Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What is Horror?

I tell people I am a writer because not only is it true (and therefore easy for me to remember), but people know what that is. Tell them you're a cryptozoologist and you're there all evening.

The next question is what I write, and that's where we start to venture out onto thin and shifting ice. I tell them "horror" because that's broadly what it is, and I hope most people have a pretty good idea what it means. However, "horror" is a very wide field. A surprising number of people blanch and confide that they "don't like horror stories"; an equally surprising number - often mild-mannered civil-servant types - positively swoon at the prospect of gallons of blood, chainsaws, mutant rats eating children, and bottomless pits of fire and sharp stabbing things.

And therein lies the problem with the "horror" label. It just covers too much. I don't write graphically gory novels; in fact I write the kind of books that non-horror readers would probably enjoy if they gave them a go. My horror is psychological; it works on that small darkness that lives within us all and always has.

Our ability to experience fear enabled us to survive in the very earliest days of our evolution, where spiders, snakes, the dark, all kinds of natural things could harm us. Human beings needed fear in order to survive, but they also needed to develop a capacity to imagine scary things in order to be prepared for things which they had not yet directly experienced.

These days, most of those primordial fears have been rationalized away - we don't come across too many killer spiders or snakes in our urbanized lives, and the dark can be controlled by the flick of a switch. Yet we have retained a capacity for fear. We sublimate it into fear of hospitals (where painful things might be done to us by faceless, powerful people); of flying (where a lunatic with a plastic knife or a box-cutter might turn the plane into a weapon); or of dying alone in an unheated flat at Christmas (because to do so is to lose any meaning or sense of being human). We are, in short, fearful creatures, in a way that no other animal is. (Okay, there's something to be said about the kind of self-awareness that exists in higher primates that might give them a capacity for abstract fear, but that's beyond our discussion here!)

It is this kind of abstracted fear that I play on in my writing. There's a cardinal rule in writing that says "show, don't tell." This rule should be extended for psychological horror to become "don't do either unless you really know what you're doing." Ever notice that even the best kind of horror movie is completely ruined as soon as you see the monster? (Think of the ridiculous flying bat-thing in "Jeepers Creepers" or the silly cave people in the otherwise fabulous "Descent." Even the brilliant "Saw" would probably have been better if we'd never seen the guy who was running the show.) Fear, to me, is about the unknown. It's about that invisible force that suddenly throws us off our comfortable course and into a state of powerlessness. It's not about the monster that, in the end, is only going to kill us. Dead is dead; it's the voyage to that unknown land that is truly terrifying.

In my novel Run, we do see the "monster," and very early on, but the monster is not the driving force of the book. It is merely a vehicle, a way of throwing the main character, Daniel Ang, off his comfortable course. We then watch how his life falls apart, how he loses everything he holds precious, and how he spirals down towards that most terrifying land of all: madness. Daniel Ang is not a hero out to battle the Big Bad Wolf. He is us, as a victim of a random event. It is the same model Richard Matheson used for The Shrinking Man. We see the mist that causes Scott Carey to shrink, as we see the "monsters" that cause Daniel Ang to lose his leg, but those vectors are not that important. We know that in the end Carey is going to cease to exist (and Ang might well too), but again, that is not important. What matters to us is the path those characters take to reach their final catastrophic destination.

Why is this important? Because we are human, and humans care about other humans. We don't care about monsters because we know monsters aren't real. Even when the TV tells us a monster is wielding a butter knife on a 767 we know that, statistically, it is very unlikely ever to be us sitting in seat B3 watching the buildings getting closer. But we are all too aware - because of that primordial capacity for fear - that something like it could happen to us. Something could throw our existence into jeopardy. And how would we cope? Would we suffer the terror that Scott Carey or Daniel Ang suffer? By God, we hope not! But we could... It could be us...

In my forthcoming novel, Unnatural Selection, I go one step further and make the "monster" one of us as well. This works on two levels. The crux of the plot is that a strain of genetically modified rice gets released into the food chain by mistake and causes, shall we say, some problems. We, the fine upstanding humans, are the monsters that are born of eating this Frankenstein food, but we are also the monsters who played God and forgot to look for the Devil in the detail in the first place. Although this novel has some extremely violent episodes, it moves another step away from the shock-and-awe horror of the slasher movie. It plays on the idea that there are people - sometimes well-meaning people - out there who are doing things to our lives and our world that could have terrible consequences. When the lights have been turned on and the darkness banished, when we have proved there are no monsters under the bed, something still remains. It is a fear that has no focus, and that fear often morphs into paranoia. We see it throughout human history, from the persecution of the Jews to the Anti-Communist hysteria of 1940s America to today's Islamophobia. There are PEOPLE... OUT THERE... who are trying to do us harm!!

So, am I a horror writer or not? Yes, in the purest sense. My monsters don't die when you drive a stake through their hearts. Mine are inside you... and they always will be.

Alan Porter's Biography:

Alan Porter was born in Wales in 1967. After a successful career as a composer of theater and commercial music in the 1990s he moved into publishing, initially as a music typesetter, then later as a book designer.

Alan began writing in 2005 and his first horror novel for teen readers, Midwinter Lucie, was published in 2008. His latest novel for adults, Run, was published in 2013.
He lives in rural Worcestershire, England, with his wife and parrot.

Visit his website

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