Monday, 5 September 2011

But I Digress | The End of Horror

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?


  1. That is a very interesting question.
    I do love horror stories. In fact, they stand on the same place as the fantasy ones in my personal preferences. However, it is very true that we lack a good solid (and diverse) ending for the horror stories. Recently, I became more involved in the short form of horror than in the longer one and there the endings proved to be more satisfactory. And that led me back to the longer form of horror again and I put a few novels aside for immediate reading.
    Still, I believe that Gary McMahon and Conrad Williams are two strong voices in modern horror genre, who know how to put an end to their stories. It is true that I refer more to their short stories than longer ones since I am more familiar with those, but Conrad Williams pulled an end through with "One" for me. So I back these two guys up.
    I bought just before going on holiday Laird Barron's two story collections together with other two collections by John Langan and Joel Lane. And at the moment I enjoy an exceptional anthology (so far) "Scenes from the Second Storey". But again we talk about short fiction. So the correct thing to say is that the short form of horror works best for me at the present time. But that doesn't mean that horror in novel form doesn't work. It just needs a bit of adapting.
    P.S. Adam LG Nevill's "Banquet for the Damned" suffers at the end as well :)

  2. I remember something of a debate about how to end mystery novels - the answer can never be as good or as exciting the mystery so do you give them the answer and create an anti-climax or do you not give them an answer and cheat them? Much the same principal seems to be at work here.

    My first reaction would be to hide behind ambiguity, give them an answer with an invisible question mark hanging over it. This could backfire and just alienate all readers however. Or give them an answer that hints at a larger context - the answers just raise more questions and open into a larger unexplained world. Basically try to have your cake and eat it.

    You could make the ending a one very much appropriate to the character. I recently reviewed The Eye (Asian horror flick) on my blog, and concluded that calling it a horror is not particularly accurate. It becomes more a sixth-sense style story about moving past acceptance and moving on, and in that ceases really to be a horror, but more a character study with strong horror elements.

    At this point I'm not sure if I'm addressing popular preconceptions or just my own, but I figure that the horror's limits are a big part of the problem here. It's defined primarily by one emotion - horror - and thus endings that don't continue the horrific feel of things are disappointments. This feels wrong to me, as it precludes the idea of horror stories being stories too, rather than a series of chilling set pieces. Yet I found myself arguing that due to it's character focussed ending The Eye isn't really a horror. Horror stories have become things which need to be horrifying at every turn, rather than stories with strong horror overtones.

    I'm not sure if that's just me, or if I am capturing wider genre expecrtations. Also, give me short form horror over longer anyday.

  3. The ending to any story has got to be the most important element. As a writer, that’s what you’re moving the story towards, so it better be powerful, revelatory and emotional for the reader, or you haven’t done your job. In this case, the ending has to matter to the main character beyond his relief of not getting his head chewed off by the monster. Merely surviving isn’t good enough. Nevill’s ending worked for me because his main character was changed by his experience on a psychological level, and the novel is bigger for that change. You can argue that the skeleton of the story lacks originality to a degree – it’s lifted straight from the horror blueprint – and if you start with a cliché then you’re probably going to walk into one at the end. But Nevill seemed to say ‘fuck it, my story is about a man, not a monster’, and on that level, whether you meet or defeat the monster at the end becomes irrelevant to the story.

    I not long ago finished reading Dean Koontz’s Phantoms, not a bad book by any means, but the characters are largely unchanged by their experience – it’s one-dimensional survivalist horror and lacks power and emotion. Totally throwaway.

    Use clichés if you must, twist them if you really can’t think of something original, but if the story still can’t move beyond the ole ‘good V evil’ chestnut, then at least it should strive for some emotion that operates outside of just trying to scare the reader or make them fret over whether the characters will survive or not. It’ll always be disappointing, I think. Nevill seems to understand this.

  4. I find myself in agreement with all those commenters, whether here and on Twitter - where alas, a lot of the discussion seems to have taken place... all those commenters, anyway, who've said horror is stronger more often in the short form than the long. And I tend to think that's because in a novel, say, the moment you hit on the tension or the threat at the heart of most horror fiction, there's no stepping back: you have to sustain that note, or build another and another upon it - each of which comes with its own implications and instils its own little expectations - which leaves The End, whatever shape it may take, with a whole lot of work to do. And invariably it's unequal.

    Whereas in short fiction you need only offer a fragment, or a glimpse, and a glimpse (I find) is often more of a turn-on than the full frontal treatment so many horror novels feel obliged to partake of, and then - most misguided of all - justify.

    Case in point: I've been reading House of Fear, a haunted house anthology out from Solaris in early October, and it's been tremendous, by and large. Terrifying. Meanwhile I've watched three horror films for review - Julia's Eye, The Silent House and Insidious - each of which has basically made an enemy of me in its last act, despite a strong start in every instance.

  5. Incidentally, Will of Spooky Reads - the newest addition to the blogroll, whose site I'd advise you all bookmark this very second - has posted a fascinating follow-up to this very digression... which I do believe began life as a comment!

    That's here, and it's absolutely worth a good long look:

  6. I think the distinction between shorts and novels is very sharp when it comes to horror, especially with regards to endings. To let Ligotti do my talking for me: "People will accept a short horror story that ends badly. They won’t accept this in a horror novel… not after they’ve read so many hundreds of pages." (from Now, I don't know if that's true in all cases, but I think elements of it certainly are. That being said, I don't think that the problem's really one of good/bad (or triumphant/failure) endings, as I'm sure we can all think of a well-ending book with a strong ending.

    Clearly, at least in my mind, there's something very different about horror, something that sets it apart from Science Fiction or Fantasy (or most other kinds of fiction), where - I'd agree with Darren - the mark of a good ending, or at least a primary mark of one, is that the character has evolved. But that's not enough in horror. I think the reason might be that, in SFF, the author is trying to make the author believe in some new world. In horror, the author's not so much building their own world as invading your own. (While you could certainly argue that Urban Fantasy deals in our world, I'd say that truly frightening fiction overrides our "that's not real" barrier more viscerally than anything that seeks to tackle the challenge with wonder and, moreover, that horror is frightening when it is precisely because of this.) The SFF writer is trying to make something rational, which you can accept and move on. The horror writer's trying to show you something irrational, and I think it's that challenge - that their creation simply does not fit without our conception of the world - that has to be met and that is so difficult to face.

    In facing it, you can certainly go with the approach that Ligotti uses and, instead of invalidating that new element in the close, affirm it. But most roller-coaster styled fiction doesn't intend to crash you into the ground at the end, and, so when it comes time to resolve the intentional and invasive impossibility of the author's creation, most authors seem forced to either explain it away, rationalizing it (but this then damages all that preceded it; the supernatural element, whatever it was, is no longer truly antagonistic to our world/safety, so our prior fright now feels cheapened) or, alternatively, the author can defeat the horror without ever exploring it - but this, alas, often feels like a cop out and can similarly weaken the past sense of danger.

    Of course, at the end of this, I should probably mention that, for all the horror short fiction I've read, I'm rather under read in the novels area. Perhaps there are numerous novel-length horror writers with sufficient, reliable, and analyzable endings; I just haven't really encountered them.