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Delving Beneath the Skin:
The Poetics of Horror

by Robert Hood

Is there a poetry of horror? If we're talking about horror fiction, sure, why not? This might strike some (the spook-show challenged) as odd or unbelievable, but, sadly (for the sceptics), it's true. Horror fiction is a literary form and it works using many (if not all) of the same techniques as other literary forms, poetical ones included. Sometimes there's success; sometimes failure. Sometimes there's dross; sometimes there's gold. The pursuit of horror as a genre is a utilisation of certain tropes, image clusters, and plot archetypes - what is done with them determines their value.

Okay, there's lots of contentious statements and begged questions in that lot.

First a word in apologia mode. Horror fiction has a long and varied history of using the imagery of fear, monstrosity and disorientation to entertain and provoke reaction (physical, mental and emotional). It's not all monsters (or axe-murderers) leaping out of cupboards, even if some of it is. Horror fiction explores the deepest concerns of human kind in a powerful and often provocative manner, and on occasion even manages apotheosis to the divine heights of 'classic'.

Of course by the time a particular horror story achieves such acceptance it has usually ceased to be considered horror fiction at all by those who want to deny the genre's literary value. (The same phenomenon has been evident of late in regards to movies. There's been a spate of 'good', even critically acclaimed ones -- but of course to some only the 'bad' ones qualify as horror movies:

"Have you seen 'The Sixth Sense'?"

"Yes. It's got to be one of the best horror films of the decade."

"Horror film? It's not a horror film. It's about human relations."

That it uses various horror tropes, is a ghost story, contains people being scared, concerns itself with matters of life and death in a dark-fantasy context, and is frequently creepy, are all, curiously, irrelevant. C'est la frisson!)

I don't intend to exhaustively define horror as a literary genre, beyond commenting that: (a) it doesn't cease to be genre horror because if displays an interest in human (as distinct from inhuman) nature. (Indeed, many would argue that an interest in human nature is mandatory, even at potboiler level, and that this is often -- though not always -- undertaken in horror stories by juxtaposing the inhuman.)

The other question I intend to largely beg (on the grounds that it's probably explored elsewhere more effectively and is too complicated anyway) is the one about what constitutes 'poetry'. Obviously, in this context, I'm not talking about the stuff you find in poetry books or hear read aloud in coffee shops by poets. Not poetic verse. Rather, by 'poetics' I'm pointing (however arbitrarily) toward some sort of concentration or layering of effect through the use of words (or images). Not all is as it seems; not everything means only one thing; poetic devices appear in most prose, including horror stories.

Not that 'horror poetry' as such doesn't crop up in magazines and books. Here's the opening stanzas of a well-known one by Edgar Allen Poe:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door -- Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; -- vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow -- sorrow for the lost Lenore --
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore --
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me -- filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door --
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; --
This it is, and nothing more."

This is the beginning of "The Raven", of course. Here's the famous last stanza:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted -- nevermore!

(For anyone who wants to read the whole poem, it can be found at:

Poems using the imagery and subject matter of horror also appear in modern horror-dedicated magazines. One Australian writer of such poetry is Kyla Ward.

But in general we'll stick to prose. On the most obvious level, poetic devices such as simile, metaphor, symbolism, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, etc. form part of the literary arsenal of horror writers (as all writers), and they are used more or less extensively (and effectively) according to the skills and purposes of individual authors.

I get up and go to the bookshelf behind me. Grab Stephen King's book, Hearts in Atlantis, and open it at random. Page 174. On that page, the following poetic devices appear:

"... the bottom of the vase struck the top of his head, skipped like a stone on a pond, hit the wall and shattered."

"Bobby could see blooms of blood in the scant hair on top of his head where the vase had clipped him."

"Her face was dead white. The bruises on it stood out like birthmarks."

"Black dots flocked across his vision, making him think briefly and confusedly (coming closing in now the posters have his name on them) of the low men."

"He tried to speak and what came out instead was a dry and flailing old man's cigarette cough."

Here's a bit from "Pages From a Young Girl's Journal" by Robert Aickman (whose collection of short stories is on a nearby shelf and is often cited for its 'poetic' qualities):

"The old moon is drenching my sheets and my night-gown in brightest crimson."

Or, from the same author's "Niemandswasser":

"Elmo realised that he was dead anyway. Elvira had killed him, life had killed him, the passing years had killed him: whichever it was. There was no need for a weapon, or for action of any kind on his part. When the heart is dead, all is dead, though the victim may not fully realise it for a long time."

