Tuesday, October 16, 2018

State of the Art: Horror in the 21st Century.

Looking at the state of the horror genre in the early years of the new era, I can’t help being reminded   of what it was like growing up.  Horror fiction was my gateway drug.  It was the genre that got me to pick up my first book somewhere around the age of seven.  The first author I was ever aware of was a fellow named John Bellairs.  He’s long gone by now, but he has a movie out in theaters as I write this.  He also led me from his own work (it was The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring, as I recall) onto the next step.  That would have been the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, written by Alvin Schwartz and brought to mind-screwing life by the fundamentally disturbed illustrations of Stephen Gammell (it also helps that George S. Irving seemed to have the perfect voice for these stories on audio tape.  If I live to be a million, I’ll still remember his rendition of “Mi-Ti-Doughty-Walker”).
It’s Schwartz’s form of the horror tale that I’m reminded of the most going over the current landscape of the genre.  It’s hard to tell whether horror fiction is in a slump or currently enjoying a quiet underground success.  I hope the latter is the case.  Not only would such a situation keep the torch lit, it could also act as spur to any young talent to take a shot at carving out a name for themselves.

Level One: Creepypasta.  
So far, the biggest form that the genre has taken is that of the Creepypasta.  It’s really just the old Urban Legend format transferred to the digital stage.  “The name "Creepypasta" comes from the word "copypasta", an internet slang term for a block of text that gets copied and pasted over and over again from website to website. Creepypastas are sometimes supplemented with pictures, audio and/or video footage related to the story, typically with gory, distorted, or otherwise shocking content (web)".
The big overarching theme seems to be how the past lingers on in, and can even possess the ability to effect the present.  The most ubiquitous idea is that of our current computer technology being invaded by malign supernatural force.  This invasion is just a means to more traditional ends.  Once a protagonist’s laptop, iPhone, or twitter feed is overwhelmed, the result owes just as much to ancient fairy tales as it does to contemporary fears about our vulnerability in the anonymous void of cyberspace.  This isn’t a carte-blanche endorsement, however.
To be honest, just because a lot of these stories share the same trope, it isn’t as saying all these stories are written equal.  “There be bad and good,” as Ray Bradbury once put it.  The bad ones tend to stress cheap gross-outs over narrative.  Granted, sometimes an inspired few will surprise you with neat little summations.  These are the fright narratives that are able to operate as one-note statements.  A pretty good example goes as follows:
 “There was a picture of me in my bed, sleeping.  I live alone!

Cue the Psycho chords, and all that.  These little Zen koans can be stretched out to a certain extent.  This is proven by the second example.

The last thing I saw was my alarm clock flashing 12:07 before she pushed her long, rotting nails through my chest, her other hand muffling my screams.  I sat bolt upright, relieved it was only a dream, but as I saw my alarm clock read 12:06, I heard my closet door open”.

The author of this specimen shows a clever amount of creativity in the ability to stretch out just two sentences as far as they will go.  My two personal favorites are “I heard It Too”, and “Bad Dream”.  In the first one, a little girl hears her mother asking if she can come downstairs, she wants to talk to her about something.  Before the child can even reach the stairs, she’s yanked into her parents’ room by none other than her own mom, who simply informs her and us: “I heard it too”.  However, it comes as no surprise to me that my personal favorite sort of breaks the rules to deliver its effect.

"Daddy, I had a bad dream." You blink your eyes and pull up on your elbows. Your clock glows red in the darkness — it is 3:32 AM.  "Do you want to climb into bed and tell me about it?"  "No, Daddy."  The oddness of the situation wakes you up more fully. You can barely make out your daughter's pale form in the darkness of your room.  "Why not, sweetie?"  "Because in my dream, when I told you about the dream, the thing wearing Mommy's skin sat up."  For a moment, you feel paralyzed; you cannot take your eyes off of your daughter. The covers behind you begin to shift (web)”.

These are all well and good for the literary equivalent of a good starter’s pack.  However, the best examples of the Creepypasta are ones that can tell a fully fleshed out story.  These are the tales that display a healthy combination of talent, combined with skill, as well as the most necessary ingredient, inspiration.  In this regard, what I know of the current crop can be neatly categorized into three basic levels.  The first level I call “One Notes”.  These are the stories that are all about the build-up to a shock effect.  A good example “The Expressionless”.  This short story details the exploits of a mental patient with a face like a department store mannequin.  After being introduced, the doll face proceeds to go on a minor rampage which leaves several hospital staff dead.  Before she leaves, the doll faced patient leans into a dying doctor and explains, “I am God”.

If the whole point of the story was to play on existential fears, then it fails to pay off.  It’s whole concern is with introducing a grotesque effect, which then proceeds to multiply the horror through a    few quick handfuls of gore.  It never manages to go beyond that.  The result is that it can’t even impress on the gross-out level.  It is just a perfect example of what a shallow understanding of the genre can produce, and I would let “The Expressionless” stand for all that can go wrong when a short work of horror fiction is in uncreative hands.  Such minds will perhaps never be able to reach a genuine level of terror when the best they can come up with is mindless buckets of blood and violence.

