Guest Post: Horror Lit 101, Part the Third

Guest blogger Matthew Jackson continues his series of posts for the month of October on horror literature. Today’s post is part three of four. Make sure you’ve read up on the entire series by reading the first installment here and the second installment here.

Horror Lit 101, Part the Third: In which we contemplate America’s Boogeyman and other modern monsters.

The 20th century added four new, powerful delivery systems for horror stories: radio, the motion picture, the comic book and the television. As with every other genre, this resulted in a kind of cultural overload. Suddenly the number of influences for aspiring storytellers was through the roof, and for many of our finest authors of modern horror fiction, these new mediums were an abundant source of inspiration.

We’ve talked about the roots of great horror, and the most influential early writers in the genre. This week we’ll cover some of the biggest names in horror fiction in the 20th century. Again we’ll cover essential works in their respective canons, why they’re important, and what they contribute overall to the genre. We will begin, as you might have guessed, with the King…

Stephen King (1947-)

Love him or loathe him, it’s hard to overestimate the cultural impact Stephen King has had over the past 35 years or so. Since his first novel Carrie was published in 1974 King has sold over 500 million books, and a quick search of the Internet will tell you that more than 50 feature film adaptations have been produced to date of various stories and characters from his work. Fifty movies. From one guy. And that’s not counting all the television miniseries and episodes, comic books, short films and other things that bear his mark.

In the 1980s, during the height of his commercial success, pretty much everyone with eyes was reading a King novel at some point, and not much has changed since then. His name alone is enough to send a volume to the top of the bestseller lists, a feat particularly impressive for someone who has been largely “typed” as a horror writer since the mid 70s (a designation that is to some extent unfair, we must all admit). Short of singular instances of pop culture explosion like Harry Potter and Twilight, Stephen King is pretty much the most successful writer of popular fiction who’s ever lived.

King’s immense popular appeal has been a subject of debate for even the writer himself, but the consensus seems to be that he’s sold so many books because he’s found a way to tap into a set of universal fears. Poe wrote macabre but often farfetched horror scenarios, and Lovecraft wrote about the discovering of big scary monsters. Cool, but not exactly relatable.

King, on the other hand, even when he’s at the height of sensationalism, always ties his fiction back to something a little more universal. The Shining is on the surface a haunted house/hotel novel, but it’s really a book about how people are haunted, and how our own misdeeds can follow us and drive us mad. Pet Sematary is a fairly simple story of a forbidden resurrection, but more importantly it’s about a deeply tragic loss and how far over the edge we might go if we had a chance to bring someone back (King found this book so disturbing that he didn’t originally intend to publish it.).
These subtexts may seem simple if you’re not familiar with the individual works, but believe me when I tell you that King’s great talent is to wrap his characters in these concepts, to make it permeate the manuscript, but not so much that it’s the only thing the book’s about. You have to walk a fine line in horror fiction, especially when you’re trying to make it do more than just be icky, and there is no one better than King.

He’s gotten more thematically complex in his later years, as exhibited by books like Desperation and Lisey’s Story. He still has the same knack for generating terrifying conceptual work, but he’s also grown as a writer, and how often can we say that for producers of commercial fiction? Don’t believe the critics. Hail to the King.

Essential Reading: King’s best novel by far is The Stand, a massive apocalyptic book about how the world ends that was written in the midst of the 1970s energy crisis but still holds relevance today. Other brilliant things include his “ultimate horror” novel It, his fantastic short fiction collection Night Shift and his 7-part epic The Dark Tower (not always horror, but it definitely bears mentioning). As far as nonfiction, pick up his Danse Macabre if you want to learn more about the horror genre than little old me could ever tell you, and his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft if you want to read the most useful and entertaining book about writing fiction that I’ve ever encountered.

Clive Barker (1952-)

We will continue with the man Stephen King once, in so many words, declared his successor. The quote “I have seen the future or horror and its name is Clive Barker,” attributed to King, was pasted on the front of Barker’s first books in the mid-1980s, and I’m sure it went a long way to selling a good deal more of them than Barker ever expected.

The only English writer I’ll mention in this post, Barker began his career as a playwright and theatrical producer before breaking into popular fiction with his enormously influential Books of Blood series beginning in 1984. Six volumes of these horror stories were published between 1984 and 1987, and they contain everything from serial killers to secret societies to werewolves to comically mischievous spirits. Barker earned a lot of critical and commercial attention for his use of graphic violence and sexuality in all of his stories, and was dubbed the new splatterpunk wunderkind.

