Monthly Archives: September 2012

Kevin Lucia: Final Reflections on “The Philosophy of Horror”, Part Two: Religious Awe

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Earlier in the year, a fantastic horror writer named Kevin Lucia was finishing grad school and, on his blog, presented a fascinating 9-part series on the nature of horror. I fell in love with this series, and Kevin has very graciously allowed me to reprint it here so others can enjoy it, too. Visit me every Thursday through October 18 for the next installment, and on October 25, some of his fiction—free—as a Halloween treat!

Kevin Lucia is a Contributing Editor for Shroud Magazine, and a blogger for The Midnight Diner. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles, and he’s currently working on his first novel. Visit him on the web at www.kevinlucia.com.

Final Reflections on “The Philosophy of Horror”, Part Two: Religious Awe

One of the second solutions to the “paradox of horror” that Noel Carroll critiques in The Philosophy of Horror is this: that the horror genre compels our interest as readers, viewers, and writers because it invokes in us a sense of religious awe.

Carroll draws from Rudolf Otto‘s The Idea of the Holy,(what looks like a good synopsis of it can be found here), which offers an analysis of something called a “numinous experience”:

numinous experience: an English adjective describing the power or presence of a divinity; which has two aspects: mysterium tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel.

The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a wholly other. The numinous experience can lead in different cases to belief in deities, the supernatural, the sacred, the holy, and/or the transcendent. (from Wikipedia).

So, according to Carroll’s reading of Otto, an object of religious experience (something like God, or Other) is tremendous, causing fear in the subject, a paralyzing sense of being empowered, or being dependent, of being nothing, worthless (pg. 165). In other words, this object – the numen – is awe-ful, resulting in a sense of awe.

The numen is also mysterious; it is wholly other. Beyond the sphere of the usual, the intelligible, and the familiar. And, according to Carroll’s reading, this not only FREAKS us out, on a very primal level, it also fascinates us with its mysterious otherness (and right now, all Repairman Jack fans are looking very interested, I bet).

Carroll definitely admits the validity of these ideas, because lots of art-horror objects have power: they are fearsome, engender a sense of being overwhelmed, mysterious because they don’t “fit in” with our world schema, rendering us dumb, trembling, astonished, paralyzed by their “otherness”.

Here again, however, Carroll points out two issues he has with this idea, when applied with broad strokes to the horror genre:

1. Like Lovecraft’s treatise on cosmic fear, Carroll feels that the idea of the numinous experience and religious awe is too narrow to apply to all works of horror. In fact, he quibbles with the idea that monsters of horror need always be Other. In many cases, they are. The alien, forbidding concept of “Other” is a powerful theme running through many works of literature, from the aforementioned Repairman Jackseries – in Jack’s involvement in a cosmic battle between the Otherness and the Ally – to Lovecraft’s works, even works like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Willian Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe, though in those cases, Other takes on very primal, perhaps even racist (in regards to anything OTHER than white European colonialism) overtones.

But Carroll balks at the idea that this “otherness” should be applied to most horror monsters.  Once again, this can be very subjective, depending on one’s definition of a “monster”, but according to Carroll’s work, the “monster” in horror is not necessarily horrifying because it is “other”, but horrifying because it is the familiar warped and twisted, which derives its repulsive aspect from:

“being…contortions performed upon the known. They do not defy prediction, but mix properties in nonstandard ways. They are NOT wholly unknown, and this is probably what accounts for their characteristic effect – disgust.” (pg. 166)

Which makes a lot of sense. Many times in books and movies, something is horrifying because it is the familiar or trusted made menacing and terrifying. One Lovecraft story I can think of, off the top of my head, that focuses more on this than cosmic fear and “Other” is What the Moon Brings, a creepy little short story based on the idea that the friendly and the normal is warped and changed and made terrifying by the light of the moon. There are plenty of other, more modern examples – I believe that Charles L. Grant’s Oxrun Station novels invoke this terrifying sensation of the usual twisted into something warped and threatening, though there’s a good dose of a frightening Other at work there, also.

