Haunted Passages: Paul Michael Anderson
Standing at a Line in the Sand with a Shiver in Your Heart
I want to talk about the limitless possibilities of what horror is and what horror can do. I want to rail against the mainstream critics and dilettantes who deride the genre every time something major comes along—the release of an IT, the premiere of a Walking Dead, the publication of a Let the Right One In or A Headful of Ghosts—and catches a mainstream audience’s eye. I want to vent about the more noxious elements of horror fandom—the sweaty neckbeards (said neckbeards might not be literal; you know the type)—who, like their mainstream counterparts, rant about horror as if they are some form of anointed gatekeepers, cheerfully not seeing the irony of the fact that they use very-well-researched opinions on the quality of tits in, say, Troma films or 1980s slasher flicks as measuring sticks for a horror piece’s “quality.”
The problem with doing all that, of course, is everyone has a different definition of what horror is and to rant and rave means that I, too, have to set parameters and boundaries on the genre.
The reality is that horror, as a genre, is in a constant identity crisis. Its creators have a handle on it about as much as the general audience—by which I mean to say, no one has a fucking clue.
Horror—as opposed to science fiction and fantasy, and the other forms under the overly-generic umbrella term of “speculative fiction”—is the most ill-defined, mostly because horror is purely emotional. It’s a reaction a person feels when something awful, unsettling, or disturbing occurs … and what unsettles me may not unsettle you and vice versa. Horror is a tuning fork, twanging in your gut. It’s your nerve-endings, wound around a thumbscrew, being cinched tighter around the base. Those are pretty words, but in execution it’s a concept that’s impossible to codify with any consistency.
A lot of creators hang those emotions on physical things—a psycho killer, a supernatural event, one of Universal Studios’ monster coterie—but all of those are simply adornments; they aren’t horror. The horror comes from the actions taken, the subtext thrown in, and that’s a very subjective thing to think about.
Example: One of my wife’s favorite movies is the 2002 film The Hours, starring Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris. If you haven’t seen it, it tells the story of three people across three different points of time, all connected by the book Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (who is also one of the three characters, played by Kidman).
I refuse to watch it.
The middle story, depicting a 1950s mother leaving her son and going to a hotel room with the intent of committing suicide, has always filled me with such horror that my nerves physically repel me. Whether it’s due to something in my own psychological makeup or an actual intent of the creators, I immediately identify with the mother’s son, standing at a large picture window, freaking out as his mother drives away and … Christ. I haven’t seen the film in over a decade and I can picture those frames in perfect recall and something inside turns away just writing those words down. I saw it once and that was enough.
That eternally vibrating tuning fork. That twist of the thumbscrew on my nerves.
The Hours is considered a drama, but it’s a horror movie to me. Probably not to you, though, right?
And that’s the point. Our definitions of horror are unintended but strongly-enforced lines in the sand we individually draw. If we’re good, we try to get other people to cross that line with us.
Another example, this one more personal: my most “successful” stories—the ones that got at least a passing notice from Ellen Datlow, or made it onto the prelim ballot for awards—are stories I self-deprecatingly described as horror films for the Lifetime channel. Specifically, I’m talking about a story called “The Agonizing Guilt of Relief (Last Days of a Ready-Made Victim)” and the novella Bones Are Made to Be Broken. In the former, I write about an older brother trying to save his sibling from an abusive life and all his attempts failing. In the latter, I write about a mother trying to raise her son while suffering a nervous breakdown as her life spirals out of control.
The stories sound l9ike dramas, don’t they? In both, the death count is minimal and while violence hangs over the scenes, the violence is, aside from a few instances, internal. But I wrote them as horror stories and the concepts prevalent in both—helplessness, a loss of personal control, paranoia, failure of recovery—are things that terrify me as a person, a husband, a family member, a parent.
But here’s where that line in the sand works against the creators on a personal level: when they got noticed (and, recently, I got stopped at a convention so I could sign the anthology “The Agonizing Guilt” originally appeared in), I immediately thought, “Are you out of your fucking mind?” I wrote those stories by mining my own anxieties and rage (Bones incorporated remixed incidents of my own childhood, for example). You can look at it as a bit of imposter syndrome on my part—here’s me, with my little family horror story about self-destruction and the fallout, standing cheek-to-jowl with zombies and vampires and Lovecraftian monstrosities. I couldn’t believe that, for even a moment, I had pulled someone else across the line onto my side.
