The Analysis of Fear: A Discussion of Classical and Contemporary Horror
There is, within horror fiction, a certain discrepancy in the idea of what makes a respectable author. The ability to manipulate the reader into a state of disquiet and fear is a necessity, but beyond that, what are the hidden qualifiers which make a horror story successful? That is where contention arises- whether a story’s value lies in its ability to shock and awe or is the key the way a writer can cause his words to twist and writhe almost of their own accord, the beauty and terror which can be invoked through a turn of phrase. Readers who glorify in the thrill of fear sing the praises of Clive Barker’s imagination and unflinching gore- however there is little to no discussion of his literary talents. As I opened volume one of Barker’s Books of Blood, I was struck by the similarity of Barker and H.P Lovecraft. Initially as I read ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ I was distinctly reminded of Lovecraft’s ‘The Rats in the Walls.’ Not only do Barker’s ideas regarding an underground society of ancient and cannibalistic beings line up with Lovecraft’s concepts- but the way in which Barker approached the situation, building up slowly from the above and outside world to the insane and disorienting underground world. There is a distinct lack of respect for many modern horror writers, such as Barker- a lack of analysis of their work and a tendency of critics to only look at the surface meaning, as opposed to the deep and thorough critiques of Lovecraft, as a classical writer.
It is difficult to find a specific statement from any critic (with the stipulation of the article possessing a level of intelligence and literacy)- but through reading reviews of Barker’s books the discussion is shallow and perhaps even a bit trite. There is blood and guts and explicitly violent and sexual scenes which provide memorable shock value, this is what is written about. However, while his backdrops may be modern, and his sentences lacking the beautifully archaic structure of Lovecraft’s, as Edmund Yeo writes- “even if his characters aren’t always troublingly deep, there’s a certain sick elegance to the prose that’s missing in more forgettable fare.” (Yeo) One may find forgettable, albeit gory, horror for a dime a dozen, but there are few authors who can work their words around the violence while remaining on topic rather than deviating into a plotless blood bath. That is one trap into which Barker rarely falls. He manipulates shock and violence, rather than falling victim to the thrall of blood and guts. In the same way a highly acclaimed horror movie can be differentiated from a B rated film largely by the cheesiness of the deaths and maimings, as can good horror writing be separated from the hacks.
Lovecraft is one of the authors whom I find is rarely read in leisure. Lovecraft is looked upon by academics for the style of writing more so than the stories themselves- and in this manner Lovecraft faces the opposite problem from Barker. Critics miss the forest for the trees. If one looks at the beauty of the prose it seems obvious that Lovecraft is an outstanding writer- but I believe that the way in which the sentences connect to paragraphs, and the paragraphs to frame the whole twisted and maniacal story is where the true skill of Lovecraft lies. Although Lovecraft crafted his writings from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, his works are still heavily referenced in culture today. The H.P Lovecraft website recounts a vast array of movies, music, art, and other items influenced by Lovecraft. While most of the mention outside of the classroom is inexplicably made towards the Cthulhu, many of his stories have been made into easily consumed movies, not only through the direct interpretation of the tales, but also through those rather more inspired than directly ‘based on’ Lovecraft. I believe it is the lack of desire of the masses to subject themselves to intricate prose that allows the stories of Lovecraft to fall behind the analysis of his style. The more one reads literature of the era, the less convoluted it seems to interpret. However, looking at the popularity of Lovecraftian plots in widely consumed media, it is obvious that his stories are as easily absorbed as Barker’s when the false mask of unfamiliar sentence structure falls away. The writer and director of the cult classic horror film The Evil Dead (1981), Sam Raimi, studied Lovecraft and was thereafter inspired to make a movie revolving around a Necronomonican, a book of the dead. While it may seem a tenebrous connection at best, Barker’s Books of Blood Volume One (which contains ‘The Midnight Meat Train’) was published in 1984, with a similar basis on a Necronomonicon. The framing story surrounding the short stories of the Books of Blood is that the tales are read off the skin of a young boy who had been written upon by the dead, and as such had been made into a Necronomonicon himself.
When I look back at ‘The Midnight Meat Train,’ the story which initially led me to draw the connection between Lovecraft and Barker, there is a manipulation of reader’s perspective which allows the story to progress in a way that draws the reader in, declining into insanity and depravity so slowly as to make the descent hardly noticeable, making the existence of horrible monsters not only logical, but even expected. ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ begins using the ploy of a somewhat run of the mill serial killer, before elevating to the true horror, the deformed and disturbing founders of New York City, which use the aforementioned serial killer to bring them their feed, the flesh and blood of the citizens of the city which they support. The narrator, Leon Kaufman, previously a run of the mill New Yorker, to kill the man who had previously been providing the founders with their meals and thus inherits his position- and in the insanity of his broken mind finds the thought of murder and cannibalism quite palatable, and even eagerly anticipates his new job. Meanwhile, ‘The Rats in the Walls’ uses the approach of introducing horror through dreams of the narrator, de la Poer, as he learns of his prestigious family’s cannibalistic past- finally learning that the sounds of the supposed ‘rats in the walls’ in his family’s home are in fact mutated human ‘cattle’ which had been used as livestock for generations; in his realization, de la Poer, like Kaufman, falls into insanity as his almost hallucinatory, and perhaps not even real, discovery of his family’s cannibalism de la Poer himself falls to cannibalism and is subsequently committed to an insane asylum.