There, however, better examples of “One Note” stories.  The best example is also one of the most famous.  Candle Cove” has gone on to become a modern classic with just a few short, yet effective, brush strokes.  Taking the narrative format of a chatroom discussion thread, it details the shared memories former viewers who remember a sadistic children’s puppet show.  What makes this idea effective is that instead of gore, it relies more on building sense of unease based on the way the show is always hinting at darker ideas while somehow just managing to stay away from anything graphic.  Instead, we are left with the sense of dread that comes from the subtle awareness that there something wrong with a situation, and yet we are never truly shown what the real horror of the story is.  Instead, the big reveal is that while the children saw and remember the show, all the adults could see was just a screen full of TV static.

Level Two: Expanded Stories.

The second level is taken up by the Creepypasta proper.  These stories have an entire website devoted to collecting, compiling, and categorizing each one that currently exists, while keeping an eye out for the next one to come along.  A decent sampling of this type is “The Queen’s Guard (sometimes known as, “I was a part of the Queen’s Guard”) in which a British soldier is harassed by a woman who just stands right in front of him and goes through the motions of screaming without making a sound.  This anecdote is useful as a jumping off point for those who wish to explore further.  It takes a “One Note” premise and is able to stretch to an effective little first-person short story. 
 The Goatman” is a tale which is sort of a pleasant surprise in the writer’s ability to take the story’s schlocky, urban legend premise and generate an actual sense of suspenseful fear out of the proceedings.

There is also a subset of mildly connected stories detailing horrors experienced at the happiest place on earth.  The Disney Creepypastas were started with an entry titled “Abandoned by Disney”.  Its entire narrative revolves around a demonic Mickey Mouse costume that comes to life and casually asks, “Wanna see me head come off”?  The irony is that this seems to have spawned a whole series based around horrific happenings in the WD parks and surrounding environs.  Even more remarkable is that “ABD” has not one, but several sequels.  It has gone on to become a kind of cycle with a beginning, middle and end.  The final tale ends on an interesting thematic meditation on the cost of idolizing our childhood memories to an unhealthy extent.  It’s quite a surprising finish for an idea that started with a gross-out gag. 

Perhaps the best of this type of story is “Grad Night at the Haunted Mansion”.  It details how a plan    to spend the night in the titular dark ride goes predictably wrong.  The familiar premise doesn’t breed contempt, however.  Instead, the author displays a genuine talent for creating both atmosphere with combined sense of otherworldly menace, with a payoff that can pack a very real wallop.  This demonstrated with superlative skill by a Creepypastas podcast as seen here.  The only reason I don’t put this story in the top tier level is that while I can say I like it, I’m not sure that means it qualifies objectively as one of the best.  I think you need just a bit more than nostalgia for a story to work, and a lot of the charm of this sort of tale comes from its easy attachment to a theme-park and film company which have become cultural touchstones.  There has to be a better criterion for how to judge a horror story.  This is what brings us up to the top tier.

Level 3: Modern Short Horror.     

The third level is taken up with latter day professional authors who have kept fear’s freak flag flying high.  Of the three, it is this level where I often find the best talents giving voice and creative expression to the highest quality stories out there.  My reasons for this stem from the fact that the type of story we meet on this level is generally more fleshed out, even if it’s just a fifteen minute read or listen on YouTube.  We are dealing with a level of professionalism that manages to rise above your basic Creepypasta more often than not.  This is important, because it allows fans a chance to see just what direction the genre has taken in a time when many could be excused for believing the field of horror is in kind of a slump at the movies, or on TV.

While it may be true that somehow filmmakers are unable to deliver on the chill in recent years (this could be due to either a lack of creativity, or else a lack of funding), the scene looks different when you enter the realm of indie publishing and online videos.  At the heart of all this activity stands the figure of Crag Groeshek.

As the creator, owner, and head operator of the Chilling Tales for Dark Nights anthology, and the Simply Scary podcast, Groshek now stands at the center of an interconnected web of genre enthusiasts.  Each of them demonstrates an ability for both performance and writing in service to delivering their listeners a decent experience of chills.  Groshek’s partners in literary crime include professional actor G.M. Danielson, author and performer Jesse Cornet, actress and series collaborator Alicia Pavlis, and fellow writer Jeff Clement
Perhaps the real standout in this group is professional narrator Otis Jiry.  Of all the artists who have contributed to Groshek’s projects, it is Jiry who always manages to find the best way of bringing these latter-day shockers to life.  He has a natural talkers voice that is by turns avuncular and devious.  He is able to establish an old fashioned, almost folksy tone that manages to somehow be sophisticated at the same time.  When he steps up to the mic and delivers his lines, even if the material is as throwaway as “The Day of all the Blood", he still manages to win his audiences over to the point of willing suspension of disbelief. 
I said before that each of these artists operate on a third level quality within the field of horror.  What  that means in terms of content is that there is usually that extra amount of effort put into the finished product.  These are stories written and told by authors with a keen understanding of the craft.  The characters in these stories tend to be more three-dimensional as opposed to your average Creepypasta narrative.  The events that confront the protagonists are also a notch higher in their subject matter.

