In 2019 I finally bought a car with Bluetooth connection and it transformed my daily commute. Rather than putting up with radio, I listened to podcasts and interviews. In those early days I hunted for interviews with (and speeches) by Stephen King. A common theme among them – and an old one, too – was the purpose of the horror novel. For the best part of 40 years, King has been asked to explain why he writes them, why people like them, and what, if anything, they contribute to our understanding of humanity.
An awful lot of high-flown ideas are attributed to the horror story and if you’re interested in availing yourself of them, I highly recommend King’s book on the subject, Danse Macabre. The most commonly repeated one seems to be this: the small, controlled horrors in fiction or movies help us cope with and understand the real-life ones.
I find this assertion absurd.
Between 2010 and 2019, my wife and I went endured a surfeit of true-life horrors. Most were health-related – her mother died from leukaemia, her father and brother were diagnosed with bowel cancer (but survived), she developed multiple sclerosis – while some were awful situations caused by other people. Having spent nearly a decade going through the wringer with one thing or another, it became clear to me that imagined horrors and true-life ones have almost nothing in common.
Good horror fiction, like any other fiction, can take a reader away and make him forget his woes for a while. It can also serve as an allegory for something else, make us ponder the nature of life and death, wonder what (if anything) comes next, push the boundaries of imagination. But even though I’ve read dozens and dozens of horror novels over the years, not one helped me cope with my mother-in-law’s slow demise from blood cancer or made it easier to put my dead dog in the back of my car while ants crawled up my arms. Conflating the two (as so many journalists and armchair psychologists have over the years) and claiming that it is an unhealthy interest is, at best, ill-informed.
Writing about horror and experiencing it for real are as disparate as writing about sex and actually having sex. I suspect horror writers have tried to attribute a higher purpose to their fiction because reporters and critics so often back them into a corner and demand to know why they write such things. In their eyes, “because it’s entertaining” is as an inadequate answer. Even someone like Bret Easton Ellis, whose novel American Psycho was primarily about style and subtext and largely tedious, found himself having to defend his use of horror.
I find it curious indeed that interviewers want to know why authors fashion make-believe and often fanciful horrors, yet have no qualms about the much more realistic atrocities depicted in so-called ‘literature’. No one queries the fictitious cruelty in The Grapes of Wrath or the wanton murder in The Godfather or the realistic depictions of racism in everything from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Crazy in Alabama. Horror fiction shouldn’t need special dispensation or a practical reason to exist, and horror writers need to stop apologising, stop rationalising, stop justifying what they do. It is as valid a form of literature as any other.