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Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works

  Science-fiction & fantasy literature: a critical list with discussions.

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Musings, #2: “The Horror! The Horror!”

(Or return to the full list of Musings.)

A sort of fiction that seems to loom large in contemporary “speculative fiction” lists, and indeed in contemporary writing, is what used to be (and sometimes still is) called simply “horror fiction”, though we now also see “Gothic”—or just “Goth”—and “dark” and other like terms thrown about. (I suppose that this fictive efflorescence derives in good part from the corresponding cultural efflorescence likewise called “Gothic” or “Goth”, of which the less said, to my taste, the better; perhaps the most oxymoronic term I have ever heard is the name of a current magazine, Gothic Beauty.)

In considering What belongs here?—a point discussed in the first of these Musings—horror presents special problems, because superficially it looks like it meets the simplified test I suggested in that Musing: is it virtually impossible to eliminate the fantastical aspects of the tale without destroying the tale itself? (That assumes that to begin with the tale contains fantastical elements; tales of horror—or whatever one wants to call them—with no actual basis of difference from consensus reality are psychological studies, and I suppose should be considered a subset of “mainstream” fiction, though I leave such things to those who deal chiefly with horror fiction in the way I try to deal with speculative fiction.) What I reckon distinguishes such tales from true speculative fiction lies in what I have previously referred to as “the author’s purposes”.

I have said elsewhere that “We read fiction to discover (or be reminded of) what people think and feel and do in various circumstances—to gain better appreciations of what it means to be human and of ways to deal with Life, the Universe, and Everything.” I lied. Well, I oversimplified. We read fiction to those ends when we are seeking to engage our intelligence. But such things as roller coasters exist, so obviously there are experiences people seek that have little or nothing to do with engaging their intelligence. Horror fiction, I would say, is the literary equivalent of a roller-coaster ride. It produces—if effective, in highly concentrated form—one narrow emotional experience. Its whole being and purpose consists in inducing that one narrow emotional experience. It is not necessarily mindless, for it may take some real intelligence to derive the sensation from the text; but it is the emotion, not any intellectual experience, that is the desideratum.

Is that just my personal take on it? I think it worth quoting verbatim the current (as I write) Wikipedia definition of horror fiction:

Horror fiction is, broadly, fiction in any medium intended to scare, unsettle, or horrify the reader. Historically, the cause of the “horror” experience has often been the intrusion of an evil—or, occasionally, misunderstood—supernatural element into everyday human experience. Since the 1960s, any work of fiction with a morbid, gruesome, surreal, or exceptionally suspenseful or frightening theme has come to be called “horror”. Horror fiction often overlaps science fiction or fantasy, all three of which categories are sometimes placed under the umbrella classification speculative fiction.

“Umbrella category”: loverly, ain’t it, to find one’s literary interests assigned the status of a catchall dustbin. At any rate: granted, that is one definition of horror fiction, and one only; but it is one that is open to modification by any interested party, and that’s how it stands (or stood). It is further illuminating to find that in the modern era horror fiction is anything with a morbid, gruesome, surreal, or exceptionally suspenseful or frightening theme. Suspenseful, frightening, ok—but “morbid”, “gruesome”? Yup. Which is why the label “horror fiction”, like the label “magic realism”, is not (the quoted remark notwithstanding) an automatic visa stamp on the passport to speculative-fiction territory.

If we want corroboration, the Horror Writers Association—which ought to know—on its web site, at the page “What is Horror Fiction?”, tells us:

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives the primary definition of horror as “a painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay.” It stands to reason then that “horror fiction” is fiction that elicits those emotions in the reader.


That said, while tales generally classed “horror fiction” don’t get an automatic visa, neither are they categorically stopped at the border. Such tales can be something more than “simple” exciters of horror, sometimes quite a bit more. As Michael Chabon has put it, “Horror fiction proceeds, in general, by extending metaphors, by figuring human fears of mortality, corruption, and the loss of self.” A work such as Shirley Jackson’s famed Haunting of Hill House assuredly generates horror—but it also uses its horrific setting to probe deeply into its characters’ minds and psyches in ways that assuredly have purpose and value beyond simply horrifying the reader. A “dark” tale neither passes nor fails as belonging to speculative fiction just because it is a “dark” tale: each has to be submitted to the tests before we can judge it. (Though my own sense of it is that the great majority of horror fiction does not after all qualify, which is why its presence, nowadays often a dominating presence by sheer title count, on so many “speculative fiction” lists gravels me a bit.)

If you are familiar with the horror field, you will find some familiar names in the lists here—among others, Arthur Machen, Clive Barker, Sheridan Le Fanu, Shirley Jackson, William Hope Hodgson—and there are quite a few more on the “Possibles” page. They are all writers whose works I feel had ambitions (successful, of course!) well beyond sheer horripilation.

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