Monday, September 29, 2014

Wordcraft -- The essential reading list for horror

It’s the last days of September and my grandsons already have their Halloween costumes. Actually, the boys begged me to take them to Party City a month ago to look at costumes, only one of them asked me to cover his eyes until we got past the creepy stuff. So there I was, leading a little boy through a store devoted to festivities. He longs to be among terrors. He just can’t bear to look at them.

What is it about Halloween that makes it one of the most popular holidays in the United States, and probably one of the most lucrative? It's a holiday that celebrates¾ or at least commemorates¾ the return of the spirits of the dead among the living. And along with ghosts, we’ve added goblins and all manner of bizarre supernatural creatures, as if the daylight world doesn’t contain enough horrors. What’s the fascination? What is it that makes horror stories, horror movies, horror TV series so popular? Why do we just plain love being scared out of our wits?

With this in mind, and because I blog on horror stories for the coming month, I marked a panel discussion of “required horror reading” as a must-hear at this year’s ArmadilloCon science fiction and fantasy convention in Austin, Texas.

“The appeal of horror is the appeal of the uncertainty of what lies over the hill,” panelist/horror writer Rhiannon Frater said. “Horror taps into that fear of loss, the human condition.”

And it’s because of this primal nature, screenwriter C. Robert Cargill said, that “horror ages better than any other genre.”

So here, as Virgil offered Dante, as I offered to a small boy in a costume shop, are suggestions for trustworthy guides through the hell of our human condition.

“The genesis of all modern horror is (H.P.) Lovecraft,” Cargill said, “the Cthulhu mythos as well as his stand-alone monster stories, with their great, dark detail.”

Panelists’ Lovecraftian favorites included: “Rats in the Walls” and “The Color out of Space.” And they didn’t forget one of the writers who inspired Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood and his “Wendigo,” among the favorites of panelist Aaron de Orive.

“My mother was an English teacher, so I didn’t read any modern horror until I was almost in my late teens,” Frater said, citing Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as early favorites.

Among more modern writers, the late Richard Matheson drew applause from science fiction writer and columnist Robert Johnson for his numerous Twilight Zone-adapted stories and seminal vampire story, “I Am Legend” which “set the scene for the whole zombie apocalypse,” de Orvive said.

Other much praised twentieth century horror writing included Ray Bradbury’s October Country, and the works of Clive Barker, Stephen King and his son, Joe Hill, Phillip K. Dick, Anne Rice, and Tanith Lee. And panelists couldn’t leave out favorite titles Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.

But wait a minute, panelist Frater said. If horror pervades the culture, why, she asked, do “a lot of bookstores shelves no longer shelve books as horror? In movies and TV, horror is alive and well (but) in books, you almost have to recategorize them.”

In fact, panelists believed horror has become a victim of its own popularity. Audiences crave it the way we crave fatty and sugary snacks. We just don’t feel right calling them by their rightful names, whether it’s “heart attack with a side of fried grease” or “horror.“

So if a horror devotee searching in vain for the shelf labeled “horror”, where’s she supposed to look for a good read? Try the thriller section, Cargill suggested. After all, “we don’t give an Oscar to a horror movie. We give it to a ‘psychological thriller’.”

But if she’s searching the snack aisle at the grocery store, I’m out of advice.

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