The Catacombs of Horror

Last week, our very capable colleague CW Hawes looked into the specifics of one man who saved one publication, which in turn went on to give voice to much of what we call modern horror. This week I propose to take a look at the whole shooting match, horror, terror, suspense, thrillers, and attempt to ferret out how we got to where we are. Disclaimer: Much of what you’re about to read is based on my own intuitive reading of conditions as they are, but I’d buckle up anyway.

The human animal has doubtless been besieged by fear since before he had the tools to express it. Humanoids and hominids, living on the open savanna and possessing neither the speed of the antelope, the size of the buffalo, nor the horn of the rhino to defend himself must have been viewed as a tasty snack by big cats, bigger bears, and a breed of wolf the size of a Shetland pony. So fear, nay, blood-curdling, mortal terror became baked into our genes long before the most rudimentary form of language was around to give it voice.

It has been with us from the dawn of time, and the evolutionary purpose is not to paralyze us in the face of danger. Quite the contrary, it’s a warning meant to save our lives. Have you ever been walking or driving in a strange part of town, and you get a sudden feeling that you shouldn’t take the route you were planning on? That’s the gift of fear, your senses operating on a subliminal level to warn you that something isn’t right. Early humans must have experienced these feelings and taken some very convoluted routes to the water hole because of them, but they likely served to keep our ancestors mostly safe and well.

Advance the clock to the dawn of civilization. Agriculture, husbandry, the early cities take form and flourish, releasing us from whims of fortune to begin our climb to complete dominance of the planet. And yet the fear remains. The farmer fears that there won’t be enough rain… or that there will be too much. The artisan fears his competitors, the merchant fears the thief, the city-dweller fears the plague.

See the common word there? To paraphrase a popular video game series, “fear… fear never changes.” It is with us always, from waking to sleep, lurking, waiting for the trigger to give it reign over all reason and clarity of thought. Over the millennia, fear has given rise to superstitions by the thousand, to such wasteful ignorance as oracles and astrology to guide our lives by predicting the future, to burning our neighbors alive for supposed witchcraft, to religious leaders and politicians who seek, often with success, to manipulate us by stoking our fears.

But nearly as often, the masters of fear have sought to entertain us by triggering the terror in a harmless way; by giving us a tale of fiction. This has to be older than time, with tales of savage beasts and mythical monsters being told around the campfires of our preliterate ancestors. The best of these tales became canonized in accepted forms, and then they began to be published, truly entering the world of entertainment.

My own Early Master was Edgar Allan Poe. The same fifth-grade teacher who encouraged me to write also introduced me to the pulse-pounding terror of The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-tale Heart, and The Masque of the Red Death. My classmates and I had been introduced to the “The Classics” in the form of agonizing slogs such as Canterbury Tales and Little Women, stories that gave me my first thoughts of suicide, but here at last were books that made reading an adventure and gave it purpose, and they were based in pure horror. Coincidence? I think not.

I went on to learn that there were other pioneers laying down the foundation of modern horror even before Poe wrote the stories and poems that so changed my outlook on reading. In 1764 Horace Walpole, the fourth Earl of Oxford who served in the House of Lords for 26 years, penned The Castle of Otranto, a medieval period piece set in a haunted Italian castle. Anne Radcliffe followed thirty years later with The Mysteries of Udolpho. Then in 1839, the demented genius that was Poe released Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque and sealed us into the Catacombs of Horror forever. Other well-known writers from Franz Kafka to H.G. Wells went on to broaden the genre and make it accessible and acceptable to generations that followed. Only literary snobs whose goal is to seem loftier than thou continue to denigrate it; they’re beating a dead horse.

It continues to develop in the hands of Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, and our generation’s master, Stephen King. And horror isn’t at all confined to the supernatural, aliens, and the products of runaway science. How much real-life horror did the victims of Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and the Green River Killer endure before they finally expired? A story about any of them, or a fictional version thereof, certainly classifies as horror. Truman Capote built a reputation and a successful career on the concept.

So you see, you don’t need to love ghosts rattling chains or beasts from 20,000 fathoms to be a horror fan. It’s all around you, and as Stephen King suggested, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

So, what’s your guilty pleasure that goes bump in the night? I’d love to hear about it, and I’d love it more if you could turn me on to some new sub-genre that I could get lost in. The comment box is a click away… let’s share a scare, shall we?

4 responses to “The Catacombs of Horror”

    • Thank you, sir. This is a recent passion with me… well, relatively recent. The point is that I’m really into it, and it’s good to see I’m not making a fool of myself.

      Liked by 1 person

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