From the Whistler

In his Poetics, Aristotle astutely points out that literature is a form of imitation, and that imitation is used, by humans and other animals, as a way of learning. Far more than mere entertainment or aesthetics, it teaches us how to cope with the very real dangers in the world around us. In an observation that seems particularly apropos for the Horror genre, he adds: “Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.” Which begs the question: If reading Clive Barker or Stephen King is a dress rehearsal for our own death or dismemberment, why do we enjoy it so much?

In his perceptive book on Horror, Danse Macabre, King compares the work of horror to a death dance: “The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed no one but you knew of...” It acts, in essence, as a trapdoor to the id, allowing it to release some of its demons. And this dance has been going on a long time—elements of horror can be found in Odysseus’ journey to the Underworld, in Dante’s Inferno, in the witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in old ballads and fairy tales and in the urban legends that are still being circulated today. As a formal genre, though, Horror can be traced to the dawn of the Romantic age; Romanticism, in fact, began with a growing interest in German ghost stories in the late 18th century, as well as a fascination with mesmerism, sleepwalking and melancholy Gothic architecture. The novels of Anne Radcliffe and the American writer Charles Brockden Brown set the gloomy, atmospheric scene for what was to come. But it is Lord Byron, who most likely imported the vampire from Transylvania, and Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and wife of another Romantic poet, who might be considered the great-grandparents of Horror proper. They introduced the signature element of the genre: a villain, unnaturally potent and terrible, who casts a shadow over the entire work. The Victorians formalized Horror, but works such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the penny dreadful The String of Pearls (introducing Sweeney Todd) retain a picturesque Romanticism.

Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote horror fiction and poetry (“The Raven”, unlikely as it seems, inspired the name of an NFL team in his home town of Baltimore) seemed less interested in villains than the psychological intensity of his protagonists, neatly captured by the opening line of “The Tell-Tale Heart”: “True! --nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” H.P. Lovecraft, profiled in this issue by Sten Johnson, was a Poe devotee who added, however, his own brand of mythical, alien monsters, inspired by early science fiction. Lovecraft and more mainstream writers such as Shirley Jackson popularized Horror, and their followers such as King, Robert Bloch (see Thomas R. Smith’s essay in this issue) and V.C. Andrews turned it into a vehicle for bestsellers.

Horror fans are now legion—and they are mostly young people (check out six-year-old Irelyn Ruby Ozment’s poem in this issue). The morbidity, psychic angst and violence inherent in a Horror novel have a particular fascination with adolescents; I remember well my own Stephen King phase (from age 15 to about 18) as well as the very real terror I felt watching ‘Salem’s Lot and The Exorcist. But while this issue of Whistling Shade carries more than a few chills, we hope it has something for everyone, whether your nightmares tend to ghost dogs, Iranian security forces, mind readers, monkeys, snakes, or the vision of a tree growing out of you. Lift your hand to turn the page, and let the dance begin!

- Joel Van Valin