Every once in a while I write non-fiction. Hell, sometimes I even try and sell it. Couldn’t find a home for this article though. Fell in between, or just on the wrong side of, too many guidelines (length, subject, what have you), and just wasn’t quite right for other venues. So just gonna post it here instead.
This article owes its genesis in part to a discussion had with Leah Bobet over Twitter back in May (which is one of the distinct advantages of being able to bounce ideas off of one’s friends, and oddly enough something Twitter is entirely ideal for). For the rest, it’s just something I tend to come back to every once in a while and occasionally ramble about, though more usually in person than online.
The result of which, when I actually sat down to write this out, was this:
Kill is Kiss: The Potency of Words, and Horror as Mimesis
Horror, through the assumption of specificity of language (usually ascribed to literary fiction as one of its principle merits and intrinsic strengths, but more widely applicable), and its approach to real world subjects, is a vastly potent catalyst for enacting mimetic fiction.
And despite the fact that I’m not terribly interested in genre definition, as a general means of expressing or categorizing fiction, it does make sense to at least touch on the codifications of modern marketing categories and their self-ascribed, or otherwise respective, purviews. So for the sake of argument and enjoyable discourse, let us momentarily address the much vaunted notion that the only genre actively discussing the “real” is literary fiction.
When you have finished laughing and picked yourself up from the floor, consider the basis for that assertion: The purportedly “real” in fiction (i.e. “literary fiction”) is an examination of events which might possibly occur in the normal happenstance of everyday life. Some circumstances therein may be overly fortuitous or strain credulity with overwhelming instances of near-mythical confluence, but, if the situations are considered feasible and part of the “normal” course of life, the story is considered mimetic in nature.
Which of course bypasses entirely the notion that truly horrible and life-changing events sometimes come in much darker flavours than literary fiction is generally wont to engage. And the application of the super- or supra-natural in a narrative dismisses entirely the possibility of applying the term “realism” to a piece of fiction if you are approaching the concept from a “lit fic” perspective.
Now, horror, by its nature, is an examination of the darker instincts, actions, and undertakings of human existence. Variations on that theme are encompassed in crime fiction and weird fiction as well, among others. But horror, as an umbrella approach to discussing fiction, is largely about both transgression and looking at how the real world is affected by the darkness of human entities or entities that otherwise stand in for extremes evidenced in human nature (this approached metaphorically).
And, indeed, a most excellent definition for how horror fiction is actually mimetic in nature can be found by repurposing a definition Bruce Sterling gave for slipstream fiction in a 1989 article rather cunningly titled “Slipstream.” Not the definition generally taken from that article–you know, the one up on Wikipedia–because that one is boring, bland, and not at all germane to our purposes. No, this one:
“… an attitude of peculiar aggression against “reality”…. Slipstream tends, not to “create” new worlds, but to quote them, chop them up out of context, and turn them against themselves.”
Which is to say that slipstream has long been a way of saying “Yeah, I don’t know where the fuck this fits; you guys can have it.” Which is, oddly enough, what often happens with horror fiction. It doesn’t quite fit a nice set of boundaries (and more often than not a fair amount of literary fiction is actually horror fiction and simply not labelled so) so all kinds of different explorations of the human condition which are really only similar in their exegesis of the darkest aspects of human nature get lumped together. The notion of not creating a new world but showing its much darker aspects is what prompts this, primarily, especially as concerns crime fiction; war stories, atrocities, and other “real” occurrences are still considered literary fiction, but a story encompassing a false or metaphorical genocide is more often than not going to be considered horror, not “literature,” despite the fact that they cover the same ground. Referencing the “real” and approaching it through horrible action isn’t enough. Pushing things too far askew for them to be readily recognizable is only labelled literary fiction if the work has enough mimetic appeal to find itself with a “literary” readership or if the writer has enough cachet to have their work produced under one unified label (generally that of “literature”).
Before the application of genre became de rigeur, Cervantes, Shelley, even Orwell and Burgess (Anthony in this context, not Tony) were simply literature. It was all literature until the idea of marketing readily recognizable styles and tropes to a specific audience who had previously shown a predilection for them became common practice. Not that categorically specific marketing didn’t exist prior to the deluge of fiction marketing categories, because of course it did.
