’ve never thought of myself as a writer of horror is because I’ve come to think of the genre as so overrun with slasher, blood-and-gore that I don’t want to think of myself as being in the same camp with that stuff. But as I’ve considered it, I’ve come to see that I probably am a writer of horror. And I may have even been unfair to slasher stuff, at least to a degree. Here’s why:
The power of suggestion
The best stuff, the stuff that really raises the hair on your arms, proceeds by suggestion. It is hinting, and foreshadowing, that really gets you. Your mind races ahead, and the heart begins to beat faster. You know what’s coming, but you can’t pull away, and you don’t want to. There’s something there that must be resolved. That was really the case for me when I read my favorite ghost story, Lex Talons, by Russell Kirk. (That begins on a deserted street in a tough neighborhood one evening and ends in the basement of an abandoned house–two places you’d probably avoid in real life, especially at night.)
This tendency to follow the story to places we’d never go in the real world says something about us. It isn’t just a need for resolution. If that were the case we wouldn’t avoid dangers in real life, we’d run right into them.
So what is it that propels us along when we read a ghost story? I think it is this:
There’s a moral substructure
It is not enough for someone to get it. They have to have it coming to them. Justice must be served.
The really good stories have this moral structure so embedded in the telling it is simply assumed; and it may not even become fully conscious. You just know and you feel it in your bones, at the end, the person, or thing, just had it coming.
That doesn’t mean that there are no innocent victims, just that criminals must get a comeuppance. Again, it’s subtle, often there’s nothing explicit, just a knowledge that somehow it’s right when all is done. Sometimes a rule has been violated. We don’t need to understand the rule, but somewhere early on we learn of a taboo in passing, and sure enough, someone breaks it. Or there is a real crime committed, some injustice that must be judged, and who better to execute judgment than the ghost of the victim?
Now, as I said, I’m not a fan of the slasher stuff. But I suspect that even that stuff requires violated justice to justify itself. (Let me know if I’m completely wrong about that, but if I’m correct, please provide some examples in the comments section below.)
What I’ve come away with in my reflections is something diametrically opposed to what I started with.
The horror genre may be the most morally-structured popular literary form we have.
Now you may scream.
If you’d like to see my forays into horror, such as they are, here are a couple of links. (Please forgive the shamelessness of this self-promotion. I’m running the risk of something horrible happening me, I’m sure.)
My Young Adult series: