Surrealism in Horror

Let’s talk of horror. Let’s talk of the bizarre, the disturbing, the traumatic. Let’s talk of what scares us, really scares us.

I’ve written about surreal horror on my own blog, but it’s never a bad time to explore this. Often, people think of a horror story as one filled with vampires, zombies, sugar-crazed power-drill-wielding serial killers, or other such beasties and goblins, but at best, these are dark adventure stories. A typical horror novel of this sort may start with a spooky atmosphere and a sense that the author is tapping into our subconscious, but after a certain point, the monster steps out from the shadows, or the mask comes off of the creature causing the mysterious happenings, and then it becomes an adventure story centered around the worry that Our Hero (or Heroine) will not be able to defeat the creature. The 80s horror boom thrived on stories like this (evil clowns, possessed innocent children, ghosts and spectres in the old abandoned house) but around the last third, they almost all became adventure stories. This doesn’t mean they were bad, by any means. (As much as Stephen King wrote in the 80s, he couldn’t quite satisfy this boy’s thirst for dark fantasy fiction) but they weren’t what I would really consider ‘horror.’) This type of horror was intricately logical…  IT was haunting the town because it had been exiled there years past; the ghost was haunting the composer because it had been killed by a former inhabitant; the strangers from everywhere in the US were being drawn together by a shared experience. All of these are dark stories. All of these tap into the part of the unconscious that we keep tucked safely under the bed and never let our hands drift over the edge for fear that it will reach out and grab us.

Speaking of beds, a topic recently surfaced on reddit that asked readers for the best two-sentence horror story. The one with the most votes, by ‘JustAnotherMuffledVo’ was beautiful, simple, and horrifying:

I begin tucking him into bed and he tells me, “Daddy, check for monsters under my bed.” I look underneath for his amusement and see him, another him, under the bed, staring back at me quivering and whispering, “Daddy there’s somebody on my bed.”

The unexpected… the surreal… the horror with no explanation. There’s no third sentence that tells of an ancient Indian curse that creates a Doppelgänger because the house was built on an ancient cemetery.

How about this:

Not too far from Cheyenne, Wyoming, sometime in 2013, a sinkhole opens up. Inside, rescue workers find evidence of an ancient civilization, at least a hundred thousand years old. A group of scientists, FBI agents, and a few members of the US Army, investigate and they discover that the buildings belonged to a country that called itself The United States of America.

Or what if you’re driving north on I-75, trying to go from Atlanta, Georgia, to Flint, Michigan, and after you cross the northern border of Tennessee, you find yourself in Ohio. And after you leave Ohio, you find yourself in Kentucky, and you end up having to drive through Ohio again.

The vastly underrated author Robert Aickman wrote what he called “strange stories” that perfectly fit this definition. The collection Cold Hand in Mine begins with a novella called “The Swords” that has perhaps the most quietly frightening tale of a young male learning of his own sexuality that I’ve ever read. The climax of the story was so outside my experience, so outside what I expected from horror stories, that I had to read that paragraph twice just to make sure I’d read it correctly. And no matter how many times I read this novella, the ending still puts a catch in my throat and makes me just a little more nervous than I was when I began. Likewise, this story has no convenient wrapper at the end, a little listing of ingredients, to include no more than 50% of your daily allowance of ghosts, goblins, and spooks, that can be easily disbelieved.

It just happens.

There is no explanation comforting us by saying it’s ‘only’ a demon, or a creature from another dimension, or an alien, nothing that we can appeal to with our science and slot into a little box and pretend it doesn’t really frighten our logical little minds.

Just… this. It happened. There is no reason it happened. There is no logic to why it happened.

And therefore, there is no defense against it happening to you.

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