Have you heard of the Black Death? I’d be willing to wager that you have, since it’s taught as a major part of European history, and European history is one of those subjects that’s virtually impossible to avoid (although the Black Death did enormous amounts of damage in Asia and the Middle East as well as in Europe; this was not a disease which respected borders). Most people know it as another name for the bubonic plague, that flea-borne disease that still haunts the West Coast of the United States.
The H Word
To riff on a George Orwell quote: no literary, film, or artistic mode or genre is free from political bias. That said, the political baggage of horror is considerable, and oftentimes, problematic. Many a smart person has argued, and convincingly so, that the horror genre is a conservative/reactionary one, too often with the ugliest political shades on display; misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, ruling class re-imaginings of the other as invading monsters. From Freud’s uncanny to the gender politics of the final girl, perhaps no other genre is as fraught with such political anxiety.
When I was asked to contribute to this column, I thought I’d probably write about cosmic horror — after all, I edit and publish a Lovecraftian magazine (THE LOVECRAFT EZINE). That article was almost completed, however, before I realized that my heart wasn’t in it. So for better or worse, I jotted down what was really on my mind. It’s not fun stuff, but we are talking about horror.
The South IS haunted. Haunted by Christ; haunted by ghosts; haunted by its sins, real and imagined ones. My own Southern childhood was profoundly haunted. I dreamed of witches and devils in the woods surrounding my house and imagined ghosts lurking on the ceiling outside my bedroom where the wood fire roared in the living room of the cabin I grew up in. Summers, when school was out, I spent most nights up reading until two or three in the morning, only partly because it was too hot to sleep and because I had a hard time putting down my books.
The true horror of disease is not the late stages — not the bleeding and the internalized necrosis and the uncontrollable rage, although those things can be terrifying. For me, the true horror of disease comes from the silent way it moves through the world, taking what it wants, touching everyone in its path. Disease is not a 1980s slasher, coming for those who fail to subscribe to some cinematic subset of Puritan values. Disease is not a killer shark, waiting for foolish swimmers to dive into the sea. Disease is a part of the natural world.
Twentieth century zombies, who branched off from their Haitian voodoo brethren in 1968 with George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, spent thirty-five years terrorizing audiences with their relentless pursuit of human flesh. If you think of them as a breakfast food, they were kind of like oatmeal. Or pancakes. Or scrambled eggs. Nothing fancy. No surprises. Just a basic monster with a single-minded purpose, so you always knew what you were going to get when you sat down to enjoy them.
In Toronto for several years I ran a reading series. One of the most interesting phenomena I observed was that if anyone began their reading by suggesting they were about to read a horror story, the effect on the audience was immediate. The listeners became defensive, they crossed their arms, leaned back in their chairs, began to frown. Now many of the listeners were themselves horror writers and so this wasn’t outright disapproval for the genre as one might expect. These listeners were defending themselves
Fortunately, horror fiction in the twenty-first century has expanded past those traditional roles (remember when the catch-phrase “You’ve come a long way, baby” referred to a cigarette targeted at women?). Along the way, the most interesting horror fiction has reflected society’s changing views . . . and in a few cases (see below), may even have helped push those changes.
We’ve heard a tremendous amount recently about the rising popularity of weird fiction. How much, or little, this “new weird” shares with the New Weird movement of a few years ago I’ll leave to the scholars to debate. The long and the short of it is that every few years a new thread of horror fiction is held up as being the next great thing, and currently that thing is a strain of weird fiction that draws its inspiration primarily (even if not obviously) from Lovecraft, as well as Chambers, Howard, Ligotti, and so on. We see it combined with other genres, diluted and distorted into various shapes, but at the end of the day, right now the “weird” is king.
A time-honored adage amongst writers of the macabre declares, “True horror is timeless.” Things and ideas that scared us centuries ago still retain the same deep-seated dread our ancestors faced: anything threatening us that is beyond our understanding or our control. Whether this be a repulsive creature or a psychological fear of abandonment, loss, or death, certain fears are hard-wired into our collective psyche.