Horror Theory: The Real Dawn of the Dead


Some people enjoy a good fight. Sometimes they enjoy it so much, they can’t envision a life without it. It has long been thus in the Horror Wars Against the Literary Critic… Mudslinging abounds in both camps, although the camp of the Literary Critic has begun to go quiet. Paradoxically, many in the Horror camp have failed to notice… or worse, have taken it as a sign of concession.

They could not be more wrong.

It is not concession…. What we are seeing in the field of Literary Criticism is pure reinvention.

The Checkered Past

Once upon a Literary Critical time, Literary Critics played a very integral role in the marketing success and immortality of fiction. Their opinions were well-respected, and their recommendations taken seriously by the reading public and editors alike. But when we consider that past, we fail to see that that exact moment in Critical History was just that: a moment.

It was born of many things – including the explosion of print publishing, the rise of literacy, the embedding of the concept of education as an entitlement.

When the reading public was looking for guidance and understanding, we read opinion pages and blurbs, reviews and real Criticisms. We wanted an expert opinion; we savored the discussion of Literature. The Literary Critic was in the right place at the right time. And sadly, right at the same moment that the sheer weight of new fiction peppered their awareness, the Literary Critic became drunk with power, misinterpreting his or her own mission, being too close to the situation at hand to see clearly what had happened.

What had happened was what happens to all language – written or otherwise: being a living thing, it had grown differently than its root.

The Literary Critic noticed, but only superficially at first. Hence, we have been cursed with decades of the agonized wails of Literary Critics grieving the loss of real Literature, of quality, of offspring worthy of the likes of Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Green, Bronte or Austen…

Indeed, such Literature is not being produced today… Because we are producing a new Literature – Literature of our times.

The problem was, even if we could convince Literary Critics that modern Literature was – well – modern, the measuring stick by which the field of Literary Criticism historically used to discuss and determine Literature had begun to repeatedly exclude so much contemporary fiction that it indeed looked like Literature was not being written. Critics had a problem. And Critics would have to solve it.

Because how logical is it really that writing Real Literature would be an isolated event in human language history?

The solution opened up a rift in the academic perspective: declare Literature a finite amount of works from a finite period of history, or “discover” new Theories that are more inclusive of what is being written today.

It was like dropping a bomb in ivy. The field of Literary Criticism had grown slowly, meticulously… at the pace of Cthulhu rising from the oceans since its inception. It had retained the same Critical Theories for so long, no one could conceive that there should be any others.

This is because Literary Criticism is not so unlike other academic endeavors: it is almost mathematic in its approach, scientific in its delivery, and weighted down with bureaucratic baggage. Literary Critical Theory is incredibly detailed and cumbersome and even boring for non-Critics to understand fully – in fact, most Critics spend the bulk of their lives and professional careers committing to the intensive study of just one or two.

In fairness, this makes them experts. In those Theories. And we really should appreciate that consuming level of dedication, that intense love of language, that passion for the study of story and storytelling.

It is vitally important to understand that Literary Critics are the true nerds of language. Things are discovered, experimented with, poked, proposed, and teased. Critics present a premise, an argument, and very thick, very intellectually-driven papers designed to enlighten if not provoke their fellow academics. Those papers are presented, argued and debated in what seems like an endless cycle of research and discovery followed by more research and discovery. Opinions must be professionally defended and are peer reviewed. And sometimes, both Critic and opinion escape the ivy walls, splattering on the pavement of common folk. The result can be shocking.

Because most Literary Criticism is not meant for the eyes and sensitivities of common folk. These are academic discussions designed for a closed circle of argument. There is a whole other vocabulary being used and which – when taken out of context – can fluster and infuriate those who do not share that vocabulary and its hidden academic definitions. These are not witch hunts, not the secret disemboweling of innocent authors: this is critical analysis as performed by academics who study language.

Those who eavesdrop need to learn more about the process before running screaming for the pitchforks. Because we need academics. We need Literary Critics.

Why? Because Literary Criticism = Discussion. Criticism + Discussion = not only advertisement, but a certain immortality of a work.

So here we must learn to make our own informed criticisms.

