Friday, 21 August 2015

A Short, Whispered History of Quiet Horror

I use the term 'quiet horror' to suggest, hint, or otherwise gesture at the general kind of story I like to publish in ST. But what does it mean? A quick Google reveals references to Shirley Jackson, Charles L. Grant, Susan Hill, Phil Rickman, and quite a few others. Also, vegetarianism is mentioned, meaning that quiet horror offers no raw, bleeding flesh. This is fair enough, but is quiet horror something relatively new, or does it in fact have its roots firmly in the same Gothic tradition as the noisy/garish stuff?

Nathaniel Hawthorne

I think so. I recently re-read Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1836 story 'The Minister's Black Veil'. It is of course a moralising fable (you could only stop Hawthorne moralising by stuffing socks down his throat), but the driving motor of the tale is horror. It is well worth a read. The story is simple, A kindly but ineffectual New England preacher one day adopts a black veil, consisting of a simple fold of crepe that covers his upper face. This transforms him into a powerful force in the Puritan community; sermons that were once seen as innocuous become terrifying simply because of the Black Veil:
The subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them. A subtle power was breathed into his words. Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought. Many spread their clasped hands on their bosoms. There was nothing terrible in what Mr. Hooper said, at least, no violence; and yet, with every tremor of his melancholy voice, the hearers quaked. An unsought pathos came hand in hand with awe.

Later, Mr. Hooper attends a funeral and leans over the corpse, allowing the veil to hang free of his face. The corpse is believed by some witnesses to flinch at the visage thus revealed! Absurd, perhaps, when stated so baldly, but in the context of the tale it sums up the quiet but all-pervading horror that this otherwise unremarkable man has brought to his neighbours.  Nothing super- or preternatural is explicit. The horror is happening 'off-stage', in the minds of ordinary people. 'The Minister's Black Veil' is the direct ancestor of much American quiet horror, such as Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery', where we see no blood or broken bones, but terrible cruelty is implicit.

Poe was of course more of a clangorous horror man, but he too suggested more than he showed. 'The Imp of the Perverse', 'The Cask of Amontillado', and 'The Tell-Tale Heart' each keep certain details out of sight. But I think that Ambrose Bierce is really the next great exponent of quiet horror, in stories like 'The Middle Toe of the Right Foot' and 'The Moonlit Road'.

Is quiet horror largely an American sub-genre, then? I don't think so. In Britain and Ireland the Gothic tale, with its emphasis on terrible secrets unearthed in tortuous ways, evolved into the ghost story (among other things), and understated or off-stage horror is surely central to the latter. As has often been remarked, M.R. James's ghost stories frequently feature non-ghosts, and I think quiet supernatural horror is a better term for them. (It's unlikely to catch on, but never mind.) 'Count Magnus', 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral', and 'A Warning to the Curious' each, in its way, evoke that sense of something glimpsed, something wrong, an intrusion into the sensible, workaday world. The same can be said for the (otherwise very different) ghost stories of Walter de la Mare - 'All Hallows', in particular.

It's interesting to note in passing that some of my favourite authors in and outside the supernatural field didn't really produce quiet horror. Conan Doyle, Wells, and Stoker all have their virtues, but their horror is generally up-front. Algernon Blackwood is nearer the mark, perhaps, but with his best work the strange is more than hinted at. 'The Wendigo' and 'The Willows' offer characters driven to near distraction by very real, if baffling, phenomena. There is little ambiguity as to what is happening, though much mystery as to why. Quiet horror needs that element of uncertainty, the conviction in a character (or indeed the reader) that there's something very wrong, despite a lack of detail. In general, a character in a quiet horror story can't explain or even understand what's happening.

