Check out these six books on events forming the basis for some well-known fictional horror. Good recommendations for reading over the holidays, particularly Halloween.
I picked up a copy of the latest issue of “Cemetery Dance” this evening and read the Stephen King short story “Summer Thunder”. This is a very interesting piece. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but the story is about a man, his dog, and his neighbor, who have survived a nuclear holocaust and are slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning.
This story was quite different from the other Stephen King stories I have read (which have been quite a few, though not all by any means). There is no supernatural factor in the story. There are also no twists or surprises. The story maintains the same pace throughout, just as the protagonists face the same things day in and day out until they die.
I would classify this story as horror-tragedy, because, even though it has very little of the blood and gore normally associated with the horror genre, it definitely has a horror “feel” to it, but that horror is subtle and understated. “Summer Thunder” sets up a tragic scenario and the horror finds its basis in watching these people suffer through no fault of their own. They were not involved in starting the war in any way; that was done by world leaders thousands of miles away. These are the common citizens, the “Everymen” that normally populate King’s works as protagonists, and who must pay the horrific price for their government’s actions. That is the tragedy and that is a large part of the horror.
What is also horrifying about the story is not the action described in it, but the scenario it describes, because this scenario is definitely one that could literally happen to each of us, should our government and/or other governments decide for whatever reason, to push the proverbial button. Each of us can (or perhaps should) see ourselves as the main character, who will be forced to watch his or her world disintegrate after a nuclear apocalypse.
That concept alone should be enough to bring the true horror of this story: that this scenario is, and has been for a long time, a real possibility for each of us.
I have been wondering about what the first work of horror actually is. The standard answer I find on the Internet is, of course, that the first horror novel is The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole in 1764, but that doesn’t satisfy me. I have read a lot of Greek mythology since my early teens and I know they are filled with the kinds of horror that would make Clive Barker shudder and they were written probably 2,000 years before Walpole. Then I recalled The Epic of Gilgamesh.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is perhaps the oldest written story in any language. It is a long poem, probably written about the 18th century B.C. I read The Epic of Gilgamesh a few years ago, and although not lengthy, it is difficult to summarize. In essence, it is the story of a Mesopotamian king named Gilgamesh who builds many wonders but is cruel to his people. To teach him a lesson, the gods create a wild man named Enkidu in the wilderness who later becomes a close friend of Gilgamesh and with whom Gilgamesh goes on many adventures fighting demons and monsters only to lose Enkidu to disease later. After Enkidu’s demise, Gilgamesh seeks out Utnapishtim (the Mesopotamian version of Noah) to see if he (Gilgamesh) can have eternal life, but the answer is no. Gilgamesh returns to his kingdom a wiser man. Here is a link to a more detailed summary at Spark Notes. There are several translations in hard copy, but if you are curious about the original form, here is one that can be found at ancienttexts.org.
The Epic of Gilgamesh could perhaps best be described as a myth expressed as an epic poem with elements of horror. It was probably written more to express a certain philosophy or to record a myth than to entertain, which is the ultimate goal of horror novels and films. Nonetheless, it does contain elements of horror, particularly supernatural horror, and in the modern age, if it is read outside of a classroom, I think it will be read mostly for entertainment. So, while it was not written as a novel, would it be accurate to say that The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first work of horror? If it is, then aficianados of the horror genre could state with pride that the first written work in any language was a work of horror.
What do you think?
I saw another really cool post on the photos of the German Horror Writers Circle that I just had to share. The book cover above is of the novel “Meeting with Skinner” by Harald A. Weissen posted on Facebook on May 7, 2010. The accompanying summary reads:
“Imagine, that everything great that has occurred in the world since the beginning of time has been steered from a control room – discoveries, wars, political reversals, poverty, and prosperity.
Imagine that a single person has been sitting in this control room for several decades and the fortunes of the human collective has been influenced at his own discretion.
Imagine that the next person in this room is crazy.
The search for the control room draws together a traumatised young woman by the name of Laika, Elendes Biest, and Skinner , the last illusionist.”
I just think it’s an awesome post and a fascinating concept. The artwork is great too.
David Cronenberg, 2012
Photo by Alan Langford
“I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation. Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face. Just because you’re making a horror film doesn’t mean you can’t make an artful film.”
I found the quote above at Quotationsbook.com. I have linked David Cronenberg’s name to the Internet Movie Database for those of you not familiar with his works as a director of horror movies (The Fly, Scanners, etc.)