2. Carroll’s second issue with the idea of a numinous experience being applied to horror in general is this concept of tremendum, which, according to him, compels not only fascination, but also homage. He doesn’t feel this fits horror well at all, and this makes a lot of sense. We – and protagonists – may feel helpless in the face of horror objects, but we don’t necessarily feel worthless, like nothing – dependent – before an object of horror as we would necessarily feel before a deity. Unless, of course – and this is my addition to the conversation – the horror story itself is designed as an indictment against religious and Other beings, which, once again, brings Repairman Jack to mind, because Jack is forced to comply with the Ally, serve Its purposes (ergo, pay homage), because the Other is so much worse, and because the Ally simply gives Jack no choice in the matter.

But anyway, according to Carroll, we – and characters – don’t often feel compelled to pay homage to the monster, or at least often enough to make this solution broad enough to fit horror in general. He certainly admits that in many works, cults or nefarious groups may pay homage to a monster to raise it from the dead, or bring about the destruction of the world, but these elements are only part of the story, and – from my perspective – these folks usually are not the protagonists, with whom most audiences feel the most sympathy for.

Again, one thing that’s impressed me about Carroll’s work is its breadth and meticulous critical analysis. Also, his balance is to be admired. He doesn’t shoot down these ideas from his own opinions or beliefs, he’s worked hard to maybe do the impossible – find an explanation that fits the horror genre in totality – and he certainly doesn’t dismiss these solutions as worthless or without merit. He simply, very logically, points out the problems he believes exist in the broad applications of these ideas.

That religion, spirituality, or belief in some higher power influences horror fiction and film isn’t a surprise. For many viewers and readers and especially writers, the consumption or creation of supernatural horror as an inspiration of, an homage to, or way of exploring the realm of the supernatural, spiritual, even the holy makes sense. Supernatural horror, tales of dread, whatever they’re called, deal primarily with the unseen world. Faith, spirituality, and religion accept the unseen world as a given. The two go well together, hand in hand.

The internet and literature abounds with very reasoned, logical studies of the relationship between horror and religion. Author Mike Duran blogs about this relationship often, his most recent posts on the topic being: “The Apologetics of Horror“, “What’s the Difference Between “Classic” and “Contemporary” Christian Horror?“, “On ‘Christian Horror’ and Atheist Dread“, and a pretty unflinching indictment that “evangelical” horror falls short of actually inspiring any terror or dread in, “Why Christian Horror Is Not Really Scary“. Critically acclaimed author and essayist Matt Cardin also blogs about religion and horror at The Teeming Brain.

TheoFantistique featured this review of a Rue Morgue article about “The Rise of Christian Horror”, and another post entitled “Christianity and Horror Redux: From Knee-Jerk Revulsion to Critical Engagement“. Academic studies such as The Sanctification of Fear: Images of the Religious in Horror Films are widespread and common. I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen, which I’ll be reading as part of my studies this semester.

But I agree with Carroll’s assessment that the idea of “religious awe” doesn’t hold well for the horror genre as a whole, especially for that second reason: if the “numinous object” is what holds terror and dread for us, holds us in fascination, it doesn’t work for horror that features monsters or demons or beings that threaten and menace protagonists, because the protagonists don’t revere it the same way it appears that Otto says someone focused on a “numinous object” would.

Also, too, I’d assert there’s a vast difference between horror fictions in which religion and spiritual matters are important and central, and horror that pushes the reader in a certain direction with an evangelical thrust. For example, in my opinion, there’s a huge difference between William Peter Blatty’s classic novel The Exorcistand the Left Behind Series, a story of earth’s last days, inspired by the Book of Revelations.

The Exorcist is quite definitely a tale faith and the struggle between good and evil. But it’s thrust doesn’t seem to be the ultimate conversion of the reader, which is something that becomes a stronger and stronger vibe throughout the Left Behind series.