But, above and beyond the idea of a literary/non-literary divide as framed by marketing departments and crass commercialism, horror is … rather like the bastard child at the party. Everyone recognizes enough diverse elements of the child’s physical features that no one is entirely sure of the parentage, and the other guests recognize that the child is speaking without any kind of filtering mechanism and would really rather the child would just shut up and stop embarrassing everyone else by saying things at once true and horrible.
That’s what horror does really rather well, isn’t it? Make you look at things you don’t want to look at. After all, what is a repurposed definition like the one above but a formula for transgression as method of communication? Horror fiction, by enacting real or imagined terrors and atrocities, makes us, the reader, part of the transgression. By being willing to engage, even if only passively, with repugnant actions, we become complicit with the activities being undertaken: we become an accomplice to the crime.
It’s easy enough to call that cheap thrill, true. But the act of engaging with horror fiction serves a much more primal purpose: doing so allows us to connect with the darker parts of ourselves vicariously. It is, if nothing else (and I am more than happy to venture that horror fiction does a great deal more than the following, but that’s an argument for another time), a release mechanism; horror allows us to approach our own fears, hatreds, our intrinsic desires and shameful secrets, and see them played out by others. One has to remember, we are not just social animals by nature: we are transgressive animals. And without an outlet or venting mechanism, our darker natures accumulate until they overflow the borders of our societal agreements and compacts.
And, an aside, here: We’re not discussing transgressive in the context of “breaking taboos,” which is the general understanding of that vein or genre of fiction which actively labels itself, or is labelled, “transgressive.” But, rather, fiction which concerns itself with the permeability of boundaries and the application of damages or hurts (be they literal or otherwise): fiction that consciously wounds.
And how does horrific and/or transgressive fiction accomplish that enactment of damage or wounding? Through the proper use and specificity of language.
The focus on language, and of words as conveyance, is key in this transaction. That transmission is the crux of horror fiction’s engagement, and language itself at a word level is often directly applied metaphorically as a method of alienating us from each other.
The most literal example of this to be covered here is the notion of language as carrier of plague or infection as put forth in Tony Burgess’s Pontypool Changes Everything, which contains the line from which this article takes its title. The central theme of language as distorting agent not only drives the story of a small town isolated from others and falling prey to a virus passed on through specific words, but the malleability and aptness of words is key to the story’s resolution. The fact that Pontypool Changes Everything is about the failure of language to bridge the gap between people, and that even when there is triumph in the face of overwhelming odds it is temporary, merely situates the novel as a work of horror–a genre which might rightly be referred to as the literature of documented failure.
In instances where that level of failure is absent, even in the same contexts or where a story follows a relatively similar thematic throughline, the label of horror may not be as directly applicable, though those stories do still contain horrific elements. Consider Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” which is not classified as horror–though it is decidedly horrific in context–by virtue of its hopeful close. Or Lavie Tidhar’s “Love is a Parasite Meme,” which though it does embody a similar form of failure in the face of societal dissolution as does Burgess’s novel, its grander sense of scope and larger underlying narrative renders it more immediately fabulist or fantastical.
But whether more fantastical or no in context, that treatment of language as the most important function in the story is of equal weight to both literary fiction and horror fiction. It’s generally not as literalized as in Burgess, Butler, or Tidhar, but the specificity of language with which horror concerns itself in the crafting is interesting, too, in context of the way literary fiction approaches aptness of language. There is a great deal of import accorded to, perhaps even a paramount insistence on, prose as key in literary fiction. Whereas speculative fiction is often nominally seen as more focused on plot and throughline, literary fiction gets to ostensibly be concerned with the act of how most poetically to tell a story. At least in idealized, or archetypal, terms; the actuality of the situation is rarely that cut and dried.
Horror fiction as a genre is no stranger to writers with exceptional prose skills in evidence. But its writers are seldom engaged solely in crafting one kind of work or another, because writers do not necessarily need to choose to delimit themselves to working in one genre, unless there’s a financially advantageous reason to doing so. And horror, one needs to remember, though treated as a genre, is not actually a genre (technically, neither is “literary fiction,” but, again, discussion for another time): it’s a mode or atmosphere applied to other genres to tell a story with darker or more horrific context.
