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Introduction to the Horror Story, Day 1

Welcome to Introduction to the Horror Story. This is an upper level course with extensive reading and writing assignments as well as a practical component. It has no prerequisites other than existence and consciousness, which I believe all of you possess, though I may be wrong.

In this class, you will be tested in numerous areas, including critical thinking, evidentiary reasoning, and logical application of complex ideas to various textual and metatextual scenarios.

Many of you will find this course difficult, if not impossible, both in terms of content and effect. Horror is not for the weak of heart or the frail of mind. It reveals. It disturbs. It shatters illusions of control.

It forces you to confront what you don’t want to confront and question what you don’t want to question.

It reorients the compasses within you and sets you off toward new, sometimes unsettling, lands of thought.

That said, you’re here because you’re interested in horror and horror stories. You want to learn about them, find their truth.

I will help you in this noble endeavor.

But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So where do we start?

I suppose we should begin our discussion with the most fundamental of questions, the question that will underscore everything we do here.

What is a horror story?

If I say, “someone died,” is that a horror story?

Is it so simple, that the only requirements for horror are a tragedy and a victim upon whom that tragedy falls?

No, someone in the back row says.

Your name is . . . Kalissa, I believe?

Kalissa.

Well, Kalissa, I agree.

“Bad thing happens to person” seems too reductive to define the genre. Yet what else is there to horror, if not “bad things” and their victims?

“Fear,” I heard from the corner.

“Feeling fear.”

And you might be . . . ah . . . Marshall, I believe? Don’t look so surprised that I know your name. I make sure to research and study my students long before they enter my class. It’s all part of the educational process.

As for your answer, Marshall, it’s good, but fear only further complicates my original question, as anything can cause fear for any reason.

Stars. Mushrooms. Gerbils. The sound of a car horn. Any of these can be a source of horror for a person with a particular phobia, which would mean any story—every story—is a horror story to someone.

You might not be scared by the story “someone died,” but someone will be.

Death is, after all, generally scary, and many readers are quite generous with their sympathies.

But maybe those readers aren’t you.

No, none of you are moved by the death of a faceless “someone.” You’re too jaded or too absorbed in the idea of deep characterization.

You need a proxy, an avatar. You need to see yourself in the story, and you refuse to consider that you might be a faceless “someone” to the rest of the world.

“Someone” must be like you.

Perhaps, then, we need more specificity.

Perhaps I should posit that all those victims in a horror story, all those rivals of a thousand knives and million claws, are actually you.

Maybe when I said “someone died” what I really meant to say was you died.

“You died.”

Now that’s a horror story, right?

Ah. Silence.

We’re getting closer, I think.

If you’re afraid of dying, “You died,” is really the ultimate horror story. It’s what every horror story you’ve ever read boils down to. Every monster, every killer, every disastrous happenstance in every story is actually death playing masquerade. In this case, the threat in all horror is the threat that you, precious you, will no longer be.

But if you’ve made peace with your fragile mortality or are actively seeking the reaper, then even “You died” stirs not the slightest mote of anxiety within you.

Rather, “You died” takes on the flavor of an adventure story or a philosophical conundrum or even a welcome sabbatical—but not a horror tale.

Okay. So, what then? What, if not death, is so universal that it might evoke fear in any reader? What’s the one thing that a horror story needs to tap to produce its frisson?

Now you’re all scared to say the wrong thing.

Let me tell you, that’s not what you should be scared of at this moment.

But, come on, come on, answer the question. Give it a shot.

What’s so universal that it underlies all horror stories? What do all people dread?

If not death, what then?

I hear “loneliness.”

I hear “failure.”

I hear “public speaking.”

I hear . . . oh yes. There it is.

I hear pain.

Very good, Kalissa.

What about pain? Might that be the substructure of all horror?

Let me up the ante just a bit.

What about suffering?

“You suffered.”

Now that’s beginning to sound like a horror story.

You don’t want to suffer. No one wants to suffer.

No one.

It’s a ubiquitous fear.

“But, masochists . . .” says, let’s see, I believe it’s Samari? But you like to go by just “Sam.” Yes, Sam.

Sam, don’t be pedantic.

Yes, masochists sometimes enjoy what others might deem suffering, but, to the masochist, that “suffering” isn’t suffering at all. It’s pleasure. A masochist still experiences suffering, just through less conventional means, which brings us back around to the notion that, truly, no one wants to suffer.

Whatever your particular conception of suffering, of torment and torture and pain, you actively avoid it.

Horror knows this. It understands that suffering is the bane of all living things.

More than death, suffering negates life, because, unlike death, it isn’t a necessary element of the process of living.

Our civilization is rife with innumerable means of pain alleviation. You don’t need to suffer. Yet, due to the inimical mechanics of the cosmos and the villainy of small men, you often will.

