Beneath the Skin:
The Poetics of Horror
by Robert Hood
there a poetry of horror? If we're talking about horror
fiction, sure, why not? This might strike some (the
spook-show challenged) as odd or unbelievable, but,
sadly (for the sceptics), it's true. Horror fiction
is a literary form and it works using many (if not all)
of the same techniques as other literary forms, poetical
ones included. Sometimes there's success; sometimes
failure. Sometimes there's dross; sometimes there's
gold. The pursuit of horror as a genre is a utilisation
of certain tropes, image clusters, and plot archetypes
- what is done with them determines their value.
Okay, there's lots of contentious statements and begged
questions in that lot.
a word in apologia mode. Horror fiction has a long and
varied history of using the imagery of fear, monstrosity
and disorientation to entertain and provoke reaction
(physical, mental and emotional). It's not all monsters
(or axe-murderers) leaping out of cupboards, even if
some of it is. Horror fiction explores the deepest concerns
of human kind in a powerful and often provocative manner,
and on occasion even manages apotheosis to the divine
heights of 'classic'.
course by the time a particular horror story achieves
such acceptance it has usually ceased to be considered
horror fiction at all by those who want to deny the
genre's literary value. (The same phenomenon has been
evident of late in regards to movies. There's been a
spate of 'good', even critically acclaimed ones -- but
of course to some only the 'bad' ones qualify as horror
you seen 'The Sixth Sense'?"
It's got to be one of the best horror films of the decade."
film? It's not a horror film. It's about human relations."
it uses various horror tropes, is a ghost story, contains
people being scared, concerns itself with matters of
life and death in a dark-fantasy context, and is frequently
creepy, are all, curiously, irrelevant. C'est la frisson!)
don't intend to exhaustively define horror as a literary
genre, beyond commenting that: (a) it doesn't cease
to be genre horror because if displays an interest in
human (as distinct from inhuman) nature. (Indeed, many
would argue that an interest in human nature is mandatory,
even at potboiler level, and that this is often -- though
not always -- undertaken in horror stories by juxtaposing
other question I intend to largely beg (on the grounds
that it's probably explored elsewhere more effectively
and is too complicated anyway) is the one about what
constitutes 'poetry'. Obviously, in this context, I'm
not talking about the stuff you find in poetry books
or hear read aloud in coffee shops by poets. Not poetic
verse. Rather, by 'poetics' I'm pointing (however arbitrarily)
toward some sort of concentration or layering of effect
through the use of words (or images). Not all is as
it seems; not everything means only one thing; poetic
devices appear in most prose, including horror stories.
that 'horror poetry' as such doesn't crop up in magazines
and books. Here's the opening stanzas of a well-known
one by Edgar Allen Poe:
upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber
door -- Only this, and nothing more."
distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon
Eagerly I wished the morrow; -- vainly I had sought
From my books surcease of sorrow -- sorrow for the lost
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name
Nameless here for evermore.
the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me -- filled me with fantastic terrors never
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber
This it is, and nothing more."
is the beginning of "The Raven", of course. Here's
the famous last stanza:
the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that
And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow
on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating
on the floor
Shall be lifted -- nevermore!
anyone who wants to read the whole poem, it can be found
using the imagery and subject matter of horror also
appear in modern horror-dedicated magazines. One Australian
writer of such poetry is Kyla
in general we'll stick to prose. On the most obvious
level, poetic devices such as simile, metaphor, symbolism,
onomatopoeia, hyperbole, etc. form part of the literary
arsenal of horror writers (as all writers), and they
are used more or less extensively (and effectively)
according to the skills and purposes of individual authors.
get up and go to the bookshelf behind me. Grab Stephen
King's book, Hearts in Atlantis, and open it
at random. Page 174. On that page, the following poetic
the bottom of the vase struck the top of his head, skipped
like a stone on a pond, hit the wall and shattered."
could see blooms of blood in the scant hair on top of
his head where the vase had clipped him."
face was dead white. The bruises on it stood out like
dots flocked across his vision, making him think briefly
and confusedly (coming closing in now the posters have
his name on them) of the low men."
tried to speak and what came out instead was a dry and
flailing old man's cigarette cough."
a bit from "Pages From a Young Girl's Journal"
by Robert Aickman (whose collection of short stories
is on a nearby shelf and is often cited for its 'poetic'
old moon is drenching my sheets and my night-gown in
from the same author's "Niemandswasser":
realised that he was dead anyway. Elvira had killed
him, life had killed him, the passing years had killed
him: whichever it was. There was no need for a weapon,
or for action of any kind on his part. When the heart
is dead, all is dead, though the victim may not fully
realise it for a long time."
