H is for Horror
Alexander Gordon Smith
I openly and proudly admit that I am a horror writer. I love horror, for so many reasons. For a start, it is the most unrestrictive genre because there are no rules – literally anything can happen in a horror story. I don’t think any other genre of writing gives you the same unlimited scope, the same opportunity to push your imagination right to the edge, and then over. I love that sense of freedom!
But I mainly love horror because to me it is the most human of genres. That may sound a little weird, considering that horror stories often involve things that have fur or fangs or tentacles (or worse), but let me start with a complaint. I do events in schools all year round, and quite often (maybe ten times a year) a teacher or parent will come up to me, looking very stern, and say something along the lines of “I really don’t think horror is appropriate for teenagers.” Some reel off the things in my books that they disapprove of (gun fights, explosions, riots, stabbings, sinister experiments, monsters ripping limbs off people, mutant killer dogs, freaks in gas masks dragging prisoners off to their doom in the blood drenched tunnels of Furnace, etc). Some even go on to suggest I write “nice” books that won’t put ideas into children’s heads or make them go off and do horrible things.
In such cases I explain to these people that they have totally missed the point.
Furnace is a book where bad things happen, yes. Terrible things. Gallons of blood is spilled, limbs and lives are lost with alarming frequency, terrifying creatures stalk the cells at night and, later on in the series, millions of innocent people perish in gruesome fashion. But nowhere in the books is this violence and terror glamourized. In fact, as with almost all stories in this genre, the purpose of it is to bring out the best in your characters – because with horror comes humanity.
At its heart, the Furnace series is a story about friendship and courage, about heroism and hope, and about love too – not the smoochy “love” of certain popular YA books, but the love you have for a brother, a best friend, the love that keeps you standing shoulder to shoulder with someone even when the battle looks lost. At the start of the story Alex is a criminal and a bully. And inside Furnace he has to commit much worse crimes to stay alive. But the horror of what happens makes him a better person because he comes to understand that without courage, without friendship, without hope, he will lose himself to the nightmare of the prison and the warden’s devastating plans.
In short, when things are at their very worst we see people at their very best. That’s why horror is such a powerful genre, because it reveals the hero inside all of us, even when that hero is buried so deep we think it doesn’t exist – just like with Alex at the start of the book. When characters are threatened with violence they show tolerance and perseverance and forgiveness (as well as kick-assedness), when they are face to face with their nightmares they show boundless courage, when they are confronted by evil – whether it is age-old and world-ending or simply human cruelty – they show goodness, the inhumanity of their world brings out their humanity, and at the very end of things, when all seems lost, they have hope. These things don’t come easily, of course, the characters have to fight for them and they don’t always win. But essentially it is the horror of their story that saves them.
And as to whether or not horror is suitable for children and teenagers, I would argue that reading a good horror story is an essential part of growing up! Fear as an emotion is older than we are as a species, we once needed it for our very survival because the hormonal rush it gave us turned us into superhumans. Nowadays we spend less time running away from lions, but fear – and the knowledge that we can overcome it – is still an important part of growing up. Reading horror stories gives us a taste of what it is like to face up to danger, to be challenged and victorious, tested and triumphant. This is why I was so addicted to horror as a teenager, I think, because I needed to know that I could face the challenges of growing up. I needed to know that I had the strength to survive. Horror stories give us the confidence to live life the way we want to, the same way fairy tales implant vital lessons in the unconscious minds of young children. They let us know that we have what it takes to be our own heroes.
I have a friend who once complained that writing horror was cheating, that all we do is say “boo” and expect the reader to spend the whole book running away screaming. But he got it wrong too, because horror isn’t about running away. It is never about running away. It is about standing up to your fears, it is about how to confront and triumph and survive and grow. We do say “boo”, but what we really want is for the reader to say “boo” back, because that’s what horror does (for characters and readers alike) – it scares us, but in doing so it makes us stronger.
And that’s what I always try to tell people who moan that horror is simply violence, terror and rampant gore. H is for Horror, yes, but is also stands for Heroism, Humanity and Hope.
Huge, huge thanks to Alexander Gordon Smith for taking the time to write this post. I am often questioned by friends as to why I like reading horror books and watching horror films and Gordon has said it far more eloquently than I ever could. If you are a fan of the Furnace books then the Furnace novella that I blogged about a while ago is now available to read online (but sadly not to buy for kindle over here in the UK). To read The Night Children click here.