How does horror fiction work? What technique does an author employ to provide his or her reader the experience of wonder and dread? One theory is offered by Tzvetan Todorov, in his “Definition of the Fantastic”, published in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1975). The version I have is an excerpt in Ken Gelder’s wonderful collection of horror criticism, The Horror Reader (2000).
Todorov uses examples from gothic horror of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to illustrate his idea “hesitation.” By this he means that the fantastic elements in a work of literature, in order to be effective, must create in the reader a period of uncertainty or ambiguity. Because a horror story typically involves the interjection of some violation of natural law or convention into everyday life, the protagonist—the reader as well—will for a time question whether the events depicted are real or imaginary.
H.P. Lovecraft, in his foundational essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) identified the following as critical to the effectiveness of a work of horror:
“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space. “
Todorov’s insight is that the experience of “breathless and unexplainable dread” is actually the uncertainty itself, which lasts as long as the question remains unresolved in the story. He goes on to propose three conditions that identify a fictional work as an example of fantasy, or in this case, of its subcategory, horror:
1. The reader must believe that the setting and characters are intended to be perceived as realistic; this sets up the conditions under which the reader will feel “hesitation” about whether the events depicted are imaginary or not.
2. The protagonist and other characters of the story may also experience this hesitation about the veracity of events, though this is not a necessary condition in all cases. (One can think of stories where the characters have no doubts one way or the other about supernatural activities, but the reader remains uncertain.)
3. The reader understands that the text is not an allegory, as in fables, nor poetic—that is, the writing is intended to be taken literally.
The last of Todorov’s conditions points to what in my opinion is a weakness in some of Lovecraft’s writing, as well as some current examples of horror fiction. I mean those that rely heavily on untransmuted dream imagery, or that appear to be some kind of prose poem or fairy tale. These can certainly be enjoyed for the vivid imagery and mood they may create in the reader.
However, because these texts signal early on that they are not intended to be taken literally, and because they often traffic in highly personal, autobiographical material, they are not, strictly speaking, horrific. While dreams and nightmares are excellent source material for fantasy and horror fiction, they need to be modified and adulterated with considerable realism and narrative structure to make them more universal and effective for the readers of horror stories.
Another important point that Todorov makes in his essay is the importance of sustaining the period of uncertainty, the “hesitation”, in both the reader and the main character. As soon as the reader or protagonist decide whether to believe or disavow the events of the story, as soon as they conclude that the events are natural or supernatural in origin, the sense of the fantastic is terminated. In other words, “The spell is broken.”
Todorov makes this comment:
“‘I nearly reached the point of believing’: that is the formula which sums up the spirit of the fantastic. Either total faith or total incredulity would lead us beyond the fantastic; it is hesitation which sustains its life.”
An example of these principles may be found in H.P. Lovecraft’s story, The Whisperer in Darkness (1931). (See also ‘The Whisperer’—One of Lovecraft’s Best). The narrator’s point of view shifts by degrees from bemused detachment to growing anxiety, as seemingly realistic details accumulate about the fate of his doomed correspondent, Akeley. In his letters, Akeley describes the increasingly menacing activities of a nearby colony of aliens. The narrator is initially unsure if these are not simply the ravings of a paranoid rustic—surely there is a natural explanation for them! But in the end, he is fleeing from the horror himself. This is one of his more effective stories. Lovecraft was able to sustain a degree of uncertainty and “hesitation” to capture the imagination of his readers.
(An earlier post discussed one critic’s view of Lovecraft’s work; see also Some Early 80s Literary Criticism.)