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Horror in SF

Entry updated 17 October 2022. Tagged: Theme.

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The often propounded notion that sf is a literature of rational, scientifically based extrapolation is at best misleading and in many instances false. Much sf is anti-science, for reasons partly historic and perhaps partly intrinsic: the relationship of Fantastika as a whole to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was uneasy from the very first. The famous remark of the Spanish painter Goya (1746-1828) that the Sleep of Reason breeds Monsters is inarguable in its most obvious meaning: when rationality is in abeyance, terrible things happen. But the phrase seems to allow a rather different and more subversive interpretation, one of great significance to sf: that it is science itself which, when it dreams, dreams monsters; in other words, the link between the bright light of science and the darkness of monstrousness is a link of blood and kinship. Certainly much sf might lead us to suppose that this apparent paradox is true.

Brian W Aldiss argued in Billion Year Spree (1973) that sf "was born from the Gothic mode" in the nineteenth century (see Gothic SF), and that was also one of the birthplaces of horror fiction; certainly many of sf's early manifestations were horrible indeed, with E T A Hoffmann's malign Robot-maker Coppelius, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein Monster, Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, Nathaniel Hawthorne's poison-saturated daughter of the scientist Rappaccini, and Edgar Allan Poe's rotting M. Valdemar being celebrated but not untypical examples.

In the flurry of fantastic fiction published in magazines and Pulp magazines between, say, 1880 and 1930, occult and supernatural fiction and sf were so closely related as to be disentangled only with the greatest difficulty, and sometimes not very convincingly. Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen and A Merritt are only a few of the very many writers of that half-century whose work hovered between sf's light and horror's darkness. Even during and after the 1930s, when pulp fiction was being more and more categorized into separate groups, we find that it was not just the sf magazines like Amazing and Astounding that published sf: much sf, of an often horrific kind, continued to appear in Weird Tales, a magazine largely devoted to supernatural fiction. Even H P Lovecraft wrote some borderline sf. In the ordinary world, science, then as now, came in two guises: on the one hand it offered a gleaming, safe future; on the other it carried us to the brink of apocalypse. Its medical research might unleash new diseases, its robots run amok, its intellectualism generate a race with huge brains and withered bodies, its physics create death rays or atomic bombs. Science was ungodly; it might even awaken the dead.

Sf is, even now, by and large written by ordinary people rather than scientists. This was almost exclusively so in the 1930s, and it is no wonder that much of the sf of those early years gave science a bad press. Many people agree that sf should be about science, but that has never meant that sf should like science. The anti-scientism of much 1930s sf (also visible at the more reputable end of the spectrum in the work of writers like C S Lewis) did no more than reflect the fears of the 1930s, fears that are in no wise abated in the twenty-first century. Public anxieties aroused by science and technology are bound to manifest themselves in fiction, especially horror fiction; this is natural and unsurprising. The only surprising thing about it is that so many commentators on the genre are surprised by it. These commentators have, of course, endeavoured to banish sf/horror from the sf genre, and some have actually contrived Definitions of SF intended to do just this. Wishing, however, does not make it so; and the fact is that the supposed splitting in the 1920s and 1930s of the fantastic-fiction tradition into separate genres of sf, horror and Fantasy never really took place – or, at least, that the process was never completed.

This failure to exorcize the demons from sf is most visible in sf Cinema. Something like half of all twentieth-century sf movies are horror movies. Of the 250 or so such films given entries in this encyclopedia that could be cited to demonstrate the case, a few dozen or so of the most prominent should be sufficient. In the 1920s we had Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Metropolis, Alraune (vt Unholy Love; vt Daughter of Destiny) and Orlacs Hände (vt The Hands of Orlac); in the 1930s we had Frankenstein, Mad Love (see Orlacs Hände), The Invisible Man, King Kong and Island of Lost Souls; in the 1940s (when there was almost no sf cinema at all) we had Dr Cyclops and The Lady and the Monster; the 1950s offered rich pickings with The Thing, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Invaders from Mars, Them!, The Quatermass Xperiment, Tarantula, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Blob and I Married a Monster from Outer Space, among very many others; things slowed down a little in the 1960s with Village of the Damned, The Damned, The Birds, X – The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Terrore Nello Spazio (vt Planet of the Vampires), Seconds, Weekend, Quatermass and the Pit, Night of the Living Dead and Scream and Scream Again; in the 1970s we saw A Clockwork Orange, Frogs, The Crazies, It's Alive, Westworld, The Parasite Murders, The Stepford Wives, Bug, Demon Seed, Coma, Piranha, The Brood and, most notably of all, Alien; in the 1980s there were Altered States, Saturn 3, Scanners, The Thing, Videodrome, De Lift, The Terminator, Re-Animator, The Fly, Predator, Monkey Shines, They Live, Society, Tremors, Hardware, Darkman and Aliens; in the 1990s we had Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Alien³. All of these are sf. All of these can be described as horror.