Literary Critics: Who They Are, What They Do

Literary Critics are not reviewers. Literary Critics are academics first, last, and always. They are an elite bunch of language aces. They relish the study of concepts like linguistics, word choice, syntax, word placement, metaphor, analogy, symbolism and semiotics. They do the job most writers would never want to do on their own or anyone else’s works: they dissect and study language under a microscope…they search for patterns in language construction and stalk the mystery of story creation, of invention, of human psychology, sociology, biology, philosophy and communication.

Why?

Because how a work becomes so beloved, so timeless, and so powerful through story is a mystery. For Critics, it is an irresistible one….because as I said, they love language.

Inevitably, this harsh measure by Critical gauntlet is linked to the natural sorting of works into Literature and not… into canon and pulp, into popular works and genre. But it can also seem offensive, stand-offish, and unreasonable.

It seems this way, because most of us do not take the time to understand what it is the Literary Critic actually does. Neither are we educated by our own educational systems TO understand. We are too quick to take umbrage at words that have dual meanings – one for common usage, and one that is a Critical term. We do not even suspect there is another meaning expressed by the Critic, (a whole other Critical language) and the Critic deigns to keep his or her vocabulary sacred. And secret.

The result is endless mudslinging. And the sad fact is it is those of us who are not Critics that sound the most desperate and pitiful and it is those who are Critics who sound the most arrogant and aloof. We argue from ignorance, and now that the Critic has begun to fall silent, we erroneously think we have “won” the battle.

But the battle was never one of “words.” It was a battle over Literature and how to define it. And after a strange and polarizing silence, it seems both Critics and Horror fans are going to win.

Because as it turns out, the Literary Critic was having as much trouble as the rest of us under certain circumstances.

After this long Dark Age of Criticism, the Enlightenment has come. New Literary Critics are developing new – and intriguing – Theories. One of which is Horror Theory, brought to you by the school of Film Criticism. As older Critics leave the field, they are being replaced by younger ones who – like many of us – are interested in deciphering the mystery of why so much modern writing is excluded from the critical process and denied canon.

This has opened (or re-opened) yet another can of worms, the Critical argument over the importance of the author upon his or her work, which by proxy sucks in external details and irrelevant details like sales figures and author popularity.

I will state that I am a convert to the belief that the author does not matter, and neither do sales. A fan of the theory that an author is important can chase biographical detail and cater to living egos for some time before being honest about the fact that as time passes, the truth about the author’s life experiences and the author’s intent are lost – and therefore are never relevant to begin with: as they say in Technical Writing – if the words have to be explained, the writer didn’t say it clearly. Writers should not be running in front of their works explaining why this or why that. Nor should we (or Critics) be required to study an author’s intimate life (and all of its private matters) before reading or Critically assessing a work.

The value of Literature is that anyone can pick it up, read it, and potentially come away with an important insight about time, place, or humanity. The curiosity about the author should come later, as a peripheral interest. But if you want to see the argument for itself, you’re going to have to read some Criticism by Roland Barthes titled “The Death of the Author” (http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf )

Horror Theory. In Literature.

Right now, Horror Theory is still largely a film Theory. It is sub theory of Genre Theory, which is the attempt to classify and define the elusive, multipurpose term GENRE in the context of Theory…A great example of which is the book, Modern Genre Theory by David Duff (New York: Pearson Education Ltd, c2000), https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=zXV_BAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=genre+theory&ots=caWVUReLZc&sig=isR3m_f0-m8k9-YVZhaOqzSI6es#v=onepage&q=genre%20theory&f=false

Film Theory embraced Horror with no small degree of passion, also pondering why it is so many of us love to scare ourselves. In the New York Times article “The Critique of Pure Horror” writer Jason Zinoman explains the curious “birth” of Horror Film Theory:

“For horror studies the “It’s alive!” moment was the 1979 publication of “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” an essay by the film critic Robin Wood. At a time when horror was treated by many as a second-class genre, Mr. Wood introduced the now-familiar idea, rooted in psychoanalytic theory, that scary movies provide a valuable window onto what our society “represses or oppresses.” The monster, he wrote, represents the marginalized, the sexually or politically subversive, the taboo: the 1931 film “Frankenstein” identified the creature with repressed homosexuality; the first zombie in the 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead” was a manifestation of family dysfunction…” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/17/opinion/sunday/17gray.html?_r=0)

For many, these observations or “theories” might seem excessive overthinking, and represent the ruination of a beloved work… But aren’t they also curious?

