The five essential horror stories

John Langan

I got to know the horror novelist, critic and teacher John Langan in the early ’90s. I was playing the part of the (untenured) Young Professor (without a PhD), while he was one of the undergraduate stars of the SUNY-New Paltz English Department – already a conceptually ambitious fiction writer with more verbal resources than any three writers would know what to do with. In that program, Hemingway’s curt Modernism set the top-down tone, charismatically espoused by the great American Lit scholar H. R. Stoneback. If the students had one non-canonical rebel hero of their own, it was, of course, the puke-obsessed and blunt outsider named Bukowski. Loquacious, anachronistic, opulent and smarter than everyone, Langan didn’t make a lot of sense then and there: part Oscar Wilde, part Henry James, blossoming in a field of Raymond Carvers, Denis Johnsons and Ann Beatties.

And horror was already his thing: a genre. “Genre” is the word that serious literature uses to marginalize and mock the various camps of commercially successful fiction, perhaps to rationalize their material achievements and popularity. Detective, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Romance, Horror: These are “the genres.” Genre writers, or so the bias goes, leverage the cheap tools of expedient storytelling and story-selling: default styles and voices, plot templates, a paid-by-the-word prose aesthetic. Genre writers exploit a weakness in the readership for one specific, repeatable kind of satisfaction or effect, like the “click” that a good murder mystery makes when everything comes together.

Of course, many “genre” writers command respect in the academy. My sense of the current scene froze around 1996, and I hear that some things have happened since then; but Stephen King, I recall, was generally well-regarded as a stylist and a writer of range, as were Samuel Delaney and Ursula Le Guin. Other writers transcended their genres and found outright literary importance, elevating the genres in the process. Vonnegut may be the most famous example of that. And, as one learns hanging around the halls, many if not most literary critics and professors are genre junkies of some kind themselves, openly or secretly. Even so, it is a weird circumstance when the writing star and young buck in your English Department aspires to be…a genre writer. Where did we go wrong?

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But Langan went to SUNY-New Paltz, where professor Robert Waugh was just beginning to turn his lifelong love of H. P. Lovecraft into a big piece of his scholarly program, developing several classes in Horror Studies and founding an internationally significant Lovecraft conference right here in the village. I’ll never know whether Waugh’s example – eccentric, brilliant, infectiously indifferent to what anyone thought of his Lovecraft obsession – helped Langan find the strength to resist the pull of stylish Minimalism, but we are all glad he did. Langan followed Joseph Campbell’s bliss all the way to a career as a significant and internationally recognized writer of serious horror fiction.

John Langan is the author of four books, among them The Fisherman, which won the 2016 Bram Stoker Award for superior achievement in a novel. He’s one of the founders of the Shirley Jackson Awards, for which he served as a juror during their first three years. Currently, he reviews horror and dark fantasy for Locus magazine. In early 2019, his next book, Sefira and Other Betrayals, a collection of stories that will include a new short novel, will be published by Hippocampus Press. Langan will read from The Fisherman, which takes place in the woods surrounding the Ashokan Reservoir, on Tuesday, October 30 at 7 p.m. at Rough Draft Bar & Books in Uptown Kingston. For details, visit https://bit.ly/2EKTOtx.

Halloween seemed like the right time to have a chat with my old friend.

I think about my son’s generation, or at least his wing of it, and their abiding interest in morphing identity, from the multiculturally sourced myths of LARPing to the fluid play of drag, et cetera, and it occurs to me that every day is Halloween now. How does the horror fiction community feel about Halloween? Perhaps a bit like we hardcore football fans feel about the Super Bowl: “Who are all these people, and why do they understand nothing?”

Well, it’s our Christmas. A number of my friends have started talking about the entire month of October as the “horror month.”

Let’s clear this up for once and for all: Were you aware of Bob Waugh and his critical interest in Lovecraft and sci-fi before you chose to attend SUNY-New Paltz, or was it just dumb luck that you went to a local college where this big-hearted, optimistic dude was busy legitimizing your marginalized genre?

It was a coincidence of the happiest kind. I can still remember being there for the very first H. P. Lovecraft Forum the fall semester of my freshman year, and thinking how strange it was that this genre that was, as you say, marginalized, was receiving serious scholarly attention.

Even among the genres, horror is an odd bird. People assume it takes a certain type to write and to enjoy these stories, these feelings. Is there a common predisposition of some kind among horror writers and fans?

