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Love, Death, and Genre Fiction

What does Love Actually have to do with Dracula? Other than the fact that, when blended together, the two would create a truly awesome project called Love Dractually, very little. Except this: among the siblings in the genre fiction family, horror and romance are the two that draw most heavily on pre-rational, atavistic phenomena – the deep biological emotions of fear and lust. In other words, both Love Actually and Dracula slip behind the stage dressing of civilization, behind the velvet curtains of rationalized emotion, and into the shadowy backstage of the human psyche.

Just as romance plays upon our pre-human drive to reproduce – a drive shared by all life, the source of our very DNA – horror plays upon our fear of death, our aversion to pain and bodily destruction. True, more subtle horror is about more than that and very few romance-oriented pieces of fiction outside of the world of pornography are about little more than “mere” reproduction. But if one sets aside the complicating factors that obscure sex and death, it pretty quickly becomes apparent that the impulses to survive and repopulate lie at the very core of everything from the lowly bacterium to Buckingham Palace.

“Genre fiction” is usually broken out into science fiction, romance, crime fiction, westerns, historical fiction, and horror. Like all fiction, stories in these genres draw upon different emotional states and the twists, turns, and vicissitudes of life, but only horror and romance proceed directly from drives as intrinsic to life as Eros and Thanatos. Little more than the hormones most of us come equipped with and the foreknowledge of our own death is needed to enjoy horror and romance; not so, the other venerable genres of popular fiction. Mystery and historical stories engage the rational faculties, the centers of the brain dedicated to problem solving and pattern recognition. Science fiction and fantasy are both intensely intellectual pursuits, often revolving around complicated systems and mythologies. Westerns, like historical novels, draw on a sense of time and place to weave their magic.

Horror, alone and in particular, takes us to a place where we contemplate the end of all things, the breakdown of the crude machinery that power our mysterious consciousness – total annihilation of self.

Earlier this year, I reviewed The Year’s Best Horror: Volume 10, edited by Ellen Datlow. One story in that collection stands out among the others: “West of Matamoros, North of Hell,” by Brian Hodge. The plot isn’t necessarily important (though it’s well-crafted), and one hesitates to spoil anything: you should, without any doubt, read it for yourself. In it, Hodge uses a turn of phrase that has stuck in my mind like a thorn ever since: “the mask behind the face.” In the context of the story, one interpretation of these words has to with the great, bony cradle of our personhood: the skull.

A mask, of course, hides our face: it removes our identity, that which individuates us, and turns us to strangers. To see the face behind the mask is the goal of much of fiction; to see behind our contrivances, to shine a light on our nature as living, breathing, thinking humans. It’s a worthy goal, one that has provided us with glittering works of intricate human analysis, and some that – in examining or lampooning our human quirks – also just provide us with lots of dumb fun.

Horror can do that, but it goes deeper: it looks for the mask behind the face, the bony, grinning visage that, in the end, renders all of us mute – all of us inscrutable – all of us, in some sense, equal, in some sense identical. What that process of deindividuation means is a terrifying question. Horror is fiction’s steely gaze right into the black, beating heart of that question. What answers might emerge?

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