I think the statement is important for two reasons.
First, as I mentioned in my post on Carl Jung and the Creative Subconscious, authors do put something of themselves into their work. Personally, I had never recognized this about my own writing until I had the conversation I described in my post, though I had always known that each work of art is a reflection of the artist in some way. Therefore, up to that point, I cannot say I consciously confronted anything about myself. Since then, though I do not intentionally orient my stories toward self-revelation, I do occasionally recognize some internal bone of contention in a way that could probably best be described as “confrontation”. Writing then becomes a process of self-awareness, of self-knowledge, a type of self-therapy.
More importantly that the author’s own self-therapy, once these works are published, they become a sort of self-awarenes and therapy for the audience who can relate to them. We are all human; we all have the same basic drives and desires. If one individual experiences an internal confrontation, then many others have likely experienced it as well (perhaps this is the mechanism behnd living vicariously). Then the process of confrontation and self-awareness for the author becomes a process of confrontation and self-awareness for his audience as well–whether on a conscious or subconscious level. Then the horror genre becomes a form of self-therapy for society so that society can confront its dark side while experiencing our suppressed primal natures (as I mentioned in an earlier post).
The second important point about this statement is alluded to in the final sentence, that just because one is making a horror film, doesn’t mean one can’t make an artful film. On its surface, this is obviously true. There is no reason anyone cannot make a horror film with the same artistic feeling as David McLean did in Lawrence of Arabia or Stanley Kubrick did in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But beneath this surface lies another point. In the first two sentences, Mr. Cronenberg defines horror films as films of self-confrontation. In the last sentence he equates horror films with artful films. He is equating artful films with being films of self-confrontation. A=B=C. Art equating to self-confrontation could easily be the subject of a thesis, if not of an exceptionally thick textbook. Therefore, in my limited time and space available I will not even begin to delve into it here. Please explore it on your own, however. I think it would be a fascinating venture.
Any thoughts or comments?
H.P. Lovecraft by Mirror Cradle
I like the illustration above, not only because it shows Lovecraft in the throes of creation, but also because it can be a metaphor for anyone in the deepest and darkest of contemplations or beset with a multitude of woes. For now, though, I will say that it represents Lovecraft contemplating today’s question which is: forget everything you have ever read about horror, what is horror to you?
Stephen King made this comment (I found it on goodreads.com):
“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”
To me, these seem to be the superficialities of terror and horror. If we use disease as a metaphor for horror, then these are its symptoms. The virus lying at the root of horror is man’s inhumanity to man. Seeing a severed head tumbling down stairs is indeed horrible; seeing the murderer sever the head would be even worse, but being able to look into the soul of the murderer and see that the motive for the act stems from the murderer’s complete indifference to the suffering of others would be even worse. Perhaps even worse than that would be seeing that that indifference to others is not uncommon.
Many have speculated on what fascinates people about horror. Why would anyone enjoy being frightened? An article I read last night (I think from Wikipedia) says essentially (I am summarizing in my own words) that it is because the security our civilization our modern society affords us has eliminated the need for the primal fear that developed as a survival mechanism during the early days of evolution. That may be true to some degree, but if society eliminated some fears, it instilled others. How many have seen the movie “Candyman”? How many have seen “I am Legend?” or “The Omega Man” (both derive from the novel “I am Legend” by Richard Matheson), which is only one example of post-apocalyptic literature that would have been inconceivable in primeval times.
Instead of some overreaching drive extending throughout mankind, it may be that the need simply stems from the fact that the adrenaline rush, the focus on the moment, the muscle tension, and all the other physical sensations experienced during fright are the same or very similar to those experienced during sex, but without the sexual arousal itself. These are also similar to the sensations experienced during peaks of athletic activity. I was in the martial arts for many years and I can testify that the adrenaline rush experienced during sparring matches or when one is performing at peak ability can be addicting. Being frightened puts one on a similar level of physical and mental awareness, because it is an instinctual preparation to fight as if one is actually being threatened. The great thing about horror though is that while one enjoys all the physical highs of one’s body revving up for action, there is no actual threat. Everyone is safe. Candyman is not actually going to come out of the screen and track you down (though your subsequent nightmares may tell you otherwise).
So, please put yourself in Mr. Lovecraft’s place in the illustration above and ask yourself, what is horror?