This week’s guest post is an insightful examination of the genre by a man who knows his stuff. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Anthony Servante.
Horror is a state of aversion when we do not look away. What repulses us attracts us as well. That accident on the freeway where the body parts liter the lanes. We crane our necks to catch a glimpse as the police wave us by the crash scene cordoned off by several glowing red flares. It is at once horrific and beautiful. The lovely lights of flares and headlights covering the awful scene. It is a voyage by Marlow down the beautiful Congo River that leads to the “horrors” experienced by Kurtz in HEART OF DARKNESS (1899) by Joseph Conrad. As readers, we take a trip through beauty to reach horror when we read works of the Grotesque.
Allow me to elaborate.
When balanced with Beauty, Horror becomes a work of Romantic Grotesqueness. Since the Age of Romanticism (late 1700s to mid 1800s), the literature of the Grotesque exemplified Nature and Imagination paralleled. Nature defined as that lovely mountain, but also that tiger ripping a man apart, for both are part of nature. Add Imagination as the exaggeration of nature, the writer describing the haunted mountain or the demon substituted for the tiger. In the author’s hands, nature takes on Grotesque elements, namely, Horror and Beauty, for both become as one in the work of the writer. This is the literature of the Romantic Age.
In the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Mary Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, we can see the original concept of Romantic Horror (or the Groteque). In DER SANDMAN (1817), Hoffmann juxtaposes a mysterious figure who steals the eyes from sleeping children with a love triangle between the narrator and a potential victim. In FRANKENSTEIN: The Modern Prometheus (1818), Shelley compares the beauty of birth and life with the creation of a human being from dead body parts. In RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER (1798), Coleridge contrasts the wisdom of agedness with the teachings of Life in Death (a beautiful woman skeletal in appearance) and Death (appearing as a skeleton) who gamble for the life of the aged mariner. Here are the elements of Horror (child abuse, graverobbing, and man’s random relation to death). Here, also, we have a woman finding true love, a monster blessed with high intelligence, and a man who escapes Death to grow wise and pass along his wisdom to the younger generation who’ve yet to meet (that is, understand) inevitable death.
Today, however, Romantic Horror has been stripped of its element of Beauty. For the sake of clarity, I can list many authors who continue the tradition of the Grotesque (e.g., the Bizarros carry on the tradition, especially writers like Gina Ranalli), but in this age of ebooks and shock value horror stories (from film to paperbacks), Beauty has been replaced with Gore and Sensationalism. In my interview with Sarah Karloff, daughter of Monster Icon, Boris Karloff, she told me that her father didn’t care for the word “horror” to describe his movies; he preferred the word “terror”, the subjective reaction to horror, that is, repulsion. Think back to our example of the traffic accident, a freeway strewn with body parts: A terrified person would not be attracted, only repulsed. Karloff saw his films as terrifying, designed to scare, not to provoke awe. The Grotesque provokes awe. Horror alone provokes repulsion.
In the Horror literature nowadays Gore has replaced Beauty. In what I termed the Aesthetic Grotesque, a subjective correlative, Horror and Gore have become its own oeuvre. It provokes morbid fascination rather than awe or respect. We have the Snuff genre, Extreme Gore, and Torture Porn. It has become a form of Gore worship that exploits gory pictures and stories for their own sake. The abandonment of Romantic traditions in the literature of the Grotesque has given way to an individual appreciation (aesthetic) of that which would otherwise be repulsive. Today’s horror reader celebrates excess in blood and mutilation as an end in itself.
We witness this overkill in the cinema of violence where excess is a challenge that must be surpassed by each new film-maker who takes up the gauntlet (Japanese Manga horror gleefully ups the ante on the gore scale). It is more than “cult” literature and film; it seeks to replicate realism with its book descriptions and film special effects to tantalize both reader and film-goer to question the authenticity of the gory scene at hand. We’ve come to expect buckets of blood to gush from a wound Monty Python-style, even as our rational mind tells us there isn’t that much blood in the human body. It is a corrupted branch of the Grotesque that exaggerates the gore and relishes the deliberate elimination of Beauty.
But let’s be clear about the definition of “Beauty”. By this word I do not mean only the attractive. I also include well-plotted stories, well-developed characters, Grand Guignol as an outlet for mounting suspense (as opposed to an entire work of Grand Guignol, which is a contradiction of its intent). It is Salome carrying the head of John the Baptist as opposed to Quasimodo carrying the decapitated head. It is heroism in a zombie apocalypse. It is sacrifice to save a young girl from demon possession. It is the ying to the yang in meditation. It is balance in literary exposition.
So, besides balance, what is missing in today’s Horror market that breaks with tradition? Simply put—Beauty. In the movie THE WILD BUNCH, director Sam Pekinpah paints a work of beauty with his gory finale, a bloodbath filmed like a gentle ballet. It is not an easy task to accomplish, but Pekinpah was a maestro. He made Gore beautiful. And that’s what’s missing today: An attractive goriness. What we have instead is gore for the sake of gore, bereft of beauty or attractiveness. A zombie eats a human face for two pages. The writer pads the work with gore rather than provoke the readers’ desire to glimpse the horrific scene and linger. It is pornography without love. It is aversion without romance. It is a creepy guy on a long long date, where the girl dreads being driven home by this person. Very unlucky girl.
Lucky for us, the reader can simply close the book. And many a book of horror gets closed today. The lost art of creating the Grotesque by combining elements of repulsion and attraction remains elusive in the hands of self-published writers and small presses. There’s no perfect formula that I can give here for the perfect work of Horror. I can only observe and report the trends of Horror and Terror, for I very infrequently encounter a good work of the Grotesque.
But just to show that there are a few who can accomplish what the Romantics created hundreds of years ago in literature, I shall name a few authors who should be sought out and emulated: Hank Schwaeble, F. Paul Wilson, Jonathan Maberry, Graham Masterton, William Cook, and Ray Garton. I must keep my list small for the sake of brevity on this piece of nonfiction. Should you wish to learn more about authors who echo the tradition of the Grotesque, visit my blog and see what’s new.
Anthony Servante is a retired college professor. He has taught English and American Literature. He writes literary criticism for a Literary Journal under his real name. Anthony Servante is his pseudonym for writing about Horror on his blog, the Servante of Darkness. Although he covers music, film, art, and poetry, his main interest remains the fiction of Horror.
His books include:
KILLERS AND HORROR: INK BLACK, BLOOD RED (2013), a study that compares authors who write fictional serial killers with real serial killers.
EAST LOS: Death in the City of Angels (2012), a Noir novel about a drunken detective who sobers up to find a serial killer beheading young gang members in 1970 East Los Angeles.
Anthony Servante has also written for Serial Killer Quarterly (SKQ):
His blog can be found at: