I have a somewhat contentious relationship with horror fiction. I want to like it. I’ve read very few truly excellent horror novels – The Haunting of Hill House comes to mind – but I’m becoming something of a connoisseur of the failure states of horror.
(Spoilers follow, for Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, Dave Zeltserman’s The Caretaker of Lorne Field, and Christopher Buehlman’s Those Across the Water.)
PLEASE JUST STOP
So I finally got around to reading Pet Sematary. I know, I know. But here’s the thing: Pet Sematary is a damn good book. Stephen King is at his best when his horrors are at their subtlest, very nearly nothing more than ordinary human disasters. Pet Sematary is built around every parent’s worst nightmare: the death of a child. King doesn’t pull any punches, either – it’s pretty much the most horrific death you could imagine. Everything that could possibly make it worse does make it worse. And although it happens about halfway through the book, and the bad decision the father makes doesn’t happen until very near the end, you know exactly what’s going to happen. Hell, you knew what was going to happen from the moment the premise is introduced: there’s a burial ground where the dead things that have been buried there come back to life. Of course the kid is going to die, and of course the father is going to bring the kid back, and of course that’s going to go horribly wrong. In case you weren’t picking up on all the other signals, one of the epigraphs is from “The Monkey’s Paw.” You not only know what’s going to happen, you’re supposed to know.
Because, see, Pet Sematary isn’t really a horror novel. It’s a tragedy. Tragedy is what happens when you can see all the consequences barreling down toward the main character at a million miles an hour and you know they can save themselves if they don’t do the thing and they do the thing anyway. Which you knew they were going to do. What kind of a story would it be if they didn’t do the thing? And as a tragedy, Pet Sematary works really well. The main character (I’m sorry I can’t remember his name, but it doesn’t really matter, he’s really just Stephen King in a horrific alternate universe) starts out with a pretty good life and then bad things happen but he’s okay and then bad things happen and he makes bad choices and then really, really bad things happen. It’s a tragedy. With an undead cat.
Which is why the ending falls flat on its face. It goes on too long. “The Monkey’s Paw” ends at just the right moment: before the door opens, before the dead son returns to his parents, when your imagination is still churning over all the various ways this could be bad. King is working on showing you exactly how bad it is, which is fine as far as it goes, except that he’s spent the whole novel implying things with that damned undead cat and the entity that comes back in the body of the narrator’s son doesn’t actually seem to have anything to do with the things he’d been implying. He ends up having to repeat himself, in the end, to actually end at pretty much the same place “The Monkey’s Paw” knew to stop with in the first place.
So that’s one complete failure: the inability to know where to stop. King does that a lot, actually – he loads up on atmospheric horror and then just keeps going. Which is fine up to a point, but there’s a line beyond which something isn’t scary, it’s just ridiculous, and the end of Pet Sematary just stomps all over that one.
I HOPE YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU JUST IMPLIED
I don’t know why I kept reading The Caretaker of Lorne Field. Usually when a book presents me with a self-righteous middle-aged white dude and his stereotype of a nagging wife, I give up right there. But I kept going, for whatever reason. Maybe because the book had been strongly recommended to me. Maybe just because it was a hot day and I was bored and didn’t have anything better to do. I wish I could tell you it got better. It didn’t. The main character remained a self-righteous middle-aged white dude, battling against the forces of rationality to maintain the ancient family tradition of pulling weeds out of a field on the outskirts of town. His nagging wife remains a painful stereotype of someone who doesn’t understand thing one about what they’re complaining about but won’t stop complaining anyway. And really, you can see how this is going to go, from the very first page: the poor, embittered guy everyone thinks is delusional really is saving the world from monsters, and sooner or later everyone else is going to regret mocking him for it.
And then it doesn’t. Or it almost doesn’t. Factually speaking, that is exactly what happens. But perceptually speaking, the narrator begins to change his mind. In prison for murder – all done in defense of his sacred duty to the field, of course – he sees a psychiatrist, and begins to doubt his own belief. Maybe he really hasn’t been saving the world. Maybe he did maim his eldest son and kill the sheriff in order to support his own delusional beliefs. Maybe the monsters really aren’t attacking the courthouse right now, and the world is not about to end, and all this is his own mind playing tricks on him. Wouldn’t that be great? The final page of the novel walks a fine line between being condescending about that idea and actually taking it seriously, and if it doesn’t always manage to stay on the right side of that divide, at least it’s the best concept for an ending for a story of its type that I’ve seen in a long time. It was an ending that worked – but stuck on the end of a book that just didn’t, to the point where I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, even on the strength of the ending.
I mean, horror is an id thing, I get it – you don’t get to choose what scares you, and what scares you is not always going to be politically correct. But oh my god does it get awkward when you’re reading a horror novel and all the sudden the Unfortunate Implications are coming out of the woodwork. This was my biggest problem with Christopher Buehlman’s Those Across the River, which would have been a perfectly excellent werewolf novel if not for the backstory: a bunch of slaves rose up and murdered the plantation owner and then became werewolves because I don’t know why. Because they’re slavering monsters? You see what I mean about unfortunate implications.
(The truly grotesque example I always think of is a short story I read in a classic sci-fi anthology years ago about a guy who comes home to find this horrible alien monster living in his house, bossing him around, running things in his absence, and the punchline is that it’s his wife. It makes my skin crawl just thinking of it, and not in the way the author intended.)
Casual racism and sexism have ruined a lot of horror for me. Maybe this is where I find Victorian horror more forgivable – it is, after all, Victorian, and we don’t expect them to know better.
I think Unfortunate Implications are easy in horror because when your goal is to scare the crap out of your readers you’re thinking about what they’re scared of, not about whether it’s unkind to label any particular person or category of people as scary. This isn’t an excuse, just an explanation. I think that an examination of the difference between what’s genuinely scary and what we’re scared of for no reason is a fruitful avenue for horror fiction, but that’s not what generally happens. Stereotypes are easy, and Sturgeon’s Law always applies.
Of course there are plenty of other ways horror fiction fails, but as I was coming up with a list I was finding that most of them were just general writing failures. Characters you don’t care about. Plots that drag. These are the two that drive me up the wall with horror particularly: the ending that destroys the suspense, and the stereotypes that make you wish you’d never started.
I’ve found a few standout exceptions. The Haunting of Hill House is a classic for a reason; it’s a really, really good atmospheric horror novel, and it has a perfect ending. If it has any Unfortunate Implications, it’s easy to shrug those off as an artifact of a writer from an earlier time. Tananrive Due and Cherie Priest both write horror that is the exact opposite of Unfortunate Implications. Sarah Monette writes a series of short stories in a Lovecraftian mode but with more modern (and way less racist) sensibilities which are also terrifyingly scary – but then again, horror as a short story and horror as a novel are two different beasts, I think, and maybe I should save that for another post.