could discuss the effect of such devices when used in
horror fiction, but, of course, I'm not going to. No
time. Suffice it to say that visualisation, anticipation,
reflection of thematic issues, emotional multilayering
- they're all there.
that most of these poetic devices get us very far below
the skin. The last quotation, however, points us in
a direction that gets more to the heart of horror's
power (putting aside pure entertainment value): its
ability (not unique, of course) to forge metaphors for
states of being, emotions, attitudes to life, moralities,
and all the other things that humans -- and human arts
-- concern themselves with.
relevance here is the use of the thematic images and
structures standard to the genre, otherwise called tropes,
stereotypes and clichés. Of course it is a function
of the original use to which tropes etc. are put that
determines whether they might be called 'stereotypes'
or 'clichés'. The best horror creates images or image
clusters that can capture and amplify emotional and
philosophical meaning in visceral and immediate ways
-- ways that are integral to the total work, thematically
as well as in terms of plot convenience. Whether these
are re-workings of old and traditional images, or newly
minted ones, they can be a very potent literary element.
consider that horror is particularly strong as a genre
in this regard (it was what attracted me to it in the
first place), particularly as it feeds on both the dead
and the living bodies of Fantasy, of which it is a subset.
Just as dragons, say, have strong meaning beyond their
literary existence as big medieval flying lizards, so
the staple creatures of horror -- demons, the lumbering
abominations of Dr Frankenstein and his kin, evil alter
egos, werewolves, Lovecraftian Elder Gods, zombies,
strangely literate yet ruthlessly cruel serial killers
-- function as multilayered repositories of metaphorical
power. Compare the murderer in your typical crime story
with the killer existing at the horror end of the crime
spectrum -- Hannibal Lecter, Jason Vorhees (Friday
the 13th and its sequels), Michael Myers (Halloween),
Freddy Frueger (Nightmare on Elm Street and Wes
Craven's New Nightmare in particular), Mr Hyde,
that freaky bloke in Dean Koontz's Mr Murder
-- and you'll notice a qualitative difference, a depth
of meaning that sometimes exists despite the creator's
(lack of) literary ambition. These guys are not just
murderers; they are icons of murder. They become emblematic.
Often the poetics of horror are so powerful that the
story resonates far beyond the typeface or the flickering
notice that a lot of the examples I use are from films.
Not surprising really. Horror's visceral nature lends
itself to cinematic presentation, even though not always
successfully, as being shown too much can inhibit the
powerful input of the reader's imagination. Nevertheless
much of the literary horror genre's recent history has
been 'led' by trends in film -- in a way that doesn't
really happen in that more cerebral 'sister' genre,
Beyond the above considerations, the imagery and plot
structures of horror fiction (not exclusively perhaps,
but, in the best examples, consistently) function like
T.S. Eliot's 'objective correlative', providing a concrete
stimulus for emotion and ideas -- encouraging modes
of emotional thought. We're not talking philosophy or
science here, but something that's more exclusively
the province of 'Art' -- a web of irrational, or barely
articulated, experience that gets closer to replicating,
and hence clarifying, the complexities of existence
than is possible (or even desirable perhaps) elsewhere.
At any rate consider some obvious examples: Dr Frankenstein's
creative activities as the perverse triumph (and perceived
limitation) of science; the psycho-sexual and ongoing
fascination with predatory immortality represented by
Dracula and other vampires (especially Anne Rice's);
the exploration of the animal/human nexus in werewolves
and other human composite beings; Stephen King's brilliantly
powerful metaphor for grief that is his Pet Semetary;
The Exorcist as an expression of generational bewilderment
and the nature of belief. Nearly every episode of that
wonderful TV horror series Buffy the Vampire Slayer
is a lesson in the extended horror metaphor (here often
concentrated on finding plot correlations for typical
and atypical adolescent dilemmas); in fact one of the
most enjoyable novels I've read lately was a Buffy novel,
Immortal. Written by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder,
it does what the TV show does so well -- creates engaging
characters and clear exciting plot-lines that thematically
interact and forge a complex of metaphors exploring
an aspect of human experience, in this instance, fear
could go on, but I'm not allowed to and haven't got
the time anyway. I'm currently on a tight deadline writing
a series of supernatural thrillers for young adults
and hence trying to achieve some of the effects I've
been describing above.
in lieu of further discussion, you might take a look
at a story of mine where I deliberately attempted to
take a 'poetic' approach to the genre. The story is
"The Calling" and it appears in my new ghost story collection,
Immaterial. It illustrates a few of the points I've
mentioned. Interestingly it was first published in a
literary magazine rather than a genre one, whatever