A Dark and Stormy Night: Looking Beyond the Conventions of Horror
In 2018, actor and film critic Jamie Lee-Hill caused a controversy on Twitter when he referred to A Quiet Place as “elevated horror.” This term upset many fans of the genre, who saw it as a patronizing insult and a way for critics and moviegoers to distance any well-received film from what they perceived as a less prestigious genre. Horror is one that has often been derided as pulpy, rife with bad writing and even worse clichés. However, by clinging to these stereotypes as the epitome of the entire genre, a person can miss out on all the positive attributes that horror possesses; it can be about so much more than giving us a good scare, a temporary adrenaline rush that we lose the moment we close the book or leave the theater. Many horror stories contain profound themes just below the surface, such as “The Outsider,” a zombie story that’s really about the intense pain and loneliness that comes from forced isolation, or “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a gothic story that examines society’s (particularly men’s) disregard of women’s mental health issues. Even a more straightforward horror novel like It, a tale about an evil killer clown that eats children, contains messages about the power of fear and the importance of childhood friendships. Just like with any other genre, horror can cover a multitude of themes; it just makes some unique stylistic choices, opting to focus on the grotesque and macabre in life rather than the ordinary. These choices have unfortunately led some to compare horror to porn, citing that these are the only two genres that seek to evoke a physical reaction in the audience. What I hope to show is that, regardless of these people’s opinions, horror can also offer profound critiques on a wide range of societal issues. By studying the essays of author Benjamin Percy, as well as the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Joyce Carol Oates, I will prove that as long as the genre doesn’t completely disregard qualities of literary fiction and has a healthy combination of the fantastic with the realistic, then horror can be just as valuable in the literary canon, just as worthy of being studied in college classrooms, as any other more traditional piece of writing.
One of horror’s strongest defenders is the aforementioned Percy, who grew up on pop lit and proudly declares his affinity for the genre. In his essay “Thrill Me,” he writes about an experience he had in his first college writing workshop, where he learned that not everyone shared this passion. His professor instructed the class, “No genre. No vampires, no dragons, no robots with laser eyes” (4). At first, he couldn’t understand this because, what else is there? But to this professor and others like him, genre fiction is something that requires no real expertise, which is why it’s a truer test of skill to focus strictly on literary fiction. And while it’s true that horror can often stumble into pitfalls that literary fiction avoids, such as formulaic plots, cookie-cutter characters, and unremarkable descriptions, Percy could not disagree with his professor’s assessment more. He recounts his childhood experiences with horror, when he was like an “addict,” reading “novels for the same kind of thrill — to escape, to supplement the boredom of one life with the excitement and dagger-sharp danger of another” (7). He explains that horror and other genre fiction isn’t just something one reads to get a little thrill. With its tantalizing plot-lines, it plants its roots in their brains and keeps them coming back for more. It allows them to escape their limited lives, to believe that, like Carrie, maybe they can move objects with their mind; maybe they can create life from death like Dr. Frankenstein. It produces a powerful feeling unmatched by other genres.