I don’t want to get off topic on this. A post about my feelings concerning Christian Fiction in general and Christian Horror in particular could be a post all by itself. Suffice to say, there’s a big difference between a horror story pitting supernatural evil against supernatural good, or a horror story dealing with loss of faith, the struggle to believe, and a horror story that’s more a cautionary tale, a “if you’re not a good Christian and don’t act a certain way, say the right words, accept Jesus into your heart, you’re going to hell.”

An excellent alternative to the Left Behind series is Brian Keene’s novella (I swear, he’s not paying me to pimp him so heavily. His books just keep jumping to mind) Take The Long Way Home. It’s about four men caught in the middle of the chaos and aftermath of the Rapture. The difference between this work and Left Behind and others of its ilk is the story struggles and grapples with matters of faith and belief, rather than treating them as assumed, foregone conclusions.

Interestingly enough, something like Take The Long Way Home and other stories like it actually come very close to the concept of “religious awe” as Otto and apparently Carroll define it, because in this case, the “monster” that causes all the violence and bloodshed is “God” – by calling all His believers home, leaving others behind to suffer.

But, at the same time…this is God. How can the characters not revere him and at least grapple with the concept of paying homage to Him, at the same time that they dread Him?

A short story that also deals with this concept – but from a different angle, that of an avowed unbeliever facing certain death by defying a God who has finally come down to earth to rule – is “He Who Would Not Bow”, by Wrath James White, in a horror anthology about faith and gender, Dark Faith.

Anyway, I feel I’ve rambled a little too much on this one, possibly because despite Carroll‘s disqualification of “religious awe” applying to the horror genre in general, it’s obvious that religion and horror are intimately linked. In any case, tomorrow I’ll look at Carroll’s third critique of a possible solution to the “paradox of horror”, attraction to the power of monsters.


Kevin Lucia: Final Reflections on “The Philosophy of Horror”: Part One

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Earlier in the year, a fantastic horror writer named Kevin Lucia was finishing grad school and, on his blog, presented a fascinating 9-part series on the nature of horror. I fell in love with this series, and Kevin has very graciously allowed me to reprint it here so others can enjoy it, too. Visit me every Thursday through October 18 for the next installment, and on October 25, some of his fiction—free—as a Halloween treat!

Kevin Lucia is a Contributing Editor for Shroud Magazine, and a blogger for The Midnight Diner. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles, and he’s currently working on his first novel. Visit him on the web at www.kevinlucia.com.

 

Final Reflections on “The Philosophy of Horror”: Part One

 

 

“The question is: why would anyone be interested in the genre (horror) to begin with? Why does the genre persist…..how can we explain its very existence, for why would anyone WANT to be horrified…?”

“Furthermore, the horror genre gives every evidence of being pleasurable to its audience, but it does so by means of trafficking in the very sorts of things that cause disquiet, distress and displeasure.

So…why horror?”

Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, pgs. 158 – 159.

So I’m finished with the first book I’ve read for my proposed paper on the development of horror cinema and horror cinema today, The Philosophy of Horror, by Noel Carroll. Overall, it was an excellent work. Very comprehensive, thought-provoking, and illuminating. I’m going to review Chapter Four, “Why Horror?” – in three separate blog posts, because they’re so long – then tag on some additional thoughts at end.

To this point, Carroll has worked to find a definition of horror, pondered the connection between the audience and protagonists of horror films, the varied ways horror films and fictions are plotted, and then ends by coming back to the essential question: why? Why watch and read horror, why write it…why does it exist, and why is it so popular?

Early on in the chapter, Carroll does point out that there are some who are simply attracted to blood and guts and gore, and that’s all there is to it. He cites that the reasons here are possibly voyeuristic, but more than likely they can be viewed as a “rite of passage” – the manly thing to do. In other words, if you can survive back-to-back viewings of all the Hellraiser movies, then you’re made of “tough stuff”, have a “strong stomach”, and have achieved a sort of “pseudo-bravery”.

