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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Why Do People Like Horror?

It may seem strange, in a world with so much natural horror, to seek to explore and even celebrate horror that extends even further beyond human control. It may seem misanthropic, pessimistic, or even sadistic to find pleasure in a tradition that is energized by human frailty and terror. What is it that compels so many people to indulge stories of horror and the macabre? Can anything good come from a tradition that focuses so much on the negative elements of our already troubled life - what Mary Shelley called "meddl[ing] in the dark side of human nature"? And what does this press expect to achieve by proliferating fictional terrors on a terrified world? We would like to address those questions sincerely.

Why do People Even Enjoy Consuming Horror Stories?

  • Horror Engages Our Passion and Our Humanity. Although you may be passionate about horror, this is not the passion that I'm referring to. When we read horror, we become passionate about the plot, the characters, the solution. Will the ending be grim or hopeful? Will we learn what caused the horror or will it be a chaotic riddle? Our minds are invigorated by perilous situations -- fear stands alongside love, hate, anguish, and envy as a prominent human emotion -- and through that same invigoration we feel something uniquely human : a surprising sense of comfort arising through the fear -- the validation of our humanity.

  • Horror Provides Us With Unfamiliar Puzzles. While most fiction faces its readers with a conundrum (Elizabeth regrets having been so harsh with Mr. Darcy; Tom and Becky are lost in the Cave with Injun Joe), horror -- like fantasy -- presents unique problems that transcend natural law. How can Dracula, an undead sorcerer, be stopped? How can Frankenstein possibly distance himself from his vengeful Creature? What is to become of humanity if Cthulhu awakens in R'lyeh? These problems are just as engaging as detective fiction, but include the added element of unknown suspense : the solutions are extreme because the conflicts are extreme, and the puzzle of the conclusion -- like any game of chess, Angry Birds, or poker -- engages our human yearning to discover resolution.

  • Horror Excites Our Brain Chemistry. Literally. Reading suspenseful fiction -- like watching a suspenseful movie -- increases heart-rate which increases the flow of oxygen to the organs and tissues, resulting in all of those feelings and corresponding expressions (spine-tingling, bone-chilling, blood-curdling, hair-raising, heart-pounding, white-knuckled). These experiences also release a mild (but invigorating) cocktail of chemicals throughout the brain : dopamine, adrenaline, serotonin and other neurotransmitters flash across our grey matter as the increased oxygen from our pounding heart floods the brain with oxygen. It may not be a workout, but it is pleasant to experience and potentially an outlet of stress, anxiety, anger, and depression.

  • Horror Makes Our Common Existential Anxieties Relatable. We fear. We fear loneliness; we fear failure; we fear disappointment; we fear alienation; we fear rejection; we fear neglect; we fear loss. Fear dominates a wide range of universal human thoughts and concerns, yet much of our film, art and literature is devoted to avoiding those topics. They are feel-good products which are very useful when the fear becomes so intense that we want to unplug to Anchorman, Harlequin romance paperbacks, or the quaint stylings of Norman Rockwell. These creations have their place to be certain. But horror thrusts those fears forward -- it drags them kicking and screaming from the dark caverns of the mind into the light of the printed word. It is just as reassuring as it is unsettling to feel the lonely rejection of Ichabod, the helpless terror of the victims of "The Dunwich Horror', and the spirit-crushing guilt of Frankenstein, because it is cathartic. It is an exorcism, a ritual of confrontation. And even if the characters do not survive, we are certain that we have, and that our burdens are not solitary incidents : they are universal to humanity.

What (If Any) Good Can Come From the Existence of Horror Stories?

  • Horror Engages Our Empathy and Our Humanity. Horror can be sadistic. It can be brutal and voyeuristic. It can follow the path forged by many films of rapacious infamy that depict the act of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse in such a way as to be bashfully (if not blatantly) entertaining. But it often is tender and empathic. Regardless of the fate of horror protagonists, we often want them to escape and thrive. Their destruction at a story's conclusion (Frankenstein, "The Signalman," "The Colour Out of Space") does not lessen the genuine empathy that we feel for their suffering. Just as horror manifests our own private anxieties, so to it invests its characters with those personal fears -- loneliness, destruction, emptiness -- and we locate ourselves in their terror. This serves, not only to exorcise our own stifled anxieties, but also to exercise deep, human empathy.

