Thursday, September 27, 2018

What Makes a Good Horror Story?

I've been reading a lot of ghost stories recently. As I've mentioned before, I'm a member of a horror club, which is comprised of a very cultured group of gentlemen-- indeed, it's rather like being in the Inklings.

However, I feel a little bit out of my depth there sometimes. My horror knowledge is quite extensive by normal standards, but these guys are walking encyclopedias of horror. This is especially true when it comes to the written word. My knowledge of horror movies is much more extensive than my knowledge of horror fiction. So I've been trying to expand it.

I've been confronted once more with the fact that many of the horror stories which are considered classics of the genre don't appeal to me at all. For instance, I can't really enjoy the works of Sheridan Le Fanu, a Dubliner of the nineteenth century, who is considered one of the masters of the genre. I derive rather more enjoyment from the stories of M.R. James (an English writer who died in 1936), but not quite as much as his reputation would seem to warrant.



I've realized that I have my own criteria when it comes to the enjoyment of horror stories, and many of the most celebrated stories just don't fit them.

Here they are.

1) The main criteria is that I like horror stories to have a supernatural element, or at least a potentially supernatural element. (Sometimes, it's left ambiguous.) I generally don't like horror stories with no supernatural element, although there are exceptions. I tend to dislike stories with an apparently supernatural element which turns out to be non-supernatural.

2) I like horror stories to be set in a world which is familiar to me, in some way. My favourite sort of horror involves the otherworldly intruding into the ordinary-- so the more ordinary, the better.

"Familiar" can have various meanings, though. Victorian England is a familiar enough world-- unless it's a story that sets out to present it in an unfamiliar way (which I won't enjoy).

Generally, I don't like stories which are set much more than a century in the past, or in non-English speaking countries, or in some kind of sub-culture such as organised crime or show business. I'm a very provincial person indeed.

Dirk Benedict in "Mark of the Devil"

3) I want the protagonist to be likeable. This is true, not only of horror stories, but of all stories. Who enjoys spending time in the company of someone they don't like?

4) I like horror stories to be cosy. "Cosy", like "familiar", is a relative term. It comes down to this: I have no interesting in reading a horror story (or any story, but especially a horror story) which is unrelieved bleakness from beginning to end.

I say "especially a horror story", because one of the reasons I enjoy horror stories is for this very reason. Horror and cosiness seem to go together, strangely enough. Many of the settings of horror are both spooky and cosy at once; lonely moors, old cottages, stormy nights, well-fitted bedrooms with four-poster beds, old churches, campfires, night trains, and so forth.

5) This point is similar to the previous one. I like horror which is seductive in some way. Horror where the horrific element is entirely repulsive is rarely appealing to me. Many people see the debonair, glamorous Dracula of movie tradition as a vulgarization of Stoker's Count Dracula, who was considerably less romantic. However, I like debonair vampires.



The point applies not only to the villains, but to the situation itself. The situation should be appealing in some way; if not to the person trapped in it, then to the audience. Take, for instance, the setting of the movie The Wicker Man: a Scottish island whose entire population has taken up paganism . Modern life is so alienated, rootless, and homogeneous that the thought of such a place is rather pleasing.

6) I like a horror story to mean something. This is a tricky one, however. I sympathise with the views of J.R.R. Tolkien, who famously wrote: "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations." A story (at least, a story whose principle purpose is the enjoyment of the reader) should exist for its own sake. One cannot help resenting a story which is simply a dressed-up message of some kind, in the same ways one resents a "sponsored feature" in a magazine.

Horror is probably the genre which is most fertile in deeper meanings, perhaps because it probes our anxieties. Is Invasion of the Body-Snatchers about McCarthyism, or communism, or the fear of conformism in consumer society? Well, none of these hidden meaning seem to have been intended, but once can't help sensing their presence. Good horror tends to do this. Sometimes I encounter horror stories which seem to have no possible application to anything outside the story, and I don't enjoy them much. 

Winston Churchill is supposed to have once commanded: "Take away that pudding-- it has no theme". That's how I feel about horror stories. The movie An American Werewolf in London is an example of this. It's a well-made movie, but it seems flat to me, because it doesn't suggest anything beyond itself.

7) I don't like stories which involve damnation, or even the danger of damnation. The reader might point out that, according to my own beliefs, life is a story featuring the danger of damnation. So it is. But I'm talking about horror stories in which the character barters his soul to the Devil, and so forth. The idea of eternal punishment is so awful that it takes all the relish out of the story, for me. And I felt like this before I became a believing Catholic.

The same is true of unspeakable and unending torment even outside a Christian cosmology. Sometimes horror can just be too stark.


8) On the more positive side, I like horror stories which involve the protagonist caught in some mysterious situation, one where reality itself seems to have turned against them. I dislike the influence of mythology-makers such as Anne Rice, because they make the world of the horror story too defined, too prosaic, too humdrum. I prefer horrors where there is no map, no compass, no guidelines, and the ground under the protagonist's feet seems to be giving way.

Here is an example which is all too real: the history of AIDS. AIDS is terrifying enough now. But think how terrifying it must have been at the very beginning, when doctors knew next to nothing about the disease.

However, in the case of the horror story, this mysteriousness isn't just terrifying. It's also strangely exhilarating-- at least for the reader!

Well, that's my list. I know it seems so specific that not very many horror stories could hope to satisfy me. However, I'm far from rigid. I can't imagine enjoying a story that failed to meet any of these criteria, or even most of them. But I don't expect any story to tick all these boxes.

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