The most significant difference between Lovecraft and Barker is where they fall in time. The modern era of writing is casual, gritty and most often written in common language. The setting and characters are another element of import; Barker’s characters are wealthy, nor even significant to society, before they happen to chance upon the circumstances which his stories relate. Meanwhile, de la Poer, like many characters of the novels of the early 1900s, is wealthy and well bred (the corruption of his family notwithstanding). Regarding setting- Barker’s stories are often close to home, and that helps bring an extra element of terror to the mix. Reading about a manse in old England, in a faraway time, or about a small town three thousand some miles away- that horror is distant in both place and time, it is busy haunting the far distant location in which it is set. However, when horror is brought closer, to a specific and nearby location, and into the ‘now’ rather than the ‘then’, it makes the tale resonate more deeply, causes the reader to check over their shoulder on their way home- because the horror is not distant, it is instead lurking those very streets. Victor LaValle, a horror writer from New York City reacted to reading ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ as thus:
“As a 13-year-old fan of horror fiction, I hadn’t seen too many cities in the literature I loved. It was always small towns, or backwoods locales, or maybe the suburbs. But a real city? With subway systems and morning coffee bought at the corner store? Those were rare. And yet here was Clive Barker, a Brit, writing about a city. My city. Making it as fitting a location for the shivers and chills as Stephen King’s Derry, Maine, or H.P. Lovecraft’s haunted New England towns. I felt so … grateful. We were on the map!” (LaValle).
Barker mirrors the shadowy, clandestine style of Lovecraft- if perhaps his craftsmanship is not so pretty, littered as it is with expletives and excessively gross descriptions. I find there is little difference between the underlying styles of the two authors. One may not disparage Barker on the grounds of lack of creativity either- while influences of past authors (such as Lovecraft) may be felt in his texts, he manipulates the plots which have been much repeated into something unique. In the literary community Barker is hardly taken seriously, rather he is considered to write something akin to dime store novels. As many artists are not appreciated in their time, Barker is not appreciated by professionals in the literary field. His writing is too new, too relevant, and thus not far enough removed from current events to be evaluated for anything more than the stories it brings. When some time has come to separate the relevance of the setting and characters from Barker’s tales from the reality of the reader, it will become easier to evaluate the true stylistic skill which makes up his writing- and Barker may even find his name upon the list of horror greats, the same list graced by H.P Lovecraft himself.
There is a lack of critical texts comparing classic and contemporary horror. Thus, I decided to enter into a near untouched conversation. There are benefits and downfalls to bringing a new subject to the surface; there is, of course, a lack of critical literature to analyze and reflect upon. However, it is certainly easier to avoid the stagnation of ideas, for these ideas must be created rather than taken from other sources.
As a fan of horror literature, and an avid reader besides, I have a plethora of works to draw connections back to when I read a new piece. While it had been a while since I had read Lovecraft, when I recently began reading Barker’s The Books of Blood I was immediately struck by his Lovecraftian undertones. It was quite surprising to me that I could not find articles comparing the two authors.
Discussing my idea for this essay with Professor Joe Harris, I came upon the idea of the difference of respect levels for Barker verses Lovecraft. And as such, I came upon the topic for this piece- determined to show the worth of contemporary horror writers such as Clive Barker.
My thanks go out primarily to my mother, for helping me tear this piece to shreds before reassembling (or perhaps reanimating would be a more fitting term) a vastly improved essay. I give a measure of appreciation to my roommate, Alissa Moritz for looking over this essay and copy editing it for me. I also give thanks to Professor Harris, for discussing the ideas behind this essay and helping me formulate an idea to take to completion. Lastly, I must credit Clive Barker for inspiring this piece and for his ability to churn out prolific and high quality horror.
Lambie, Ryan, “From Lovecraft to Evil Dead: the History of the Necronomonicon,” Den of Geek, April 3, 2013, Accessed April 24, http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/24810/from-lovecraft-to-evil-dead-the-history-of-the-necronomicon.
LaValle, Victor, “Slaughter in the Subway: A Tale of New York Terror,” NPR, All Things Considered, Aug 20, 2012, Accessed April 26, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2012/08/29/158701113/slaughter-in-the-subway-a-tale-of-new-york-terror
Yeo, Edmund, “Clive Barker,” Edmund Yeo, May 9, 2006, Accessed April 20, 2016 http://www.edmundyeo.com/2006/05/clive-barker.html
Midnight Meat Train: http://becuo.com/midnight-meat-train