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.

Jack Joslin

Column by Jack Joslin

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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postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words February 8, 2012 - 1:38pm

great article, although it makes me kinda sad... I haven't been good and properly horrified by a story for some time (unless you count rom-com).

the thing in the shadows is always scarier than the gore-fest in full light. It's what differentiates horror from action, I suspect.

I like Canetti's take, that we are afraid of the touch of the unknown. It reminds us of our time as prey, and being seized by something that wants to devour us.

Bob Pastorella's picture
Bob Pastorella from Groves, Texas is reading murder books trying to stay hip, I'm thinking of you, and you're out there so Say your prayers, Say your prayers, Say your prayers February 8, 2012 - 1:44pm

Great article. I read a lot of Horror, most of which I never finish because the story just isn't scary to me. I've found that the Horror stories that thrill and inspire me the most are stories in which no explanation is given for whatever is terrorizing the characters, and it is the characters reaction to this terror that keeps me reading. The monster/phenomenon/situation, is secondary to the plight of the characters, a mechanism to drive the Horror to them.

Christopher Provost's picture
Christopher Provost from Nashua, New Hampshire is reading The Zombie Survival Guide February 8, 2012 - 1:57pm

This is excellent!  You've hit the nail squarely on the head.  When vampires and werewolves become teen romances a la Twilight, the fear has gone out of them.  When millions tune in to watch The Walking Dead (which I love, by the way), it's because they understand zombies to the point where they can logically deal with them (if zombie A does this, then character B reacts this way).  I think the true fear behind The Walking Dead is the day-to-day uncertainty of the characters.

What the horror genre needs is something unclassifiable and unknowable that can return that chill to your spine and keep you awake at night wondering what the hell that noise was.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine February 8, 2012 - 1:58pm


Nighty Nite's picture
Nighty Nite from NJ is reading Grimscribe: His Lives and Works February 8, 2012 - 2:06pm

Fantastic article. I wrote something in the same vein for a college paper a year or so back. I'll take atmospheric horror and creeping, lurking dread over vampires, werewolves or whatever, any day.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like February 8, 2012 - 3:25pm

I'm not usually scared or creeped out by reading. I wish I was.

Jason Van Horn's picture
Jason Van Horn from North Carolina is reading A Feast For Crows February 8, 2012 - 3:34pm

It doesn't pertain to literature, but I just finished watching The River and I felt it had some very chill inducing moments and it's using a mixture of magic and ghosts as its horror antagonists. I thought American Horror Story did a great job too.

In terms of books I think the last one to give me a good chill was The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters - it sort of features ghosts but not exactly. Recommended.

nathaniel parker's picture
nathaniel parker from Cincinnati is reading The Dark Tower ~ King February 8, 2012 - 3:47pm

When it comes to Horror, something I've been toying with lately, is the fact that we've moved all these monsters at arm's length away from us. Thereby removing any sort of terror or alarm. We've put them all in nice catalogued cages and studued them closely enough to know why the scared us in the first place.

The next thing to do with horror is to see how close we'll allow ourselves to something horrible. There was already a big flap over this last summer when that trailer for the game Dead Island came out. People we're upset that it opened with a close-up of a dead little girl. That was too close for a lot of people. It was the same old zombie idea, but it just reached out of the cage a little too far.

I think that's the appeal of a lot of these "found footage" movies like Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. They bring a viewer, closer than other stories, to that line that we don't want to cross and within grasp of being terrified.

I have a feeling that any groundbreaking horror story might not do well as it's initially recieved because of this. That it would cross the line and a large portion of an audience would recoil, not even realizing it was out of fear, but rather out of taste.

The Hostel movies are a good example, where even the director may have been afraid of getting to close. By throwing all the up-close blood and gore, it makes a viewer step back away from something that is some truly horrifying goings-on. There could have been some serious emotional trauma, if it was filmed a certain way, as opposed to the ghastly guffaws of ridiculous killing and knee-jerk cringes from popping eyeballs.

Which could also bring up another point. If and when there is an actually newly-born horrific monster to come along, and in this day and age of instantly optioned movie deals, should it be made into a visual medium or kept strictly hidden in a book for only a select few to find?

If any of the movie versions of Frankenstein had appeared in 1819, the year after it was published, would all of England had thrown themselves into the ocean for fear of it happening?

If they hadn't have waited 20+ years to adapt Dracula, would WWI have seen the total destruction of Eastern Europe for fear they might have let such a monster like that survive?

It seems so quaint to think that people actually lept under their seats or fainted away from some fear they saw on a screen, but we are not so different. It's just a matter of how close we allow or even worse, how close a terror is without us even realizing it, to get to us. All this Mayan Apocalypse and Large Hadron Collider stuff should point to that.

Something important is that it should always be able to kept at length. We should always be able to use a wooden stake through the heart, or a silver bullet or a cricket bat to the skull, and be able to move back just out of reach. Then the horror comes from knowing that it is still out there. Loose from it's cage of our own making.


Finally, Rudyard Kipling has a great little book of spook stories if you're wanting some old-timey colonial English horror.

John's picture
John from Brooklyn, NY is reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis February 8, 2012 - 4:03pm

Excellent piece. I've tried to write and re-write a "horror manifesto", a sort of document that I wish all horror authors and filmmakers would abide by, for a while now. I think the central thesis of it is this: human beings live in a universe that is unknowable, unpredictable, and uncaring. The most horrifying and tragic thing anybody can do is to remind us all that we are never truly safe. We spend our entire lives trying to do the right things, make decisions that lead us to enriching lives and happiness, and any and all of it can be swept away at any moment by the the machinations of the world.

You've put it better than I ever could. Hats off!

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade February 8, 2012 - 5:01pm

Every since I first read it, I've resisted Karen Blixen's notable quote: "I don't believe in evil, I believe only in horror. In nature there is no evil, only an abundance of horror: the plagues and the blights and the ants and the maggots.” I believe that horror is derived from the physical or natural world, but I do believe in evil and it's a thing of terror. Terror is a spirtual matter. 

Too much horror fiction is of the materialistic horror that Blixen referred to: zombies after your flesh and vampires after your blood. The most effective horror for me remains the sort that Poe, Blackwood, and Lovecraft wrote - and the Blackwood masterpiece that's haunted me for 25+ years is his "The Wendigo".

The best "horror fiction" is spiritual terror with dashes of physical horror, and your "The Willows", Moby Dick, and Blood Meridian quotes are primo examples. The spiritual terrors of "The Wendigo" and "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Rats In The Walls" have this very special blend of horrific atmosphere almost-beyond-comprehension, with flashes of down-to-earth material horrors....and I haven't much been moved to terror by horror fiction in years.

Believe it or not, the closest thing to this horrific atmosphere created recently (that I've noticed) is the todash and wizard's glass episodes of King's The Dark Tower series...

Everett Herrick's picture
Everett Herrick February 8, 2012 - 7:26pm

I cannot honestly say that horror shall ever lose the wrenching fear that it has distilled in the guts of the fearful but for those of us that have never been that frightened by the strange and unusual stories it will never die it has just gotten glorified for the drama and gore.

Craig Bertuglia's picture
Craig Bertuglia from Houston (but I grew up in South Jersey) is reading "The Priest" by Gerard O'Donovan February 9, 2012 - 3:05pm

Y'all are reading the wrong authors!  If all you eat is pabulum, don't blame the makers of Cream of Wheat, that's all you.  David Wellington, Joe McKinney, Scott Sigler, Nancy Holder, Colson Whitehead and a bunch of others I can name off the top of my head still bring the scary in a big way, and use conventional trappings to get it done.  Hell, even Guillermo del Toro is reinventing vampires in kick ass fashion.  Here's a link to the 2011 Bram Stoker Reading List, quit your whining and start your mining!

Dale Thomas's picture
Dale Thomas from Swansea is reading The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko February 12, 2012 - 6:36pm

As soon as I started reading this article I thought of A Warning To The Curious. I read that when I was 13 and it has stayed with me ever since. Absolutely chilling.

JameseyLefebure's picture
JameseyLefebure from Liverpool, Uk is reading The Gunslinger- Stephen King February 13, 2012 - 4:22am

Brilliant article! As someone who wants to carve a career in horror fiction it's definately made me think back to books that used to scare me, and i was having a debate with someone over a story I had written about a zombie.  They wanted gore and blood where as the story was about the actual transformation to a zombie - I was trying to explain that gore and monsters aren't what horror was about - more the fear that it creates.
They didn't really understand and tried to tell me a bout how Twilight had scared them. I think I just walked away.



Aybala Uslu's picture
Aybala Uslu March 13, 2012 - 1:16pm

The most scary things often show up in our heads.

Marc Ferris's picture
Marc Ferris from Carmel, California is reading Animal Attraction by Anna David June 8, 2013 - 2:34pm

I agree with this article 100%.

I have almost given up on reading horror due to the lack of quality chills. For me the horror comes from the question of sanity as much as it does from not wanting to die. Having a character in crisis as they wonder if they've gone insane knocks out the foundation of "normal" from the reader. The stuff in your head is the one thing doctors can't really fix, and once you've lost your marbles they don't come back. All of the great horror stories work on the psychological level as much as they do with their monster of choice.

AnotherChristopher's picture
AnotherChristopher from New Orleans-ish is reading Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon October 27, 2013 - 8:19pm

What you said about the unknown is true. A monster stops being scary the moment I get a good look at it.

Zombies, though, really give us a chance to reimagine killing as a polite and/ or merciful act. A justifiable act. Horror is escapism like every other genre of writing or film. Killing as an unavoidable act necessary to survival makes sense to the masses. War stories don't accomplish this leap in conscience appeasement because of the indignity and moral dilemma armed conflict creates. The notion of an undead creature (vampires included.) being the enemy aggressor makes the apocalyptic scenario palatable. So long as a would be survivor has smarts, a strong stomach, and a stout swinging arm, they are good to go. I believe, and the popularity of the Walking Dead confirms, the real monster is in the mirror. Sometimes the human victim as vicious monstrosity is the ultimate point of Horror. (Paging Dr. Frankenstein.) That having been said, I agree with the author. Zombies are less scary than Daleks to me at this point.

But werewolves are just cool.

Mojo777's picture
Mojo777 April 6, 2014 - 9:59am

I think the lack of true horror is largely due to the agents who are the gatekeepers of the publishing industry. Visit any agency website and you'll see a majority of young college educated women who are not interested in horror, but did respond at one time to YA horror like Twilight etc. They've turned horror into a subset of romance.

Now it's Middle Grade "horror" -- the publishers want to hook kids on reading with soft genre material to cultivate a new generation of book buyers. Maybe as the YA and MG readers grow up they will respond to more adult horror and the genre will be revitalized.

Meanwhile, true horror is slipping into the realm of the indie publishers with anemic war chests to promote their wares. So true horror fans must work harder to find fresh material. Also, the movie industry is back on track with real horror (movies like VHS and Frankenstein's Army etc) after a tepid decade in the 90s.