Klavan On The Culture

Great Writing About Scary Writing

There is precious little intelligent writing about ghost stories and horror but you know who’s doing some? My pal John J. Miller. I don’t just say this because he’s a friend, but because the last two pieces he did on the subject were absolutely terrific. The piece he wrote recently for the wonderful Claremont Review on H.P. Lovecraft — The Horror, The Horror — was so good I actually had to write the guy a fan letter. Sure, I knew he’d use it against me some day but what could I do? Reading his essay was like eating some kind of confection. Try this bit:

The biggest barrier to Lovecraft’s mainstream acceptance had been his status as a writer of horror fiction—a field of literature that suffers from the suspicion that its readers take a perverse delight in graphic descriptions of torture and murder. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding, brought on in part by the sad fact that some horror books and movies really are no better than this. In its practical application, however, the classification horror encompasses a wide range of creative expression, from lowbrow penny dreadfuls and shilling shockers to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Much of the confusion is semantic. Strictly defined, horror is a blend of fear and disgust, the revulsion we feel in the face of cruelty and decay. Although Lovecraft certainly exploited this emotion—read the final paragraph of “The Rats in the Walls,” for instance—most of the time he aimed higher. The finest horror fiction is really about terror, which combines fear and awe in a powerful sensation that haunts rather than startles. Lovecraft sometimes used the term supernatural horror, but as a thoroughgoing materialist, he didn’t really believe in the supernatural. If a phenomenon appeared to violate the laws of nature, he argued, it was only because we didn’t understand the science of the laws. Much of Lovecraft’s work originally ran in a pulp magazine called Weird Tales, with weird meaning eerie or uncanny. Yet that promising word never really caught on as a label. So we’re stuck with calling it all horror, and cramming slasher flicks like Friday the 13th and its interminable sequels into the same broad category as the most refined ghost stories, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Vane Sisters” and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Dude! That’s what good writing about genre fiction looks like when it’s at home. The rest is here.

John did another great one on the ghost story writer Robert Aickman — one of my favorites — for the WSJ, but it’s behind a paywall. But there’s more good stuff on his website.