Sunday, June 1, 2014

Is Horror Fiction Becoming Obsolete?

In a review of several recent horror novels out in time for summer reading, Terrence Rafferty makes some interesting points about the challenges of writing horror fiction in the early 21st Century, (“Horror”, The New York Times Book Review, Sunday, June 1, 2014).  He feels that movies, TV shows, comics and games have effectively supplanted horror literature, chiefly because of the powerful visual imagery and immediacy they supply.  He asks why some stories are in print form at all when they would have greater impact in a visual medium, such as TV or video game.

Some readers may recall an old Nintendo Gamecube entertainment called Eternal Darkness—Sanity’s Requiem (2002).  This was a marvelous videogame that borrowed heavily from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft for its narrative and conceptualization.  Playing the game was an intense experience; its creators were adept at developing and enhancing the feeling of Lovecraftian doom and horror in the various levels of the game.  There were ancient manuscripts to locate, abandoned ruins to explore, and a relentlessly predatory ecology of zombies, horrors, trappers, bone thieves, and guardians to defeat.  I was never able to win at this game, (though my son mastered it easily).  It was my fate to die horribly near the end of every segment.  And be unable to sleep that night.

I cannot recall very many printed horror entertainments having quite this impact, except a few that I read as a child, (Donald Wollheim’s 1951 The Rag Thing comes to mind—I was certain at the time that one of these was in our house).  Because of its increasing emphasis on action and graphic detail, it seems that much current horror literature is designed for ready conversion to a visual format—as if the purpose of the work is to serve as a sketch or summary of an idea destined to become a TV episode, game segment, or movie.  Why use words at all when images, particularly those one can interact with in some way, can be much more powerful?

It seems that ongoing technological innovations are allowing us to replace one narrative medium with another, that is, print with image.  In some sense, the process resembles what happened thousands of years ago, when writing and literacy reduced the traditional reliance on oral and mnemonic transmission of history, mythology, and drama.  Perhaps comics and graphic novels are serving as an intermediate bridge until this transition is complete.

What if the marvelous advances in computer and communications technology of the 1980s and beyond had somehow occurred earlier, say, in the 1920s and 1930s?  What would have happened to magazines like Amazing Stories, Astounding, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Weird Tales, among others?  What would have happened to authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and others like them?  What is happening to small press publications today?  (Or to literacy in general?)

Walter M. Kendrick, in his wonderful historical survey, The Thrill of Fear (1992) speculated that advances in the technical ability to archive and retrieve virtually all of the previous work in the horror genre would significantly affect the future of the field.  He predicted that this would make it possible for would-be horror writers to access much more of the work of predecessors than earlier writers were able to do, via video, DVD, microfilm, CD-Rom, and now internet.  Perhaps this would improve technique and the overall quality of the literature produced. 

However, given the conservatism of the field, (to meet the expectations of its consumers), this may also result in ever more efficient recycling and re-introduction of familiar horror motifs in sequels, prequels and re-makes.  Are we already seeing this?

Rafferty, in his book review, offers some hope for the future of horror writing, especially in the ghost story.  He feels that this subgenre is more resilient to the challenges from visual media, because the action of the story often occurs on an introspective, psychological level.  Struggles with vampires, werewolves and zombies are easy to depict visually, but not so the self-doubt and imagination of characters who think they might have seen or heard or felt a ghost.  Perhaps the literary future of the genre will involve a shift to the emotional, psychological, “quiet” horrors of a ghost story.

In my humble opinion, horror literature will certainly survive in some form, waxing and waning like the moon, for the same reason that religion will.  Both address big, scary, unanswerable questions about the significance of life and the nature of death, questions that are always with us no matter what medium we use to express our fear.   

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