He points out, though, that he’s not interested in that demographic, and that well-done horror films do not go for the gross-out only, and that he’s analyzing well-done films only. Of course, one’s idea of well-done can be subjective, but he at least sets down a framework for what he considers to be a well-done horror movie: a film designed to invoke emotions in the viewer, among the following:

1. fear

2. dread/horror/terror

3. disgust/revulsion

…and that movies hitting #3 only are not horror films, per se. He doesn’t offer a title for films that focus on that latter only, so I won’t either…because I’m still threshing that out in my head, too.

In the section subtitled The Paradox of Horror, Carroll comes to this resolution:

“Thus, the paradox of horror is an instance of a larger problem…that of explaining the way in which the artistic presentation of normally aversive events and objects can give rise to pleasure or compel our interests.” (pg. 161, emphasis mine).

He focuses his efforts on the following three explanations for why horror compels our interest as readers, viewers, and…by my extension…writers:

1. cosmic fear

2. religious awe

3. attraction to the power of monsters

Cosmic Fear:

Here, of course, Carroll cites the father of cosmic fear himself, H. P. Lovecraft:

“The one test of the really weird is simply this – whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes on the known universe’s utmost rim.”

and…

When to this sense of fear and evil the inevitable fascination of wonder and curiosity is super-added, there is born a composite of keen emotion and imaginative provocation whose vitality must of necessity endure as long as the human race itself.”

So, according to Lovecraft – as Carroll sums it up – humans are born with an instinctual fear of the unknown which verges on awe. This, perhaps, is then the attraction of supernatural horror: That it provokes a sense of awe which confirms deep-seated human convictions about the world, that it (the world) contains unseen forces, and that the literature of cosmic fear attracts us because it confirms these deep-seated fears of ours, creates an apprehension of the unknown, charged with wonder.

Speaking as a reader and moderate viewer of horror cinema, there’s a lot to vibe with, especially this bit:

“that literature of cosmic fear attracts us because it confirms these deep-seated fears of ours, creates an apprehension of the unknown, charged with wonder.”

For me, personally, as a reader and a writer, it is the supernatural unknown that fascinates me. Obviously this connects with my spiritual background and beliefs, but even so, the idea that we walk in a very modern, materialistic world while unseen forces swirl around us, constantly in conflict – ergo, the eternal battle of Good VS. Evil – strikes a deep resonance within me not only of interest, but of Ultimate Truth, also.

Probably why Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Peter Straub – and also now Charles L. Grant, Norman Prentiss, T. L. Hines, Mary Sangiovanni, T. M. Wright (to name only a few) – are among my favorite authors, because they write so often in this vein, and, quite frankly, it’s the kinda stuff I want to write about, too.

Carroll, however, points out two very insightful flaws with Lovecraft’s position:

1. nowhere in his horror manifesto does Lovecraft seem to identify why experiencing this cosmic fear would be a good thing, or so fervently sought out. Carroll posits that perhaps Lovecraft believed it an essential part of what it is to be human – our way of responding humanly to the world – or a corrective to the “dehumanizing encroachment of materialistic sophistication” (pg. 162). This sounds very plausible, but because Lovecraft never takes the time to address this, Carroll can’t accept his argument wholesale.

2. that Lovecraft, in his opinion, confuses what he regards as a level of high achievement in the genre with what identifies the genre. To clarify, Carroll says that Lovecraft’s assessment really only targets commendable, well-done horror – or a certain type of horror – and not the horror genre itself.

And this bears out in my own reading. For example, Charles L. Grant’s brand of dark fantasy – what I’ve read – loves to traffic in this sense of “cosmic dread” or “fear of the unknown”.  And I love all his work. But Nate Kenyon‘s Sparrow Rock is a WONDERFUL work that is completely about human horrors, while The Reach – also by Nate – is certainly more “spiritual”, but still about human unknowns, not necessarily cosmic unknowns. And they’re both FABULOUSLY well written.

And some authors can produce both kinds of works. Brian Keene regularly does so. The Rising, Dead City, Dark Hollow, Ghost Walk,  A Gathering of Crows, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Terminal and evenGhoul could be said to traffic in “horrors of the unknown beyond our world”. His novella Take the Long Way Home, fits nicely Carroll’s second category, “religious awe”. However, three really excellent examples: His novella Jack’s Magic Beans and the novels Urban Gothic and Castaways certainly hit all of Carroll’s requirements for horror, but aren’t supernatural in any way, and are all excellent reads.

Robert Dunbar‘s best two works (IMO): The Pines and The Shore are, again, about human and biological/genetic unknowns, but they’re beautifully written, about hurting, conflicted characters. They – despite their high quality – also don’t fit into Lovecraft’s definition.

Another author who traffics in both would be Dean Koontz. A lot of his works – especially his later works – deal with unknown forces, though he clearly separates them into Good VS. Evil. His Odd Thomas and Frankenstein series comes to mind. One Door Away From Heaven. And too many others to name. Night Chills and Shattered, however – though still about Good VS. Evil – are completely rooted in human dynamics. So, even based on my own reading, I definitely see where Carroll is going in his questioning Lovecraftian’s definition of the horror genre as a whole.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at Carroll’s critique of the second solution to the “paradox of horror”, religious awe”.

Kevin Lucia on The Philosophy of Horror – Mini Review of Chapter 2

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Earlier in the year, a fantastic horror writer named Kevin Lucia was finishing grad school and, on his blog, presented a fascinating 9-part series on the nature of horror. I fell in love with this series, and Kevin has very graciously allowed me to reprint it here so others can enjoy it, too. Visit me every Thursday through October 18 for the next installment, and on October 25, some of his fiction—free—as a Halloween treat!

Kevin Lucia is a Contributing Editor for Shroud Magazine, and a blogger for The Midnight Diner. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles, and he’s currently working on his first novel. Visit him on the web at www.kevinlucia.com.

The Philosophy of Horror – Mini Review of Chapter 2

Just finished chapter two of Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror, (which I’m reviewing and researching for my Film & Philosophy grad class), and he ran through a bunch of theories as to how it is viewers of horror cinema and readers of horror fiction can actually feel emotion, experience what he calls “art-horror” at something that’s not real, or could not exist in reality. He ran through a few different scenarios, carefully dismantling them as not holding up very well:

1. The Illusion Theory, or “Suspense of Disbelief”:

Here, Carroll deals with the idea that readers/viewers WILLINGLY suspend their disbelief that, say, a giant flood of green slime is coming for them (if that’s what they’re watching/reading about), and BELIEVE that it’s actually coming for them, for entertainment’s sake.

The clear problem here, Carroll points out, is that if they ACTUALLY WILL themselves (a hard feat) to believe in the green slime, the level of terror they’d feel would propel them to leave the theater, and be pretty counterproductive to actually enjoying the movie on any level.

This is important, because it strikes a blow at the claim I’ve heard lots of anti-horror folks level at horror and horror fans: “You’re just a sick, twisted individual that loves misery and wants to be scared all the time!”  Obviously not true, according to Carroll’s conclusions. Yes, the flush of adrenaline during an exciting scene is part of enjoying cinema and fiction, but that’s not limited to horror, either. Can find that in action flicks, suspense thrillers, even chick flicks.

2. The Pretend Theory:

Here Carroll cites Kendall Walton‘s theory of “Pretend Fear”.  That, like children playing mud pies or Cowboys’n Indians, viewers and readers of horror fiction “pretend” they’re afraid, therefore experiencing “pretend” emotions.

