‘Horror is the best part of man, yet he feels it too expensive, for there he meets the Numinous.’
What defines Horror Literature and tales of the macabre? The fear of death plays a major role, for when one realizes, on some level, that death is a door which leads either to eternal joy or to nether gloom, and the latter is the likely outcome, terror sets in, and the course is taken to be filled with inordinate pleasures, lusts of the flesh and eyes, and the pride of life–what’s left of it, anyway—in order to in some way become a god so as to avoid death.
Rudolf Otto, in his seminal work The Idea of the Holy, defines Horror as the awe of God (the Numen) and the accompanying Unknown/Unknowable, and Terror as the fear of pain and death–as above described. If these definitions are true, then the vast majority of postmodern work written beneath the ‘Horror’ banner is actually ‘Terror.’ It is likely too late to go back and retrofit ‘Terror’ as a genre, though, so what we must do now is to redefine Horror and broaden it (again) to include the plethora of aspects it once encompassed–for today, full speed ahead into Century 21, ‘Horror’ usually only means zombies, ‘slasher flicks,’ and murderous mental illnesses–all of which, according to Otto, are not Horror at all, but Terror–because there is no awe and fear of the Unknowable (God), but of torture, death, and “evolutionary” nihilism.
What is Horror then? Well, it certainly includes illnesses of the mind and brutal murder, and why wouldn’t it? But if Horror is only defined in that way, then what happens to the creepy ghost story of Henry James or Charles Dickens, the dire warning against witchcraft of Arthur Machen or Nathaniel Hawthorne, the quirky chiller of Ray Bradbury or Robert Bloch, and the ‘comedic horror’ of James Thurber or John Kendrick Bangs? These works fall by the wayside in favor of an atheistic narrow-mindedness which does nothing but asphyxiate a broad range of talent with its chthonic pagan drone issuing forth from no real love of the craft.
Lovecraft and his disciples, though some of them can actually write, might stop trying to interest us in their bleak (and false) caveman worldview of the origin of mankind. We–all of us–came from one bright and perfect place ‘between the rivers,’ and then fell, as one collective unit, into a darkness of our own accord–a gloom with which, despite aeons of received wisdom to the contrary, H. P. Lovecraft begins our history. He has some good tales, but to take his anthropological conclusions seriously is seriously in error. He insists that no one who believes in the supernatural can write about it as effectively as one who merely imagines the supernatural disturbing some imagined foundation he refers to as ‘the natural order.’ That is a patently ridiculous statement and is made untenable by the aforementioned received wisdom and by the presence of, among others, ‘weird fiction’ writers Arthur Machen (worshiped by Lovecraft), Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Bros. Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, William Blake, George MacDonald, T. S. Eliot, George Mackay Brown, M. R. James and Fyodor Dostoyevsky… all masters of their craft, and all professing to be Christian influenced.
Then there is the issue of poor hack-horror writing passed off as literature, accepted by uneducated and ignorant editors, and read by a gullible public as if it somehow continues the brilliant Horror legacies of R. L. Stevenson, J. S. Le Fanu, Ralph Adams Cram, Edgar Allan Poe, Francis Marion Crawford, Saki, Frank Belknap Long, and many other writers who loved the language they wrote in and the stories they told, many enough to first study the greatest Horror/Terror anthology ever compiled and translated into English (if with innumerable errors)–the KJV. This said, need literary horror have a classic Gothic setting? No. A moldering housing project in the French Quarter of New Orleans is as good a place to set a scene as a crumbling castle in Wales; a girl lost on a desolate New Mexican state road works as well as the recently-dead charwoman’s illegitimate hare-lipped child who roams the dingy alleyways of the East End of London. It is the atmosphere created with dialogue, description, internal monologue, weather, smells, uncanny or weird events, and how fear and death are encountered that delivers a great work of horror.
Where do we go from here? Backwards. We need to undo the damning spell. The best writers of Literary Horror wrote during the 19th century, though there are writers from earlier and later eras who do excellent work in the field—M. R. James to name one master. Horror can be delightful and thought-provoking while carrying the ability to assist the reader (and writer) in meditation, introspection, and all-too-real exorcisms of unclean spirits–but only if Horror is again allowed to be something far broader than dead people chasing living people, undead people chasing living people, fish-eyed heathen gods with tentacles who threaten mankind, or scantily clad virgins suspended by hook or chain as food for the appetite of a male monster, human or otherwise.
Horror is the direct progeny of the Parable and, later, the Morality Play and Cautionary Tale, and is technically defined by poetic prose and sharply defined settings and characters which, if not actual places and people, are always very believable, especially in the Contes Cruels subgenre. The more verisimilar Horror is, the more it horrifies. Key notes are old houses, ancestral secrets, haunted objects, attics, cellars, dark woodlands, the terror of witchcraft and demon worship, and, of course, persons in dire straits. Horror both terrifies us and brings us nearest to God than any other genre of storytelling because we are reminded that we will pass from this life into another.
A note on source material: That a certain beloved philosophy begins and ends by contemplating the barbarous execution of an innocent man is more than relevant to the writing and study of macabre literature. That a curse is lain upon anyone who is hanged on a tree connects that philosophy to an even older history. And that many cultures throughout the world represent their fulfillment by having a primary god (Odin, Esus, others) hanged on a tree gives convincing credence to said philosophy as being the culmination of worldwide foreseeing if for no other reason (and reasons abound) that in two millennia (and counting) no one has appeared to replace the aforementioned executed innocent man as a better source of Haunting…
Let us, as readers and writers, again focus on the Source of Horror and utterly dismiss materialistic, nihilistic, atheistic “writing.”
1. thoughtful, well-crafted Gothic writing of the gruesome, ghastly, terrifying, and horrifying–often using terror and/or horror as a background for the four classic conflicts of man versus Nature/Cosmos, man versus man, man versus himself, man versus God
2. literature of, pertaining to, dealing with, or representing Death, especially its grimmer aspects
3. storytelling, set in any historical era, of or suggestive of the struggle with the fear of Death or confrontation with horror of the unexpected, the unknown, or the unknowable