And that’s where we leave the creator and focus on the relationship with … I initially wrote “the audience” here, but what I really mean is “fandom”, that noxious state where appreciation becomes expectation and quality is more gilded than pure. Because that line isn’t just for pulling people across; in fandom, it can be used to shove people out.
You have this in all genres, of course, and we in the horror industry watched it happen on a grand scale in science fiction a few years ago—this idea that certain things don’t qualify as fitting the genre. In science fiction it was about the supposed imbuing of politics into the stories (as if stories aren’t inherently political, anyway).
In horror, it’s when fandom scoffs at your personal definitions and reactions, dismissing it or reviling it. You know what I’m talking about. Those neckbeards. Those people who equate good horror with how debased the characters become, with bodycount. With being “extreme” and thinking that you can only be extreme by reveling in taboos and blood and tits and stereotypes. These people read something like Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door and saw only the kids cross-stitching I FUCK FUCK ME across Meg’s stomach and completely ignored or missed the subtext of the 1950s don’t-say-anything mentality Ketchum was actually trying to talk about.
Those people see the line in the sand as something you mustn’t ever cross; you’re either already on their side or you don’t belong in horror. If someone puts a book away for being shallow and offensive, if the creator focuses entirely on the physical objects usually associated with horror and ignores the reasoning, that person is belittled and asked if they even like horror. As if horror is this monolithic thing to be protected. You see these numbshits completely miss the point of subgenres like splatterpunk and bizarro, where, yeah, the violence is fun—but was the creator really only talking about that? Was it all surface and nothing beneath?
(Tangent: and of course it’s these fuckheads who get pointed out when some mainstream critic maligns the genre, as if the loser who can only remember Linnea Quigley dancing nude in Return of the Living Dead is somehow the archetype of a “true” horror fan. In these instances, the critic is as lazy and dimwitted as that horror “fan.”)
Here I am, though, setting parameters and boundaries.
Horror can be about the visceral and every genre has its physical landmarks—science fiction has tech, fantasy has remixed mythology, and horror has its monsters and blood. But horror can also be and, I would argue, should be seen by default by what the creators do or don’t do with those touchstones. Not every landmark needs to be used. If you go to New York City and don’t visit, say, the Empire State Building, does that mean you didn’t visit New York?
Because horror is emotion, not landmarks, and the lines in the sand are everywhere. Horror can be in science fiction and fantasy, crime and romance. Horror is the Silly Putty genre. It’s not “psychological thriller”, a term used by the timid and the narrow-sighted as if to sanitize the stereotype the moniker “horror” has—it’s just fucking horror.
As creators, we try our best to make you feel what we feel. I don’t give a fuck, when telling a story, if I react to a scene or a sequence; that I will react is a given. When telling a story, I want you to react the same way.
And, yeah, I know, I can think of a dozen or so creators right now reading this going, “Well, duh,” but this isn’t about them. It’s about the dilettante, the neckbeard, the person who has within themselves defined what horrifies them but finds themselves constantly defending those views to others. A lot of creators know how horror is malleable, even if constantly question ourselves—it’s the audience I’m talking about.
When I talk about horror, I’m not talking about the monsters, even if I’m putting monsters in it. I’m talking about the emotion and it’s the emotion that is the only true definition of the genre, as broad as that may be. For creators, for fans, for an audience, it’s that tuning fork. It’s that thumbscrew turning.
It’s pulling you across that line in the sand.
However and whatever it takes for me to do it.
About the Author
Paul Michael Anderson is the author of Bones Are Made to Be Broken (Written Backwards/Dark Regions Press), which Jack Ketchum called “a dark carnival of rigorous intelligence and compassion, the title novella alone of which is well worth the price of admission” and Fangoria said, “With Bones Are Made to Be Broken, Anderson announces himself as a major talent in the dark fiction realm, capable of fashioning imaginative, bold visions”. His stories, articles, reviews, interviews, and introductions have appeared in numerous anthologies, magazines, and websites. You can find him on Twitter under the inspired handle @p_m_anderson
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of Coyote Songs and Zero Saints. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias