Dissecting Nightmares, Part One: Reading Horror

20:08, Jan 24 2013

My mother is a well-meaning soul, but one of the longest-lasting parenting choices she ever made was to ban my brother and I from any media that had gore, scary bits or supernatural themes as children.

This kicked in right around the time that R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" series was big, and surreallist childrens' after-school cartoons like "Courage the Cowardly Dog", "Ren and Stimpy" and "Aaahh!!! Real Monsters"  were at the peak of their popularity.

Silly pre-teen slasher movies were out, any TV shows with ghosts, witches or zombies were switched off, and celebrating Halloween itself was absolutely verboten.

Luckily, there were other options. My grandmother had a huge hardcover Reader's Digest-style book called Horror Stories that stopped me sleeping for days every time I visited her house, and there was a limited number of books in the school library that did the trick. A friend with more liberal parents had a stack of Goosebumps books that introduced me to such terrors as The Purple Peanut Butter and It Came From Beneath the Sink.

As well as unleashing some amazing titles onto the world, Stine's garden of unearthly delights did a great job of introducing kids to many of horror's basic themes.

The silly ones expanded my fairytale understanding of monsters by introducing unexpected riffs on vampires and werewolves, providing entirely new creatures or, in books like Beast from the East, relying on a Dali-esque monsterous landscape for the frights.

Ghost story Welcome to Dead House was the first time I saw the Dead All Along trope that also-forbidden movie The Sixth Sense made famous. Wacky time-travel novel The Cuckoo Clock of Doom was the only one I was too afraid to finish, and Stay Out of the Basement introduced the concept of doppelgangers. This is quite sophisticated stuff when you are nine.

Many readers stop paying attention to horror at about this point. Beyond the young adult market, horror is not popular - it's dominated by big names such as Stephen King and Anne Rice, filled with quasi-thriller experiments like Guillermo del Toro's The Strain. Finding your way through the airport paperbacks to something worth reading can be kind of a horrifying experience in itself.

Searching for recommendations on the internet is one way to do it, but Stephen King's 1981 non-fiction guide Danse Macarbre is my secret shortcut. Around the time he wrote one of my favourite post-apocalyptic novels, The Stand, King lectured in creative writing at University of Maine. This book is a really easy-to-read compilation of all his notes on the horror genre from those lectures, grouped into meandering essays and long lists of solid recommendations. Apparently he liked to pronounce the title word “McBare” as a child.

As a critical-thinking exercise, I really recommend having Danse McBare around, but what's widely regarded as the meat in the sandwich is this sentence:

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.”

Good horror isn't just icky or scary, but creative- it has to have a twist, or it has no chance of getting you right in the ribs. In order to terrify the reader, there has to be an element of subtle build-up, making us care about the victim character and short-circuiting cynicism. Writers who have this trick include Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson and the wonderfully flamboyant Ray Bradbury.

It's also worth mentioning that as the copyright on a lot of classic horror has expired, ebooks by many of the founding fathers like Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft are available for free from providers like Project Gutenberg and Overdrive. Bram Stoker's Dracula is a good place to start, or perhaps Mary Shelley's sturdy, gothic Frankenstein.

If nothing else, have a look through Danse McBare and pick something from the appendices at the end to read. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

NEXT WEEK: An interview with Matt and Debbie Cowens, authors of New Zealand horror mash-up Mansfield with Monsters.