[coffee cup]

Dark Currents, page 5

In a recent essay by poet Donald Hall, I was struck by the sentence, "Reading will not distract us from dread." Hall is well-acquainted with dread, because he has colon cancer. I found myself hoping, when I read those words, that he tell the reader of how certain darker books did not distract him from dread, but rather helped him to face it, to conceptualize it more clearly. My hope was in vain: he goes on to write that he worries, after each surgery,
What will they find? What will the laboratory's dyes and microscopes discover, peering at cell structure? Not even Philip Roth distracts from such concerns; not even spy sagas or horror books. For that matter, I cannot read junk for diversion. Finer sensibilities than my own have relaxed with Agatha Christie or Zane Grey -- but under conditions of pain and distress, slack language causes me pain and distress.

Can we move past the first-level response to that annoying assumption about "slack language"? Can we look at what people are saying is the purpose of horror fiction? Donald Hall says he's looking for distraction, for diversion, for relaxation. That's well and good. Horror is, of course, entertaining. But I wonder what's being left out. To return to the analogy of the coffee cups, maybe those who expect only "diversion" from horror, are expecting the coffee to be always soothing and mild. The dark liquid of horror, the horror in the cup, has more than one use. Surely one of its uses is to shock us into sharper awareness of the dread -- to help us confront and explore the dread, not shrink from it. It may be that the diversion part, the entertainment, is like the "hook" in a pop song: the author stirs some interesting flavors -- be they splatter or quiet-creepy -- into the brew to get us involved, to get us to go back for more and keep drinking from the dark. And it may be that the repetition of forms, even that supposed "slack language," in the horror genre, is no more heinous that the way that all coffee cups are variations on a common theme. The human hand holding the cup, the human nervous system vibrating in response to the tale -- these have not changed for countless millennia. Rather than asking the horror tale to be original, why don't we ask that it serve its purpose well?

My point is this: if we defend genre horror against accusations of being poorly written, by reference to the text in isolation, then we are selling it short. The horror genre is not Art, floating in a void. Horror is about something -- about our world, about us, most of all about our fears. And horror is a discourse, an interaction between the reader and the text.

A mainstream horror tale may well be a sculpture, standing lovely on its pedestal in the museum -- its aesthetic message what Borges calls "the imminence of a revelation that does not take place." But a genre horror tale is to have and to hold. A genre horror tale is the revelation made manifest. Physical. Taken into the body.

Copyright © Fiona Webster 1993
Comments and questions to <fi@oceanstar.com>
Previously published in Horror: The News Magazine of the Horror and Dark Fantasy Field, #1, January 1994

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