Isn’t it amazing that “one could see it” being so?

I am saying that if one is not open to researching the subliminal, subconscious, metaphorical or symbolic, not only does one not like Literary Criticism as a whole, but one is probably not a big fan of poetry, either. One then might ought to stick to reviews and general opinion, but avoid arguments where words are passed through technical theories with their own academic designs. For Critics, emotionally based arguments are not relevant.

Because sales do not equate to quality or Literature.

Sales are about readers and enjoyment. Literature is about the survival of academic and technical vivisection.

Never doth the twain meet. These are two totally separate measuring sticks with two totally different agendas.

Still, Critics are trying to cross a bridge here – because it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see the futility of the argument that there would only ever be a finite number of already-discovered works of Literature. But it does take one to break out a new Theory that Critics can accept.

Back in 1990 — that’s right – 1990! – a philosopher, cultural theorist and film scholar named Noel Carroll began asking serious Critical questions about Horror. In his work The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart, Carroll began shaping what will become Literary Horror Theory as drawn from Film Theory.

You might have noticed “philosophy” in the title. If you are an English major this should come as no surprise, because it was Aristotle who started the whole Literary Criticism thing with his work titled Poetics… but for those not so enlightened, it’s time to wake up to some Critical facts: Literary Criticism involves not only the study of linguistics, but also the study of humanity – philosophy, psychology, biology, neuroscience, sociology, history, religion, communications – all that we are and are shaped by.

It is a fascinating field for anyone who wonders about Art and its creation and effect on people.

Look at Horror: Horror is an exercise in fear and primal emotions, primal response, psychology and religion. It reeks of any Literary Theory that identifies and exposes our actions against those we mark as outside of our own humanity – the Other. It exposes cultural flaws and character flaws alike. It spotlights our social inadequacies and failures. Horror is always a treatise on our times.

Imagine the fascination for someone who wants to research a classic Horror tale through the prism of psychology, who can take a research paper on neuroscience and overlay it on Frankenstein or The Turning of the Screw. Or examine the effects of the Industrial Revolution with the first, or feminism with the second…This is the exciting territory of Literary Criticism.

This is how Literature is birthed the second time: it is dissected.

In Horror Theory, the nature of Horror – including its definition, its structures of imagery, its delineation between suspense and fantasy, its metaphysics (how we are horrified by non-existent, imagined beings in fiction) – all of these things need plotting and discussion, application and debate.

This is a great, once-in-a-lifetime chance to become part of the genesis of Literary Criticism on Horror. We are witnessing what those like H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe so passionately (and Critically) argued for… the emergence of a Theory designed to weigh the very heart of Horror. What we need are Literary Critics – more of them to add to the two most notable of today: British author/Critic China Mieville and Lovecraft expert and Critic S. T. Joshi of the United States.

This means we need people who not only have an indisputable dedication to the genre, but who also are willing to wade through a B.A., a Masters, and a Ph.D.. because those are the credentials required for Literary Critics.

They need to be able to see the residual Horror that seeded what we now call The Classics in Literature, to track that gnarled and twisting root that pushed through the pulpy soil of the late 19th century to spawn so many of our genre classics. They also need to be able to hold their own against the field of Literary Criticism, as well as those of us who just love a good scare.

They need to expound, experiment, and express their professional premises without the hissing and spitting of those who equate sales figures with Literary Quality. We need them because we have earned their attention and deserve the open discussion that is spawned by the academic ones.

We need them because Horror is sometimes Literature. And when it is, it deserves the title.

Be Careful What You Wish For

There is a price for not-understanding Literary Criticism. That price is argument. We can’t present it or win it if we don’t understand what is being done.

And it would really be nice if our educational system would see fit to really educate us about the field of Literary Criticism. We don’t have to learn the secret handshake or need to meet the Grand Poobah. But I know I felt so incredibly enlightened about my own major in English with one introductory course in Literary Criticism. Just one.

