Types of Horror

Grand Guignol poster  from grandguignol.com
Grand Guignol poster
from grandguignol.com

Just now, I finished pasting Stephen King’s famous quotation on the three types of terror into my page on “Thoughts on Horror from the Masters” and I remembered that yesterday I was trying to remember the quotation, but could only recall a vague impression of it.   Thinking on that impression now, I think that it was just as valid and true a one as the one by Mr. King, but simpler, more compact, and easier to remember.  The concept is (I’ll refine this a little for the sake of clarity):

The three most common types of horror are:  suspense (knowing someone runs the risk of decapitation at any moment), terror (seeing him/her being decapitated), and disgust (watching the head roll down the stairs).

I don’t think this idea should replace Mr. King’s by any means, but should probably be viewed as a simplification of his rather lengthy statement.

There are also probably a hundred more different flavors (i.e. variations of the sensation) of horror but these are the three that seem to me to be the most common, at least in movies and other popular media.

Thoughts?  Comments?

Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and the X-files

mod 130419_0008I just finished watching an episode of the X-Files entitled “Chinga” [note to Spanish-speakers out there:  I don’t know who chose the title, so please forgive my language] from Season Five and I  noticed that it was written by Stephen King and Chris Carter (the creator of the X-Files).  The story’s antagonist is a talking doll that can force people to injure or kill themselves in gruesome ways.   Like many, if not most, of King’s stories, there is no explanation of how the came to exist.  All the viewer finds out about it is that a lobsterman pulled it up one night in a lobster trap and his daughter comes to possess it after he meets his own gruesome fate.

I find in my own writing that I like to provide an explanation or background as to how things originate.  This is just my nature.  I like to know the origins of things.  However, I have come to believe of late that, in terms of horror, that is a very nineteenth century  concept.

Lovecraft said in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”:

“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and protentiousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only daily safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

For me, what Lovecraft is saying is that if the laws of nature are negated, then anything is possible and monsters like Cthulhu really could exist and are capable of doing us harm at any moment.  Combine this with his statement that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” and it becomes apparent that stories like “Chinga” derive much of their horror effect from the fact that the origin of the threat to a story’s protagonist(s) is unknown or that there is no explanation for the threat.

This would mean that one of  things that provides to “Chinga”  the element of horror that it has, is the fact that origin of the doll is unknown.  Therefore, any of us when we are fishing or scuba diving or swimming in any body of water, could discover a doll that would turn his/her life into a nightmare.   That is a scary thought.

Of course, this means that Stephen King would be one of the greatest practitioners of this technique, which I believe he is.

I think I shall try to experiment with this in the near future.

Thoughts?  Comments?


The C.S. Lewis you never knew – CNN Belief Blog

C. S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis
[Please observe any copyright restrictions.]
The C.S. Lewis you never knew – CNN Belief Blog – CNN.com Blogs.

This post has nothing to do with horror and only a bit to do with writing, but this is a fascinating article and I wanted to post it because it has something to say about authors in general and about the public’s perception of them.

Many of my more religious friends may consider the article above, to which I have provided a link, close to blasphemy for soiling the socially-accepted image of one of the most beloved Christian authors of all time.   However, for me this article makes him all the more real, because it shows him fighting the demons of his own nature, with which many authors have had to contend since the invention of writing (Poe and Fitzgerald immediately spring to mind).

I am sure that the immediate, knee-jerk reaction reaction of many readers of this article will be to instantly brand Lewis a hypocrite for not living up the to the Christian ideals he espoused or to brand me as the lowest and most scurrilous form of iconoclast.  To this I will of course respond with John 8:7: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…”

I cannot say whether Lewis was a hypocrite.   I did not know the man personally and I have read very little about him outside this article. I have read none of his works and know him only from reputation.  I know from my own limited experience as a writer however, that often I write about lives I wish I could lead or about ideals that lie beyond my grasp.   Perhaps it was the same with Lewis.  Perhaps he wrote about the standards he wished that he could maintain in his personal life, but of which he often fell short.  I feel that is many times the case with authors, and therefore I am always leery of labeling someone a hypocrite until I know the person and his/her story in considerable depth.  Striving toward an ideal for one’s life that one cannot achieve is not hypocritical.  To some it may be courageous while to others it may be foolish, but it is not hypocritical.

Another possibility that is worth bearing in mind is that perhaps the public image of Lewis is off-base.  Perhaps the public, in idealizing an author is seeking an ideal for itself that it cannot maintain.  This is the case with presidents who he public demands to have an ideal, squeaky-clean image, but when they fall short and show themselves as human as any member of that public, public opinion turns against them suddenly with an unrelenting vengeance.  The public tends to forget, once it has formulated an ideal, that the object of its ideal is as human as it is, with the character flaws, weaknesses, and innate demons that make fictional characters so fascinating for that same public.  Lewis would be one such character, if he were not as real as you or I.

Reading this article makes me idealize Lewis in my own way, because I see him now as someone fighting his inner demons in a struggle to reach an ideal he could never achieve.  For me, now, he becomes more of a character out of Greek tragedy or from the depths of Dante’s Inferno.  Lewis’s story is a bit of everyday horror that we see around us constantly, but to which we never give any thought until an article such as this (the one on CNN and not my humble post) appears and causes us to reflect momentarily on someone we thought we knew, but whom we never knew at all.  I wish I could write a character with as intriguing a backstory as Lewis had.  I shall now have to amend my reading list and to it insert, The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and a biography or two of Lewis.

