Over the past month, I was on a horror kick. Aligned with my current work on the Babylon universe, I read stories that occupied the intersection of horror, science fiction and a touch of fantasy. Some were written by up-and-comers, others were penned by Big Names in the traditional (and now indie) space. At the end of the month, I walked away with a sense of… dissatisfaction.
The stories were technically competent. They were edited with care. They evoked the sense of dread, fear and helplessness that defines the genre. From a craft perspective there was little to complain about.
Common threads ran through the stories. Bad Things happen for no reason. Everything you do is futile. The universe does not care about you. You are weak, alone, and doomed to a horrible fate. Humanity is but a plaything in the hands of alien and incomprehensible cosmic entities. The more stories I read, the bleaker they became, culminating in one bad ending after another.
Are these the kinds of stories the world needs?
The Horrors of Ages Past
When I think back to horror stories from earlier decades, I find that they compare most favourably to the ones I’ve so recently read. In the days of the pulps, horror wasn’t the standalone genre as it is marketed today. Instead it tended to be mixed with other elements such as fantasy, science fiction, adventure, detective or supernatural, and branded a weird tale. And the foundation of the weird tale was the moral foundations of early 20th century America.
The America of that era was a deeply Christian society. Christian norms were naturally reflected in the stories of the pulp era. The best horror stories from the period weren’t simply tales of spine-tingling terror.
They were cautionary tales.
Pulp stories are action-oriented stories. The horror stories of the pulp era contain more action—and more character agency—that modern horror stories. Yet behind that action lies a reaffirmation of morality, and a warning against evil.
Consider the Solomon Kane stories of Robert E. Howard. Kane is a Puritan on a crusade to rid the world of evil. In his quest, he pursues foes from the darkened corners of Europe into the deepest depths of Africa. His enemies are all monsters, either in the shape of men or in forms stranger yet. The atmosphere of dread in these tales flow from the antagonists’ deliberate violation of moral laws—and through this violation, invite a relentless servant of goodness to bring down destruction on their heads.
Manly Wade Wellman drew upon his lifelong fascination with folklore, religion and the occult to craft his own brand of weird fiction. Once again you see this theme of morality and taboo running through his stories. His heroes investigate strange occurrences, fight monsters and sorcerers, and confront evil wherever it rears its head. The horror comes from a monster or an evil human violating a moral norm, and the plot follows the hero’s quest to set things right.
H P Lovecraft stands a giant in the horror field. While remembered as the pioneer of cosmic horror, it should be noted that most of his stories are not as blackly nihilistic as modern interpretations may make them out to be. Many of his protagonists are helpless witnesses. They observe mind-shattering events and lose their grip on sanity, but the worst fates befall those wicked or foolish enough to violate taboos. Be it reviving the dead or summoning eldritch entities, those who break the rules of nature are destroyed—but not necessarily those around them, especially those who have little or nothing to do with them. Those who merely explore too deeply escape with their lives, and with sufficient sanity to warn others against following them into madness. Not only that, those who summon the courage and the resources to defeat the horror of the story usually succeed, even if it is at great personal cost. By juxtaposing the weird and the unnatural against the known and scientific—by contrasting the profoundly alien against a world created by the hand of God—Lovecraft evokes an unsettling atmosphere in his works, and a profound sense of relief when the reader returns to the real world, a world of sanity and order.
Horror tales from ages past are morality tales. The catalyst of the horror is a violation of a law or taboo. From this violation stems the suffering and insanity that the horror inflicts upon the world. Here comes the shock, the surprise, the dread and the helplessness that defines the genre. So long as the violation is allowed to continue unchecked, evil and chaos reigns supreme, and ordinary people are helpless to stop them. Weak against the horror, they can only hope to hide from or endure its whims.
The Law is the center of a horror story. It is not necessarily the law of Man, but a Higher Law, the laws of reality, the principles that govern creation itself. Those who fail to uphold the Law suffer. Those who commit the violation may have authority over the story world, but only for a short time. Those who successfully enforce the Law return the world to order.
Such a story speaks to universal ideas about the fundamental nature of reality itself. It is why stories written along these lines have universal power.
The Shinto faith is deeply concerned with purity. Humans and kami (i.e. gods and spirits) are fundamentally pure. However, violating a taboo, known as tsumi, generates spiritual pollution. This pollution, called kegare, corrupts the violator, and the world around him. Though kami may be pure, they can also be corrupted by kegare, and become malevolent beings that cause sickness and destruction. Thus, the Shinto faith prescribes purification rituals, to cleanse kegare and return the cosmos to order.
The central goal of Daoism is to harmonize your being with the Way. Those who live in harmony with the Way live long and fruitful lives; those who live out of harmony with the Way experience short lives filled with suffering. The Cosmos reflects the inner state of a person back to him. Those who do good will see the good they do returned to them. Those who do evil will experience evil. Daoist practice is designed to return someone to the primordial state of existence and reconnect with the Way. In this regard, Daoism has many points of agreement with Buddhism.
In the great religious and philosophical traditions of mankind, we see these common ideas. Keeping to the tenets of the faith leads to happiness. Violating laws, norms and taboos leads to spiritual corruption, and spiritual corruption leads to suffering. To return to the Way, and therefore to help all beings experience happiness again, evil must be purified and the world returned to order.
The best horror stories dramatize this process to make it visible to the reader. They echo this universal human experience, revealing what is intuited and calling it forth into the conscious mind.
Into the Weird
Horror was a staple of the pulp era. It remains a staple of modern fiction. And yet, during the passage of decades, something has changed.
The surface level hasn’t changed. Dread and fear, helplessness and terror, the emotional beats the genre evokes remain the same. The nature of the horror—man or monster, cosmic or worldly—remain recognizable. But the deep level, the level of themes and attitudes, have changed.
Weird fiction celebrates those who blaze against the dark. Modern fiction stamps them into the dirt. Weird fiction sees order, purpose and meaning. Modern fiction tears the world down and proclaims that nothing matters. Weird fiction builds up peoples and nations. Modern fiction subverts society.
Weird fiction affirms the higher laws governing reality. Modern fiction denies them.
Shock, terror, disgust, fear, all these are only seasonings. They are not, and cannot, be the main dish. If all you do is wallow in suffering and misery, then you will yourself live a life of suffering and misery. This extends to all things, including and especially the fiction you consume. Man cannot live by negativity alone.
We know monsters exist. Follow the news and you will find a fresh horror on the headlines. We know suffering is commonplace. Only the most privileged and isolated people can claim they have been untouched by the events of recent times. We know the taste of fear, terror, helplessness, anxiety. It is the dominant mood of the age.
We need more than that.
It is time to reach for a higher level of horror. A return to the universal mythos. To pluck the threads that connect every soul across every border, to reveal the line that runs through the human heart, to keep the fires burning through the dark.
We know horror is out there. Let us strive to become worthy of overcoming it.