Though this sounds plausible, Carroll points out several problems with this as well, saying that first of all, it jumps back and forth over a line dividing intent and subconscious urges – either we actually CHOOSE to pretend belief in something, therefore feeling pretend fear for fun and entrainment, or that, like children who naturally play “pretend”, even though we don’t acknowledge the rules of “pretend”, we “know” them subconsciously, and are adherent to them.

Carroll sees problems with the idea of “pretend fear” being engaged at will, because in his experience viewing movies, this wasn’t the case. For several movies, he felt instinctual stirrings of real, genuine, emotional fear. For others, however – perhaps those not as well done – he simply couldn’t do it, which seems to invalidate the idea that a viewer can WILL himself to feel pretend fear.

Also, Carroll comes back to another point – if the viewer/reader is “unaware” of the rules on a conscious level, then their “pretend” fear would be indistinguishable from “real” fear, once again undercutting any entertainment value or enjoyment of said movie/book.

One major element that seems to draw audiences/readers to horror cinema/fiction is the following, which he comes back to quite often in the text, our connection to the Protagonists and their fears:

“…We can fear for others….we can fear for the dog that runs into traffic just as we can fear for the fate of political prisoners in countries we will never visit…so might we fear for the lives of fictional characters just as we fear for the lives of actual political prisoners….it can be argued that….we can be moved emotionally not only in terms of fear for others, but by our recognition that something…is fearsome ever if we do not believe it constitutes clear and present danger.” (pg. 76)

He bandies about here whether or not emotions require beliefs – whether or not readers/viewers actually HAVE to believe what they see. This leads him to the “Thought Theory”, in which he basically states:

“I maintain the practice of fiction – including our emotional responses – is actually built on our capacity to be moved by thought contents and to take pleasure in being so moved”

In other words, even if viewers don’t necessarily believe the object of fear exists, if it’s been done well enough, simply the thought or concept is enough to produce an emotional reaction. So even if the monster in the movie is not real, the thought of it can produce a real, emotional reaction; and even if these fictional characters are facing fictional dangers, the thoughts of these scenarios can produce real, emotional reactions.

And so he continues on to the next theory:

3. Character-Identification:

In this theory, Carroll posits that many consumers of horror fictions and cinema – as well as critics – cite how well audiences/readers “identify” with main characters of horror films and stories. How well we connect with characters, feel for them, root for them, feel concern for their welfare helps determine how strong or valid an emotional reaction we feel to their plight.

The problem here, Carroll notes, is simply in the title: identification, which to him implies a symmetry between what the characters and the audiences feel, which clearly doesn’t make sense. If a monster is descending upon Becky, the audience feels concern for her safety, as well as suspense. Becky, however, is probably too scrambled to think anything other than “RUN!”

Our reactions are different, as well. When we learn that Oedipus has killed his father and slept with his mother – through no fault of his own, through tragic fate – the audience feels sympathy for Oedipus, we feel bad for him (along with a little revulsion, also). However, Oedipus himself feels guilty, self-loathing, and responsible for the deaths of his father and the defilement of his mother.

Also, there’s the issue of dramatic irony to consider: that often, the audience knows far more than the main character, and would be experiencing an entirely different set of feelings than the main character, or at the very least, experiencing far more nuanced and specific feelings. For example, maybe Becky very much DESERVES to be devoured by this monster, so while she feels fear, the audience feels justified, or at the very least knows that her own actions have led her to this, and at best pity her.

Carroll ends this chapter, however, really focusing on this element: that powerful connection between the audience/reader and the movie/story’s characters. In his estimation, there’s an assimilation that occurs – in well-done movies and novels, readers and viewers assimilate the character’s situation, come to understand them, their fears, the danger they’re in…but still remain outside the character, with all our beliefs and fears and prejudices interacting with this assimilated knowledge – which helps explain why this can be so subjective, why one person will find a movie/situation scary, and another find it laughable.

