David Annandale‘s horror novel, Gethsemane Hall, was released in 2012 by Dundurn Press and (in the UK) by Snowbooks. He is also the author of Crown Fire, Kornukopia and The Valedictorians, thrillers featuring rogue warrior Jen Blaylock, and he writes Warhammer 40,000 fiction for the Black Library. His Space Marine Battles novel, The Death of Antagonis, comes out in February 2013. He teaches film, literature, video games and creative writing at the University of Manitoba. Follow David at his website, www.davidannandale.com, and on Twitter as @David_Annandale.
We all know the easy distinctions that people tend to make, when reaching for the quick-and-dirty, between science fiction, fantasy and horror. The latter two deploy the supernatural and the impossible. The former makes use of, if not the possible, at least the plausible. Put another way, science fiction is the literature (and cinema) of the rational, while fantasy and horror are the art of the irrational.
But I am more than a tad guilty of setting up a straw man here, for it is just as true that we all know the exceptions and the complexities that render this distinction dubious at best. For example, in Danse Macabre, Stephen King writes that “Alien…is a horror movie even though it is more firmly grounded in scientific projection than Star Wars.” Now, this is true, but it is also guilty of some of the same kind of error as the initial assertion. The problem is this: to claim Alien as either science fiction or horror is a mistake. It is both. The two forms are not incompatible, and this is the point I want to make about the easy distinction in the previous paragraph: not that there are so many exceptions as to make this distinction untenable, but rather that we should be careful about how and whether we make the distinction at all, at least as far as the standing of horror is concerned. We are not dealing with overlapping genres, because, as I have stated elsewhere (most recently in the Urban Fantasy Mind Meld), horror is not a genre. It can make use of the conventions of any number of actual genres, including science fiction, and we recognize it, I would argue, when we confront a work whose primary purpose is to cause fear in its audience.
Furthermore, I think that our conceptions of the rational and the irrational, in fiction, are themselves not as straightforward as all that. At the risk of crucifixion, let me offer up a comparison of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Paul W. S. Anderson’s Event Horizon. Setting aside the issue of the relative artistic merits of the two films, it seems to me fairly uncontroversial to say that the consensus sees 2001 as science fiction, and Event Horizon as horror. But is the finale of the former really any less fantastic than the transdimensional-journey-to-Hell of the latter? How is the empty chateau of Dave Bowman’s twilight more plausible than the Hellraiser-derived dimension of pain? At what point does Clarke’s Law become a fig leaf?
That moment comes quite early and frequently, I think, and the fig leaf has considerable value. Kubrick’s film feels more rational than Anderson’s, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. In other words, our emotional response to a work can paradoxically have an irrational bearing on our perception of its rationality.
Therefore, it might be that a lot of our sense of whether or not a work is science fiction has less to do with an empirical evaluation of the content than we might like to think. My interest in the intersection of story forms today, however, is more in how and why horror uses the tropes of other fields to its own purposes. Horror is a most opportunistic literary virus. It will do whatever is necessary to get at its readers, and so it can take on as many forms as the monsters that inhabit it. The particular tactics at work in this parasitism vary. One of them involves the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Alien works harder at being grounded than Star Wars because the more the audience buys into the plausibility of the setting, and the profound ordinariness of the characters, the more effective the piece. In the first place, all horror fiction — in whatever medium – presents us with the disruption of a norm by one force or another, and for this disruption to be effective, the norm must feel, well, normal. (In Star Wars, everything is fantastic, every setting full of wonder, and there is a sense that anything can happen. Sustained anxiety is very difficult to create in such conditions.) Secondly, the workaday nature of the characters makes them all the more vulnerable to the nastiness that descends upon them. They are not cut of a heroic cloth. They are not Chosen Ones. They’re poor suckers who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The other tactic involves not suspension of disbelief, but violation of expectations. The host genre has its own set of rules and conventions, and these can be subverted by horror. I mentioned, in the Mind Meld, the example of Se7en, so let me return to that film for a moment. It looks like a crime thriller. More particularly, a buddy-cop thriller. As we encounter our protagonists, we would be forgiven for thinking we are on familiar ground. Morgan Freeman is the Veteran One Week From Retirement. He all but announces, “I’m too old for this shit.” Playing Mel Gibson to his Danny Glover is Brad Pitt, the Brash Young Hotshot Who Plays By His Own Rules.
But then the horror virus takes hold. The city is never identified. Its geography is disturbing in its contradictions: the perpetually raining urban landscape is surrounded by a sun-bleached desert. And the narrative belongs not to Freeman and Pitt, but to Kevin Spacey’s terrifying John Doe. As if recognizing that the movie he is in has been hijacked by a malevolent force, Freeman warns Pitt, “This isn’t going to have a happy ending.” And it doesn’t: the buddy-cop movie and all of its conventions are blown apart from the inside by the horror movie, ending in one of the most devastating conclusions of 90s cinema. “John Doe has the upper hand,” Freeman says as everything starts going wrong. Indeed he does, and the strength of his horror narrative is intensified by the presence of all those now-thwarted expectations.
Then there is the idea of contagion itself. When the recognizable genre is contaminated by the horror virus, the world of that genre becomes threatening, and the range of the darkness extends. This, at least, is one of the ideas that I have tried to put into play with Gethsemane Hall. The book is not a hybrid, of course; I was very consciously writing a haunted house story, which is about as traditional and unproblematic a horror story as they come.
However, the drama playing out in the Hall is a collision of competing truths – skeptic versus religious, spiritual versus pragmatic. The character who leads the charge for rationalism is Louise Meacham, and she is a CIA operative. I first introduced this character in Kornukopia, the second of my Jen Blaylock thrillers. Those books are not hybrids either, and yet I think of them as thrillers with the heart of horror. There is nothing supernatural about them. At least on the surface. But now I have a character from that series showing up in a fully supernatural tale. My hope is that the process of contagion would have an effect on readers of both Gethsemane Hall and the Blaylock books. In the case of the former, my plan with bringing in the CIA was that the baggage of associations surrounding the Agency — rationalism, cynicism, hard-headed calculation, and so on — would strengthen the hand of the skeptics, and make the horrors that ensued all the more strange. At the same time, I hope that readers going from Gethsemane Hall to the Blaylock books will now find that world a stranger place, since lurking in the background is the knowledge that this fictional universe operates according to laws that no Clancy or Ludlum hero has ever come up against.
So. Horror is not a genre. Genre definitions of SF and fantasy are difficult to nail down. Do I think we should do away with the term “genre”? No. However frustrating (and heated) the discussions about the term can become, I think they are also useful ways of framing our thinking about the field of the fantastic (and of popular culture in general). Furthermore, the fiction itself often consciously relies on our experience of — and expectations about — a given genre in order to achieve its ends. What maddens us in discussion, then, can also excite us as readers and writers.