We begin with Bloodshot Books Owner, Pete Kahle who wrote one of the best “Why I Love Horror” essays I have ever hosted on this blog.
I ask authors and contributors to tell me “Why I Love Horror” because it gives you, the library worker, a glimpse into the very different reasons of why people like horror. You can see all of these features using the Why I Love Horror tag later, but right now, you can read Pete’s entry into the conversation.
A Confession for the Season by Pete Kahle
When I was thirteen years old, I stole an issue of Playboy from the basement bathroom of my next-door neighbor, Joey. His father had a stack of the magazines at least a foot high that he kept piled out in the open next to the toilet, and all the kids on our street knew about them. So, when nature called, Joey’s house was always the most popular choice for all the boys in the neighborhood to use, rather than head home to their own facilities. On the day in question, I distinctly remember sneaking out the back door with the issue—June 1983, to be exact—tucked down the back of my pants and covering it with my t-shirt, then rapidly cutting across several other back yards to get to my house with my plundered treasure intact. It’s not something I’m proud of having done, but the reason I mention it is this: I didn’t take it for the naked pictures. I took it for an article that I wanted to read.
If you’re still reading this, I’ll wager that some questions have crossed your mind. Primarily, what was the article? And secondly, what does this tale of my youthful indiscretion have to do with my love of the horror genre?
The article in question was the Playboy interview of Stephen King.
Though it may be cliché to state that Mr. King was my introduction to the genre, it is simply a fact. Like many others who came of age in the horror boom of the 1980s, King was… well, he was the King of Horror.
I had been reading his novels since the previous summer when my grandfather gave me a stack of books that he had picked up at a flea market. Like me, he had always been an avid reader and he was quite happy that his precocious grandson had the same passion. Despite this, his initial suggestions of James Michener and John Jakes didn’t thrill me much, so he offered me one that he hadn’t yet read, but had heard was extremely popular. That book was ‘Salem’s Lot, and from the moment Danny Glick floated outside Mark Petrie’s window, I was hooked. Reading King’s tales became my addiction.
By the time I committed petty theft from my neighbor’s bathroom a year later, I had read all his other works—most recently Pet Sematary, which remains the one that haunts me the most—and I eagerly devoured anything by King that I could find. Once I was in my room, I locked the door and read the lengthy article in about half an hour. I can’t say for sure, but it was probably around that time that I first began to consider trying my hand at becoming an author. It would be over thirty years before that dream ever came to fruition.
So, like many others before me, Stephen King became my gateway drug to the horror genre. Although I made occasional forays into science fiction, fantasy and crime fiction, I always crawled back into its dark corners where I felt I truly belonged. After plowing through all his available novels and collections, I moved on to other authors: Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Robert McCammon, and later on the Brians: Lumley, Keene, Hodge, etc... In the decades since, I reckon that I have read well over two thousand novels, the vast majority of which were horror.
Why horror, you ask? What is it about this genre that attracts me? Why do I enjoy tales that many others can’t seem to stomach? Many times, while reading my latest lurid-covered selection at a coffee shop or on a bus, I’ve caught strangers from the corner of my eye glancing at my book and grimacing in disgust, as if smelling something rotten or as if they had just seen me picking my nose in public. It’s undeniable that some people look down their noses at the horror genre, and that some consider it to be far inferior to so-called “literary fiction”.
Well over a decade ago, around the time that Leisure Horror closed its doors, Barnes & Noble eliminated their Horror section and mainstream publishers began re-branding much of the genre as Dark Fantasy or Thrillers, I started to hear people claiming that this was the death knell for such tales. Instead, vampires began to sparkle and serial killers became sexy. Long gone were radioactive inbred mutants, genetic monstrosities from secret military compounds, or ravenous wolfmen whose only hunger was for the entrails of their victims. No longer would anyone want to read about children possessed by demons or brain-eating zombie hordes. It was widely proclaimed that readers would become more discerning and selective. With a few exceptions, only award-winning, pseudo-intellectual titles would make it to the New York Times Bestsellers list.
Yet that did not happen.
Rather, in the years since, due to the combination of this mainstream downsizing and the advent of e-books, there has been a resurgence of small press and indie horror. New and distinct voices in our genre that would most likely have been overlooked in the past have now been given an opportunity to be heard. I’d like to think that my burgeoning small press, Bloodshot Books, has contributed to this recent uptick.
But back to the original question—why do I read horror?
Some portion of society may never understand the attraction. “Why read about such awful things”, they may ask. “Isn’t the world dreadful enough?”
Frankly? Yes, it is.
In fact (you may think this is a contradiction) but I read about monsters and the end of the world, because the horror of everyday life is too much for me to take most days. Horror is an escape from the degenerate society that we experience every day. It’s cathartic. I would much rather read about an undead horde shambling across the countryside than turn on cable news and see the most recent atrocity that mankind has inflicted upon itself.
Charlottesville… Katrina… Sandy Hook… Fallujah… Boko Haram. The ever-growing list of brutality numbs us with each new event. As I write these paragraphs, the news media is currently slavering over the Mandalay Bay massacre in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, gun sales skyrocket everywhere and the response of our eternally-impotent Congress is to send their “thought and prayers” to the victims. As a society, we have become numb to these monstrous acts.
So, I choose to retreat into another realm where the horrors described are supernatural and otherworldly. Yeah, we may be on the verge of a nuclear war with North Korea, but at least someone hasn’t cast a voodoo curse on me. A series of hurricanes may be leaving a swathe of devastation up the eastern seaboard, but it could be worse, right? A plague of mutated flesh-eating bacteria could have just infected your town. An army of subterranean mole-men could have risen from the Hollow Earth to conquer the unsuspecting surface world. Any number of scenarios can pull readers in and let them forget—just for a short while—that they just lost their job, or their dog just died, or their child is in the hospital…
But that’s not the sole reason I prefer Horror.
I read and write and publish in this genre, because in the end, I believe that most horror fiction is written with a message of hope. We always fight to survive. One of the most iconic figures in the genre (both film and literature) is the Final Girl, the desperate last survivor duking it out with the crazed killer in the climactic scenes. This is a trope of horror so well-known that it has transcended the cliché and is now often used in self-referential irony.
There are some exceptions, of course. Some tales take a nihilistic approach and kill everyone off in a bloody finale, but in my experience most end with the Great Big Evil TM defeated and the survivors picking up the pieces and burying their dead with a glimmer of light on the horizon. Even in a fictional apocalypse, the remnants of civilization strive on… and I want to believe in this possibility—that even in the worst times, when everything seems to be lost forever, mankind has an ember of hope smoldering in the blackened core of its petrified stony heart.
That’s not too much to ask for… is it?