I’ve been rather reticent to write anything about the horror genre for a while, because I’m still trying to work out how, as a Christian, to approach it. It’s one of those many grey areas that Christians fall into in the 21st century. Christians are notorious enough as it is for judging the quality of a piece of art by the amount of violence, swearing and sex it contains – and excusing those which have “a good message” buried under all that.
But how do you handle the horror genre, which is renowned for being of full of nasty stuff, and often doesn’t have “a happy ending” at the end of all that? And what kind of people like horror? To those who do not like the genre (and I’m aware that that is probably the majority of filmgoers/readers out there), they have a suspicion of those people who like horror. Are they really closet torturers and murderers, getting their kicks from reading about horrid things done in fiction? Do they have dark thoughts? In short, “how can anyone like such horrible stuff?” is their thought – I’m sure.
(I just ran this past my wife and she completely agreed. “How can anyone like watching this horror? I’ve got enough bad stuff fuelling my imagination without having to add horror.”)
But because I’ve recently started re-exploring the works of horror authors James Herbert and Stephen King (British and American, respectively, but both were first published in 1974) and some others, I’ve been questioning what is it about the genre that I enjoy, what do I get out of it, has it got redeeming qualities, etc?
I don’t know if it’s an acceptable answer, but I have two thoughts so far and I might think up more as I go along:
1) First off, horror is unable to escape from a moral compass. It’s quite simple – for something to be horrible, you have to first of all have a revulsion to it. If we don’t have a revulsion to it, then it’s not horrifying. One of the more noticeable trends over the last few decades, which I don’t have time to explore here, is how the horror genre is struggling because the things that people used to find horrific are now passed off as entertainment. (Here’s a simple example, not actually from the world of horror, but enough to give you an idea: When Steven Spielberg made his WWII film, Saving Private Ryan, it had the most realistic gore ever seen in a war film up to that point. However, since Ryan, it has now been common for all battle films that aren’t afraid to get beyond the American PG-13 rating to feature higher and higher levels of gore, played out as entertainment. Thus, we now have films like 300, which feature endless decapitations and sword-thrusts, with the maximum gore possible, but it’s actually meant to be a fun feature of the film. The sense of horror has shifted.)
2) Ultimately, I think it comes down to storytelling. Those of us who like good horror like the power of the storyteller’s craft. I think most of us who like fiction (unless you like to dive in for a bit of quick escapism) want a story to totally engross us. We want to be moved, we want to feel things, we want to share the experience. And horror (or the several dark genres that have spun off that) works because, if the writer is good, it can be some of the most immediately visceral and thrilling writing there is. We feel things straight away, because the writer knows how to push our buttons. When a horror writer is on his game, the stories (while unpleasant) can become far more engrossing and far more powerful than any other type of literature. And when it’s over, we can shut the book, because it’s just a book. I don’t know if I’ve done justice to the lure of the genre, and I don’t expect to convert anyone to this type of story, but that’s the attraction for me.
Which brings me to The Rats, the first novel published by British author James Herbert in 1974. This book really marked a watershed moment in how horror was written. Previous horror stories (if you ever pick up an old anthology of the classic stories) often held back on the details. Some of them, such as Dracula, are beautifully written, but they don’t really elicit that sense of dread any more. In fact, they almost seem like mild diversions.
The probable cause for this is that there are far worse things out there in the world than in these stories. James Herbert knew that, and he has consistently used that as the starting point for his stories. He paints a picture of a very seedy 1974 London featuring seedy locations and seedy people. What he succeeds in doing is painting a world where there’s lots of dark things going on already and then he adds in a horror element. It may not be so shocking to readers nowadays, but back then, the descriptions of alcoholics and other sordid characters would have been in-your-face enough, but then Herbert brings in the rats…
About the size of small dogs, the rats suddenly appear in the poorer parts of London and starting attacking people – both good and evil alike. They usually attack in packs and kill you straight away, but even for those who survive, they carry a toxic virus that kills within 48 hours. Like the best creature stories (The Birds, Jaws, Jurassic Park, etc), Herbert very quickly ramps the tension up from small isolated rat attacks to a terrifyingly plausible scenario where rats really do rule the city.
There are some brilliant set pieces in this book (the most striking being a chapter where hundreds of rats line up outside a school to attack the children) and never has mankind felt more at the mercy of creatures than in this story. I first read this when I was 15, and have still been amazed by it to this day. It was made into a movie once (a very unsatisfactory story, from what I’ve heard, that has never been released on DVD), and I think it would be a great story for a filmmaker to revisit one day with modern technology, but for now, we have to live with the book.
What lifts the game on this one is that Herbert grew up in the East End of London, in some fairly filthy parts of town – he remembers a time as a boy when a rat came through the door of the house. And so, through this genre of horror, he was making a social comment about London at the time, and what goes wrong when there is a lack of concern for the living conditions of poorer people. Unusual, but highly effective way of making a point.
4 ½ out of 5.