Modern man is perhaps best characterized by fear. It's a new kind of fear, a pervasive sense of unease, a quality of indefinable dread, an angst. Fear of death is certainly involved, but there are other deeper and darker forces at work, forces that for most people remain unknown and (they believe, or at least want to believe) unknowable. So they try to drown their fear, to tune it out, to exchange it for manufactured joy and disposable happiness.
The great political philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed every man was motivated in life by fear of a violent death. Death is certainly the most prevalent fear, whether it manifests itself in prosaic terms (fear of cancer, car wrecks, serial killers) or more fantastically (fear of shark attack, alien invasion, volcanic eruption).
Death's primary terror is not in the pain it entails, however. It's terror is in its uncertainty. Even if religious faith offers hope for paradise in the afterlife, no living person can testify to its nature or even its existence. In our modern/postmodern/irreligious society, having dispensed with the supernatural through evolutionary theory and every kind of materialism, this uncertainty has become certainty that the afterlife doesn't exist, and the terror grows apace.
Even many Christians find themselves weighted with similar fears. Gone are the testimonials of saints going to their everlasting rest glorifying God and singing with the angels. In their place are psychological therapy to deal with the death of loved ones, and pamphlets trying (with painful lack of success) to allay our own anxiety concerning death and its aftermath.
Of course the real source of dread here is not death itself, but a fear that the spiritual realm exists and ignorance of it in life will result in punishment afterward. But paying attention is so hard, and there are so many appetites to fulfill right here this instant that we sublimate these worries and act as though death, God and judgment are figments of the imagination. We try also to sublimate our fears that this is a rash dismissal, but they remain. So we remain afraid.
If this is so, why read horror fiction? Isn't the angst we all carry enough? Why add to it with tales of terror and darkness? These would all be good questions if the primary purpose of horror fiction was simply to terrify and unsettle. That is often a result, certainly, but a good horror story goes much deeper, and attempts a resolution of the fears it introduces.
But even this isn't the main benefit of good horror fiction. What books like Dracula and Frankenstein and Salem's Lot do for the reader is give shape to our fears, and by so doing offer a weapon of defense. While we don't go around haunted by vampires and shoggoths, we are haunted by things of similar nature, ideas and people who suck our lifeblood, shadow our bright spots and lurk hungrily on the edges of our happiness.
Fear is only the favorite emotion of extreme masochists, but it is nonetheless one with which we are all familiar. And while there are plenty of good horror stories, there are many more bad ones—those which celebrate sadism and evil, or that revel in gratuitous depictions of horrifying events, or that simply want to entertain through brutality and violence. We will not carry titles of this nature. At the same time, those books and short stories that attempt to deal honestly and forthrightly with a topic too often ignored will find welcome space on our shelves.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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