Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Resonance of Horror

More than most other types of fiction, horror depends for much of its impact on "resonance," on the subconscious connection we feel to the prose, the imagery, the setting, the circumstances of the plot. We can talk about craftsmanship, and for good reason. But when the sun goes down, some stories hit us, others pass by, in large part because they touch, or fail to touch, our nerves.

This can make the impact of certain stories difficult to analyse. Why do they work for us? What is it that reaches out and grabs our subconscious attention?

Recently, for example, I've been trying to understand why a brief, simple and (to be honest) minor story by Charles G. D. Roberts, "The Barn on the Marsh," compells me to read it so often.

I can see technical merit in the story: a clean, economical style, and a central event that is never explained to the reader, even though the narrator does everything he can to explain it to himself. But I can think of many good horror stories that have these merits, which do not compel re-reading. Something else is at work, here: something beyond technique.

How much of the impact depends on personal experience and memory?

"This road, on either hand, was bordered by a high rail fence, along which rose, here and there, the bleak spire of a ghostly and perishing Lombardy poplar. This is the tree of all least suited to those wind-beaten regions, but none other will the country people plant. Close up to the road, at one point, curved a massive sweep of red dike, and further to the right stretched the miles on miles of naked marsh, till they lost themselves in the lonely, shifting waters of the Basin."

When I was a child, I lived for a brief time in Ontario, and I saw many of these Lombardy poplars planted as windbreaks, row on row, beside country houses or barns. They seemed like green or yellow flames, fragile candles against the harsh weather: ghost-like, alien.

"One night, as I started homeward upon the verge of twelve, the marsh seemed all alive with flying gleams. The moon was past the full, white and high; the sky was thick with small black clouds, streaming dizzily across the moon's face, and a moist wind piped steadily in from the sea."

Again, this reminds me of my own life, much of it having been spent on long, isolated walks by moonlight.

Those who walk alone at night, far away from any house, will understand how easily the mind can be fooled by a glint of starlight, a swaying tree, a shifting thickness of clouds against the moon. This midnight uncertainty is what the story exploits, and quite well. But again, I have to wonder: why have I read this one minor story so often?

Questions like these trouble my stray thoughts, if only because they might underline some of the reasons why certain popular, critically-regarded stories do nothing for me. They might also explain why my own stories are unpopular -- and for that, I have no solution.

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