What makes some enjoy horror, while others wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole? Although I don't enjoy reading or watching horror, I've been fascinated by the millions who do. If not universal, the appeal of horror is certainly pervasive these days. Stephen King, perhaps the most popular horror master of our time, has had phenomenal success, but he has ridden an old and standing wave: Bram Stoker's Count Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and William Blatty's The Exorcist are only a few now-classic horror tales. And of course, King is providing coattails for many followers, not least because of his book On Writing. Yet even the works I mentioned represent recent history - what of more ancient tales of horror? Children's fairy tales, the Brothers' Grimm collections in particular, are filled with horror scenarios. Scroll back farther in time and think about monsters such as the Minotaur or the Medusa of Greek mythology. Horrible tales that, while making us cringe, nevertheless entertain and even instruct us.
What is horror, anyway? The Merriam-Webster defines it as “painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay,” “intense aversion or repugnance,” along with “having the quality of inspiring horror: repulsive, horrible or dismal quality or character.” My anthropologist friend, who goes by the moniker Tio Narratore, thinks that malevolence coupled with revulsion are probably necessary in addition to horror itself. What have anthropologists thought about the prevalence of horror tales? It turns out not much. Tio Narratore pointed out that horror is not universal in old cultures. Different cultures may have different aspects of horror – for example, monsters appear in most, but ghosts do not. And while the monsters are frightening, they are not necessarily malevolent or repulsive.
But horror does occasionally appear: Tio mentioned Windigo, the cannibal monster of the northern Algonquins, who “might eat you if he caught you.” He was often seen in wintertime, when food was scarce or gone, and “going Windigo” – seeing family as food – was a serious worry. “Cannibalism was a major fear among the Inuit as well, and in either area, one who went cannibal could no longer live among people. And living alone meant death,” said Tio Narratore. This is not a merely academic fear, as a real incident from the 1840s showed: the Donner party, a starving wagon train of American pioneers, were trapped by the terrain and snow storms in the Sierra Nevadas and turned to cannibalism in despair. Only about half of the Donner party made it to their destination, having survived by eating the dead. And what Westerner hasn’t at least heard of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter and The Silence of the Lambs?
What of erotic horror, the mixing of horror with sex? Things get even trickier then, even more – for lack of a better word – horrifying. Normal people are repulsed, rightly so, by snuff stories or movies, when sexual gratification comes about by the murder of another human being, almost always female.
But erotic horror doesn’t have to be equated with a snuff story, and most definitely is not in AMoveableBeast’s wonderful piece The Grimm Reaper. Beast has constructed an entirely believable – and thus horrifying – fairy tale revolving around two monstrous and, yes, repulsive characters. His story fits squarely and successfully in the horror genre, a story that made me (and many others) cringe and ultimately sigh with relief by the end. I knew from the get-go I was in for quite a ride, with this excerpt from the clear warning in the author's note: "I hope you enjoy it (the story) in that terrible way that scary, disturbing things can be enjoyed."
Beast entered The Grimm Reaper in this year’s April Fool’s Contest on the free erotic fiction site Literotica. I also entered a piece, and read a number of the other entries. I was predisposed to dislike it because, as I said earlier, I am not a reader of horror, erotic or otherwise. But I found the story excellent: it drew me into its world and held me there suspended, slowly twisting in the wind and peeking between my fingers to find out what came next. The story follows Arthur, a writer in a rather unusual medium, as he completes another of his, frankly, horrific works, one in a series of attempts to search for his perfect soul mate. This part of the story is the hardest to read, but no worse than in keeping with today’s standards in horror novels and movies. After putting the finishing touches on his work and heading home, Arthur finally encounters what he thinks of as his ideal mate, the one he has looked for all his life. And it is in the unfolding of this meeting that the tables turned on Arthur.
The writing is nearly flawless: it pulls the reader into the characters’ world in a way that inspires, if not exactly sympathy, at least some understanding. The characters are written deftly, with sure strokes of the pen that never overwhelm. The settings are suitably dark, almost murky, but with flashes of color and even humor that point the way. The plot moves and builds inexorably forward, propelled by light touches that foreshadow what's to come without giving any of it away.
The story fits into the genre of classic Grimm-style fairy tales, where evil gets its just reward. But wait... it's not so simple after all. Surprisingly and against my better judgment, I even felt a little sorry for Arthur by the end, a tiny tinge of sympathy that he most certainly did not deserve. It's a credit to Beast's assured and elegant writing that he wrung this very reluctant emotion from me.
Was it erotic? Not exactly. As Tio Narratore said, “The fear is what gets people... It raises the adrenaline level and results in a general sense of arousal, which, without real danger, can be pretty pleasurable in itself and even lead to other pleasures…" Most definitely my adrenaline levels soared while reading this story.
What more could I, the reader, ask of a piece – not only to entertain in spite of its cringe moments, to bring the characters their just rewards in a surprise ending, but also to surprise me at my own reaction? How can a writer, using a genre that repels me, burrow a story so deep under my skin that I remember it months later as if I had read it yesterday? How, indeed? Read The Grimm Reaper and you will see. (The Grimm Reaper)
This review originally appeared as a blog entry on Amara Novi's web page (Amara Novi (a)Muses...).