Wednesday, December 18, 2013

DM's Field Guide to Dark Fiction - Supernatural Horror

Posted by LD Keach on Wednesday, December 18, 2013

genus: supersticiae ad infinitum
orders: Tales of Terror, Horror, Gross-out

Common traits – Supernatural Horror most often involves a protagonist battling against some force that is above or greater than nature, and that force can be anything from spiritual to occultic, religious to mythological. This force must inspire revulsion and fear in the protagonist (because prancing around happily with a sexy supernatural centaur does not Supernatural horror make). For the right horrifying effect, ghosts and demons are popular, sometimes joined by vampires, ghouls, succubi, poltergeists, werewolves,

While the supernatural elements in the story can combine to aid the hero or heroine in their war with forces beyond their understanding (such as helpful gypsies with spells to close the gates of hell or priests who know how to shut that malignant ghost up), for the most part the protagonist is at odds with the supernatural, wishing to kill/escape/stop it. The supernatural can almost always be killed, escaped from, or stopped because the spirit world is just as regulated as the boring old mundane one, and that is what sets Supernatural Horror apart from the Weird Tale or Psychological Horror: the threat is a faith, myth, or superstition-based menace that can be defeated by the rules set forth by whatever occult know-it-all happens to be hanging around.

Historical sightings – The supernatural has been used in fiction since the first storytellers crawled out of the primordial sea; it's been used even more heavily in life throughout history. There have been decades of life on this earth where people actually believed that an improperly-blessed sneeze could let demons in, so the use of such ghastly ghost mongering in stories is hardly something that can be tracked.

However, the use of the supernatural in order to terrify is a relatively recent phenomenon. In Western publishing, Supernatural Horror has its roots in the Gothic traditions of the 18th and 19th centuries, with notable occurrences like Henry James' story "The Turn of the Screw" and W. W. Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw", not to mention the stories of occult-obsessed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Bram Stoker's immortal classic Dracula also hails from this camp, as the well-informed Professor Von Helsing battles against the shape-shifting ancient evil bent on draining the blood out of ol' Harker's honey boo.

The tactic of using the supernatural to give readers the willies has been taken up by tons of writers throughout the 20th century: Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson, Ramsay Campbell, Anne Rice, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker and a slew of others. It was during this horror-happy decade that The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty and Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin emerged as stunning classics of occult fiction (the former actually leading to a spike in exorcisms requested by the general public).

While the frenzied bloodthirst for Horror fiction has tapered off in the beginnings of the 21rst century, many horror writers still put in hard time in the grand Supernatural tradition. Writers like Caitlyn R. Keirnan and Laird Barron are serving up serious literary fare with a supernatural taste, and more mainstream writers like Bentley Little and Edward Lee dip their pens in the inkwell of the occult. And of course, many other cultures around the globe have fantastic traditions of terrifying with the supernatural, on every continent from Latin America to Africa to Asia, each following their own completely different sets of rules and gory regulations, but to survey them all would take a lifetime of arcane study.

Modern habitats – The old tropes of supernatural horror—possession by Judeo-Christian-style demons, wrathful souls of the dead speaking through Ouija boards, anything with gypsy curses—are not taken well in modern Western Horror publishing. (In Western Horror films, of course, they live mercilessly unchallenged, and anyone who says the Paranormal Activity series isn't wet-your-pants scary is probably not wearing pants. But Paranormal Horror is a different species.) Still, that doesn't mean the supernatural itself is shunned. Big Guns like Clarksworld Magazine still is happy to look at an offical Supernatural Horror story, and Reputable Guns like Psuedopod and Three Lobed Burning Eye won't shake a mojo stick at them either. But, if a writer is interested in a market that doesn't specifically say supernatural accepted here, then it's a simple trick to rely more on another subgenre like Psychological or Weird, and then dole out a helping of supernatural on the side.

Related: Ghost Story, Creature Horror, Werewolf, Vampire, Demon, Dark Fantasy

See also: Introduction