Friday, October 30, 2015

OverAnalyzed: A Short History of Horror Fiction and the Gothic

Tomorrow is Halloween and I have an old essay on horror writing and its Gothic roots floating around on my hard drive. I am also lazy. This combines to bring you this not-so-short history of horror and its roots. I make no claims of accuracy. 

Let’s start with a quick history of horror in literature. Scary stories to tell in the dark were always around in some form or another. Presumably there are cave paintings somewhere depicting young Krunk and Agga being torn apart by the hook-pawed sabretooth tiger because they stayed outside too late. But literary horror really kicks off with the Gothic writers. The Gothic began in the late 1700s and lasted into the late 1800s, with three major waves of popularity. First-wave Gothic didn’t provide many novels that are still read today, except in universities and by aficionados. (Cough cough The Mysteries of Udolpho).  But—and this is an important caveat—first-wave Gothic writing laid the foundation for later waves, as well as “true” horror. Second and third wave Gothic literature is where things start to become recognizable as the seed of horror’s creepy lightning-struck tree. From second-wave Gothic writing you get Edgar Alan Poe and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. From third-wave Gothic, you get Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Sheridan Le Fanu’s ethereal short stories. That is the biggest, sketchiest summary of the Gothic it’s probably possible to give, and it ignores reasons the Gothic genre boomed, the intricacies of it, the differences between the various waves, and so many other things. But there are two major things to remember. And you should remember them. It’ll be important later. First, the Gothic is the direct and not-so-distant ancestor of pretty much any modern spooky movie or book. That’s a big deal. Second, Gothic is divided into terror Gothic and horror Gothic. We’ll go into that more later, but suffice to say terror Gothic is more psychological, and horror Gothic is more gory. 

So what comes after the Gothic? Well, there’s a short lull in horror from around 1885-1910. Then, around 1910, modern horror begins to emerge from its dank tomb. The winds have shifted, though. Gothic literature was mostly a British thing, with only a few exceptions like Poe. Early modern horror is all about the States. And here on this side of the pond, the trend was to write short stories, rather than novels. Lots of magazines dedicated to “weird” stories—they really liked to use the word “weird”—cropped up in a very short period of time. Most didn’t make much money and kind of burnt out, but the mags jumpstarted careers for a lot of big scifi and fantasy writers. The horror magazines also gave us H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. (As to why they all abbreviated their names differently, your guess is as good as mine.) Lots of now-mainstay subgenres of horror cropped up at this time. Lovecraft more-or-less pioneered cosmic horror, M.R. James reinvented the ghost story, you get the picture. These authors were still drawing on Gothic ideas, let’s not ignore that. In many cases, they were closer to the age of the Gothic than to the modern day. And that’s why Lovecraft feels more like Poe or Shelley than like King or Rice. They’re in an awkward in-between place, kind of like teenagers, stuck between the rather tame Gothic and the far darker and gorier modern horror.

Anyway, the short-story business of early-modern horror rolled along merrily until World War II. You can guess why the bottom kind of dropped out of the market for a while there. (World War I didn’t have the same effect for some reason. Probably the Nazis. It’s always the Nazis. They buggered everything right up.) 

Then, in the mid-1950s, things start to slowly resurrect. I Am Legend gets published, the vampire novella that’s responsible for modern zombie fiction. (No, I didn’t get vampire and zombie confused.) Other horror stories and novels get published, and the horror genre starts to get back on its feet. It’s slow going though, and true modern horror doesn’t get started until the 1970s. That’s when Stephen King first pops onto the scene, along with Anne Rice and a host of others. The ever-fickle market had shifted again and demanded novels.

Lots of novels. All kinds of novels. Horror has expanded massively into a sprawling field with dozens of subgenres. Think of it like a hideous tentacle monster. Gothic—the monster’s tree-like trunk—has only two main choices, Horror and Terror. Weird horror—the monster’s major limbs—had more division into cosmic horror, ghost stories, true crime horror, and so on. Modern horror—the monster’s trillions of wiggling miniature tentacles in this torturous analogy—has ten trillion subdivisions. There’s “classic” horror like King, mostly set in suburban neighborhoods; there’s gorier stuff like Clive Barker’s Books of Blood; there’s slasher/serial killer horror like The Silence of the Lambs; there’s psychological horror like Shutter Island; there’s alternate history horror like Dan Simmons’ The Terror; there’s Gothic revival horror like Ann Rice; there’s zombie horror; there’s monster horror; scifi horror; fantasy horror; I could do this for days and days and pages and pages. You get the picture. Modern horror is a sprawling, amorphous blob with tons of incestuous overlap between subgenres as well as appropriation of the cooler bits of other genres, and it’s leeched into every other genre so that just when you least expect it—BAM! Pseudopod to the face. What that means is, there’s a lot of room to play in within modern horror, lots of space to carve out a niche and put up a sign that reads “Beware of Shoggoth.”

Let's jump back to the Gothic, mental whiplash be darned to heck. Remember once again how I said there were two types of Gothic literature, terror and horror, and that terror Gothic is psychological, and horror Gothic is gory. Now, for more detail. This was a genre which flourished from the late 1700s until the late 1800s, so predominately during Queen Victoria’s reign. You know, the Victorian period. The Gothic grew up in the more refined shadow of the Romantics, writers like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In fact, the Gothic and the Romantic share some characteristics. Both are interested in the Sublime, the idea that nature can stun the observer into an awareness of their own insignificance and awaken their senses to a keener, more vivid world. Both genres are also focused on the average person, though in different ways. Many of the Romantic writers—especially Wordsworth—liked to claim that their poems and literature were meant to be accessible to an ordinary reader, about simple pastoral experiences. Whether or not that was actually the case is debatable, but let’s take Wordsworth et al. at their, ahem, word. Similarly, Gothic novels were aimed directly at the middle class, particularly young women—and the middle class gobbled them up. The Romantics and other cultural elites didn’t much like the appetite for Gothic works, deeming them trash and unartistic and immoral, just as horror movies or violent video games or comic books have been maligned in more modern times. And even within the Gothic, there was a split between terror and horror. (Remember those? I said they’d be important!) Terror authors though horror authors were trashy and immoral. According to Ann Radcliffe, one of the first Gothic terror writers, “Terror and Horror are so far opposite that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them.”

That statement is perhaps a bit harsh. Gory horror can be fun. If that’s your jam, I completely understand. It’s like an action movie, you’re along for the ride, to see what things the author or filmmaker can come up with next. It’s adrenaline-rush media. The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre is all Id, no Ego. It’s an appeal to your basest instincts. And sometimes, that can be just what you need. Sometimes, that’s what I need. To just shut my brain off for a bit.

But most of the time I want two things out of my media—something to enjoy, and something to make me think. Preferably both at the same time. Gothic terror and early modern horror (particularly the cosmic horror Lovecraft and his fellow-thinkers pioneered) excel at both of those aspects. Lovecraft, when he wasn’t being horribly racist, brought up important points about humanity’s place in the cosmos: What if the physical world isn’t all there is? What if there are things beyond our comprehension, spirits and alien things which don’t operate according to what we think is logical and moral? What would that knowledge do to someone? (Lovecraft’s answer to all of these things is, of course, go insane. He had a rather low opinion of the human psyche.) Lovecraft et al. asked probing questions about humanity, its future, its goals and obstacles, all wrapped up within the package of “monsters with tentacles in all the wrong places.” 

Similarly, the Gothic mode wasn’t just schlocky stories for bored middle-class wives and their bored middle-class daughters to read in-between twittering about Mr. Darcy and being scandalized. (Yes, I do get most of my information about the Victorian period from Pride and Prejudice, why do you ask?) In between the vampires and kidnappings and damsels protecting their modesty, Gothic authors—particularly Gothic terror authors—were contemplating important social issues. Take Frankenstein, which is perhaps one of the first “has science gone too far?” novels. Mary Shelley didn’t just create a classic monster with bolts in its neck. She explored the ethics of contemporary science and medicine, the dynamics of parenthood, and many other things besides. That’s a lot of subtext in a very small book. And Shelley wasn’t the only author addressing current social problems through her work. 

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Gothic horror explored social themes as well, as do modern horror novels and movies. I’m not saying they don’t. “Zombies represent mindless consumerism and the deleterious impact it has on society,” I can hear you screaming. Please don’t yell. It’s rude. You’re completely correct. The topics and villains of modern horror can reveal a great deal about the time that the book is written or movie filmed, and about the fears and desires of the audience and creator. That’s why Alien is all about violent sexuality. (What, you didn’t pick up on that?) And plenty of modern authors still write in a manner that’s less horror and more terror—McNaughton and Simmons, for example. But there’s always a trace of the Gothic in them. Brian McNaughton’s stories in Throne of Bones are primarily set in a pseudo-Victorian time period and Dan Simmon’s The Terror is set on an Arctic exploration ship in the late Victorian period and appropriates Gothic terror ideas. 

The thing is, people often don’t appreciate horror, including the Gothic, as an art. At the time it was popular, the Gothic was considered trashy drivel, rotting the minds of young middle-class men and women (the poor had their own forms of brain-rot, such as penny dreadfuls). Lovecraft is now considered a cornerstone of modern horror, lauded by Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, who said Lovecraft exerts “an incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction.” But during his life, Lovecraft couldn’t even support himself on his writing. Critics such as Edmund Wilson declared “the only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art.”

Lately, the view of horror has been changing. Film adaptations of “artistic” horror works such as John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In win awards from the Tribeca Film Festival and are ranked in Empire magazine’s “100 Best Films of World Cinema.” But there is still a disdain for writers like Stephen King or Anne Rice, who write popular novels which don’t fit qualify as “artistic.” The major Gothic writers (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Alan Poe, etc.) are taken seriously, but only because they are now seen as historical in some way, their influence on modern culture clearly visible with the benefit of hindsight. Occasionally some modern authors of the spooky and scary get recognition—Neil Gaiman springs to mind—but overall there is very little glory to be found in those trenches. We look back at Count Dracula and say, “Oh, yes, of course, the vampire represents repressed sexuality in Victorians, as expressed by Jonathan Harker’s encounter with Dracula’s wives and Mina’s enthrallment to Dracula himself; Dracula additionally represents the fear of immigrants tainting pure English society.” As a culture, we are aware that Dracula has cultural, literary, and artistic merits. But I’ve seen too many arguments on internet forums, bitterly squabbling over whether Stephen King is a “real” author to have that delusion about modern horror. Society, taken broadly, doesn't treat horror as a long, deep-rooted genre worthy of respect. But it should. Happy Halloween.