Even authors who work primarily in literary fiction frequently cross over into what is typically considered to be horror territory. Tony Burgess is a good example of a writer whose works are difficult, at best, to classify as one genre or another, and whose horror writings are embraced by the wider literary community based, largely, on the excellence of his craft. Joyce Carol Oates’s work, too, while generally more immediately literary in nature, also wanders deeply into horror territory on occasion: as especially in the stories curated in her collections The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares and Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, and stories such as “Landfill,” which originally ran in The New Yorker, and later appeared in her collection Dear Husband.
It’s worth remembering, too, that Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” originally ran in The New Yorker. Though officially a publication running mimetic, or literary fiction, The New Yorker over the years has run an awful lot of subversively horrific fiction. And it’s simply because the lines blur; the divide is almost entirely illusory.
Writers like Elizabeth Hand or Gemma Files, Tom Piccirilli, Joe Lansdale, John Langan, Nina Allan, Susie Moloney, and Kathe Koja, among numerous others, all write intensely mimetic fiction by situating the bulk of their work in realistic settings, paying specific attention to character interaction, to the subtleties of familial and communal interaction, and the impact that quiet or seemingly non-momentous decisions can have on a story’s environs. The act of documenting the world, and of looking at its underlying structure and foundations, is absolutely intrinsic to the best instances of horror fiction. Without that foundation of real world elements and examination thereof, you end up with a far weaker tale that merely glosses the surface.
Weird fiction, too, engages in this; it requires a basis of the “real” for things to go askew from. Laird Barron, specifically, is a master of the weird tale stemming out of an alteration of the purportedly real. It is his mimetic approach to first shaping a story about the normal world that lends the subsequent distortions thereof such potency. Clive Barker also, a master stylist of language and character, grounds his work in the ostensibly real, and throws it to the proverbial wolves of the weird or supranatural once the foundational work is set in place and we have accustomed ourselves to the environs of the tale.
Without first laying that groundwork, we have no reason to acclimate to the characters; we lack investment in what is to occur.
And that technique even allows us to sympathize with characters we would otherwise never engage with. Nathan Ballingrud, in the stories contained in his collection North American Lake Monsters, explores and humanizes characters otherwise vile and irredeemable by portraying for us their ordinariness; their blandness. It is an enactment of the visceral accessibility of the seemingly monstrous; a bridging effect allowing us to relate to characters whose actions and mores we would otherwise find repellent.
Kaaron Warren, too, wanders in this territory, specifically in novels such as Slights. Absolutely transgressive in the context we’ve discussed herein, Slights concerns itself with a character who should be unequivocally repellent, but who we sympathize with despite murderous tendencies, vile interactions with family and others, and in the face of her unrepentant viciousness and misanthropy. Partly because the groundwork is laid so seamlessly, partly because there is far more going on beneath the surface of Slights than a surface read would glean: Slights is much more a passion play, writ as bildungsroman (in its proper and original usage, referencing spiritual growth), than a straightforward narrative, but Warren still approaches the telling of that tale through mimetic means with horrific and largely psychologically rooted bases and overtones.
In all of these instances, in the work of every writer named above, the stories impact us so viscerally for two principal reasons: The first is the strength of the craft evidenced in these works, operating largely on prose, sentence, and sentence-to-sentence flow levels as well as overall larger construction. The second is the grounding in mimetic basis that places these stories in a context of real world interaction, and gives us an easy and potent entry into the stories themselves.
One of the principal reasons mimetic horror is so effective at drawing a reader in is that it folds a reader in with initially familiar and commonplace concepts. It tricks them into acclimating automatically to a story’s world. And then commences to challenge their perceptions. Mimesis is by no means the only way to tell a story, indeed there is no single right way to do so, but exquisitely crafted horror succeeds not because it takes us so far over the top, nor because it shows us the monsters of legend we wish to see, nor even because it gives us a vast and often transgressive canvas to overlay our own stifled emotions and impulses onto.
No, the best horror fiction succeeds in terrifying and wounding us, through mimesis, because it shows us the thing we fear most:
 Bruce Sterling, “Slipstream,” SF Eye #5 (July 1989)↩