Horror & Dark Fantasy

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The H Word: Monsters and Metaphors

Way back in February of 2013, in this same space, I argued that horror didn’t scare me anymore—hadn’t really since I was a kid. In light of Orrin Grey’s recent essay “But Is It Scary?” (Nightmare, March 2016), I’ve been forced to reconsider—and refine—that position. What I meant then was that cowering-under-the-covers kind of terror that seems to be uniquely the province of children. I haven’t felt that way in years and doubt that I ever will in the years to come, but there are other kinds of fear that good horror fiction gets at all the time—the lingering anxieties associated with the adult world, among them the fears that Grey names when he writes in his closing paragraph:

“The things that really scare me aren’t that interesting. They’re banal, boring, and quotidian. Like most people, I’m afraid of failure, of financial hardship, of getting sick, of letting my loved ones down. The really scary things in life don’t put your heart in your throat and get your blood pumping . . . Those are the things that scare me, but I sure as hell don’t want to write about them. I’d rather write about monsters.”

It’s hard to argue with a lot of that paragraph. Suffering financial hardship, getting sick, failing family, friends, and lovers, not to mention half a hundred other disasters, are the terrifying dimensions of adult life.

And if Grey finds them “banal” and “boring” that’s entirely okay, too—horror certainly has other dimensions. But I would argue that those “banal” fears are in fact, in many cases, the monsters, and that we love them because, as much as anything else, they are metaphors.

When I read Pet Sematary as a kid, it was a bed-wetting tale of supernatural evil. I lived a lot closer to the line between reality and fantasy then, and my power to discern the difference between the two was pretty easily confused. When I closed the book and turned out the light, I believed that Louis Creed’s resurrected son stood behind my half-open closet door, with murderous intent. As an adult, however, I don’t find much to be scared of in the pet cemetery’s power to endow dead flesh with a kind of horrific half-life, though I do find real pleasure in the artful way King unfolds this conventional trope. But the book still scares the hell out of me, because as a parent I know too well the reality of the highway where two-year-old Gage Creed is run down by a tractor-trailer. My daughter turned seventeen not long ago—she’s made it a lot further than two—but every time I turn a page in King’s novel I am reminded of just how deadly our roads can be—and how often I hand her the car keys and watch her cruise off into a world where I am powerless to protect her.

There are dozens of such examples.

The Amityville Horror might be a crap movie—and the book even worse—but as Stephen King notes in Danse Macbre, it’s all too easy to read it as a tale of financial dissolution, in which the Lutz family buys more house than they can easily afford, and their unwise investment dismantles their lives piece by piece. Indeed, houses are a particularly rich field to mine for metaphor. If you’ve ever worried about keeping up with the Joneses—and who hasn’t?—Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door can be a harrowing experience. And—to return to Stephen King—the Overlook Hotel is a grand and capacious metaphor indeed. The Shining is, at one level, a powerful indictment of the horrors of American history, at another, an excoriation of the destructive potential of the American Dream, and at still another, a brutal portrait of a man slipping into alcoholism and madness. If anybody ever let his family down, it was Jack Torrance.

One could go on. You give me The Exorcist, I give you a story of disease, the loss of a beloved child, fear of female sexuality, and the existential horror of religious doubt. Show me recent Sundance sensation The Witch, and I’ll show you, well, mostly the same stuff as I showed you in The Exorcist. Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Fear of a communist fifth column, of Eisenhower-era pressure to conform.

At which point you ask me to reconsider my point of view. After all, it’s been a long time since we worried about communists, but we continue to pump out remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We do the same thing for Dracula, too, and when was the last time anybody found that guy scary? To which I would respond, the 1890s, when Stoker’s tale embodied the Victorian terror of empowered female sexuality, of the explosion of technology and the decline of traditional faith, of aristocratic power, and the imperial project in Ireland (and elsewhere)—adult fears, for sure, but also largely dead ones.

Dracula himself lingers on, though, a beloved horror icon who has taken on a nostalgic place in the genre. Frankenstein and his monster have, too, not to mention the rest of the Universal Studios canon. Those creatures hardly scare us at all anymore, and even if they sometimes rise from the grave to bare their fangs—Let the Right One In is a pretty terrifying vampire movie about childhood sexual abuse, among other things—they are mostly exhausted metaphors for fears that have been swept away by cultural change.

In short, there are plenty of reasons to love horror that don’t involve fear, nostalgia among them, but the terrors of the adult world continue to have their place. The next time you think about losing your loved ones—and we always lose them in the end—take a look at The Babadook. There’s nothing banal, boring, or quotidian about it.

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Dale Bailey

Dale Bailey

A winner of both the Shirley Jackson Award and the International Horror Guild Award, Dale Bailey is the author of The End of the End of Everything: Stories and The Subterranean Season, both out in 2015, as well as The Fallen, House of Bones, Sleeping Policemen (with Jack Slay, Jr.), and The Resurrection Man’s Legacy and Other Stories. His work has twice been a finalist for the Nebula Award and once for the Bram Stoker Award, and has been adapted for Showtime Television’s Masters of Horror. He lives in North Carolina with his family.