I could discuss the effect of such devices when used in horror fiction, but, of course, I'm not going to. No time. Suffice it to say that visualisation, anticipation, reflection of thematic issues, emotional multilayering - they're all there.

Not that most of these poetic devices get us very far below the skin. The last quotation, however, points us in a direction that gets more to the heart of horror's power (putting aside pure entertainment value): its ability (not unique, of course) to forge metaphors for states of being, emotions, attitudes to life, moralities, and all the other things that humans -- and human arts -- concern themselves with.

Of relevance here is the use of the thematic images and structures standard to the genre, otherwise called tropes, stereotypes and clichés. Of course it is a function of the original use to which tropes etc. are put that determines whether they might be called 'stereotypes' or 'clichés'. The best horror creates images or image clusters that can capture and amplify emotional and philosophical meaning in visceral and immediate ways -- ways that are integral to the total work, thematically as well as in terms of plot convenience. Whether these are re-workings of old and traditional images, or newly minted ones, they can be a very potent literary element.

I consider that horror is particularly strong as a genre in this regard (it was what attracted me to it in the first place), particularly as it feeds on both the dead and the living bodies of Fantasy, of which it is a subset. Just as dragons, say, have strong meaning beyond their literary existence as big medieval flying lizards, so the staple creatures of horror -- demons, the lumbering abominations of Dr Frankenstein and his kin, evil alter egos, werewolves, Lovecraftian Elder Gods, zombies, strangely literate yet ruthlessly cruel serial killers -- function as multilayered repositories of metaphorical power. Compare the murderer in your typical crime story with the killer existing at the horror end of the crime spectrum -- Hannibal Lecter, Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th and its sequels), Michael Myers (Halloween), Freddy Frueger (Nightmare on Elm Street and Wes Craven's New Nightmare in particular), Mr Hyde, that freaky bloke in Dean Koontz's Mr Murder -- and you'll notice a qualitative difference, a depth of meaning that sometimes exists despite the creator's (lack of) literary ambition. These guys are not just murderers; they are icons of murder. They become emblematic. Often the poetics of horror are so powerful that the story resonates far beyond the typeface or the flickering lights.

(I notice that a lot of the examples I use are from films. Not surprising really. Horror's visceral nature lends itself to cinematic presentation, even though not always successfully, as being shown too much can inhibit the powerful input of the reader's imagination. Nevertheless much of the literary horror genre's recent history has been 'led' by trends in film -- in a way that doesn't really happen in that more cerebral 'sister' genre, SF.)

Beyond the above considerations, the imagery and plot structures of horror fiction (not exclusively perhaps, but, in the best examples, consistently) function like T.S. Eliot's 'objective correlative', providing a concrete stimulus for emotion and ideas -- encouraging modes of emotional thought. We're not talking philosophy or science here, but something that's more exclusively the province of 'Art' -- a web of irrational, or barely articulated, experience that gets closer to replicating, and hence clarifying, the complexities of existence than is possible (or even desirable perhaps) elsewhere.

At any rate consider some obvious examples: Dr Frankenstein's creative activities as the perverse triumph (and perceived limitation) of science; the psycho-sexual and ongoing fascination with predatory immortality represented by Dracula and other vampires (especially Anne Rice's); the exploration of the animal/human nexus in werewolves and other human composite beings; Stephen King's brilliantly powerful metaphor for grief that is his Pet Semetary; The Exorcist as an expression of generational bewilderment and the nature of belief. Nearly every episode of that wonderful TV horror series Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a lesson in the extended horror metaphor (here often concentrated on finding plot correlations for typical and atypical adolescent dilemmas); in fact one of the most enjoyable novels I've read lately was a Buffy novel, Immortal. Written by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder, it does what the TV show does so well -- creates engaging characters and clear exciting plot-lines that thematically interact and forge a complex of metaphors exploring an aspect of human experience, in this instance, fear of mortality.

I could go on, but I'm not allowed to and haven't got the time anyway. I'm currently on a tight deadline writing a series of supernatural thrillers for young adults and hence trying to achieve some of the effects I've been describing above.

But in lieu of further discussion, you might take a look at a story of mine where I deliberately attempted to take a 'poetic' approach to the genre. The story is "The Calling" and it appears in my new ghost story collection, Immaterial. It illustrates a few of the points I've mentioned. Interestingly it was first published in a literary magazine rather than a genre one, whatever that means.


© 2002 Robert Hood


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