Though many fans of the genre may disagree with Percy’s professor, he didn’t come away completely empty-handed from his workshop; he actually discovered there’s much to be learned from writing literary fiction. He explains, “Sentences were now more than vehicles for information. . .structures did not march forward with a chronological doggedness. . .Characters didn’t act purely in the service of plot; they flirted their way into digression, lingered in conversations and on windowsills. . .[they] became. . .as alive as anyone I knew” (11). Percy learned this during his collegiate hiatus from the horror genre, but that doesn’t mean he lost his love for it. In fact, he uses his new knowledge to espouse the notion that literary fiction and genre fiction don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but can actually complement each other: “Literary fiction highlights exquisite sentences, glowing metaphors, subterranean themes, fully-realized characters. And genre fiction excels at raising the most important question: What happens next? What happens next? is why most people read. It’s what makes us fall in love with books” (17). He is able to acknowledge that literary fiction can provide people with a useful skill-set, help them craft well-written stories that are character-driven and contemplative of deeper philosophical issues, while maintaining his belief that horror and other genre fiction is the reason most people get into reading in the first place. Very few twelve-year olds can pick up a copy of Pride and Prejudice and appreciate the intricacies of the language and character descriptions; they want to be thrilled by monsters, ghosts, and alien spaceships. Writing literary fiction is an undeniably worthwhile pursuit, but horror is what we live for.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe is arguably one of the most famous horror tales ever written, evidenced so by its ominous, threatening mood (the narrator watching the old man sleep as he carefully plots his death) and grotesque descriptions (the old man’s vulture eye, the cut-up corpse). The story opens by dropping us right into the diseased mind of the narrator as he exclaims, “True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why do you say that I am mad” (1). Right away, we know there is something off about him because of how ardently he’s trying to convince us that he’s not insane. He feels the need to begin the story this way because he know the actions he’ll be describing later will cause us to judge him. He wants to murder his roommate, an old man he claims to love. Why? Because he has a creepy eye. He says of his plans, “You should have seen how wisely I proceeded — with what caution — with what foresight — with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him” (1). There’s a lot to unpack here. In one sentence, the narrator speaks with terrifying clarity on his meticulous plans to murder the old man. In the next, he talks of how he treated him with kindness, not something you would expect from a murderer to his victim. Poe creates a multi-faceted villain, one with intricate thoughts and feelings who can’t be neatly placed in one column or another. He loves the old man, but plans to kill him. He’s kind to him, but butchers him. Following the murder, in the climax of the story, the narrator is visited by the police and his guilt overwhelms him. He exclaims, “Villains. . .dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! here, here! — It is the beating of his hideous heart” (5). Ultimately, this isn’t merely a story about a graphic murder; it’s a story about different versions of reality, insanity, and guilt. The narrator claims to love the old man, then acts in a way that suggests otherwise. He describes the precision with which he kills him, an attempt to prove his sanity that does the opposite. And he is finally brought down by his own guilt, the gravity of what he’s done crashing down around him.
Another story that shares similar literary qualities is “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” written by Joyce Carol Oates in 1966. Unlike the previous story by Poe, this story is suburban horror, capitalizing on the fears of parents preoccupied with the actions of their teenagers when they aren’t watching. In “The Pied Piper of Tuscon,” an article written about the Charles Schmid murders that inspired this story, Don Moser writes that teenagers were expected to “drink milk, wear crew cuts, go to bed at half past nine, say ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’, and. . .go fishing with Dad” (2). The reality, however, is that “Tuscon teenagers [were] capable of getting into trouble in style” (2). Aside from sneaking into nightclubs and drinking alcohol, teenagers were getting bolder and more experimental with their sex lives. The sexual revolution was coming into full swing, and with that came deeper concerns from their parents, especially the parents of young women.
One such teenager who rebels in this fashion is Connie, the protagonist of Oates’s story, a girl who has “two sides. . .one for home and one for anywhere that was not home” (2278). At home, she is childish, but when out in the world she tries to appear more mature and seductive. This dichotomy highlights the awkwardness of her age; she’s a child, but performs as an adult. Like a typical teenage girl of her time, she goes to the mall with her friends, then sneaks off for sexual liaisons with boys. Though a reader from this time period may have judged her (a reader from any time period, in fact, as women’s sexuality has been policed for eons), what they need to understand is that she’s not unique. As stated earlier, this was the era of free love, and teenagers across the country were discovering their sexuality. At one point, Connie asks her friend how her “movie” (really a rendezvous with a boy) was, and she coyly responds, “You should know” (2279). She is not the only one exploring sex; she’s just the only one in this story who faces any consequences. By placing us in the mind of one of these teenagers, a teenager who could have been any of us, the danger of her situation becomes all the more real when she is targeted by the lecherous Arnold Friend. When he pulls up in her driveway, begins referring to himself as her “lover,” saying that he wants to “come inside where it’s all secret,” and make her “give in to [him],” Connie’s dream of a romantic first time is shattered (2286). Arnold Friend has taken away her autonomy by telling her exactly what she’s going to do, so the idea of sex is no longer pleasant for her, shown in the way she “put[s] her hands up against her ears as if she’d heard something terrible” (2286). For Arnold Friend, sex represents total dominion over a person, while Connie is representative of the harmful notion that women are merely objects for men to derive pleasure from (by any violent means necessary), while receiving no pleasure themselves. By creating a female character who is sexually liberated, then having that character kidnapped and taken away to her death, Oates demonstrates the horrors of being a woman in a male-dominated world.
