Why Do I Like Horror Stories?

It’s been easy to see the trends in my own reading of late.  I finished The Terror and moved right to H.P. Lovecraft (which had more to do with my recent fascination with Arkham Horror: The Boardgame than anything else), but once I read a few Lovecraft stories – I find you can’t read too many in a row, so The Hound, The Unnamable, Dagon, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth did just fine for me – I immediately picked up Duma Key by Stephen King.  dumakeySometimes it is a hard decision to pick what I’ll read next but this was easy.  So, the obvious trend is horror stories.  The less immediately obvious connection between the Lovecraft and Duma Key is that they are both written in the first person.  I find that this perspective lends itself particularly well to horror stories – it lends a crucial air of credibility to the story; it is much easier to discount something from a third person perspective.

Like most King books, Duma Key is a fast paced story.  I began it only two days ago and am close to 200 pages into the story.  Part of the reason is in unburdened, uncomplicated language (by which I do not mean to suggest simple), part of it is in the gripping nature of the tales, and part of it is in the fact that he breaks up his narrative into manageable chunks: chapters divided into shorter sub-chapters.  And they all advance the plot line somehow.  That is something King is big on, and all good writers are big on.  It’s funny to me somehow, King is so marketable, so popular, and such a household name that it seems contradictory to say he is also a great writer.  Most authors that fit into the first several categories are decent writers and some are just bad.  But King is one of the most prolific Great Writers of our time.  The man really knows what he is doing.  When I was younger, I did not read King because he was forbidden for one reason or another, whether by my parents when I was really young or by my own snobbishness when I was older. (I used to say I never read books where the author’s name appears in a larger font on the cover than the title of the book, but I’ve relaxed on that – relaxed, not given up entirely!)

So, why the fascination with horror?  It’s interesting, a couple of years ago I decided to celebrate Halloween by watching a few classic horror films – TBS and TNT and SCI-FI all run marathons that time of year anyway and I DVR’d them and watched them at my leisure.  It was fun!  Now, I’ve made that a regular practice each year but find myself checking out other horror films throughout the course of the year much more regularly than I ever did before.  Last year I watched all the “originals” – the ones that I saw in the video stores as a kid and was never allowed to check out, the ones that became franchises.  I watched the original Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc.  It was awesome!  Then I watched a documentary on those film’s directors and others like them called The American Nightmare and got into their thinking a little bit.  It was interesting to suddenly think of zombie flicks as social commentary (something most people probably picked up on their own) and slasher flicks as being reactions to the violence of the Vietnam War (something most people probably did not pick up on).  I tended not to stray into the realms of horror films that focused on sexual violence (The Last House on the Left) or more modern “torture-porn” (Hostel) because that is not entertaining to me.  I want to be entertained, surprised, scared, and thrilled.  Grossed out has it’s place in those films, but when grossing out becomes the motivating factor, I lose my interest, as I did after watching only three of the Masters of Horror series.  When it serves as a foil, I’m all ears (and eyes), as I was for Halloween, and The Ring.

For me, good horror touches those sensitive parts of my imagination where I do not regularly allow myself to go.  I like the suspense of it, the sense of being on the edge of something horrible.  It frees me to think about things I don’t normally think about and in a weird way, it reminds me of how fragile I am.  Part of it is probably a juvenile sense fo rebellion against my parents’ rules: thou shalt not watch horror films.  And part of it is some odd need to go beyond the normal pale of experience, and then to safely return all without having to leave my couch.  I’m sure that a neurologist could tell us all about those areas of our brains that get excited by this stuff and while that is interesting, it isn’t as important to me as knowing that I want/need to excite those areas, wherever they are.
To that end, I’m eating it up right now, spending time in Lovecraft, King, and others.  I found a website for horror short story podcasts, Pseudopod, that I’m enjoying during my morning constitutional right now.  Some are better than others, I’m sure, but to find the gems you sometimes have to sift through the trash.  And in horror writing, there is a lot of trash.  If I can smell it before I get to far in, I’ll avoid it and get to the good stuff.  But sometimes, there’s nothing better than a banal tale of horrible man-eating bugs that crawl beneath your skin, lay eggs, and burst out of filthy pustules.  It gets you going in the morning.  And, and, it provides me with that silly, inane, laughable, but altogether exciting extra sense of immediacy when next a mosquito or fly lands on my arm.

Because I know that if I want, there’s plenty of mind-warping Lovecraft, still the unequivocal King of the horror story.  Ia! Ia!

The Shadow over Innsmouth

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