Grasping for Control: Reading and Writing Horror in Times of Crisis

28 Days Later - Mural Scene

28 Days Later

Being a writer and fan of horror often leads to a question from people who have limited contact with the genre:

“What scares you?”

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that horror is about so much more than fear. But the dread, the discomfort, the revulsion and—yes, the terror—which horror generates in an almost infinite variety of combinations, for me at least, is often derived from a single commonality:

A lack of control.

For better or worse, mankind has achieved supremacy on Earth in evolutionary terms, primarily as a result of our capacity to control our environment. While life is not entirely stable, it remains relatively ordered much of the time, and it’s through this that we’ve been able to create complex societies, cultures, transport networks, labour markets and all the rest. So, it’s not hugely surprising that when this fundamental element of control is pulled out from underneath us like the proverbial rug, we feel afraid.

First, let’s look at some examples of how this type of fear is generated in horror fiction.

bird box together

Bird Box

In Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, we find a world turned upside down. An apocalypse that few people understand, individuals robbed of their capacity to think rationally which itself spreads in the form of panic. As a reader, these scenes are terrifying. We feel every adrenaline-driven thump of Malorie’s heart as she tries to escape the madness of it. It’s only when she finds the group and the safe house, which has been adapted to the new reality of not looking out at the world beyond, that we are granted a lull in the action. The terror subsides. At least for a while.

In Dear Laura (nominated for this year’s Bram Stoker Award), by Gemma Amor, we find a split narrative. In one strand, we find Laura living at the mercy of a cruel individual, waiting for his next point of contact, his next demand. In the other, Laura has decided to act. The emotional resonance of the two threads is marked, one soaked with the terror of being robbed of control, the other imbued with the courage of striking back.

In The Ritual, by Adam Nevill, as well as in its petrifying film adaptation, directed by David Bruckner, the fear comes from the wilderness. One of those last vestiges of the world where man has not effectively imposed itself. Where the principle of adapting the environment, of exercising control over nature, has not been enacted. Humanity as the apex of evolution, master of all it surveys is inverted, as something faster, stronger, infinitely better adapted to the hunt, stalks the protagonist and his group. There are sections of this hunt after which this writer needed to close the book for a breather.

The Ritual

The Ritual

One final example, quite different from the others, comes from Michael Griffin’s Hieroglyphs of Blood and Bone, which finds Guy, a man whose life has been a picture of order for as long as he can remember, facing a new reality. Newly divorced, distracted from his work and thrown into a chaotic living arrangement with colleague and, in some sense, friend, Karl, he allows himself to wander out into wild places and to be seduced by a mysterious woman in a way that is totally out of character. His very world is fragmented, while all about him retains its normalcy. And for the reader, this chaos that invades him is deeply unsettling.

Now, as we find ourselves in a real-life state where control has been wrested from us, why on earth would we want to read or write horror? The single genre where this element is not only at its most pervasive, but also where the stakes are higher than in the vast majority of others. Because in doing so we are exercising control. We lose ourselves in the pages and turn our backs, at least for a moment, on the horrors which are stalking our reality. And when it gets too much, we can close the book.

Long before people spoke about a pandemic, as the world has become less certain for many of us (owing to a great number of factors,) readers and writers of horror have spoken of the desire—the need, even—to tell and absorb these darkest of stories as a way to escape the horrors that lurk outside our front doors.

So, if you’re isolating at home, if you’re forced to continue working as part of the most critical areas of the workforce at this time, if you’re feeling anxious or worried, close your social media for a while, block out some of the white noise of the things you can’t control and try to focus on something you can.

Even if some of you have found yourself and your creative process paralysed—this writer has had an almost total block on creating over the course of the last week—don’t be afraid to step back, to lay low and soak up some inspiration, or just something that makes you feel good. Open that book that’s been hovering around the top of your TBR for a while, add one more wrinkle to the spine of one of your always-reassuring comfort reads. Don’t beat yourself up for reacting to something that was always going to prompt a reaction. The words will come.

As Michael David Wilson always says, be good to yourself, take care of one another, read horror and keep on writing.


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