To say these tales are important just because they’re courageously gross is a huge mistake. Barker ushered in a new way of thinking for horror fiction. While everyone around him was introducing monsters and then killing them, Barker was dreaming of perverse and often enlightening ways in which monsters could be embraced, a theme that runs through numerous Books of Blood tales like “The Life of Death,” “Dread” and even “Skins of the Fathers” (Is that a badass title, or isn’t it?). Barker’s stories were less about abolishing the alien and more about exploring how the alien is actually a part of us, and as an added bonus you get to read about buckets of blood. It’s not an overstatement to call his work a revolution in the horror world.

Essential Reading: Books of Blood are on top of the list, of course, but his first novel The Damnation Game is important for its new usage of Faustian archetypes, and his novella The Hellbound Heart (the basis for the classic film Hellraiser, which Barker directed) is a modernized horror fairy tale.

Richard Matheson (1926-)

Going backward a bit, we look at the author without whom there would probably be no Stephen King, or George A. Romero, or Anne Rice. Matheson was the king before King. His work launched subgenres, created new fears for the 20th Century and still has tremendous influence (as the success of the recent adaptation of his novel I Am Legend shows). Matheson wrote novels beyond the scope of past horror writers (with the exception of Lovecraft, of course).

I Am Legend is among the first apocalyptic horror novels, documenting the adventures of a man who believes he is the last human after everyone else has been taken over by a vampire-like virus. This story has been echoed over and over since, in films like Dawn of the Dead and novels like Stephen King’s Cell and Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which we’ll cover next week. Likewise his novel Hell House is in many ways the ultimate haunted house story. There’s nothing particularly insightful on a human level about Matheson’s work, but on the level of pure fun there’s no one better. He wrote the novels he knew horror fans wanted, and that’s why he’s great.

Essential Reading: I Am Legend and Hell House, of course, but also check out things like A Stir of Echoes and The Incredible Shrinking Man, not to mention his long list of short fiction.

Joyce Carol Oates (1938-)

Yes, that’s the Joyce Carol Oates: National Book Award winner, Pulitzer nominee, literary legend and widely considered one of the great writers of our time. I’m not kidding. She’s a horror writer. No, seriously.

Anyone familiar with Oates’ work, even the really populist sort of stuff like We Were the Mulvaneys, knows that it’s perforated with very dark undertones. Many of her novels – My Sister, My Love, Black Water and Beasts, to name three – aren’t strictly horror, but they deal with horrific things in a very real and unpolished sense, and in that way they often become terrifying. She’s also a ridiculously adept practitioner of the Gothic tale, which isn’t horror but certainly specializes in the ominous.

Oates, like Cormac McCarthy, is among those wonderful writers of “serious” fiction who are far more concerned with their stories than with other people’s perception of their stories, therefore she’s a writer who uncompromisingly believes in the tale she’s telling, whether it’s scary or not. The result is a diverse body of work that includes numerous things that are either almost horror or just flat out horror. The world of popular speculative fiction got a little jolt in 1996 when Oates won the Bram Stoker Award (pretty much the highest prize you can get for a horror novel) for her book Zombie, a serial killer story based in large part on the life of Jeffrey Dahmer.

Zombie is a first person narrative concerning a man who slowly gives over to his urges, drifting further and further away from a normal life as he begins taking young men back to his home and killing them, then making an attempt to turn them into his own private slaves by debilitating their brains (hence the title). It’s a horrifying idea made all the more horrifying by how deftly Oates gets into the head of this man, who goes nameless throughout the story. We always wonder how the guy next door becomes a killer, and countless pages of fiction have appeared trying to explain it. So far, only this one seems to come close.

Essential Reading: The aforementioned titles as well as her two anthologies of “Tales of the Grotesque,” Haunted and The Collector of Hearts.

Honorable Mentions (because I’ve rambled long enough.): Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, the entire body of work of Ramsey Campbell, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Dan Simmons’ The Terror and Carrion Comfort and of course the sublime and wonderful work of the great Harlan Ellison, including Deathbird Stories and the two legendary anthologies he edited: Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions.

Once again, I could go on, but I’ve gone on quite long enough for one week. Hit up Google for a list of Bram Stoker Award winners and you’ll be off to the races with even more terrifying reads.

Tune in next week when we conclude this adventure with a look at contemporary horror…and a glimpse into the future.

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