Value in the Horrific and Fantastic
A few months back I was having a conversation with a friend about my writing and literature in general. He wondered why I don't try to challenge myself and write something truly literary rather than continue writing tales of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. His argument is that these genres have little value when paired up against more “legitimate” stories. It's a sentiment I've noticed brought up time and time again. There seems to exist this opinion that horror, fantasy, and science fiction are “lower” forms of storytelling. I never understood why. I guess perhaps there's a certain class in traditional literary tales that are bereft of anything fantastic. Legitimacy seems to have an allergy to anything that drifts from grounded reality. It's something I've noticed that's especially prevalent in the world of academia. Students and professors sometimes look down upon these genres in the same manner as my friend. It's lowbrow. It's cheap. It's the equivalent of Doritos in comparison to filet mignon.
I couldn't disagree more.
Realism does not equate value. A realistic story can easily be trashier than anything fantastic or horrific. I argue that Shades of Grey is by far more lowbrow than something like Heinlien's Starship Troopers. On the outside Starship Troopers seems to be nothing more than space battles with aliens. I know the mention of aliens and spaceships already sends would-be literary snobs turning away. To them anything with aliens couldn't possibly contain material good enough for a college thesis or a dissertation. After all aliens are for children- along with monsters monsters, robots, elves, etc- not the intellectually mature mind. Therefore works like this aren't taken serious. Yet when you really look, plenty of well respected stories contain the fantastic. In fact you're actually hard pressed to find acclaimed works, the kind studied in academia, that don't contain things like ghouls and goblins. Shakespeare, widely regarded as the greatest wordsmith, features ghosts (Macbeth) and even fairies (A Midsummer Night's Dream) in his dramas. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles features a sphinx and oracle. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge would not exist without its fantastic elements (tutelary spirits). The Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest surviving work of literature, is a sword and sandal fantasy. Each of these are held in great esteem and nearly every English major learns them.
Horror seems to be the one genre out of the three most targeted by this misguided perspective of what constitutes great literature. There are redeeming qualities in science fiction and fantasy. Fantasy often retells or explores past mythologies, possessing underlying moral lessons carried from those ancient stories. The Lord of the Rings explores Tolkein's knowledge of language, war time sentiments, themes of innocence and corruption, and captures the essence of ancient mythology. The aforementioned Starship Troopers delves into the subject of militarism, moral decline, civic virtues, and fascism. Horror, on the other hand, is often not viewed as scholarly material. It is the most often under-appreciated genre and when you mention you write horror people wonder why. You get asked the same question my friend asked me, “Why don't you write something respectable?” Truth be told, I don't know why horror isn't respected. After all horror is a widely enjoyed genre so why is it looked down on?
H.P. Lovecraft, who is widely praised for his work in horror (inspiring authors like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman), said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” I've written several essays exploring fear. After all if fear is our most ancient of emotions is it not important to explore? Under the shock, gore, and suspense does horror offer a deeper value to readers? If so what can horror teach? Why is horror relevant?
During spring semester at UTSA I submitted my short story Tailypo (American Monsters) to the COLFA competition. I lost. The story I lost to was no doubt well done, but I really couldn't tell why it had won. I know it seems biased. After all why would you expect me to root for my competition? But I do. I've competed before against really really good writing I found far superior to what I had put to paper. Great writing, no matter what the subject matter, should always be recognized. My competition wrote well, but it wasn't great. It wasn't memorable. It explored the same basic angsty themes you find in almost every college paper. It used shallow literary name drops in its dialogue. It's dialogue, while realistic, was average. And sometimes it pushed so hard to be respected it almost came off pretentious. After seeing who won in the arts category I realized an underlying constant throughout the competition. Every winner in each category had touched on some trending issue- feminism, capitalism, racism, etc. Each winner was by the books academic material. If you weren't exploring these typical themes you didn't have a chance no matter how skilled you were or how masterful you created your piece. So my little horror story was dead on arrival. It didn't pander to the scholarly. On the surface it was a monster story. But being the author I can tell you it was more. I spent hours researching the Maine accent, Mainah, to add texture, history, and region to the protagonist's dialogue (who speaks only to his dogs through the whole story). Tailypo is also originally an oral story, a rather short one, that I fleshed out into a more complex narrative, adding to the setting and the characters. It explored American folklore, story telling, Greek myth, isolation, survival, and of course...fear.
But Tailypo had a monster. It had gore. There was just no competing against what is considered scholarly, elite, “better.” You see the same thing in film. Horror flicks just don't have the prestige despite the importance of exploring human fear in art. I think it's a terrible injustice. Fear is the parent emotion of most other negative emotions we as people face. Racism, sexism, religion, depression, anxiety, politics, the human ego, society- all these things are rooted in fear. They're infant emotions compared to primordial fear. Horror is the patriarch of all literature. Long before authors were exploring these other complex subjects, humans were huddled around a campfire in the darkness, listening to the sounds of the night and imagining the horrors that lurked in that dread beyond. Our ancestors told cautionary tales about the monsters in the darkness around these campfires. Writing is storytelling and the most ancient tales were about demons, monsters, goblins, and ghouls. Human fear created Ahab's obsession with the leviathan in Moby Dick. Fear created the Devil in Faust. Fear raised moral questions in Lord of the Flies (the title itself being the translation of Beelzebub, a demon). Horror gave us the conflict between Beowulf and Grendel. Without horror we wouldn't have The Tell-Tale Heart or . Hell we wouldn't have Gothic fiction, an important piece of Victorian history, with books like Frankenstein that explores divinity, man and creation, man and god, death, sexuality, asexuality, industrialization, parenting, and so on. This is why I find it so perplexing that anyone would ever disregard the genre. It's undoubtedly and massively valuable to all literature.
So cheers to the fantastic, for without it the human imagination and experience would be greatly diluted. And cheers to horror, the foundation of that ivory tower more “respectable” works stand upon.