Another horror story that deals with feminist issues is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Yet where Oates’s story focuses on negative perceptions of female sexuality, Gilman’s highlights the detrimental effect that comes with ignoring women’s mental health issues. In the time that this story was written, the late nineteenth century, women were held up as the backbone of the household, responsible for child-rearing and other domestic chores, as well as, “Guiding the more worldly and more frequently tempted male past the maelstroms of atheism and uncontrolled sexuality” (Little 27). Therefore, when the women lose their minds, who will be there to keep the men in line? Who will help them maintain their role in society at the top of the pyramid? This was the fear of society, that they would lose their moral guidepost, and is what led them to developing the rest cure, a slapdash treatment method that is reliant on the belief that a mentally ill woman simply needs to rest in order to get well.
The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is one such patient. Suffering from postpartum depression, she has been separated from her baby and confined to a single room, described as such: “It was nursery first and then playroom and then gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls” (394). Not only do the bars in the room highlight the narrator’s prisoner status, but the room itself is a display of her husband, John’s, total ignorance toward her plight. He has placed her in a room that will constantly remind her of her baby, a baby she can’t be around right now because of her depression. Seeing as how this whole trip is meant to be about curing her postpartum issues, putting her in a different, less trauma-inducing room may have been wiser. She says of her separation from her baby, “Such a dear baby. . .And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous” (394). John’s lack of knowledge about women’s mental health issues has actually led to him exacerbating her illness, not mending it. If he would listen to her, he would know what she needs to aid in her recuperation: contact with her baby and a compassionate ear, exercise and activities. In her mind, she says, “Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good” (393). She knows what she needs to feel better, but she also knows that her husband would not listen to her because she is a woman. Instead, he forces tonics on her and forbids her from her “work” (writing in a diary), depriving her of an outlet to express her feelings and forcing her to hide her writing like a shameful secret. What’s so unique about this story is that it portrays a woman who may be passive physically, but active mentally, inwardly disagreeing with her husband’s methods and voicing her own opinions. This allows the reader to sympathize with a supposedly “crazy” woman, helping them to understand the true barbarity of a treatment that revolves around ignoring an entire gender. While other stories, like Poe’s, tend to focus on the horror of a disease-ridden mind, Gilman’s does the same while also offering an empathetic critique of many women’s unfortunate positions. She turns the notion of the mad woman on its head, makes her into a real person rather than an archetype, and forces society to begin questioning their antiquated ideas regarding mental health.
Now that we’ve established why horror is worthy of recognition, talked about some stories that contain literary attributes, let’s discuss where authors often falter in quality and why these areas are so important in crafting a good horror story. Namely, I’m talking about the ability to inject the fantastic with a healthy dose of realism. Earlier, I briefly mentioned some of the positive features of Stephen King’s It. At its best, it’s a coming of age novel about a rag-tag group of children banding together to fight the forces of evil, discovering the powerful bond they share along the way. At its worst, it embraces mystical turtles from outer space, some nonsense ritual called Chud, and child orgies. Some of these details seem to be included only for shock value, others the incoherent ramblings of a cocaine-addicted mind. Alas, King has fallen into the trap of giganticism, which is, as Percy describes in “Making the Extraordinary Ordinary,” “When [the authors] first get caught up in a thrilling idea, fetishize the whoa-dude-ain’t-this-coolness of it all…They focus on…whatever spectacular hoo-ha they have dreamed up. And in doing so, they neglect character” (68). Though these types of stories can be entertaining, they lack heart, thus making it difficult for the reader to care about the endgames for any of the characters. This is where highlighting the realistic elements of an otherwise unbelievable story becomes important.