As a writer, I now have a serious respect for the field of Literary Criticism and what it does. And for a Horror writer, I am imagining that is a pretty big step. Because I, too, have bristled at words certain Critics have hurled at certain of our genre’s writers…consistently and historically.

For one thing, we need to grasp that Literary Criticism is a measuring tool. And when we are talking about the Arts, infusing math into the picture just seems sooo wrong. But that is how we as humans try to understand things. And trying to understand how a simple story becomes a Work of Literature, beloved by people across the eons is tantalizing.

Don’t we as writers often wonder why one work sells over another? Why one story is a bestseller while its biological twins waste away in file drawers or warehouses? Don’t we ponder the mystery of the Muse? At the peculiar “self-awareness” of characters?

Criticism is simply academia’s attempt to answer those questions. Sorting wheat from chaff is a natural result. And frankly, we as readers do benefit from the analysis. Without reading our way through all of the works of human history, we can find lists of recommendations… examples of when that special Something was heartily at work. We can read what those who study such things have “discovered” about those works. We can ponder the wonders of it all.

But forcing an ever-growing body of work through the gaze and assessment of Literary Critics in academia is slow going.

Film Critics – on the other hand – seem to be right up to speed. Perhaps it is because they are the red-headed stepchildren of Literary Criticism. Perhaps they are more sensitive to the value of genre to the contribution of the whole, and used to academic scorn.

But it is very much the actions and alertness of Film Criticism that has shaken Literary Critics awake. Film Critics seem more likely to assess a body of work and then find the common elements that are shaping a Theory than to create a Theory and then find works that fit it. They also seem more willing to revise their Theories to benefit their field. Film Critics seem all about creating more film…But then in fairness, between the expense of filmmaking and the closed circle of access, there are less films to review than books. But Literary Critics have for once listened to the arguments reality has made for them.

Now that Literary Criticism has realized its misstep, New Critics seem to be taking a page from Film. New Critics want Theories that apply to the authors they read, remember, and loved. Less are the laments over Shakespeare. Instead some really interesting questions are being posed – such as whether or not the author is relevant to the work, or whether or not awareness of history, author isolation, cultural mores or social conventions are important. At last Criticism is crawling out of that box that made everything Literature about Psychoanalytics or Feminism or Marxism.

When a box becomes a coffin it is time to move on…

And as part of that moving on, Horror has begun to gain its own cadre of Literary Critics – Critics who grew up with the genre, loving the genre, wondering about the genre – even writing in the genre. We are even beginning to see the borrowing of Horror Theory from Film Critics, a nice little subgenre of Criticism we can call our own.

At long last, we are getting exactly what we demanded: Literary Critics who have our best interest at heart, and who know that several works of the Horror genre are also high Literature worthy of analysis and canon are performing Criticism on our genre.

Ego Alert: this does not mean everyone will now agree about Horror Literature…

On the contrary: part of the function of Literary Criticism is to invite and incite discussion.

This is why we need Literary Critics: discussion equals Life.

If we discuss a work, argue a work, dissect a work, discover a work, canonize a work…it becomes…immortal.

The thing is, if we are going to disagree with Critics – even when they are our own Critics – we need to learn the language of Criticism. We need to understand what is being said about a work before we disagree with it.

We have at long last, gotten what we asked for. Shouldn’t we embrace that?

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2 thoughts on “Horror Theory: The Real Dawn of the Dead

  1. This was such a straightforward honest post that it was hard to swallow, which I guess was part of your point; I grew up reading horror fiction; I’ve my likes and dislikes, as anyone does, but never gave any thought to critics. That was a mistake. Thanks for the insight.

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  2. And thank you for yours: it means a lot coming from a writer of your strength. I just found that in the U.S. we do a bad job of explaining why Literature is Literature and how it gets to be that way. So once I understood, I decided to make it a personal mission to help others understand. If genres are going to make Literary headway with Critics, we need each other and to understand and appreciate what we each bring to the table (not so unlike the point you made in YOUR last post, which I highly recommend to readers who like to think, by the way…

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