You just can't win with horror, can you?
Over on The Hat Rack the other day, brave Ser Nathaniel of House Katz reviewed The Ritual by Adam Nevill. So what if it came out six months or so ago? Intelligent criticism is always timely, and Nate's an incredibly intelligent critic; of the sort that makes me anxious about my own bloggery bumbling, in fact.
Anyway, in his typically incisive write-up of The Ritual, he of the Hats found much about the last act of Nevill's newest novel to object to -- as I did in my review for The Speculative Scotsman, way back when. Which criticism led to the following comment, from yours truly:
I'm coming around to thinking that you really can't win with horror along these lines. Either the author rationalises the creepy weird away, which invariably results in disappointment, or he (or she) cuts the narrative short with a dream or a hanging thread and an invitation extended to one's imagination - as Caitlin R. Kiernan has a habit of doing - and that often rankles, too...
I had no answers to the question I posed then, nor do I now, but the more horror I read - and I've always read a lot of horror - the more this seems to me a real problem... this catch-22 of sorts whereby you either give people the answers they seek, and in doing so undermine the unknowableness at the backbone of the vast majority of horror fiction, or else you refuse to explain the inexplicable, and risk the wrath of readers accustomed to neat little bows on all their stories.
In reply to my comment, Nathaniel had this to say:
I agree that there is a huge problem with endings in horror. Of course, one method's the obvious one - just letting the inevitably triumphing evil actually, you know, triumph. Ligotti, for instance, does that, and I know I would've loved The Ritual if, at the end of those two hundred pages, evil did triumph...
But I'll admit that I'm not everyone, and that most people would no doubt hate that kind of ending in a novel. I can think of one or two horror novels that did end in a satisfactory manner - George R. R. Martin's Fevre Dream, for instance - but I can't think of any of the survivalist, great outdoors type that this is, save for The Terror, where I still felt the ending was by far the weakest part. Perhaps the subgenre can only really work in the short story form, where a darker outcome's okay. That'd be a pity, though, as these books do seem to start so well...
Don't they, though?
I mean, I can hardly begin to tell you how deeply I adore The Terror by Dan Simmons, for instance - if you ask me it's his best book by an Arctic mile, better even than Hyperion - yet Nathaniel's not wrong: in the final summation, even it fell flat. But how could it have ended any other way? I've read The Terror twice, and I haven't the faintest foggiest.
What disturbs me most about all this is that I feel like I've actually come to expect unsatisfactory endings from the horror fiction I read. Going in, I'm already waiting for it all to go wrong... and that can't be right, can it?
So how do you like yours?
Your horror, I mean. Simple, or subtle? Long, or short? Explained down to the last loose end, or left utterly inexplicable?
Is there any way to wrap up long-form horror fiction in a way that satisfies all comers, do you think? Or is it a genre inescapably burdened by the differing expectations of differing readers?
Or am I just mooning at the moon here?