With Halloween right around the corner, I find myself wondering a bit about horror. For all the movies, television series and games that have come out in recent years I’ve noticed that the horror genre in its written form is falling behind. As a piece of the speculative fiction trio, why has horror fallen to the wayside? Everyday science fiction and fantasy novels are finding spots on best sellers list and have rapidly growing fan bases, while more visual mediums have dominated horror. So what’s the deal here?
Writing horror for any medium is a challenge but the difficulty with printed mediums is primarily rooted in our culture. Television, films and even video games have cemented their superiority in a visual context and when it comes to bloody, gore-fest jump-scares, novels can’t really provide that kind of “instant-horror” we’ve grown accustomed to. Without the benefit of a visual component print mediums have to make up for it by appealing to a creeping psychological terror and warped perspective that is a challenge to keep up with for hundreds of pages. It doesn’t help that instant gratification turns modern day society’s gears.
Think about the tempo of a horror film for instance. We set the mood, things get a little uncomfortable, then they get scary, then they get terrifying and then they end. All within the scope of two hours. Within those two hours so much of the story is padded by sinister music, violently graphic imagery and screaming that we forget what we’re even watching, we just know that this is scary and we love it.
What about the tempo of a horror novel? There is a sort of constant rise and fall of calm, and terror. Horror novels have to really dig their hooks in because they’re competing with a culture that insists that nothing frightens it. Horror novelist must transcend our goldfish level attention span and keep their reader hooked for what could be fifty pages of calm before anything really “scary” happens. That’s one of the real difficulties with horror, there’s not really a way to capture the “in your face, gut wrenching” feeling that we associate with the genre.
Instant culture, and our obsession with the visual can’t carry the full weight of the blame however. A lot of the challenge in horror is that supernatural monsters just aren’t scary anymore. It’s more difficult to scare people with the fantastical, the imagined or the supernatural than it was years ago. We’ve come to terms with the fact that reality and humanity are scarier than any vampire, mummy, werewolf or zombie.
It’s come to a point where we’ve exhausted vampires and zombies from so many different angles that we approach them with what amounts to satirical riffing; a tell-tale sign that we’ve conquered our fear of “classic” monsters. As a society we’ve done something similar to what Harry Potter and Co. did with the boggart: We’ve been exposed to monsters of every variety and then learned to make them laughable. We’ve made such things amusing and ridiculous. The challenge of horror writing is pushing past that.
Horror novelist need to rely on subtle psychological overtones that don’t necessarily “frighten” the reader but makes them uncomfortable. Way back when, authors like Edgar Allan Poe or even if we go back a bit further to Christopher Marlowe were masters at this sort of thing. But they were of a very different time, and in many respects a completely different world. It’s hard to capture that feeling of terror that grows more after the fact as opposed to movies which seek to scare “in the moment”. Writing horror becomes a challenge of who can be the most disturbing; who can keep the reader up at night wondering.
Still though, literature isn’t completely defenseless. It has the benefit of subtext, inner thoughts and a more intimate portrayal of psychological terror than any other mediums. And to be fair because the medium can be so restrictive at times it’s made being a strong writer an absolute necessity with horror. Furthermore, if we look at short stories we see a way for horror writing to find its place in instant-culture. I think writers recognize that horror needs to be jump-started again, and in many respects the literary landscape is ripe with the opportunity to push those boundaries.
What do you think? Where does horror need to go from here? What is the genre missing? Why has horror lost ground while the other two pillars of speculative fiction have seen a surge of popularity and constant evolution? Why is it more compelling to push the boundaries of sci-fi and fantasy than in the horror genre? Let me know what you think in the comment section below and tell me your favorite horror novel from the last 10 years.