You fear suffering quite rightly.

It’s inhumane. It makes few distinctions in who it visits. It plays by no rules but its own desire to propagate. It tries to dissolve the foundations of your will to exist and turns your thoughts toward death without promising death’s release.

It’s hell, set aflame inside you.

And yet, despite all this, “You suffered” still seems unsatisfying as a horror story. It should unsettle you, make you uneasy about your tenuous safety in the world.

But it doesn’t hit hard enough.

We need to dig into detail about your suffering.

We need to tear open the wound.

We need is to know why you suffered.

On its own, suffering is an abstract horror; we must strike its proper name into stone.

Were you beaten? Eaten alive? Mutilated beyond recognition?

Were you driven mad? Driven to suicide? Driven off a never-ending cliff side?

I ask you, what specific brand of suffering do you think works best to create the most poignant horror?

What can we add to our tiny story?

Yes? Any takers?

Excellent, Kalissa. You must speak from experience because I hear the sliver of defeat in your throat.

“Loss,” Kalissa says.

Perfect.

I would add its fraternal twin, deprivation, to your answer as well.

Loss and deprivation—these flavors of suffering either make you incomplete or prevent you from being complete.

They take away something you value, something you love, something you need, or bar you from having a valued, loved, or needed thing.

They cause emptiness, lack, a hollowing of the “good” elements of life.

So, let’s amend our story again.

“You suffered a great loss.”

Oh, now your hearts and minds are beginning to spin.

A great loss causes suffering that may have no cessation. It opens a bottomless pit in your mind and your soul.

Think about all of loss’s terrifying possibilities.

You can lose something tangible, like a body part or a home or an identity. You can lose a person—a lover, a child, a mother, father, or friend. You can lose your sense of security, your confidence in a cosmic order, your sense of innocence or your moral code—all intangibles.

Edgar Allan Poe focused on the loss of sanity and self.

H.P. Lovecraft focused on the loss of human power and import.

Shirley Jackson focused on the loss of reason and common human bonds.

You can lose so many things that the permutations of horror’s narratives are endless.

But, because of loss’s wide reach, simply explaining that you’ve lost “something great” doesn’t engage you as much as it could. You’re bogged down by too many horrible potentialities.

We need to focus. We need to draw up the object of your loss. We have to . . .

Ah! Was that a knock on the door? Perfect punctuation for this moment of our lecture.

Come in, come in!

Don’t worry; these are just some of my graduate assistants. A strange lot, indeed, but you’ll find all grad students possess a degree of disturbing eccentricity.

They’re here to set up something for my next class.

Yes, yes, put a box under each desk.

Yes, each box is sealed and labeled. You know how to find the correct desk.

Pardon the intrusion, everyone. My assistants will be done shortly and then they’ll see themselves out.

Now, where were we?

Oh, the object of your loss.

Well, this should be obvious. What do the greatest number of people most acutely fear losing? Remember, it’s not their lives.

Kalissa, you’re on fire. I truly hope you have the fortitude for this course.

“The people they love,” she says.

It’s cliched, yes. It’s overused in fiction, yes. In the wrong hands, it rolls eyes and induces groans. But the loss of a loved one is effective.

It’s genuine.

In order to ward off the chill of an indifferent universe, we bundle ourselves in fabric woven from threads of love. When that fabric tears, it leaves us shivering and naked, with nothing but our barest selves to carry on.

This is why the loss of a loved one is a type of loss nearly every thinking and feeling human being fears. It’s a horror we can imagine all too well.

Classic horror stories use it to great effect. Frankenstein, I am Legend, and It, for example, all incorporate lost loved ones or the deprivation of loved ones as a key element of their plots. And modern masters follow suit. Look at Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts or Langan’s The Fisherman—both are wondrous and frightening tales bound by the vacuum of lost loved ones.

Who are we to argue with such a pedigree?

Let’s flesh out our skeletal horror story accordingly.

“You suffered the great loss of a loved one.”

I can sense the uneasiness in the room.

Some of your throats tighten with memories.

You hear the whisper of a voice that was swept up by the wind long ago. You smell the briefest puff of perfume, of aftershave, of a favored deodorant you’d almost forgotten.

You are haunted by the space at your side that a special person could fill—indeed, should fill—but never will again, and there is tremendous horror in that.

Even so, something is not yet quite right.

The story can still be more impactful.

Ah. Thank you, assistants, for all your hard work over last night and this morning. I’ll meet with you later about our results.

There they go. So eager to impress. So ravenous in their ambition.

Back to our conversation, though.

More impact I said. We need more impact. But how?

Let me ask: in which direction is our tiny tale currently pointed?

Thoughtful furrowing of brows is good, but does anyone have an answer?

