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.
The H Word
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.
It’s well known within the field that horror, in both movies and novels, has a long history of often (perhaps too often, some would argue) being misogynist, relying on extreme rape as a plot device. Although the victims sometimes seek revenge in a one-dimensional pursuit, more frequently it’s used to prove the masculinity of the male protagonist or to offer him a revenge motive. Other times it is simply used for shock value.
Steve Schlozman, a psychiatry professor (known as “the zombie doc” for his ZOMBIE AUTOPSIES: SECRET NOTEBOOKS FROM THE APOCALYPSE), did an experiment to try to understand exactly why people enjoy horror, neurologically. He showed them a picture of a puppy. Then he showed them the image with cat’s eyes Photoshopped onto the puppy. t changed everything.
Science fiction and horror share many of the same genre roots; science fictional motifs wind through horror like strands of DNA, and horror’s tentacles have slithered into many works that are otherwise squarely science fiction. If science fiction is the literature of ideas, and horror is the literature of fear, there’s plenty of room for the two to blend.
Misunderstood monsters—mindless evil or innocent creatures thrust into circumstances beyond their control? If we look at monster history, there are many monsters who harm, damage, or kill because they blood-lust and enjoy it, and because it feeds a hunger that can only be satisfied by the evil they perpetrate on others. But what about those monsters who, in their search for something else—whether it is love, acceptance, or fulfillment—hurt others in the process?