Monday, October 24, 2011

Exploring the Horror

“Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult.”-Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

I don’t think there is any greater form of escapism in reading than the horror novel.  It is the genre which allows us to explore our darker side.  The part of us we never want to admit to possessing, but is always there.  As my favorite holiday slinks around the corner, I’m reminded of some of my favorite works of horror, the authors that created them, and the role these books have played in our culture.
The home as it appeared in the 1979 film 'The Amityville Horror.’ (© American International Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)
I stumbled upon horror fiction quite by accident when a friend asked me to read The Amityville Horror and write a book report on it for her.  Looking back, I should have had the common sense to charge a fee for all my time and work, but I guess that’s one of those life lessons you have to learn the hard way.  Although it was promoted as a true story, The Amityville Horror is largely a work of fiction. The novel is based on the story of George and Kathy Lutz who claimed that their family was plagued by ghosts and demons after moving into an old Dutch Colonial home located at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York.  The house sat vacant from 1974-1975 after Ronald DeFeo Jr. was charged with murdering his parents and four siblings in the home.  During the murder trial, DeFeo claimed that demonic voices told him to murder his family and the Lutzs’ experience gave credence to DeFeo’s testimony.  The whole thing was most likely conceived by DeFeo’s attorney, and Ronald is still serving out his life sentence 37 years later.  Furthermore, Kathy and George admitted before their respective deaths in 2004 and 2006 that The Amityville Horror was mostly the creation of its author, Jay Anson. They did maintain that the house had a very negative energy running through it.  Gee, there’s a shock!

Regardless of whether or not the book is fact or fiction, the only thing that really matters is how much it scared the crap out of me.  I mean, I was only 11 when I read it.  Who was the teacher that assigned that book to my friend?  All the talk of demon pigs outside bedroom windows and gateways to hell under the basement stairs sent me skittering into well lit rooms.  Although terrified, I consumed the book in two days and believe Jay Anson to be a master storyteller.  However, The Amityville Horror lacks the substance needed for a true piece of literature.  I personally think that the actual story of the DeFeo murders is a more intriguing story, but that’s a tale best told at another time.  Oh, and as a side note none of the subsequent owners of Amityville house have reported any supernatural activity in the home, and the house welcomed its fifth post-Lutz owner about a year ago.
 It was shortly after I read The Amityville Horror that I pulled a leather bound copy of Tales of Mystery & Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe off my mother’s bookshelf.  The feel of the leather binding and the gilt-edged pages fit perfectly with the melodic prose of horror’s most iconic author.  Poe once wrote, “I wish I could write as mysterious as a cat.” That right there is proof of just how bat-piss crazy he was.  Actually, I think he was brilliant and since the two do so often go hand in hand, it’s not unreasonable to assume that he would be a littler more than eccentric.  After all, he did keep his dead wife under his bed for a couple of years.  No really, he did.
When I read Poe for the first time I didn’t really understand what he was saying but I knew I wanted more.  Looking back, I was captivated by Poe’s ability to portray the outcasts and the forlorn of society as tragic heroes in their worlds.  The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher, and Annabelle Lee rank among my favorite works by Poe.  I’m not sure if I would like to write as mysterious as a cat, but I wouldn’t mind writing as mysterious as he did.

Recently, I’ve come back to horror with a renewed fervor and an infatuation with a petite, doe-eyed, slightly peculiar author named Anne Rice. Her debut novel, Interview with the Vampire redefined vampire fiction and paved the way for the Twilight Saga and Trueblood.  Rice has since written novels about witches, mummies, ghosts, angels, and next year will explore the world of werewolves in The Wolf’s Gift.  The book will be released on Valentine’s Day so you won’t have to ponder what to get that special someone in your life.  

Interview with the Vampire was the first Rice novel I ever read.  Anne used the vampire as a metaphor for the outcast; a theme we see in Poe’s writing.  Written after the death of her five year old daughter, Rice completed the first draft of “Interview” in just five weeks.  Having no career and no child, Rice felt like an outcast and wrote the book so that she could be “something.”  I think it’s safe to say she succeeded. 
I’ve only skimmed the surface of Rice’s work (more than 25 novels), but I have to say my favorite of what I’ve read so far is The Witching Hour.  Her first book in the Lives of the Mayfair Witches series, the novel pays tribute to classic gothic horror with a haunted mansion, family secrets better left unsaid, and even your run of the mill room full of severed heads.  Themes of incest, gore, and near-pornographic eroticism help to give the book an unsettling tone and you will be left appalled by some of the scenes as all good horror fiction should do.
I have to say though that my favorite part of The Witching Hour is the history of the Mayfair Witches which fills a solid 500 pages.  Rice’s ability to craft a family history spanning three hundred years out of thin air never ceases to delight me.  She also manages to create 13 distinct witches who each play a crucial role in the plot progression.  For the record, Antha is my favorite witch.
There is a great deal more to be said about the horror genre.  I have many more favorites, but I’ve hit my personal high point.  I also have a long way to go in exploring all that horror has to offer.  The Shining by Stephen King is next on my list, but first I have to change the 60 watt bulb in my bedside lamp to a 250.  Excuse me.


  1. I'm some kind of late commenting, but there's a couple of short stories that MUST find their way into a kick like this-- "N" by Stephen King, and "The Colour Out of Space" by H.P. Lovecraft. They're not jump out of your chair at the sound of a twig at the window stuff, but they lurk in the whorls of the brain and suggest dark things for a long time after reading.

  2. Well I'm late in responding so no worries. I'm sorry to say that I've never read anything by Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft, but I will certainly check out the stories you mentioned. I did recently purchase "The Shining," but haven't read it yet. Thanks for posting!