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A swing of the pendulum: the horror literature that’s making its way up

There are a few horror stories that tend to get academic and critical attention—Frankenstein, Dracula, The Turn of the Screw, The Yellow Wallpaper, maybe I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream or something by Edgar Allen Poe. Everything else tends to be blanketed as bottom-of-the-barrel pulp, dismissed as non-literary “popular fiction”.

Recently I encountered an essay by Jane Tompkins, commenting on the critical reception of 19th-century women’s novels, which could easily describe the sort of elitism that claims the inferiority of genre fiction. She notes that “critics have taught generations of students to equate popularity with debasement, emotionality with ineffectiveness”—anything that is read by millions stinks of the unwashed masses; for decades even Dickens was merely a “great entertainer”, in the words of F.R. Leavis. His criticism may be passé, but the assumptions it is grounded in are still going strong. Just look at how few sci-fi, fantasy or horror films make it to the Oscars.

But (to make a rather silly reference to Poe) the pendulum is swinging the other way. Modern academics are reexamining genre fiction, helped by a number of critical movements breaking down literary elitism, and there’s a world of horror which is intelligent, complex and, most importantly, terrifying. That’s why I’d like to nominate five counterparts to the “literary” horror stories I’ve cited, as examples of what I think modern horror has to offer.

The stories on this list are classics for a reason, and even now Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is spine-chillingly intense (perhaps because it hasn’t been adapted and parodied to death). It’s a justifiably iconic feminist text and portrait of mental instability, and the best counterpart to it is Asa Nonami’s Now You’re One of Us. About a young woman slowly becoming suspicious that something is wrong with her husband’s family, I first read it on the way to a restaurant, and by the time I was there I literally felt nauseous. There’s no violence or supernatural scares, just a terrifying portrait of gaslighting and emotional manipulation. It takes the themes of Gilman’s story and places them in the context of the dark side of Japanese traditions and hierarchies, weaving a story that can sicken and fascinate.

Next on the list is a counterpart to Dracula. While I considered some modern vampire novels, I settled on a left-field choice that takes the fear of invasion and societal destruction that Bram Stoker explores in a new direction. Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem and its sequels are technically sci-fi, but I found them disturbing enough to merit a spot on this list. Instead of vampiric invaders, this novel imagines an invading alien fleet and a terrifyingly plausible explanation for their hostility. Instead of heroic men of the British Empire defeating a rapacious foreigner, it’s a world rooted in the real horrors of the Cultural Revolution and international politics. And while in Stoker’s novel the Count crumbles into dust, in this series there are no easy solutions, only a bleak race to delay doomsday.

Even as a devotee of Henry James, I struggle to call The Turn of the Screw a horror story. It’s a haunting psychological tale that merits multiple re-reads, but I find that James’ slow and complex prose takes the horror out of the story. This may sound hypocritical when the book I’m about to suggest is experimental both in plot and format, but House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is The Turn of the Screw’s perfect counterpoint. James’ is a short story set in a Victorian mansion, while Danielewski’s is a massive novel imagining an American house which opens into a vast, ancient labyrinth. But they’re both about the unreliability of knowledge, how trauma lingers in families, and the way good people go mad, set in houses which become claustrophobic reflections of their owners. Someone who wants a relatively simple horror story can focus on the parts about the titular house and the mad, doomed expeditions through it, but I found its metafictional weirdness and its interwoven narratives equally fascinating. While you can rightly accuse it of being pretentious, as far as I’m concerned, its cleverness outweighs its flaws.

The most recent entry on my list of academically recognized horror stories, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is essentially Harlan Ellison’s rendition of a nightmare, where bizarre tortures are visited on the story’s protagonists by a godlike, demonic AI. Its dream-logic finds a counterpart in the manga of Junji Ito, where anything and everything can be frightening. I like to joke that his supernatural threats were created via mad libs: zombie fish on robot spider-legs, human-shaped holes in a mountain, a planet with a giant tongue, and spirals. Yes, this is a man who made the idea of spirals terrifying. Psychologists talk about the uncanny, the sense of something ordinary becoming strange, and Ito’s works find horror in mundane scenarios and peaceful domestic scenes, taking root in the irrational side of your subconscious. It’s delayed-action horror—when you first read it, it’s absurd…but then, as night drags closer, you start to wonder why you’re afraid.

And now, to conclude the list, a work of fiction which parallels Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an exploration of technological nightmares. For this, I reach not for lightning and revived corpses, but our fears of surveillance, conspiracies and the fear that science cannot explain this world, the building blocks of the SCP Foundation. It’s an online collaborative fiction project, imagining the threats collected by a secret organization whose purpose is to protect the world from the supernatural nightmares that threaten normalcy. I could have written the entire article about this site, whose contents range from comedic to heartwarming to stuff that’ll keep you up at night. The sheer range of minds connected by this site have yielded some of the most original works I’ve ever read, as much philosophical puzzles as horror stories. They deal with the relationship of fiction to reality, the failure of reason and human knowledge, moral dilemmas and religious ones, and so much more. Reading them, I’m reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories and how they all manages to explode some philosophical idea with deceptive ease; the SCP Foundation, at its best, gives the lie to the claim that genre fiction is just crude entertainment. It’s a microcosm of the internet—at its worst it magnifies stupidity, but at its best it concentrates brilliance.

Theodore Sturgeon famously noted that critics who claim that 90% of science fiction is crap are in fact correct—and that this statistic is true for all literature. “The best science fiction is as good as the best fiction in any field,” he wrote. Times are changing for horror fans, and for anyone who needs a little convincing that there’s true greatness in the genre, perhaps my list will be your starting point.

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