Boo! Eek! Ahhhh!
Horror is the genre of the one syllable word, the exclamation point, the elongated scream.
Notwithstanding the commercially successful novels of Dickens and King, horror is the genre of the short story. Notably, both those popular writers mastered short forms first. But before them, Poe -- credited with both the invention of the short story as a genre and forefather of today's horrific tale -- predicated his work on the notion of the "single desired effect." That effect, in his "Amontillado," is the terrifying notion of imprisonment. One could read this as some extended metaphor for the human condition, or even draft a dissertation on the tale's allegory for the writer's relationship to his own addiction. But Poe was going for the frisson at the end. The chill. The shock. The surprising revelation of a secret plan, which the character (and the reader) only got a momentary glimpse of before it was all too late.
Horror is the genre of the jolt, the shock, the spark. The horror story's conflict is always a matter of life and death, but death -- even to an undead creature -- always comes as a surprise. The climax of a horror tale is almost unilaterally a killing blow, catching someone or something unaware. Death almost always comes too soon -- that's why we fear it. Life is always too short. Never long enough.
Horror's shortest stories replicate this logic, capturing the brevity of life in its most distilled form. Whether in the deeply felt frisson or the immediate spring of a surprise, horror requires brevity.
A cold hand on the shoulder. A sharp bite on the neck. A rusty knife in the ribs.
Horror novels and films rely often on suspense -- on holding one's breath as if that could extend life. Although it borrows heavily from the mystery and detective genre, horror is not a whodunit. Horror's mysteries are usually universally repressed truths and suspense is a piano chord that can only be played so long. Horror bangs on the same piano, producing chaotic chords. Cacophony. Horror pounds the keys of the literary piano in staccato rhythm. Horror resides in the chirp of the Psycho soundtrack. The arc of Norman's knife. And the pulse-racing dribble of the camera down the drain afterwards.
Horror is a thrill ride. If you stay aboard the ride for too long, you become immune to the curves that toss you around in your car. You see the cardboard cutouts coming. You might even stare at the safety mechanics with bemusement. Good horror is the shortest and most dangerous ride at the literary carnival.
Good dark poetry can capture the spirit of horror. Baudelaire new this. He also knew that that boundary-blurring form -- the prose poem -- could evoke the uncanny and the fantastic by bridging together the magic of poetic language with the belief inherent to narrative logic. Horror combines the metonymy of madness with the metaphor of malignancy.
Horror is the most subversively experimental popular genre of them all. Sometimes it's a wolf in sheep's clothing on the mainstream paperback or video racks; sometimes it's an underground or occult treasure, a cult classic known only to a few. But it always offers a counterpoint to the moral status quo and the culture of boredom -- it seeks to disrupt normalcy, to break boundary lines, to challenge the rules. It appeals to teens because it rebels against a culture that would over-protectively parent its people. But it is not pop music; it is alternative rock on the literary radio. A space for emergent forms.
Horror readers expect the unexpected. The genre in toto therefore flaunts its literary experiment as a struggle to say something new when the reader least expects it. Minimalist horror fiction and short scary poems are not signs of a "short attention span" culture -- instead, they are thought experiments that challenge the genre's more popular mainstream (and predictable) forms. They run counter to the mass marketed horror novels and two hour teen angst dramas. They present a snapshot of terror that fixes life and death perpetually in a brief moment of time, as formally structured and composed as the works of German Expressionism. Their brevity also prevents readers from spending time analyzing the monsters of horror long enough to spot the zipper running down their back.
Minimalist horror is a shotgun shell: a tightly wadded package of shrapnel designed for maximum coverage, minimal escape.
It's bleeding that takes time. Not the injury that causes it. Bleeding is what you do afterward, reeling from the attack.
And the genre is renewed. The rebirth of the genre is always already a part of its death.
Horror remains the genre of the undead.