In defense of horror

We all have a postulate buried deep in our minds: that an interest in horror is unhealthy and aberrant. So when people say, “Why do you write that stuff?” they are really inviting me to lie down on the couch and explain about the time I was locked in the cellar three weeks.  ~Stephen King, Danse Macabre (1980)

In preparation for this year’s Freedom to Read Week (Feb 20-26, 2011) I thought I would do my small part and defend a much maligned genre (while reviewing a pretty nasty book in the process). Too often horror in all of its manifestations comes under the cross-hairs of censorship (and the egregious act of book banning). Because it is a genre that constantly pushes boundaries (and buttons) and is often steeped in violence either explicit or implied, horror will remain an easy target of those small-minded individuals who wish to sanitize (and anesthetize) our minds.

Survivor by J.F. Gonzalez was a tough book for me to finish and I nearly threw it down in complete revulsion more than once. Yet there was also something so utterly compelling about the story that kept me riveted and turning the pages to get to the end. Let’s call it the “slowing down to look at the accident” compulsion. In order to survive the worst circumstances imaginable the female protagonist makes a choice no human should ever make in order to save her own skin. It’s brutal and calculating and really got me thinking…in the same situation, would I do the same? Could I do the same? And if I did, could I live with myself afterwords? If this book was half as tough to write as it is to read, my hat goes off to J.F. Gonzalez.
Rating: ★★★

Understanding the appeal factor of horror is difficult for some people to comprehend – the same people who will often turn up their nose and look at you with a wary expression that screams: “how can you read that stuff”?  To them horror is illicit, offensive and quite possibly damaging to society at large –synonymous with the most graphic porn. Consuming horror in any shape or form should make us ashamed, as if we are somehow mentally warped or our moral compass dangerously askew. Don’t worry, it isn’t. Horror appeals to many of us for very solid, rational, non-psychopathic reasons.

We love it because it’s a genre that probes sensitive, taboo areas and it asks the difficult questions. The best horror fiction reflects back to us our collective cultural fears and everyday personal anxieties. Most importantly, horror allows readers to safely explore humanity’s dark side, giving us a place where we can face our deepest fears from a vantage point of complete safety.  In his non-fiction magnum opus on the horror genre – Danse Macabre – Stephen King explains that what the horror writer seeks to achieve is to locate societal “pressure points….terminals of fear…so deeply buried and yet so vital that we may tap them like artesian wells—saying one thing out loud while we express something else in a whisper”.

King deftly explains our attraction to the genre this way, and I’ve yet to come across anyone else who sums it up any better (or more honestly) than this:

Here is the final truth of horror: It does not love death, as some have suggested; it loves life. It does not celebrate deformity but by dwelling on deformity, it sings of health and energy. By showing us the miseries of the damned, it helps us to rediscover the smaller (but never petty) joys of our own lives. It is the barber’s leeches of the psyche, drawing not blood but anxiety….We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones (Stephen King, Danse Macabre).

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