  • Horror Challenges (and Allows Criticisms, Satires, and Commentaries of) Our Society. Literary horror -- the sort that is aesthetically masterful and psychologically nuanced -- can often be revisited as a commentary either on a political body, a cultural trait, or a human fault. George Romero's zombie films deftly handled issues of race, gender, and socioeconomics. Bram Stoker's Dracula struggled with globalism, sexual ethics, and social classes. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" probed greed, self-importance, and urbanization. Arthur Machen critiqued war in "The Terror." Charlotte Perkins Gilman targeted patriarchy in "The Yellow Wallpaper." While horror is entertaining and often perceived as more concerned with isolated personal experiences (a man walking alone down an unfamiliar lane enters an abandoned hut) than social relationships, it is richly stocked with examples of writings which cause its reader to evaluate the status quo of human society.

  • Horror Provides Perspective to Life's Ambitions, Complaints, and Fears. While it may sound trite, after reading "The Call of Cthulhu," "A Warning to the Curious," or "The Judge's House" it is difficult not to walk away feeling grateful for the relative peace that we experience in our lives, the comfort of our stable relationships, and the satisfaction of our basic necessities. At least we came home tonight without being stalked by a decapitated phantom eager to pull us into hell with him. Transversely, we might perceive a bit too much of ourselves in an unfortunate protagonist. After reading "The Judge's House" might you not realize that you have been turning away people who sincerely want to help you -- that it might hurt you in the end to deny them? After reading "A Warning to the Curious" might you not reconsider your habit of diving haphazardly into projects without looking both ways or questioning the outcome? After reading "The Call of Cthulhu" might you not find yourself less convinced of your invincibility and more wary of your scheme in a wide, wide universe? Horror can cause us to both embrace and reevaluate our lives.

  • Horror Addresses Our Common Existential Anxieties Without Sugar-Coating It. Life is rough. Tragedies occur. Sometimes those tragedies are not Nicholas Sparks-esque tragedies; they are simply horrific and no lesson or sentimentality can be taken away from it. While we often try to escape the pain of life (ergo, Mr. Sparks), it is critical that we do not pretend that it does not exist (a la The Giver, 1984, North Korea). Horror allows us to experience concentrations of dread, doom, and fear which allows us to process those emotions and better understand that part of our humanity -- it is both cathartic and self-actualizing to thrust the horrors of life into our imaginations.

What Does Oldstyle Tales Press Expect to Achieve by Spreading Horror Stories?

  • We Hope to Provide What M.R. James Called, a "Pleasing Terror." Horror can be enjoyable. When I was four I saw "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and was captivated. The Horseman terrified me, but I wanted to see, know, and understand more. What was this bizarre world where Bing Crosby made me roll with laughter for fifteen minutes before abandoning to a ten minute ride through hell? It was enjoyable to be scared. It probed an emotion that nothing in my young life had ever awoken. The stories we select are very carefully chosen to represent a cross-section of the best horror fiction in the prewar English-speaking world. Some is dire. Some is laced with black humor. Some is potentially disturbing. But it all aspires to awaken a pleasing terror.

  • We Hope to Conjure Questions that Human Beings Like to Ask but Tend to Avoid. This point has been made before, so we won't belabor it, but we consider it to be highly important to our development as individual human beings that we confront and come to terms with the demons of our species, and OTP hopes to encourage a thoughtful consideration of those anxieties by supplying fiction which beautifully and masterfully probes those caverns.

  • We Hope to Celebrate the Artistic Achievements of Many Overlooked Masterpieces of English Literature. You know Poe. You simply do. You probably know Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker. You know of Stevenson and Hawthorne. You might know Lovecraft. You may know Bierce. If you're well-read you''re familiar with Machen, James, and Blackwood. But even then, we hope to familiarize you with overlooked geniuses of horror fiction : the haunting eeriness of J. Sheridan LeFanu; the vampiric slugs and worms of E.F. Benson; the subhuman subterraneans of Arthur Machen; the agonizing horrors of F. Marion Crawford, Oliver Onions, Walter de la Mare, Fitz-James O'Brien, Edith Wharton, Saki, and W.W. Jacobs. These brilliant artists are often overlooked by the loyal fans of Poe, Lovecraft, Stoker, and James, and we hope to honor the unrivalled masters while bringing hard-earned attention to the great, unexplored flavors of English-language horror.

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