Spine-chilling stories

Friday, October 17, 2014
Dmetri Kakmi

a picture of a jack-o-lantern in the dark, lit up with a sinister smile
spine-chilling stories

As we prepare for Halloween, Writers Victoria tutor and horror aficionado Dmetri Kakmi celebrates the sometimes-maligned genre.

"In Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, a dying Kurtz whispers ‘The horror, the horror!’, moments before the room is plunged in darkness. The reader is left to ponder the question: is Kurtz commenting on what he has seen in the course of a misbegotten life or is he remarking on what he sees as the light dims? In the century since the publication of the novella, Kurtz’s utterance has taken on a life of its own. Whether delivered in jest or seriousness, it is one of the great existentialist remarks — one that is perfectly suited to writing horror stories.

As unsavoury as it may seem, horror, like prostitution, provides a necessary service. Yet many have trouble coming to terms with the genre. Some treat it with disdain, others with revulsion and bemusement. The reasons are understandable. Many literary crimes have been committed in the name of horror. But we ought to remember that some great writers honed their craft on the genre and yesterday’s gothic scandal is today’s literature.

Horror is not merely about arousing feelings of fear, shock and disgust. Though the three nouns play a part, they are not the ultimate aim. They are stages toward something greater. At its best, horror tackles the uncanny in an effort to confront the fundamentals of existence. It pushes the reader to the boundaries of experience to trigger dread, awe and majesty, such as we see in Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Man Whom the Trees Loved’ and Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Narrative of A Gordon Pym’.

Terror is an opening on the absolute. What appalls, inspires; what destroys, creates. When we experience terror, we are made aware of the eternal power that underlies the universe. Seen from this perspective, horror is a conundrum. Basically it’s Plato going to bed with Vampira, wisdom married to sensation.

Another kind of horror permits the reader to revisit historical trauma in a safe, controlled environment. Genre tropes act like markers or points of recognition that allow the reader to navigate painful memory and experience. Writing supernatural stories about children, for instance, allows me to come to terms with a troubled family life. The experience can shed light and be cathartic; on another level, it is also oddly familiar and comforting.

Fear is a primal emotion. The word’s original meaning mixes feelings of dread and reverence. When aroused in literary form, the two words trigger a stream of associative memory. When the writer taps into fear, he or she taps into a repository of experience that is universal and timeless.

Contrary to popular opinion, horror is not an escape from reality into fantasy; it is a burrowing into everyday reality in an extreme manner. The genre’s emblems are not to be taken at face value. Horror is a metaphor. Its immoderate nature allows the writer and by association the reader to go deeper into a subject than might otherwise be possible. This chthonic digging into archaic layers of the mind creates classics, such as Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’.

It is a truism that horror fiction is largely about death and dying, a catalogue of outrages perpetrated on the house of life, the dignity of the human body and the soul. The notion makes readers queasy because it destabilises; it undermines, and triggers insecurities. Yet there is a need to return to the sore point, to scratch at the scab until the bloody pulp beneath is revealed. It is more than morbidity. It is a desire to know; to confront … what?

Readers will have their own answers. When I watch a horror movie or read a horror novel, I am always looking for an answer to a question I barely comprehend. It’s never just about being afraid.

Often what is missing from easy definitions of horror are three nouns: mystery, suggestion, beauty. For horror to be effective it must balance maximal effects with understatement and subtlety with a charnel-house sensibility. The story must be a tiptoe that sneaks up on the unwary.

When I first read Kurtz’s final sentence, my thoughts went immediately to ‘The Man With the X-Ray Eyes’. In the 1963 Roger Corman classic, Ray Milland plays a doctor who uses special eye drops to give himself x-ray vision. The new power has disastrous consequences: it allows him to see beyond the fabric of reality to another dimension. What he sees drives him insane. Like Kurtz’s sentence, Milland’s drastic final action suggests much without showing anything. His vision is left to the imagination, making the film’s ending a starting point for questions about the nature of truth, reality, madness. Narrative open-endedness and ambiguity is the key. Both lead to greater mystery."

About Dmetri Kakmi

Dmetri Kakmiis a writer and editor. His book ‘Mother Land’ was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. He edited the children’s anthology ‘When We Were Young’. Dmetri Kakmi’s short story ‘The Boy by the Gate’ will be reprinted in The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror 2013, by Ticonderoga Publications in November. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals.