My friend, Marie Loughin, writer and fellow member of TESSpecFic* asked on her blog, “What is horror?” More specifically, what’s the difference between horror and dark fantasy?:
This possibility led to the question, “Just what is horror, anyway?”
In answer, I came up with this checklist of elements that I’ve found in my favorite horror and assessed whether I at least attempted to include them in my book. (The degree of my success is left to the reader to decide.)
1) Creepy atmosphere. (Check)
2) Suspenseful. (Check)
3) Victims experience psychological trauma (i.e. they are aware and helpless). (Check)
4) Inspires fear and/or dread in reader. (Check, check)
(Notice that violence and gore are not essential elements for me, though they are sometimes present in my favorite works of horror and are included in a couple of scenes of my book.)
(Just so you know, I read Marie’s Valknut: The Binding, and consider it fantasy.)
It’s a good question. I think the answer lies in what happens after the reader finishes the story. If the reader is left with the question, “My God, how can anyone live with that?” The story is horror. Horror fiction peels away protective coverings and releases dark things. Once released, they can’t be put back. They can’t be forgotten. They cannot be ignored. They cannot be vanquished. Even killing the monster does no good because the reader is left with the realization that the monster is inside us and never going away.
Take for example, the Master of Modern Horror, Stephen King. He writes horror and dark fantasy and thrillers and science fiction and works that are uniquely King, impossible to define or emulate.
Two novels, The Stand and The Shining, are the perfect examples of dark fantasy and horror.
The Stand, for those who’ve never read it, is an end of the world fantasy. A superflu is released killing almost everybody and the survivors have to rebuild civilization. Forces of good and evil gather to face the ultimate showdown. Despite truly horrific scenes, supernatural elements, and large doses of B-movie schlock, the novel is dark fantasy. The question for readers going in is, “Will good triumph over evil?” The story answers, “Of course.” That particular evil has been vanquished (In the original version anyway. In the author’s uncut version, Randall Flagg washes up on an island, presumably to wait for another opportunity to get his ass spectacularly kicked.). The survivors can now resume rebuilding their lives.
The Shining, on the other hand, is pure horror. Jack, Wendy and Danny are the winter caretakers for a haunted hotel. In order to reach Danny, a child, the ghosts manipulate Jack, the father, driving him insane. In the end, the hotel is destroyed, Jack dies, and Wendy and Danny escape. Sounds a lot like good triumphing over evil, doesn’t it? Nuh uh. Because at the end, the reader knows the real monster is inside Danny. The “shining” is both gift and curse. It’s power. Where there is power, there are those who crave it, who will not stop until they get it. The Overlook Hotel might have been destroyed, but young Danny is going to encounter many ghosts, many entities, many seekers of power. It will not end until he dies. Not only do Danny and Wendy have to deal with their guilt and sorrow, they also have to deal with knowing this isn’t over. What happened at the Overlook is going to happen again, and again, and again. It will never be over. My God, how does anyone live with that?
That’s my answer. To see what others think, check out Marie’s post and watch the blogosphere as other TESSpecFic members chime in.
* The Emissaries of Strange: A Speculative Fiction Writer’s Collective is a group of writers whose fiction fits under the speculative fiction umbrella.
The very first Dan Simmons book I read was Carrion Comfort. That novel, quite frankly, scared the piss out of me. Not only was it scary and disturbing and menacing, right in the middle of it Simmons killed off a character I loved. I was shocked. Outraged. And hooked. I mean, if he could do that, then he’s capable of anything and I have to keep turning pages to find out how truly bad it can get. I became a Simmons fan. Now whenever somebody is looking for a scary vampire novel, I tell them to read Carrion Comfort.
You could call Simmons a horror writer, but he’s tough to pigeonhole. Most of his stories deal with the supernatural. Ghosts are an element in many stories. Even Black Hills, which is historical, is also a ghost story. Simmons tells the stories Simmons needs to tell. If there’s a common thread, it’s that all his novel are big, meaty, sprawling, well-researched and disturbing on some level. Simmons pulls no punches.
(click here to check out the book)
Flashback is like that. Set in a grim, not-too-distant future, the global economy has collapsed, societies have fallen apart. The Japanese, embracing a feudal model, have risen as a world power. Israel has been nuked out of existence. A caliphate has taken over the Middle East, Europe and Canada. Mexico is reclaiming parts of the United States it feels were stolen. America, destroyed by debt, entitlements and an overreaching but weak political system, has given up its freedom for what little security it can find. The majority of Americans are addicted to a drug called flashback that allows them to relive fully happier moments of their lives. It’s a grim scenario Simmons paints. It’s a cautionary tale, too, because it uses events happening today to show how they can lead to the events happening in the story.
Flashback is also a murder mystery and a thriller, and also a story of redemption and acceptance. And yes, it’s a ghost story, too. Or should I say, the characters long for ghosts and use ghosts to find relief from their miserable existences.
Simmons sums up the philosophy of the tale in this passage:
It happens to every race and group and nation, Henry Big Horse Begay says, still laughing. The days of greatness roll in like some great, undeserved tide, are smugly celebrated by the lucky peoples– even as mine once did– as if they had earned it, which they had not, and then the tide ebbs and the nations and tribes and peoples find themselves standing there dumb and dumbfounded on the dry and garbage-strewn beach.
So yeah, it’s a powerful story.
I haven’t read every novel Simmons has written, though eventually I hope to. He’s just not an author to glom willy nilly. It takes a measure of commitment to get into his work. No gobbling his words like M&Ms, or reading them in dibs and drabs, a page here, another page later. His novels are big (Flashback is 550 pages) and take time to read and time to digest. Quite often I will find myself stopping, thinking, What? What did he just say? Then I have to go back and reread, more slowly, more carefully. His aren’t the type of genre novels where a reader can think, Gee, I’m in the mood for a ghost story. Yeah, Simmons will give you ghosts, but he’ll give you a whole lot more at the same time. It’s that whole lot more that put him on my favorites list.