I think it is important for writers to know the biographies and the stories behind other writers (even those outside a reader’s preferred genre) for a variety of reasons.   First, of course, is so that we do not repeat their errors.  Secondly, if you are a writer suffering or starving for your art, seeing another’s triumphs over personal demons and over the world in general may give you the hope you need to continue striving toward your goal.   Thirdly, empathizing or sympathizing with another author’s plight may give you some measure of relief or solace.  Fourth, if nothing else, reading another’s biography may give you ideas as to how to pursue your career.   Finally, reading someone else’s biography may at least give you some entertainment for a little while and thus help ease the burdens of your own life.

For these reasons, I read this article on Lewis and for these reasons I am presenting the fascinating life of this non-horror author to an audience of writers of horror.

Thoughts?  Comments?

Neil Gaiman: ‘Face facts: we need fiction’ | Books | The Guardian

Neil Gaiman at the 2007 Scream Awards Photo by pinguino k
Neil Gaiman
at the 2007 Scream Awards
Photo by pinguino k

Here is a fascinating perspective on fiction by Neil Gaiman: ‘Face facts: we need fiction’ | Books | The Guardian.

28 Totally Relatable Quotes About Books

Detail of Madonna des Kanonikus Georg van der Paele by Jan van Eyck, 1436
Detail of Madonna des Kanonikus Georg van der Paele
by Jan van Eyck, 1436

Purely for your entertainment, here are 28 Totally Relatable Quotes About Books.  I know I can relate to a lot of them.  I’m sure you will find a few for yourself.  One reason I find these interesting is because many of them show me how intensely involved readers will become with a book.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, I believe that people live a vicarious existence through a story.  When we write, we are not just writing a book or a story, we are creating a universe in which people will hopefully want to, not just visit, but dwell.  All of the writer’s art should therefore focus on creating a virtual reality for one’s readers.  To do that, we need a good  grounding in, or at least a good feel for, human psychology, because we have to shape our creations to fit the human psyche.  How do thoughts come into being?  How do they lead from one to another?  How do images form in the mind?  No, I am not saying that we need Ph.D.’s in psychology to be good writers, but I think we need some sort of archetypal insight into human nature if we are to be the great writers we hope to be.  Darn.  I’m rambling again.  🙂

Fictional Realism and You


Today at Stumble Upon, I found a fascinating article entitled “10 Mind-Blowing Theories That Will Change Your Perception of the World”.  Of the ten, the most fascinating for writers is #9, “Fictional Realism” which reads:

9. Fictional realism.

This is the most fascinating branch of multiverse theory. Superman is real. Yes, some of you would probably choose a different story, for argument’s sake, Harry Potter might be real too. This branch of the theory argues that given an infinite number of universes, everything must exist somewhere. So, all of our favorite fiction and fantasy may be descriptive of an alternate universe, one where all the right pieces came in to place to make it happen.

So, according to this, Cthulhu and all the rest of the Lovecraftian universe and the eldritch world may actually exist out there someplace just beyond our ken in a parallel universe.  Somehow horror becomes scarier when it becomes possible at some level.

Thoughts? Comments?

Lovecraft on the Supernatural

H.P. Lovecraft, 1915
H.P. Lovecraft, 1915


I was reading Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” the other day when I came across this line concerning the nature of  the “weird tale”:

“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and protentiousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only daily safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

With me, this idea hit home.  I have always thought that the more realistic I could make a story, the more frightening it would be for the reader, because it could possibly happen. Lovecraft takes the complete opposite approach.  In essence, he says let’s dispense with the chains of our preconceptions of reality then see what could happen.   He is right.  If anything can happen, the horrors that could happen to humanity are limitless and unimaginable.

Now let’s take this line of thought a step or two further philosophically.  Perhaps our concept of reality is really a sort of protective shell, a defense mechanism created by our minds that shields us from being overwhelmed by the thousands of possible ways we could meet our ends.  If a person tried to conceive of all the ways he/she might die at any moment, no matter how miniscule the odds, his/her mind might be overwhelmed and paralyzed by fear or destroyed by paranoia and madness.   The only way the mind could survive would then be to limit the possibilities to only those with the greatest probability of happening at that moment, in essence, wrapping itself in a protective cocoon of denial.

If there are any philosophy majors out there reading this, please feel free to bring up this idea in class.  I would love to hear the arguments for and against this.

Now, let’s go a step even further.   If we start to see our perception of reality as only a concept, as only a protective shell in a much greater universe, as only one alternative among thousands or millions of possibilities, then the possibility of creatures like Cthulhu, Shoggoth, Nylarhotep, the “ancient ones”, and all the other monsters contained in Lovecraft’s vivid imagination becomes very real.

Lovecraft’s world of the “ancient ones” is frightening enough when we think it has no chance of happening, but it becomes truly terrifying if we think it has even the slightest chance of actually happening.

Thoughts?  Comments?