Introduction: Let Us Gather in the Basement
From my earliest days, I have loved being scared, provided it’s the right kind of scared. I have loved it so much, that I love the idea of being scared, even when I am not scared.
I don’t think anyone is scared by a film like 1944’s House of Frankenstein—a monster romp with all of your classic favorites—or a wit-infused ghost story, such as Richard Middleton’s “The Ghost Ship,” but fear hallmarks are in place, those cherished, embraceable totems of the macabre. A graveyard, a vampire, a wind with a mind of its own, and what so often seems to be an eternal autumn—a fall that stretches forever, which admits not even the hint of spring, to say nothing of summer.
The horror I don’t like involves losing someone I love, or the tragedies of actual life. Discrimination. And doubts and anxieties, which induce shudders unto themselves, and certainly the absence of hope, which is the greatest fear any of us may know. A fear beyond fear. Post-fear. Not where we wish to be.
But as a child, in the dark, with a flashlight and me, my book, and my beam stashed below the covers of my bed, I reveled in fear.
A trip to the library and the kid’s room in the basement, where there were books on film with photos of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and mummies and werewolves, along with doom-y kids’ lit—The House with a Clock In Its Walls—was sufficiently exciting that the memory of those days sets my heart racing right now, the same as when I see an announcement that Mark of the Vampire (1935) is getting a release on Blu-ray, or a biography of M.R. James, long out of print, has surfaced for cheap on eBay.
Horror has long fired my imagination and played a part in enhancing the abilities of that imagination. When I first wrote stories as a third grader, I tried to make people scared. I had to thrill myself in order to write. I think that’s good advice for anyone, no matter what you’re writing about: thrill yourself. If you’re not thrilling you, you won’t be doing much for anyone else either.
I was never some huge Halloween person in the dress-up sense, but that’s because the frisson of horror is part of my daily life. Horror invites you to pull everything you see and hear into your being, such that said being is overrun with excitement and chills. An emotional urgency.
There is a blank canvas, too, and that canvas isn’t white, but rather as dark as one of those night when, even if you live in the city, and you’re walking home from a show, you wonder why there aren’t more streetlights.
Horror is immersive, but it also encourages the good kind of projection, in which we close our eyes—at least metaphorically—every bit as much as we keep them wide open, imagining what we would do in a situation, and then thinking up tales of our own.
That’s what we do when we revisit a favorite movie or story in our memory. We insert ourselves into a narrative. Horror follows us around. Anything that does so takes on an aspect of our shape, of who we are. We press our fingers into the terror clay, almost without meaning to. It’s just what happens with horror.
My love of horror ranges far. This is a book that traces that range, traverses all the parts of the forest, with leaves crunching underfoot, beams of moonlight emanating at rakish angles through the boughs of barren trees with a remarkable propensity for having their branches scratch against each other to produce sounds one hears nowhere else. And also sounds that resemble those of footfalls.
I believe that we see ourselves in works of horror—the best works, anyway, which is my focus in these pages—though that’s not our intention. We believe that we’re partaking of a horror film, story, novel, or broadcast to get away from it all, to paraphrase the old radio program, Escape.
But are we really getting away from anything when we’re emotionally invested and our bodies are even made to feel a certain way? How much escapism is being had when the heart pounds? It occurs to me that horror is what we might call directism, instead of escapism.
Ours is a society where we push back from organic involvement by striking poses in which a simulacrum, an alternate reality, is advanced. We are often akin to variants on Dr. Moreau (or General Zaroff in Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game”) living on private islands in our social media world. How many of us know people who bang the drums for so many causes online, and who are themselves veritable monsters in actual life, when you really come to know them?
Agenda rules all. We almost always have to ask what someone is really up to. Whereas, works of horror art are visceral. We cannot fake a reaction to them, any more than we can fake what our heart really feels. They are honest that way and inspire us to be so. They’re long on atmosphere, too, and atmosphere soaks into us as we watch, read, listen.
The point of atmosphere is that you are caught up in it. You cannot escape atmosphere. Once snared by atmosphere, you’re there for the duration. Real you. Not performative you. Sure, you can say what you wish later. But when horror has us, horror has us, and I love that about it.
The works I have written about wield, I think, significant influence. They can give you the fright of a lifetime—the good kind—and what is more entertaining than that? They can also stay with you, so that one single half hour of your life becomes a lifetime itself, following you around, but, again, in that good, “won’t you please haunt me?” way.
We don’t forget being scared, do we? We remember how we felt, long after we were in the actual moment of that feeling. And what is memory but a ghost, or a ghost that has authored an abundance of tales?
With horror works of art, one can easily go back, which is as simple as reading “A Warning to the Curious,” again or watching Children of the Stones on YouTube with your teenager, and seeing if she gets the same charge out of it that you do.
I believe we also learn about ourselves when we’re scared and when atmosphere takes us. And with the implications of a threat. And an actual threat that is brought off. And when what we hope doesn’t happen does. Partake of horror art, and you’ll find yourself open to possibilities in this world you may not have been otherwise. You’ll also learn that ghosts and monsters have a lot more range themselves than the creature under the bed or the specter at the window in the old house no one has lived in for twenty years.
There’s also a misconception I want to redress with this book. Horror is often deemed as necessarily lesser. It’s not properly serious art. The best book couldn’t be a horror book. The best film can’t be a horror film. The implication is that horror is too niche-y, which is rich, given that fear is something we all have in common. To be alive is to know fear. No matter how secure you are in yourself. Life is going to bring fear to your door.
There are works of horror art that belong beside Hamlet—which itself dug deep into horror—and Beethoven’s Ninth, and The Rules of the Game. You won’t find me putting much in front of William Sloane’s 1937 horror novel, To Walk the Night, for instance. Crushes anything Hemingway wrote, and would give Mr. James Joyce pause.
So ready your ears and open and close your eyes. Let’s go down into that proverbial horror library together, which is so well-stocked that we feel we needn’t ever leave, and where we don’t notice that the sun has gone down, the lights have been shut off, a parent is nowhere to be found, the staff is departed, and we are alone, immersed, shut in for the night, for who knows how long.