The simplest answer to the question would be no: There’s no necessary predisposition for either creators or fans of the genre. That said, I have noticed that a number of the field’s most prominent practitioners suffered rather profound childhood trauma: Both Bram Stoker and Thomas Ligotti, for example, underwent surgery at a very young age (I want to say around two years of age), while Peter Straub was struck by a car when he was a boy and endured a long recovery. Stephen King has written at length about his father abandoning the family when King was a little over two, as well as the horrors he underwent at the hands of various babysitters, and also due to the quasi-poverty his mother was plunged into. Ramsey Campbell’s father and mother split while he was young, but his father continued to live in the same house with them, although he refused to have any face-to-face contact with his son – this as Campbell’s mother was sliding into what appears to have been paranoid schizophrenia. H. P. Lovecraft’s father was confined to an asylum when Lovecraft was a young child because of what Lovecraft was told was insanity, but was in fact the first signs of tertiary syphilis. And so on, for so many of the genre’s great creators.

And then, also as a child, each of them encounters the horror genre (for the more recent writers, frequently in the form of Lovecraft’s work; for Lovecraft, in the form of Poe’s stories), and there’s something about that kind of fiction that they immediately respond to, and which I suspect is the way in which it offers a narrative language – a set of plot conventions, images and tropes – for engaging their own emotional history. Crucially (I think), it’s a narrative language whose very excessiveness mirrors the way their various childhood traumas feel to them.

This is not to say, however, that the sources of horror are or must remain confined to childhood trauma. The daily life of the last three-quarters of a century or so, with its regular accounts of genocide, its threat of annihilation from nuclear, biological and now climate sources, is an unending source of stress. Heck, you could even throw in the revelations of Freudian psychology and Derridean deconstruction, which call into question what we think of as the stable structures of the psyche and the language it uses to express itself. I suppose I see the fundamental material of the horror genre as those moments when the epistemological ground drops out from underneath us and we have to deal with the consequences of that.

Maybe it is a mistake to assume that horror serves its own unique set of psychological functions and purposes, apart from those of art in general, but you could say science fiction has a special predictive or prophetic calling, or that the concerns and conventions of the fantasy genre are especially resonant with the liminal condition of adolescence. What necessary itch does horror scratch?

I really like Michael Chabon’s idea that the function of any art is entertainment, in the word’s root sense of entangling-ment. Thomas Ligotti once said that the function of horror fiction is to let you know that you’re not alone in your anxieties about the world/yourself/whatever. I like that idea, though there’s also something to be said for the thrill-ride that some forms of the genre provide.

Is it funny or is it not funny that horror – the genre that purports to deal directly with the deepest, darkest stuff in our minds and in our world – can often seem so stylized? That horror’s stock voice is a fussy Victorian maximalism? Hell, I’m not mocking your style. If I could write half as richly as you do, I would be…well, let’s just say an even more unusual and eccentric provincial music critic.

As for the tension between language and subject matter, I see that as going all the way back to the dawn of the Gothic novel in the later 18th century, when you have a form that arises (in part) in reaction to the era’s faith in human reason to apprehend an essentially knowable creation. No, the Gothic says, it’s all much stranger and weirder than that. (This is how I’ve come to understand Melville’s praise of Hawthorne’s fiction as saying, “No in a voice of thunder,” or whatever the exact quote is.) That engagement with the ir- or a-rational is handled in a language that tries to approximate and even embody that concern with excess, with those times when existence overflows our understanding of it.

Dig. What, to your mind, are five essential horror stories, and why? People like lists.

1) M. R. James’ “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”: simultaneously a ghost story and a parody of the imagery of a ghost story. A mild-mannered academic in his day job, James wrote occasional ghost stories in which he explored the variety of ways stories of supernatural horror might be told. Really, you can’t go wrong with any of them; if you like this one, take a look at “Casting the Runes” (the inspiration for Jacques Tourneur’s wonderful film, Night of the Demon).

2) Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”: a compelling first-person portrait of a woman struggling with postpartum depression whose husband has confined her to her room and deprived her of her books in an effort to cure her. It will come as no surprise to learn that this only exacerbates her condition. When she begins to see a woman trapped within the yellow wallpaper with which the walls are covered, it’s easy enough to read as a stress-induced hallucination. But it may be more.

3) Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover”: a short piece about the way in which promises made in the heat of youth and passion may still be fulfilled, even when the person to whom they were made is no longer among the living. Known as one of the mid-20th century’s practitioners of the Realist novel, Bowen wrote a number of understated, chilling tales of the supernatural.

4) Shirley Jackson’s “The Witch”: a story in a single scene about a disturbing encounter between a mother traveling with her children and a man who is far worse than he at first appears. It’s about evil as a contagion, a notion Jackson would explore in a number of her other stories. Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a staple of high school and college reading. and deservedly so, but there’s a great deal more to her work.

5) Paul Tremblay’s “A Haunted House is a Wheel upon which We Are Broken”: Among the most restless and experimental writers working today, Tremblay rocketed to well-deserved fame with his most recent novels, A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and The Cabin at the End of the World, which no less an authority than Stephen King had highly complimentary things to say about. Tremblay’s short fiction is equally accomplished, as in this story, which uses the choose-your-own-adventure format to unsettling effect.

Easiest. Interview. Ever.

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