Short Film: Ghost Stories (Class Project)

GhostStories

I was skeptical given the “Class Project” description, but I love how this little film is shot and I’ll tell you the truth: although it’s the kids camping in the woods cliché, I thought this was genuinely scary. http://vimeo.com/27546506

Kevin Lucia: Does – Can – Horror Really SCARE? Or Does It Only Disgust?

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Earlier in the year, a fantastic horror writer named Kevin Lucia was finishing grad school and, on his blog, presented a fascinating 9-part series on the nature of horror. I fell in love with this series, and Kevin has very graciously allowed me to reprint it here so others can enjoy it, too. Visit me every Thursday through October 18 for the next installment, and on October 25, some of his fiction—free—as a Halloween treat!

Kevin Lucia is a Contributing Editor for Shroud Magazine, and a blogger for The Midnight Diner. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles, and he’s currently working on his first novel. Visit him on the web at www.kevinlucia.com.

 

Does – Can – Horror Really SCARE? Or Does It Only Disgust?

 

“Writers who used to strive for awe and achieve fear, now strive for fear and achieve only disgust” – David Aylward

Almost finished with chapter two of Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror, (which I’m reviewing and researching for my Film & Philosophy grad class), in which he’s trying to identify how and why audiences of horror cinema and readers of horror fiction can actually experience any kind of emotional fear of monsters and plots and situations they know aren’t real, and in many cases couldn’t exist in the real world.

I’ll sketch out those basic ideas tomorrow, but this chapter, especially, has provided lots of food for thought, as a reader and writer. For regular readers of this blog, I’ll admit again – I’m probably over-thinking things and splitting philosophical hairs – but I’m basically using the blog to thrash thoughts around about horror cinema and the horror genre in general for a presentation and an eventual paper in my Film & Philosophy graduate class at BU.

Not expecting to reach any grand revelations about the horror genre or why I labor in it, necessarily, but as a writer – even, GASP, an artist – I think it’s important to wrestle often with why and how we produce the work we do.  And doing it for graduate credit just makes it all the sweeter.  So, anyhoo…

Does horror really scare me? If not…then why do I read it?

This chapter of Carroll’s work really set me to thinking, as well as a recent vlog post by suspense novelist Mike Duran. Now, Mike was targeting specifically the genre of “Christian Horror”, discussing how doctrinal constrictions at Christian publishing houses determine that novels end in certain, predictable ways that may undercut any “scariness” they might have. But it really made me think: when was the last novel that really scared me?

And I had to pause.

Because I struggled to think of a novel that really scared me.

In some ways, it goes back to something Carroll said in chapter one, which set me thinking about what it was that I wrote, what I wanted most to inspire in people. Again, keeping in mind that trying to define and hedge borders around genres is sketchy business, here’s what Carroll said that really spun the gears in my brain:

nevertheless, I do think that there is an important difference between this type of story – which I want to call tales of dread – and horror stories. Specifically, the emotional response they elicit seems to be quite different than that engendered by art-horror. The uncanny event which tops off such stories cause a sense of unease and awe, perhaps of momentary anxiety and foreboding. These events are constructed to move the audience rhetorically to the point that one entertains the idea that unavowed, unknown, perhaps concealed and inexplicable forces rule the universe. Where art-horror involves disgust as a central figure, what might be called art-dread does not” (pg. 42)

By this definition – I most want to write what Carroll calls art-dread, not art-horror. And, in a natural leap, what I READ informs what I write, so most the work I READ falls into the above category, also. (I also like to read and write genre-mixes – see Norman Partridge for my favorite, there – and my current WIP is definitely a genre mix).

Of course, when it comes to how the industry packages horror fiction and film, there’s no distinction. It’s all just “horror”. Charles L. Grant, Ramsey Campbell, T. M. Wright, Norman Prentiss, Mary SanGiovanni, Gary A. Braunbeck, Ron Malfi, Rio Youers, Dan Keohane even T. L. Hines, Travis Thrasher and Dean Koontz (because Peter Straub and Stephen King and Robert McCammon, also my favorites, can kinda do it all)….are all labeled “horror” writers, or writers of “dark fiction”…but their work hinges on – in my experience – more the definition of “art-dread” than “art-horror”. This is the stuff I read, I crave, not necessarily because it horrifies me or scares me, but because generally, in my opinion as a reader, their works often…

are constructed to move the audience rhetorically to the point that one entertains the idea that unavowed, unknown, perhaps concealed and inexplicable forces rule the universe.”