Between the wars America saw a steady decline in the short story magazine, or rather a drop in readership for more 'literary' periodicals and the rise of pulps catering to narrower genre tastes. This meant more explicit horror fiction, but the quieter tale was still flourishing in the shadows. Even Lovecraft, an author whose style has been termed 'maximalist', achieved something like quiet horror in 'The Music of Erich Zann' and perhaps a few other tales. Among his disciples Friz Leiber and Robert Bloch produced enough subtle work to fit into this great tradition that I'm just making up as as I go along. A little later came John Collier, in some ways a direct descendant of Bierce, though his work is more surreal and less darkly satirical.

L.P. Hartley

Perhaps the obvious British quiet horror candidate from that era is L.P. Hartley. The man who informed us that 'the past is a foreign country' also reveals that a character's present can be a bizarre, menacing world. 'Feet Foremost', 'The Cotillion', 'The Travelling Grave', 'The Killing Bottle', and 'A Visitor from Down Under' are good examples of quiet, uneasy horror. They tend to be described as ghost stories, which is inaccurate, and tales of the macabre, which is closer but still not quite right.

In the post-WW2 world, quiet horror became widespread, perhaps due to Cold War fears combined with concerns about consumerist destruction of what politicians used to refer to as 'all we hold dear' - whatever that may be. And this stuff didn't just emerge in the horror genre. Let's not forget the rise of the sleuths. Crime writers, ranging from John Dickson Carr to Patricia Highsmith, produced short stories that qualify as quiet horror, and the late Ruth Rendell's shorter fiction is replete with examples.

Shirley Jackson's stories were published in mainstream magazines, but many qualify as horror tales of an understated sort. 'The Lottery' (which was banned in South Africa) and The Haunting of Hill House both qualify, I think, despite the latter involving explicit investigation of the supernatural. The overall feel of Jackson's stories is of a world where arbitrary destructive influences can break into settled lives at any time. Definitions of the natural and supernatural, the real and imaginary, bleed into one another in Jackson's work.

Quiet horror was also produced by science fiction writers of the pulp era and after - Ray Bradbury is surely one of its best-known exponents, and in stories like 'The Jar' he comes close to producing perfect examples of the form. Harlan Ellison and Rod Serling also spring to mind as masters of quiet horror. The New Wave era saw a lot of work published as science fiction that could, and did, qualify as horror of a subtle and disturbing kind.

And now we arrive at the period when the term quiet horror actually came into use, thanks to Charles L. Grant, a prolific American author who also edited many significant anthologies. He used the terms quiet horror and dark fantasy to describe his work - indeed, Grant seems to have coined 'quiet horror', so good for him. His Oxrun Station tales, in particular, are good examples of horror stories in which there is usually little or no on-stage violence, only a pervasive sense of things going wrong.

Charles L. Grant

Meanwhile, in England, Ramsey Campbell was making a name for himself as an exponent of intelligent horror. Subtle and understated, Campbell's stories often feature isolated protagonists who fall, or are pushed, into a nightmarish world that exists beneath the somewhat grubby surface of modern British life. His early collections are replete with the right stuff. Indeed, if you're still insure what quiet horror is, read half a dozen Campbell stories.

I've missed out a lot of writers, as is inevitable with this whole overview approach. Who deserves a mention? Who are the contemporary stars of quiet horror? And what of film and television? Over to you.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting! Do you see any difference between quite horror and wierd?
R. Giandrini

valdemar said...

Hello, and thanks for commenting! I think quiet horror can be supernatural or 'fantastic' to some degree, but is always grounded firmly in realism and tends to be set in the present. Weird fiction can range more widely and be more up-front about its strangeness. And of course weird fiction isn't necessarily horrific.

R. T. Byers said...

What about Robert Aickman? I know he described his fiction as "strange stories", but many of the ones I've read seem to share the qualities you mentioned.

valdemar said...

Quite right, Aickman is a serious omission from the above. While some of his stories don't quite qualify as horror, enough do to make him a major figure on the British side of the pond. Silly me. As I've been re-reading his work for years there's no excuse - I simply forgot.

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