Not too long ago, one of my friends told me that she didn’t think horror was a necessary, or influential, literary genre. There’s too much blood, she said, too much gore, too many nasty details.
My gaze drifted towards the pile of books that were stacked next to my bed. Among them were my two latest purchases: Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep and The Running Man. I had been looking forward to the former novel after devouring its predecessor, The Shining, which told a haunting story of addiction and abuse.
I couldn’t understand why my friend believed that horror was a meaningless genre, because for me, it was an excellent way to discuss the darker side of human nature, as well as trauma and strength.
This method of storytelling dates all the way back to the eighteenth century, where it was known as gothic literature.
Some of you might think that classic literature has aged to the point where it is no longer interesting, but this is in no way true (unless you decide to read The Italian by Ann Radcliffe) when we read horror.
I have to admit that, although I have loved all things scary from a young age, my real admiration of gothic literature developed after reading Matthew Lewis’s The Monk.
Like many, if not all works of horror, The Monk has earned its classical status by working with tropes. Rain, thunder and lightning create a dark and gloomy feel to the novel while Lewis’s characters continuously faint before ‘sinful’ acts of witchcraft, betrayal and lust. His depiction of the supernatural is luxuriously detailed, even for the modern eye.
For instance, Lucifer is not, at first, a monstrous being, but human in appearance. While his feathery hair, athletic physique and calm temperament characterise him as a somewhat attractive and relatable figure, it is the fierce fire within his eyes that suggests he is a powerful, supernatural other. It is only later in the novel that he is portrayed as physically monstrous, and it is this suspense that grips us and motivates us to read the novel in its entirety.
Though Lucifer is a frightening figure, it is the evil that lingers within Lewis’s central character Ambrosio that truly shocks us. His greed, power and desire ultimately leads him to his demise, outlining how horror is a genre that is cleverly exposes the faults of human nature.
Something I have learned over the years is to look out for how the environment is depicted in gothic literature. The term ‘sublime’ was coined by Sigmund Freud to describe how the landscape reflects the tensions and fears of a novel, and this is a technique that is used in both classic and modern horror.
The Monk, for example, describes the height of great mountains that stretch up into dark skies and cold winds, much like how Stephen King illustrates the cold, snow-capped rocky mountains of Colorado. Both of these environments create a terrifying image of isolation and better outlines how individuals react to their surroundings, and whether or not they will fight for themselves or for others.
Clearly, gothic tropes of darkness, storms and the wilderness are still used in literature today, and have even been used in filmic adaptations like The Shining to explore how individuals react to traumatic threats against survival.
Unlike other literary genres, horror has the ability to explore not only supernatural terrors, but also psychological ailments. It might even combine these two features together to better reflect human nature and the concerns of specific decades.
For instance, Bram Stoker uses the horrific image of the vampire, a long-nailed, hulking and fanged creature, to outline his anxieties of foreign figures entering nineteenth-century Europe. Mary Shelley questions responsibility and technology through her depiction of a creature who is monstrous in appearance but moral in nature in Frankenstein. Robert Louis Stevenson similarly explores morality and duality in the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and encourages his readers to look inward and question their own motives, behaviours and desires.
Often, it is not always the supernatural creatures in these novels who cause trauma, but rather, who experience it at the hands of selfish and immoral humans.
These themes are also conveyed in more modern popular fictions. In his novel, Let the Right One In, John Aivide Lindqvist explores loss, the deconstruction of the nuclear family, addiction, adolescence and sexual abuse through vampirism. In Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, protagonist Jessie Burlingame is forced to confront past-familial traumas, search for and grasp inner strength and push past her old, and current, demons. Trauma, grief and Gothicism go hand in hand, and it is for this reason that we continue to feel invested in the stories, however dark and frightening, that old and new authors have to tell.
The horror genre, due to its focus on threats against survival, expertly explores the moral and immoral aspects of human nature. For those of us who are lucky enough to have never faced such difficulties in life, it provides us with a great way to consider how we would respond to such situations; would we fight for ourselves, protect others, or flee?
Though it is brutal, bloody and sometimes plain silly, horror reflects the darker sides of the self and society, and because of this, it is so clearly an important and irreplaceable literary genre.
– Editing Intern