As exciting as writing about demonic possessions and zombie invasions can be, Percy warns writers not to become so enamored with these ideas that they forget about what the reader really wants: “Don’t neglect [human particulars] in favor of the big idea. Your vampire apocalypse, your clone invasion, your school of witchcraft and wizardry. Matters of the heart make your world worth occupying. . .We need the everyday to balance out the astonishing” (69). Extraordinary details enhance the story, but what we’re really here for are the human elements we can relate with. Will the mother and daughter mend their toxic relationship while simultaneously trying to survive the apocalypse? Will the zombie regain his humanity after falling in love with a living woman? By “normalizing” the weirdness rather than “fetishizing” it, the author creates something that will stand the test of time, rather than fizzling out in the public’s memory.
There are aspects in Poe’s, Oates’s, and Gilman’s stories that lead the reader to believe that there may be some supernatural elements at play. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator hears the beating of the old man’s heart after he’s already killed him: “The sound increased. . .It was a low, dull, quick sound — much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath — and yet the officers heard it not” (4). Is the narrator really hearing the beat of a dead man’s heart? Possibly. . .but probably not. The police officers’ ignorance to the sound informs us that it’s all in the narrator’s mind, a manifestation of his guilt. This detail intensifies the situation, causes the reader to question reality, but in the end, this is a story about a murder and a man brought down by his own guilt; Poe does well not to forget this human particular.
Likewise, in “Where Are You Going,” there are some hints that Arnold Friend possesses supernatural powers, demonstrated in his ability to see where Connie’s family is and what they’re doing even though he’s miles away: “‘Right now they’re — uh — they’re drinking. Sitting around’. . .Then the vision seemed to get clear and he nodded energetically. ‘Yeah. Sitting around. There’s your sister in a blue dress…And your mother’s helping some fat woman with the corn’” (2286). Is Arnold Friend really gifted with clairvoyance? Maybe. Oates never expands on this idea because that’s not the important part of the story. What the reader cares about is Connie, her safety, and whether she will make it out of this situation alive. In both of these stories, fantastical elements are exploited to give them an edge, to make the reader think, “Something’s off here.” Never do these details detract from the story as a whole, because the authors want the reader to come away remembering what matters most: the humanity of it all.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator describes seeing a woman in the wallpaper, saying, “The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out” (398). This is certainly a chilling image, but is the narrator actually seeing the outline of a woman creeping around her room, trapped behind the wallpaper? Likely not. Likely, the narrator is beginning to feel the effects of her imprisonment, lack of exercise, and indifference from her husband, and is spiraling further into insanity. Therefore, the woman she is seeing is actually a physical representation of her own captivity and loss of control, not a separate entity in itself.
Horror is a difficult genre to write and get right. Like with a lot of other genre fiction, it can be rife with pedestrian language, static character tropes, derivative storylines that we know the ending to within the first few pages. But it can also be a wide-reaching genre, a vehicle used to cover a multitude of themes, such as murder and guilt, or puritanical sexual mores. All that’s really required to achieve this is a recognition of the limitations of the genre, that sometimes the unbelievable can be too much for a reader, and an understanding that as pretentious as some literary writers may seem, turning up their noses at any genre fiction, they certainly have useful skills to offer. With these elements in mind, horror can be just as effective at moving the audience as any other piece of writing.
Little, Julianna. “‘Frailty, Thy Name Is Woman’: Depictions of Female Madness.” Virginia Commonwealth University, 2015, pp. 1–91.
Moser, Don. “The Pied Piper of Tucson.” Life, 4 Mar. 1966, pp. 1–12.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Stories of Young America, by Joyce Carol Oates, Fawcett, 1974, pp. 2277– 2291.
Perkins-Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” American Gothic: from Salem Witchcraft to H.P. Lovecraft, an Anthology, by Charles L. Crow, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, pp. 392–402.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Classic Horror Tales, by Editors of Canterbury Classics, Thunder Bay Press, 2017, pp. 1–5.