The Horror Is Us by: Craig DiLouie
The Horror Is Us
by: Craig DiLouie
Humanity is at the heart of traditional horror. In many stories, a monster tests and ultimately proves our humanity. This model is based on a strong sense of justice. Good versus evil. The final girl is inherently pure and lives, while everybody else dies horribly.
For me as both a horror reader and writer, I enjoy looking for horror in humanity’s heart. Challenging stories that hold up a fractured mirror to the human soul to reveal unsettling truths. Stories that ask, “What would you do?”
Such stories are not comfort horror, which is obviously popular for the clarity and catharsis it offers. They often reject formula and look past objective moral constructs of good and evil to bare and explore human instinct. The horror often isn’t direct, and their morality and sense of justice is far murkier.
In their narratives, humanity is not so much tested by evil but instead driven to its natural extreme where even something pure and good can become evil. The monster element can be anything, but the real horror is again found in human behavior at its most basic. This can result in some stimulating and challenging themes that mess with your head. If I were to label it, I’d call it psychic horror.
Because these stories invite readers to question assumed truths about humanity and by extension themselves, they can be profoundly unsettling, their questions lingering like the cobwebs of an unpleasant dream. Here are some examples.
Naomi Alderman’s The Power (Viking, 2017) probably would not be categorized as horror, though it has its moments. Nonetheless, it’s a great example of the concept. In this novel, women discover a dormant genetic ability to administer pain and even death from their hands. Suddenly, women are no longer the “weaker sex,” resulting in vast social disruption and violence. A great premise to be sure, but then Alderman takes the brave step of showing how power corrupts and suggesting a world run by women might be much like the one we have now.
Kealan Patrick Burke’s Kin (Cemetery Dance, 2011) imagines what might happen after a Texas Chainsaw Massacre event. A young woman staggers naked and bleeding out of a remote rural area to be rescued, only to find herself trapped in an unending nightmare of trauma where she never feels safe. A nightmare from which she must rescue herself by returning to where her friends were murdered.
In my horror novel Suffer the Children (Simon & Schuster, 2014), a parasite kills the world’s children before bringing them back from the grave with a thirst for human blood. If they are given blood, they become the children they once were, but then they need more, and if they don’t get it, they will die. Yes, the children are vampires, but the monsters in the book are the parents who will do anything to keep them alive. Many parents say they’d put their arm in a shredder for their kids. But would they put your arm in a shredder? Now it’s much more interesting. It’s no longer noble self-sacrifice but something evil, even though it may be done out of the purest love in the world. The novel implicitly asks the reader, “What would you do?” The answer may be reassuring or haunting.
I took the same approach with my latest release, The Children of Red Peak (Hachette, November 17, 2020). This novel is about a group of people who grew up in and survived the horrific last days of an apocalyptic cult. When one of them commits suicide, the others reunite to confront their past and the entity that appeared on the final night. Thematically, the novel is about faith, memory/trauma, family, and the thin line that separates belief and delusion. How delusion is a useful survival instinct that can run amok and cause horrifying acts, even one’s own extinction. This is psychic but also cosmic horror, though the cosmic dread is embedded with humanity’s relationship with the conventional idea of the divine. The novel was inspired by a reading of Genesis in which God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering, only to stay the knife at the last moment. I wondered: What would that story sound like as told from Isaac’s point of view?
Horror is a big, nasty family of subgenres and approaches. From gross-outs to horror to terror, it satisfies any number of appetites. I love it all, though I’ll always look first for novels that make me think as well as feel. For me, human nature is fertile ground for horror, horror that cuts to the bone by making us examine treasured truths in a new light and dark.
The novel’s author, Craig DiLouie, is an American-Canadian writer of speculative fiction. His works have been nominated for major literary awards, translated into multiple languages, and optioned for screen adaptation. He is a member of the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association, International Thriller Writers, and Horror Writers Association. More information about Craig and Children Of Red Peak can be found at www.CraigDiLouie.com.