All right, Kalissa. Go ahead. You’re the star today.

Exactly right.

Our story is pointed backwards, toward the past.

Now, stories told in past tense are traditional. They make sense to us because a narrator in the present collates events in the same way we collate memories, stitching together disparate parts to create a structured narrative with meaning.

But they’re not the most effective mode for horror.

Horror is most acute when it’s uncertain, when its outcome can’t be known.

With past narration, we know the horror has been survived or dealt with in some manner. We know it has something akin to an end, because the narrator can look backward and provide some level of conclusion or closure.

Horror in present tense—that’s immediate, and the dangers it entails are not distant in time or space. It’s more intense, more taut, more riddled with anxiety. The question of who will survive and what will be left of them is never more pregnant than in a present tense horror story.

Even more effective than present tense, though, is future tense.

Future tense in any genre is rare. It creates an ephemeral aura about the narrative, a sense of both uncertainty and distance. For this reason, most readers and writers don’t like it. It’s too abstract.

But, for our clinical horror purposes, it works beautifully.

Why?

Well, consider. We know two truths about the future.

One, it’s unknown, which makes it ominous for all the potential horrors that lurk in its mists. We can only guess at the nature and magnitude of the terrible things waiting for us.

Two, its horrors are yet to happen, but they’re also inevitable. Therefore, we have just enough distance from them to be anxious about them. They terrorize our imaginations. We can configure a million disturbing scenes in our mind’s eye and worry over their potential arrival.

In other words, horror, at its best, produces terror as well as horror. That is, it forces upon us a measure of fearful anticipation.

Shifting our story to future tense will provide such terror.

“You will suffer the great loss of a loved one.”

See? Much improved. Much more terror-laden.

I know those of you with vivid imaginations envision numerous bodies lying cold on the morgue’s slab. Panic over how you might live without your cherished ones burns from crown to toe. You catalog all the people in your heart and hope your love sends them a psychic bubble of protection. Still, sparkling gravestones etched with familiar names smash through the bulwark of your hope.

You can’t conceive of going on. You can’t see how your life would ever again feel complete. A widow’s wail begins to spin in your chest. A tear wells at the corner of your eye.

Wait.

This is so emotional.

We’re teetering on the verge of melodrama.

How do we pull back from this trap of interiority and bittersweet tragedy? How do we ensure we’re working in horror?

What have we not included in our story that I’m sure draws many of you to the genre in your most wicked moments?

What keeps horror . . . edgy?

You there, second row, next to last seat. Elena.

The smell from the box under your desk is making you ill?

So sorry about that.

Try to hold up your sweater sleeve over your nose. Or breathe through your mouth. We’ll be done soon.

Returning to my question, let me again ask, what keeps horror edgy?

“Blood!” shouts Marshall.

Blood!

Yes.

Yes, yes, yes.

Bloodletting.

The ripping and tearing and exploding of . . . something. Not of a body, necessarily, but of something.

We’re talking violence.

A horror tale needs a healthy slice of violence—or at least a significant threat or implication of violence—lest it veer into drama.

Violence keeps fiction, shall we say, barbed.

It helps underscore the power, gravity, and immediacy of horror. It is a harbinger of change that provides action and, in its lower forms, titillation.

Surely we want the horror in our story to be taken seriously, to be understood as a thing of importance and weight. We want it to be impactful, dangerous—barbed, as I said.

And maybe we do want a tiny visceral thrill, as well.

So violence in some form is a necessity.

Another edit, then. Let’s be more specific in describing your loss than “great.”

Let’s be “violent.”

“You will suffer the violent loss of a loved one.”

Much more horrifying.

Violence doesn’t give us time to rationalize the loss. It comes as the reaper often does: without warning and without fanfare. It adds a gruesome flourish to the proceedings. It keeps an audience on their toes. But it can also be the most banal of horror’s elements if overused, and can easily lapse into comedic slapstick.

On that note, let’s leave our violence without further description. It might entail decapitations or disembowelings or drills puncturing eyeballs—any number of infinite grotesqueries, really—but in this instance, it’s best we let it marinate in vagueness and force you, the readers, to conjure up the grisly details.

Something concerns me, though: What makes our story different than plain tragedy?

Ah. Blank faces.

Even Kalissa seems perplexed.

A story about your father being stabbed to death in a mugging is horrific, but it’s probably not what we’d term horror.

A story about your girlfriend being crushed in an auto accident is horrific, but, by itself, it’s not what we’d usually call horror.

So how do we differentiate horror from the greater world of tragedy? What does garden variety tragedy involve that horror doesn’t deal in?

Spectacular, Kalissa.

“Understanding,” she says. “Explanations.”

Yes. Precisely. Reason and rationale.

And, more than that, reasons and rationales that makes sense to conventional human logic.

