(the brief essay that serves as the intro to Phantom):
Literary Horror: Dude you made that up
The following is a brief (and clearly informal!) e-mail exchange with a colleague–who primarily writes and reads works of fantasy–concerning PHANTOM and horror in general:
Colleague: A horror anthology sounds interesting. I’m a person who loves/hates horror. I can’t read or watch movies without gettng the heebie-jeebies. Yet, I still do it (on rare occasion).
Me: I’m a big time scaredy cat. So my tastes tend to be particular; “literary horror” if there’s such a thing.
Colleague: “Literary Horror” . . . Dude, you made that up! But I think you mean something more psychological than gross out/painful being the result. Or do I have that wrong? I don’t like horror for the sake of having lots of death. I like some deeper reason (more than he was crazy).
All right, so horror has its baggage: the seemingly unending stream of exploitative Hollywood slasher and torture movies, the stuff of pubescent revenge and misogynistic fantasies, or the retread plot of some unspeakable horror visits the nice white suburban neighborhood and the ‘other’ must be defeated; and most recently,the seemingly unending horde of Internet champions, websites with names like StabbyStabStab.com that feature unreadable stories and slime-lined banner-ads to their vanity published books,their authors boasting of being the next Stephen King or being too brutal-for-your-grandma. As frustrating as it is, no other genre seems to be as defi ned or recognized by the works that fail as art.
Yeah, there’s baggage with both words (literary and horror), and yeah, there’s a lot of bad horror but, Dude, I did not make up “literary horror.” I swear. It lives! Within the last half-century practitioners of literary horror include Shirley Jackson, William Faulkner (tell me “A Rose for Emily” is not a horror story, go ahead, I dare you!), Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Stewart O’Nan, Chuck Palahniuk, and Kelly Link just to name a few.
Many a more qualified writer has attempted an in-depth definition of the genre, but here’s an incredibly brief and awkward attempt at defining literary horror (I could be rightly accused of simply describing horror that I like . . . but since you’re reading this, you’re stuck with it.) by what it achieves: The literary horror story aims to do more than shock, titilate, scare, or affect the reader. While affect is a clear and important (possibly defining) element of horror fiction, there needs to be more. In using the elements of literary fiction–style, theme, setting, character–the literary horror story goes beyond the scare, beyond the revealing of some terrible truth (personal or social or universal) and asks the truly terrifying questions: What’s next? What decisions are you going to make? Does it matter the consequences? Do you know the consequences? How are you going to live through this? How does anyone live through this? Stories where the shock or the grand revealings or implications aren’t the point, but a part of the exploration of how people react to the everyday horrors of existence, how they might answer How does anyone live through this?
The true horrors of the inimitable Steve Rasnic Tem’s “The Cabinet Child” are the decisions Alma and her husband make, independently of each other, while under the duress of an all-too-familiar loneliness.
Steve Eller’s “The End of Everything” and Carrie Laben’s “Invasive Species” present recognizable but fresh apocalyptic scenarios, making their settings painfully personal via the desperate actions of their flawed and fragile characters.
In the break-neck paced “The Ones Who Got Away,” Stephen Graham Jones tells us right up front that something bad is going to happen, and makes us live through the hours of decisions and consequences (both intended and unintended) leading up to the inevitable.
Michael Cisco’s wonderfully unreliable narrator in “Mr. Wosslynne” spins a dizzying Aickman-like fever dream that blurs reality and identity. Similar in its unreality, Becca De La Rosa’s story pieces the bits of Kate’s life together creating ghosts and houses, and nothing is safe.
From paranoid gold prospectors to lonely curators, Satan worshiping Long Island teens, metaphysics-obsessed television reporters, and to Peter and Olivia and their devastating final choices detailed in the last pages of this anthology, the fourteen stories of PHANTOM present their horrors diff erently, but they all ask: How does anyone live through this?