On the one hand, we have original works like “The Mourner”, in which a callous paparazzi is taught a lesson in the values of life and death by unidentified figure in one of her photographs.  This is a story with no blood or big actions sequences.  Instead, it creates its effect by the introduction of a mystery which soon reveals itself to be abnormal.  The narrative is able to generate the necessary dramatic tension to hold our interest as we follow the photographer as she tries to solve the puzzle of the figure in her picture.  She meets him at last, and he turns out to be more than he appears.  What’s notable is how the story is able to pull off its resolution.  Instead of a character being stalked through a graveyard and gore everywhere, the denouement revolves around the two main characters sitting on a bench talking.  The final note of dread comes from the picture of a life spent in wasted hours.  The main character is forced to confront the truth of her existence, and is revealed to be just as much of a monster as the figure she has pursued throughout the narrative.  These are the subtle grace notes that separate the great from the merely good or competent tale of terror.  It is also these grace notes that manage to put the material under discussion on such a high category.  
This is the place to discover that while the genre might not be much of a sell at the cinemas like it was during the 70s and 80s, there are still enough talented individuals out there to keep the old bones alive and kicking.  The difference today seems to be that the genre has been forced underground once more by popular demand.  This isn’t the first time horror has suffered at the hands of majority public taste.  The Tale of Terror has always been something of an underdog in the great arena of entertainment.  A question that always recurs is why do people like this stuff?  Why would someone subject themselves to hearing about tragic fates and narratives chock full of gory details?
I think fear plays an important part in the answer.  However, I don’t think it’s entirely adequate to leave it at that.  Fear, on its own, accomplishes nothing.  In psychological terms, all fear can do is isolate its victim, turning them toward such an inward level, that the worst case scenario is an anti-social basket-case.  The good tale of terror requires just a bit more than shocks to accomplish its work.  In addition to fear, the horror story can also offer just a bit of courage along with some kind of moral base to complete the picture.

It’s debatable whether an author like H.P. Lovecraft would agree with such an assessment. However, the counter-argument is what happens when self-conviction turns into self-parody?  Part of the reason it is so easy to write parodies of Lovecraft’s work is because he adhered so easily to a basic set of creative ideas, and never developed them beyond a certain point.  The trouble with ideas that never mature is that they risk becoming the target of their own shortcomings. 

This is why I believe a full picture of the horror genre includes the possibility of both tragedy and, believe it or not, a bit of comedy.  It helps to think of both Tragedy and Comedy as the two main poles the genre must always oscillate between.  Horror doesn’t deny the possibility that bad things can happen.  It also doesn’t always have to let the monsters win.

In terms of constructive criticism, I would warn all the authors to remember that just because a story   has all the trappings of Horror doesn’t mean it can’t be art.  It’s also no excuse of the artist decides to phone it all in.  The best examples of the genre, like The Haunting of Hill House, could explore the human condition in an entertaining way, while also delivering the chills.  The genre seems to be in a middle-way state of things as of this writing.  On the one hand, the emergence the Creepypasta displays a kind of back to basics aesthetic.  Here the whole point is to deliver a quick good scare, shock, or gross out. Then you have writers like Groshek, who show a great awareness of the genre and its history.  These are voices trying to break through the quick-shock format and discover where the future of Horror’s artistic potential lies.  In that sense, we are in an exploratory phase at the moment. 

A lot of what I’ve seen and read, in its best moments, conveys the feel of those neat little anthology books Stephen King released early in his career.  These stories contained a neat economy, combined with a subtle sophistication that let you know you were in the hands of an author who took his work seriously.  It’s gratifying to find that aesthetic shared with the current generation of Gothic fans.


  1. Very interesting overview and remarks. I'm only familiar, here, with the Shirley Jackson novel, which I finished last month for the first time.

    I'd never heard the terms creepypasta or copypasta before, but that makes a lot of sense.

    I've got a couple of those Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark around here someplace.

    Good post!

  2. I remember being freaked out by what I saw/read of the "Scary Stories" series. Your comparison of creepypastas to those intrigues me; I've never given creepypastas the time of day, mostly as a time-saving gambit. I'd also want/need a gatekeeper of some sort; diving in to that sort of thing willy-nilly seems exhausting.

    A book that I always mentally lumped in with "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark:


    Not sure if that one traveled or if it was primarily a big deal just in my neck of the woods, but it used to creep me out.

    Random question: should "creepypasta" be pronounced with the first "a" long or short? I'd always assumed short, but its origin story has me wondering. I want to sound hifalutin' at parties, you know.

    Ultimately, I have to confess that my own knowledge of modern horror fiction is almost nonexistent. I wish it wasn't; I wish I had time to keep up. I wish a lot of unrealistic things!

    Good to hear that, from the sound of things, the short form is alive and kicking; that's cheery news, even if I'm not benefiting from it myself.

    1. I think Creepypasta is spelled the way it looks. It's just creepy with the Italian word Pasta after it. In other words, a short "a" sound.

      So far, this is the first I've ever heard of the Gillis Figh book. So I can't say how well known it is. I almost want to say that maybe at some point it was a well enough known text that's been eclipsed by modern fan oriented culture. Sadly, this is becoming a trend of late.