Monday, 24 October 2016

Horror Week 2016: Exorcising the Shame and Guilt – How I Learned to Love Horror

Regular readers of the blog (if there is such a thing here at SUR) will know that I’m not a huge horror fan. It’s something I’ve actively avoided in my fiction for years. There are a few reasons for this. I’m generally not too keen on the esthetics of the genre. Slasher films as a whole and specific film series of the “torture porn” variety like Saw and Hostel where the examples of the genre that popped up in my head when I thought of horror. The biggest reason for my dismissal of the whole thing is that I came to it with preconceived notions of what any given book or movie would be when it’s labelled as horror. I watched those movies and attempted to read those books with the intent of finding those things I didn’t like as a way to prove that yes, indeed, horror as a genre is a piece of shit and it is best avoided.

I’ve reconciled with a lot of that thanks to Stephen King, particularly thanks to one of his most famous books Salem’s Lot. I mentioned some of that in my review of the book and there was certainly something cathartic bout the whole admission of guilt and wrongdoing towards the genre. It’s still occasionally difficult to admit that I was so dismissive. I dismissed it all, regardless of when or where a piece of horror fiction came from, it all ended up in the same space in my brain: the trash bin.

I was crazy enough not to consider Swamp Thing a horror comic.

I’m not exactly sure how or when I came to the realization that I was being close-minded and unfair to a significant portion of our culture. One thing is clear, there was a day when I thought to myself maybe it’s not all bad. After all, I’ve enjoyed some works that are squarely in the horror tradition, even though I told myself I didn’t like the genre. In my unjustified snobbery I’d look at something like the Alan More era of Saga of the Swamp Thing or The Shining and tell myself that these things can’t possibly be horror comics and movies. How could that be? They’re really good.

Clearly I was being fucking stupid.

I have a hard time expressing just how insane it was to completely dismiss, not just a work or a particular writer or director, but an entire genre. Several lifetimes of creative output by probably thousands of individuals over several decades (maybe even a couple hundred years) couldn’t be all bad, right? Nope, I declared it all to be nothing but trash. Good for nothing garbage. If you considering that I’ve enjoyed a few works of horror that I personally labelled as something else, well, it becomes very clear that I had a problem. A really nasty problem and something that I’m still ashamed of.

I guess it’s shame that led me to seek out one of the modern masters of horror, King, and give him another shot. I was acting like Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was taking one individual and putting him on trial on behalf of all the other horror writers and creators. If Stephen King can’t convince me that the genre is worthwhile then I certainly won’t bother with it again. That was damn childish behaviour when Q did it with the crew of the Enterprise and it was certainly childish when I did it, too.

Apparently this wasn't horror either. Man, I was dumb. 

Thankfully for me, King represented his team exceptionally well. I can’t recall my thought process at the time but I started with The Mist. Being a novella, it’s relatively short. It was also adapted to film by Frank Darabont who had previously adapted The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Both based on original works by King, something I tried to hide from myself for years as I love those movies and they were written by a horror writer.

So I read The Mist. I enjoyed it, much to my surprised. Then I read Salem’s Lot and I enjoyed it even more! Then I read interviews with King, dozens and dozens of them. Holy shit, did you know this guy is actually really, really cool? And he also has some nasty stuff that a happened to him in the past. His life as an addict is something that has been reflected in his work for decades. At one time, it too was a dark secret. I don’t want to be so insensitive as to compare my secret hatred and dismissal of the horror genre as drug and alcohol addiction because the two are worlds apart, but I gravitated towards the redemptive quality of King’s life and career.

At one point he owned up to what he was doing. It only made sense that I do it too. Then it was time to rebuild and really gives things the fair assessment they deserved. So my exploration of horror branched out from King. Since then I’ve dipped my toes pretty regularly into the genre and I’ve found a comfy spot in it. I’m more honest with myself when I enjoy something in fiction that clearly stems from the horror tradition. It’s been a real good discovery of what the genre is capable of and why it continues to endure. Sure, a lot of the stuff I disliked before like over indulgence in gore for the sake of gore or stuff like torture porn, basically everything that makes me feel queasy and uncomfortable, I continued to dislike.

This. THIS is horror. Just look at him! That smile gives me chills.

I think it’s important to point out that it’s not a question of absolutes. Gore can be used to great effect and sometimes that queasy feeling is why a story will succeed. I’ve started to notice that there is a wide variety of horror, some of which I can more easily appreciate and some of which really isn’t my style, but I can better articulate that now in comparison to my previous wholesale dismissals. For example, I really like King’s “pressure cooker” method of writing horror. He sets up a situation and lets it play out without interfering with his narrative. He doesn’t come to save you from the horrors he’s unleashed. He doesn’t employ a deus ex machina to resolve everything without unnecessary bloodshed or consequences. No, any victory his characters have is either earned or unfulfilling, often both. 

It’s been a few years now and while horror isn’t a huge part of my literary diet, it’s certainly there. It’s something I revisit from time to time. That’s why I read a few horror short stories last year. I wanted to get into the Halloween spirit and I went to my bookshelf for some help. George R. R. Martin and Stephen King delivered in spades. Martin, in particular, really surprised me. I’ve read quite a few of his short stories, but “Sandkings” terrifies me and “The Pear-Shaped Man” made me uncomfortable and queasy. I honestly don’t think I’ll ever read “Sandkings” again, but I’ll always remember the effect it had on me.

A screenshot of the "Sandkings" adaptation for the revival of The Outer Limits.

Now that I’ve exorcised the shame and the guilt, I can stand proud and announce a little project of mine. In the effort to further my exploration of the horror genre as well as encourage others who haven’t given horror fiction a fair try, I’ve asked a number of friends to join me in reading stories for this Halloween season. I’ve asked them all to read a story or two and write a review. That’s it. There were no other guidelines. The result is a collection of reviews that vary in length and subject matter. Some chose to read the classics and others (like me) read more modern offerings by authors they like. I hope you enjoy the reviews and, if nothing else, I hope it encourages you to give some of these stories a chance. You just might like them.

This post kicks off our horror week. The first review proper will go live tomorrow and there will be a new review uploaded each day until the end of the week.

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