Horror, by its own definition, is a field of extremes. As grotesque and repulsive as some films may be, and any of us can think of several titles on short notice that we believe scrape the outer edge of tastelessness, the written word can beat film, hands down, for extremism. This is partially because there are no budgetary restraints for special effects but, in my opinion, mostly due to the fact that it takes place in the theater of our minds.
That is why H. P. Lovecraft could get away with vague description like the one below from Dagon and make a massive impact with the reader. Because it is all in our mind. The monster is ours. Reading is a singular personal act. That is also the reason Lovecraft’s monsters have never been successfully filmed.
Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds…
I’d be willing to bet that what you see isn’t what I see. But how far can an author go to push the envelope of grossness? When is horror literature too extreme? Can horror literature be too extreme? I posed this question to horror readers and authors alike. This column focuses on responses from the readers. (We’ll hear from the ink-slingers in a later column.) And as always, I’d love to hear from you.
Patrick Freivald: “Gratuitous torture (or rape, or sex, or whatever) isn’t any more off-putting to me than gratuitous waffling or gratuitous dialogue. If it furthers the story and I care what happens next, I’m probably okay with it. If it doesn’t, I’ll probably give the book one more chance and then put it down if it happens again. A lot of the “extreme horror” I see is not my cup of tea, because too often the pain is the story and there’s nothing more to it than that.”
Paul Counelis — “I’m not likely to read a bunch of shock for shock’s sake stuff, but if it happens in context and for a reason, I’ll probably be ok with it. I won’t read an entire book about a child or children being tortured or something like that. The Girl Next Door is the specific book that I thought of first. I did try to read it, and then I just didn’t want to anymore. There’s a brief but somewhat revolting couple pages in Apt Pupil that made me set the book aside for a bit.”
Matthew Alan Hughes — “In my personal reading, I don’t like erotica horror. Sex and horror have always been intertwined to some point, but horror was always the primary. I know a lot of authors who submit to erotica based horror anthologies, and in just about every case they tell me they wrote the story, then had to go back and add sex scenes in to meet the required guidelines.If the story is good enough, it shouldn’t need extra sex to get published.”
Richard Heft — Blood Meridian does its best to go over the line from the horrific to the nauseating. I read it to the end (partly because it was so damn famous), but after a scene with dead babies impaled on tree branches, I thought, this book can’t come up with an uglier image. And it didn’t.”
Amanda Rebholz – “I don’t mind when something is in a book if it serves a purpose– if an animal dies brutally, if there’s a fucked-up rape scene, etc but it is key to the plot or reveals something important about the nature of that character, etc, I’m fine with it. But if it’s gratuitous and just in there for shock value, I’m turned off.”
Tim Lucas – “It’s funny, but while I can read most anything in the context of a horror novel and accept it (even though flinching at things that I feel are in bad taste), I have an aversion to true crime fiction.”
Ty Johnston – “If I can make it through the Marquis de Sade, I can make my way through reading anything.”
Dan Madigan – “I don’t think anything is too extreme…I think that both the Bible and Koran have more than their fair share of horrific elements throughout their pages…at least in horror literature its fiction and not meant to be taken literal.”
Elena DeGarmo – “I’ve never stopped reading due to content, but there are books I will not pick up, knowing their content. As much as I love Ketchum, I will not read The Girl Next Door.”
Steve Rasnic Tem – “The nice thing about reading a physical book is that you can edit the experience. If I reach a particular scene that upsets me personally I can set the book aside and pick it up when I feel a bit more prepared.”
Mark Capehart — “The situation can be one of excess but it in the skill of the writer whether or not it becomes distasteful. The most brutal behavior exhibited toward the innocent can be a wonderful read when handled with elegance. The problem is you don’t know if a writer is elegant until after you read it and then it is too late.”
Overwhelmingly, the number one offense in horror literature was poor writing skills. Most people agreed any subject could be written about if it was written about well. But without a doubt my favorite responses were the two listed below. Thus it comes down to “whatever floats your boat.”
Joe Miles – “Too much becomes tacky. I like to let the reader’s imagination kick in by implying and suggesting. Rape, killing children/animals are the same. Use tact and don’t go into ridiculous detail. That’s just plain tasteless…”
Evan Marlowe – “I’m personally a big fan of tastelessness.”