In Apocalypse Now, as Kurtz dies, he utters the famous line, “The horror…the horror…” which is taken directly from Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.
Supposedly, this is when Kurtz experiences a “supreme moment of complete knowledge” and realizes the consequences of his past actions in life.
I’ve found myself having a conversation about horror over the past week or two, primarily because I’m getting up in front of crowds of people and holding up a copy of my book, Vanishing Hope, and trying to promote it.
But I’m consistently bothered as I do this. I’m a proud writer of horror. I love the genre, I love how it makes me feel to read something that scares the heck out of me. What bothers me is, I have this feeling, this dread, that as soon as I say, “It’s a horror story…” 95% of the ears and minds in the room shut down. Why? Because they hear horror and, depending on their age, think either of Friday the 13th movies, or maybe Saw movies, or, God help me, something like Pirhanha or some other really bad “how many ways can we kill someone” movie.
Because slasher flicks and torture porn aren’t horror to me and it’s not what I write.
But I know that I’ve chosen a difficult genre to try and push my works in, because most people carry this bias against horror.
So what is horror exactly? To me, horror is made up of three areas: suspense, dread and wonder.
Every good story needs suspense. I don’t care if it’s a romance, a western or a story with sparkly vampires (which, by the way are not horror). That incredible build up of anticipation….not that things will turn out all right, but anticipating the hell that will be unleashed and how it will be dealt with.
The dread comes in by the author’s ability to dig up those things you’re scared of…including some things you never ever thought of as scary before, and make you confront them.
The wonder is the author’s skill at bringing together ordinary, sympathetic characters and putting them into horrible situations…then seeing if they can get back out again.
What I think a lot of filmmakers and, now unfortunately it’s bled (pardon the pun) into horror writing as well, so horror authors have to be included…what I think many of them miss is the fact that yes, in any typical horror story, something bad has to happen to someone, typically resulting in a death somewhere along the way.
I get that. People die in horror stories. People die in murder mysteries too, but the deaths are not the main story…the solving of the murder is. And that, to me, is the issue lately with a lot of horror. The deaths have become the main reason for the story, much like sex is the main reason for a porn film. What little story there is in between all the humping and bumping and grinding is just there to glue those screw scenes together. I’d argue it’s the same for your average slasher story as well.
It’s said that your biggest sex organ is your brain, a logic I happen to agree with. I’d say your brain is also the biggest horror organ. What I mean by that is, you shouldn’t necessarily be horrified by what you see, but more by what your brain is telling you.
One of the scenes that initially scared that absolute shit out of me was from Stephen King’s The Shining when Danny Torrance went into room 217. Yes, he saw a dead woman in the tub that reached out for him, but the part that scared the crap out of me wasn’t the dead woman…it was the fact that the hotel was hoarding all these horrors and they were all around the Torrances all the time…but only Danny could see them. That was the suspense and the wonder crashing together and mixing with the dread.
It’s not easy to do. In fact, in all the time I’ve been reading horror, which adds up to a solid 35 years, I’ve actually only been scared three times. Once by King’s The Shining, once by Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, and once by Ian Rogers’ Black Eyed Kids.
Each one of those authors holds a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf. They transcended the cliches, they overcame the same tired tropes and each produced something not only highly original, but also some writing that actually got the job done.
It’s what I strive to do as well.
There’s another element to horror that I think most people never consider, at least not consciously. I’ve read a lot of horror in my time…a lot. Most of it crap, some of it okay and a very small percentage that got me.
Then there’s a bunch of other books–none of them labelled horror–that each not only scared me, but also left me feeling disturbed long after I closed the back cover on the books.
One was The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll. It’s his 1978 memoir, chronicling his time on the streets of New York and his addiction to heroin…at the age of 13.
The next was two companion books. Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff and Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by his father David Sheff. The titles pretty much speak for themselves.
Then there was The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout in which she talks about sociopathic behaviour and points out that as many as one in every 25 people could be a sociopath. In my family of five, I firmly believe we have three.
Finally, just recently I finished Columbine by Dave Cullen. The name of the town has become synonymous with high school shootings.
In each one of these books, I saw the worst that humanity had to offer and how ordinary people like you and I were just trying to either get through to them, or at least understand why they did the things they did.
In each case, I still experienced that same suspense, that same wonder and lots of dread. But what these books also gave me that no work of horror fiction is likely capable of, is profound sadness and disappointment.
It’s scary to see that we don’t need vampires, werewolves, demons, ghosts or anything else that may go bump in the night. There are real-life horrors right here in our world. In our town. On our street.
The things that man do to each other is worse than anything that can be imagined by a horror writer. Stephen King once said, “Sometimes human places create inhuman monsters.” Sadly, he’s right.
So, in the end, I guess that why I lead to read the horror that I do, and why I write in that genre…in some strange way, it’s my way of escaping the horrors of the real world.
Maybe this realization is my own supreme moment of complete knowledge.
The heart of darkness indeed.