Horror bends—and often breaks—the ideas of motive, rationale, and conventional logic.

When violence happens for a causal reason we can understand, it can be horrifying, but it’s not horror with a capital H. No, then it’s just the pitiful machinations of vicious animals in a chaotic universe.

But violence motivated by warped or alternative logic or, better yet, violence that has no discernible motivating factor at all—these defy the very underpinnings of our need for large scale order and meaning.

A violent act that has no explanation we can grasp leaves us adrift . . .

Yes? Ben, is it?

Ben, yes. What is it, Ben?

The box beneath your desk is leaking?

Just move your backpack. It won’t be your concern for much longer.

Back to my point . . . a violent act that has no explanation we can grasp leaves us adrift in an epistemological blank space. It erases deeply held, so-called “truths” of science and faith and our own experience. It takes away our ability to know a thing, and, thereby, our ability to affect it.

It is a revelation of our fundamental ignorance, and thus impotence, in this world.

We become horrified not by the violence alone, but by the ramifications of having absolutely no mastery over it.

So let’s extricate cause and effect. Let’s get rid of reason.

“You will suffer the violent loss of a loved one for no reason.”

Delicious.

We’re almost there, almost at the minimum bound of the horror tale.

We need just one more addition to our story.

We need to clear up the haze of indeterminacy that surrounds our use of future tense.

What do I mean?

I mean, Marshall, that saying “you will” is not sufficient to produce urgency, and therefore induce horrified panic.

“You will” imagines a broad time frame, indefinite in length. Tell someone “you will die” and they’re likely to reply “of course,” or “yeah, we all will,” and go on with their day.

But if you tell someone “you will die in a year” or “next week” or “today,” terror sets in, and suddenly their entire perspective shifts toward that event because of its immediacy.

For most people, horror becomes horror only when it’s at hand; otherwise, it’s little more than a vague darkness on the remote horizon.

So, let’s bring our story into disturbing clarity. Let’s make the future today.

“Today, you will suffer the violent loss of a loved one for no reason.”

Beautiful.

Here’s what we’ve been seeking.

Here we have the horror story, distilled to its essence.

Let’s recap.

A reader must see themself in the story.

“You.”

Check.

A reader must be presented with a fear that inverts the vitality of living and leaves a gaping chasm within its victims.

“Suffer.”

Check.

A reader must understand that the chasm—and thus, the fear—may have no end.

“The loss of a loved one.”

Check.

A reader must feel terrified anticipation of the fear’s arrival.

“Will.”

Check.

A reader must shrink away from the potential violence of the fear.

“Violent.”

Check.

A reader must be led to believe that no traditional logic—better yet, no logic at all—has motivated the fear.

“For no reason.”

Check.

A reader must know that the fear is immediate in their own life, knocking on the door.

“Today.”

Check.

Stitch it back together.

“Today, you will suffer the violent loss of a loved one for no reason.”

Could it be more perfect?

Yes. But in only one way.

Metatext.

When the horror story can break free from its fictional bindings and creep into the real world, when it can cause its readers to take the place of its victims, not just during the tale, but long after its words have been read, then the horror story has achieved transcendence.

The horror story becomes your reality, and your reality becomes horror story. You understand that what happens in the story can happen to you, will happen to you, is happening to you right now.

The story loses its quotation marks.

Today, you will suffer the violent loss of a loved one for no reason.

I’m telling you. It’s fiction, but it’s not.

Kalissa has realized the implication. Look at how pale she is. Look at how she’s trying not to let her eyes wander to the boxes under her peers’ desks.

I’m sorry for the bit of subterfuge. Those boxes are, indeed, for all of you.

“It’s not possible,” Kalissa says.

But of course, Kalissa, everything is possible in horror, through horror.

Today. You. Will. Suffer. The. Violent. Loss. Of. A. Loved. One. For. No. Reason.

It’s no longer a story. It’s life.

You wanted to know what horror is all about?

Here it is.

Pull out the boxes from under your desks.

Open them carefully.

Behold your answer.

And, please, try not to scream. I will take points off your final grade for that.

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Kurt Fawver

Kurt Fawver is a writer of horror, weird fiction, and literature that oozes through the cracks of genre. His short fiction has won a Shirley Jackson Award and been previously published in venues such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Aeons, Weird Tales, Vastarien, Best New Horror, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction. He’s the author of two collections of short stories – The Dissolution of Small Worlds and Forever, in Pieces as well as a novella, Burning Witches, Burning Angels, and two chapbooks, Pwdre Ser and Problems in River Heights. He’s also had non-fiction published in journals such as Thinking Horror and the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts and holds a Ph.D. in Literature. You can find Kurt online at www.kurtfawver.com or www.facebook.com/kfawver.