Of course, certain novels by certain horror writers I enjoy because they do the same thing. For example, I haven’t read all of Brian Keene‘s novels, but the ones I have and have really loved: The Rising, Dead City, Ghost Walk, A Gathering of Crows – have all dealt in these themes.  They had the usual trappings of horror, but they deal with those unknown, inexplicable forces of the universe.

But scare? Horrify?

Hmmmm.

According to Carroll’s definition, very few novels I’ve read have achieved the “horrification” (yeah, I sorta made that word up) he talks about. Certainly, several novels have reached the disgust level – won’t name any names, but I’ve definitely read some novels in my time as a reviewer that have turned my stomach – but according to Carroll’s definition, that’s not good enough, because the work must achieve BOTH.

(are you getting by now how subjective this all is, based on the reader and viewer’s preferences….?)

So, again: what novels have really scared me? (Notice: I didn’t say disturb or fill me with unease and dread or made me cry or filled me with dramatic tension. I said SCARED ME).

I can only think of two, and ironically enough, it was the combination of real life events with the actual reading of these novels that provided that sense of horror:

1. In Silent Graves, by Gary A. Braunbeck – about a man who loses his wife and unborn child, and all the trauma he goes through (of course, surrounded by supernatural drama and trauma), I read this while my wife visited her sister in Colorado Springs for a week. Any time someone takes a plane these days, the specter of 9/11 looms large. So imagine, me reading this late at night in a dead quiet house with the kids sleeping and my wife several states away, having to return by plane, me counting the days until she was on the ground in New York and safe….reading about a man who’d lost his soul mate….yeah. Some definite shivers of fear, with this one.

2. The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. Again, home alone at night, with Abby and the kids over at her parents. Reading this in a dead quiet house out in the country, of course counting my own faith beliefs….yep. This one did the trick, too.

And, believe it or not…that’s it. I’m sitting here, thinking there was a third one…but I guess not.

So. Only two novels I’ve ever read that have actually scared me. All the rest of the horror novels or quiet horror novels or tales of dread or supernatural suspense or thrillers or what-have-you have definitely had what I’d consider to be highly effective, positive impacts – stories about those unknown powers of the universe – but I can only really say those two novels scared me, and because they both struck me HARD, where it hurts most: at family and faith.

Interest, to say the least…

The Nature of Coincidence

Do you believe in coincidences or do you believe everything happens for a reason—even if you don’t figure out what that reason is until years later, if at all?

Recently, I had a really cool “coincidence” happen I thought I’d share.

My gas tank was on E (this is not infrequent). Very often, I won’t stop to fill up before work—I’ll wait and do it on my lunch break. On this particular day, however—even though the weather was gorgeous, and that’s generally when sometimes I’ll go out even before 12—I kept putting off going out to run the errand until, before I knew it, it was after 3. At that point I was like, ‘no point, I’ll just go on my way home.’

There’s a gas station not far from where I work, which is where I usually go. I had enough gas to make it back to my side of town—since when heading home that particular gas station is out of my way—but I decided, ‘oh, just go to the one before the highway and get it done.’

So, I pulled into this gas station and there’s a truck at the pump in front of me, and this guy, standing there waving.

It was my brother, who lives a few hours away but was visiting the area on some specific errands.

We laughed about how he had had plans to get gas, too, but kept putting it off until the end of the day.

I found it strange we ended up at the same gas station. We were both so amused we took a picture. This was shot with my brother’s phone.

Has anything like this ever happened to you?

photo at gas station

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