by Helen Patterson
At my high school, all graduating seniors were required to write an essay about what the good life was. My essay was called “Circumnavigating the Darkness,” and my premise was that human beings have darkness inside of them, and that the good life is only possible if we turn away from this darkness. I wrote about Raskolnikov, Colonel Kurtz, Ahab. All three confronted this darkness in themselves, leading to violence, death, and disaster as the darkness within devoured them. Now that I’m a little older, I think that my earlier self was wrong about our ability to hide from or escape our worst selves. Intangible, indefinable, variable and fluid from culture to culture and age to age: The darkness is in all of us.
This darkness is why we remain so fascinated with Crime and Punishment, Heart of Darkness and Moby-Dick. Through literature, we attempt to know ourselves, and through these and similar novels we dissect the existential terror of a species confronting the worst aspects of modernity. I would also argue that these, and many of our greatest classics, are, at their core, horror books. However, many people would dispute this because we seem reluctant, as a literary community, to admit genre elements lurk within our greatest works.
People are very dismissive of horror. Some of the finest examples of horror writing are often reclassified as “psychological horror” or “literary fiction” or “magical realism”, particularly if there are strong philosophical or aesthetic elements, as in Borges’s short fiction and Danielewski’s hypnotic House of Leaves. Perhaps this is actually a sign of horror’s strength and flexibility. When you read a romance, a coming-of-age story, or a social satire, you know what you are reading. Those genres are strongly stamped into our collective consciousness.
Horror, though, creeps in where it isn’t wanted or expected, blurring genre lines and muddling the supposedly black and white edges of the world. Horror is Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber which reveals the rotten heart of the fairytale and childhood. Horror is the slow realization in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House that the house, that inviolable, safest place, is as deadly a trap as any cave, forest, or battlefield. Horror is the trauma of slavery in Morrison’s Beloved echoing from the past to the present and refusing to be silenced despite attempts to bury it. By excusing or downplaying the horror in these and other books, we are attempting to let ourselves off the hook, give ourselves the benefit of the doubt: We are trying to circumnavigate the darkness at the heart of these stories and focus only on the style, the structure, the tone.
When I write, often it comes out as “literary” or “psychological” horror, but you can’t really call it anything both horror. I said as much in my personal statement when I applied for MFA programs a few years ago. I mentioned how illuminating reading Joyce Carol Oates when I was a teenager had been, how “it was as if a floodgate had been lifted in my head” letting all the darkness spill out onto the page. I want to remind myself, and other writers like me, that it is okay to weave horror into what you write, or, for that matter, forget weaving and just paint the whole thing in blood. If you do it well, you are getting at the heart of something raw and real, something visceral.
Though we may desire it, we can’t eradicate the darkness inside ourselves or our species: what we can do is try to understand it, parlay with it, even, under very careful circumstances embrace it, and this is where horror comes from. Horror is a genre concerned with boundaries, borders, and crossing over. It asks about the liminal spaces between the living and the dead, the narrow spaces in the walls where cockroaches and ghosts hide. It shows us the moment, or series of moments, in a person’s life when everything goes wrong, when the familiar veers into the dark: a car accident, a fired gun, a bomb dropping from a blue, cloudless sky. We need horror, need to read horror, because our world, on both the individual and the global scale, is teeming with darkness, and we must learn to navigate it.
Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.