Columns > Published on February 8th, 2012

Beyond the Zombie: Something Ominous is Missing from Horror Fiction

My friend, Phil, claims to be afraid of nothing. When I ask what he means, he says that “vampires and werewolves and zombies have become the new Pokemon. And I hate the Pokemonization of monsters.”

He has a point. I find that I too am no longer frightened by zombies, werewolves, vampires and all their monster friends. Their power seems to me diminished. When I think about horror — not the genre, but the sensation, that malevolent presence hanging like fog — I think of certain early twentieth century British authors: M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Dennis Wheatley, Arthur Machen, and William Hope Hodgson. By their words, infant Jack found true terror.

This is not to attack vampires, werewolves, or zombies. It is not to attack their defenders for their preferences. But something has gone. Once these monsters struck terror by plucking on the basic fears of the reader. Inevitably, we overindulged - after all, they’re pretty awesome. But no longer really terrifying. Now they have become, as Phil put it, Pokemon monsters. D&D manuals exist containing Cthulhu - Lovecraft’s Elder God, vast and transcendent - with a full list of stats like STRENGTH and INTELLIGENCE, each one dutifully numbered. You can even find said monstrosity in Nintendo games and beanie toys.

Algernon Blackwood’s short story "The Willows" offers no such specificity as to the horrors befalling the main characters. Two men take a canoe trip down the Danube river, camping by the water. Plenty of horror archetypes are present: ominous warnings from a passerby, strange shapes moving in the foliage, noises at night as the two nervous campers tremble in their tents. There is something terribly wrong with the willows; something, moreover, that existed long before either of these travelers set intrepid foot into unknown territory. This scared me: that just outside our hermetic familiar world, under the veneer of “safe” everyday life, was something very real, elemental, and unknowable. Something that had existed forever.

This is not something confined to the horror genre. A classic of American literature hints at this very elemental terror. See how Ishmael finds horror in the whiteness of the whale in Moby Dick:

Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man's soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.

This treads the same limits of human understanding that spills into terror as the narrator observes in "The Willows":

...the willows connected themselves subtly with my malaise, attacking the mind insidiously somehow by reason of their vast numbers, and contriving in some way or other to represent to the imagination a new and mighty power, a power, moreover, not altogether friendly to us.

The terror of out there, the evil that exists regardless of our stumbling upon it, has retreated somewhat. Maybe this is what the trifecta of zombies, werewolves and vampires have in common. These horrors actively seek us out, where we work and live and sleep, to work their destruction. Ed Gein, the ultimate Wisconsin ghoul, inspired a chain of fictional serial killers (most famously, of course, Psycho’s Norman Bates) because it struck a new chord of terror: there may be people among us who, out of an irrational impulse, may reach out and take a life.

Why do these passages unsettle? Actually, to get to the heart of the matter: why read horror? I can only give my own answer. To unsettle myself by feeling insignificant, that although the world may seem knowable, it can crack open to reveal something else. That there is terror just in the whiteness of the whale; not in bloodshed and carnage.

This unknowing is key, and transcends the genre. What terrifies us about a certain entity, be it monster or man, is that we just don’t understand it. For all our human wisdom, this “thing” has its own ideas and desires. Ed Gein made lampshades from the skin of his victims — how can we make sense of that? Judge Holden, the terrifying man (?) in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, winds a path of destruction and chaos for reasons known only to him. Every action is vibrating with that horror of not understanding him, even something as mundane as taking notes on the appearance of a passing critter: “That which exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.”

The implications of that line make me shudder. Judge Holden just is, and there’s nothing anybody can do but hope they don’t face his wrath. The idea that entities exist following their own drives and rules, more dangerous to us than we are to them, forces us to confront how we’re never completely safe. In M.R. James’s story "A Warning to the Curious", an archaeologist, Paxton, finds a lost crown and is chased by its spectral guardian. Why does the ghost protect the crown so violently? What lengths will it go to? Will returning the crown make a difference? There’s no reasoning with the entity. Its only display of humanity is a breathless cackle, as Paxton’s corpse is found. The body has been violently destroyed. A ghost it may be, but capable of real violence:

“His mouth was full of sand and stones, and his teeth and jaws were broken to bits. I only glanced once at his face.”

Real horror is found when unknowable “things” turn their attention to us helpless people; we are forced to confront how little power we have against unknown forces, forces that may just be out of sight.

This is the problem with the modern monster. Let’s take zombies.

What do zombies want? Brains. Flesh.

How can they be stopped? Get them in the head. Or cut them up. Or run.

Your concept of a zombie is probably similar to mine. A shambling meat-bag of limbs and rotting entrails, flailing and moaning, trying to eat you and your loved ones. A hoard of the monsters, flaps of skin hanging loose, reaching and shuffling as survivors board up windows and load their shotguns. Hardly unfamiliar.

A new breed of running zombies has emerged, but we can safely round them together with their slower counterparts into a very fixed category, rarely changing in character. Already we tire of the old, and need to add new Pokemon, updated to make them scarier but with little innovation. What’s to be done? I’m not saying we should throw our old monsters on the scrap heap and get to work on new ones (though I would be intrigued to see what emerges) but at least do something different. Put the horror back in. Even the narrators in Lovecraft’s stories, for all their academic and intellectual fortitude, are rendered mad by the horrors just waiting to be stumbled upon by the unwary and the curious.

We have enough monsters now, and they are so convenient to draw upon - throw a vampire in there, or a vengeful ghost - that we write about them instead of inventing monsters to get at the feeling of sheer alien horror. Instead of inventing situations to put the same old creatures of horror in, we should be inventing horrors that challenge the human experience, that break us out of everything we think of as secure.

There’s a grand tradition of horror writing in America. H.P. Lovecraft, arguably the genre’s master, hailed from the States. But I grew up across the Atlantic, and was immersed in different authors, who suggested that something horrible lurked beneath the veneer of the idyllic countryside of Britain. 

Our monsters have changed. They’re no longer possessed of something unnameable and terrifying. Zombies are frequently spoken of as emblematic of mindless consumer culture; Vampires are the thrill of the erotic, or to take a more old-fashioned approach, the bloodsucking lifestyle of the bourgeoisie. Everything monstrous can be logically taken apart and dismantled into what they represent. Something is needed which escapes analysis.

A theory for you: one of the fears played upon by books and movies is universal. The fear of death. That in those shadows, behind that corner, something wishes you harm. If we are focused on avoiding death, we neglect to examine the condition of life. Whether a writer works within the horror genre or outside of it, there is something to be gained by harnessing raw terror. The true terror, these writers taught me, was the terror of being alive.

About the author

Jack is a graduate of the University of Warwick. His current project is a surreal biography of the band Paris and the Hiltons. He lives in the UK, where he founded the netlabel Portnoy Records. He can't juggle yet, but really is trying very hard. Often he tells people he's ten feet tall, even when they're standing in front of him, which makes for awkward pauses. He writes incoherent thoughts and opinions at the International Society of Ontolinguists.

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