There is something going on here beyond anxieties about science. It is the theme (discussed in detail under Gothic SF and again under Monster Movies) of the incursion of the irrational into an apparently calm and ordered venue – an intrusion that in the real world we all fear with good reason; for this fear (which is for some an active desire) we may need a catharsis in harmless fictional form. It is a theme for which the metaphoric flexibility of sf is peculiarly well adapted to cater. The worldview of Paranoia is one that sf has often adopted.

Horror itself, as a separate genre, has roots older than those of sf, and had begun to develop its distinctive patterns by the time of the Romantic movement in the very early nineteenth century – a little earlier than sf. Like sf it was by the 1930s widely if incorrectly considered as distinct from other literary genres. Horror did not, however, become a major genre in the mass market until the late 1970s and early 1980s – a boom that partly resulted from Stephen King's popularity – and later in the 1980s it began to seem as if the horror wave had already crested. In so far as it is a genre dubiously (though popularly) defined not by its content but by its presumptive affect, horror is all too readily understood as an inflection variously discernible in examples extracted from other genres which are identified by their content; in this light, horror-sf is common. Various critical attempts have been made, seldom very convincingly, to distinguish between horror and weird fiction, horror and the New Gothic, or horror and terror; in his The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror (2006), John Clute treats the latter distinction as significant, seeing the effect of vastation – defined as a devastating, epiphanic (though eerily impersonal) understanding of the malice of the world itself – in examples from authors as far afield as Joseph Conrad, H P Lovecraft and Mary Shelley, whose The Last Man (1826 3vols) is an early example of the terror generated through visions of the world itself. Vastation tends to be accompanied by a Basilisk-like terminal fixity in those who experience it, though it is seldom initiated by a device. It is a recognition of the world that cannot be escaped.

The term horror is regarded by some, all the same, as an unpleasant lowest-common-denominator word for the genre, hence the occasional search for something that sounds more respectable, such as "dark fantasy"; but some contrary writers glory in even less attractive terms, like the current "splatterpunk" [see also Splatter Movies]. Regardless of what terms critics use, the predominant marketing term remains "horror". Non-sf horror fiction can be either psychological horror – often psychopaths cutting up women with sharp instruments, sometimes the inner landscapes of maimed minds – or supernatural horror, or very often both, stories in the second category being (perhaps) no more than an externalization of the demons conjured up within the first.

When sf collides with horror it is, curiously enough, usually via the supernatural category, though very often in a rationalized format (see Gods and Demons; Golem; Supernatural Creatures) where some kind of quasiscientific explanation is given – as in Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954) and Brian M Stableford's The Empire of Fear (1988), both Vampire novels – for apparently unnatural, and often horrible, manifestations. (The term Monster is sometimes reserved for more overtly science-fictional horrors, like the carnivorous killer in Alien.) Just as sf often uses horror motifs, so too does horror sometimes use sf motifs, as in Joe R Lansdale's The Drive-In 2: Not Just One of Them Sequels (1989), in which a "big red Comet" causes carnivorous Dinosaurs to manifest in a metamorphosed Texas. Lansdale is one of the many interesting writers lacking entries in this encyclopedia because their use (if any) of sf tropes is so inexplicable; but his borderline case does serve to show up the insecurity any scholar must feel in attempting to dissect horror, fantasy and sf out from each other.

There seems little point in listing here sf authors whose work contains major horror components; such a list would be not only unmanageably long but also rather arbitrary, for such genre-crossing occurs in work of very varied literary ambition and for a variety of purposes, some horror-sf stories being admonitory fables, others exercises in the provision of rollercoaster thrills, still others tales of mental breakdown and the hallucinatory worlds such illness can produce. As argued above, horror cannot easily be defined by content, only by its desired effect, which may be a matter of auctorial tone, or of lethal subtext. Coagulations of horror with sf have come from authors as various as Ray Bradbury and Thomas M Disch; Charles Beaumont and Dan Simmons; Clark Ashton Smith and L Ron Hubbard; Frank Belknap Long and Dean R Koontz; Gerald Kersh and K W Jeter; Alastair Reynolds and China Miéville; David Britton and Oisin Fagan; Dan Chaon and Fred Chappell. The theme of Children in SF, in particular, is a hothouse for such crossovers; and horror tropes are frequent in the vaguely defined subgenre known as the New Weird.

With sf cinema it is possible to be very much more specific: the auteur directors who have specialized in blending sf with horror are first and foremost David Cronenberg and then, still importantly, Larry Cohen, Roger Corman, George A Romero and Ridley Scott, in turn followed perhaps by Charles Band, James Cameron, John Carpenter, Michael Crichton and Joe Dante, along with the important film-writer Nigel Kneale.

There are many books and magazines about horror. A useful quarterly magazine that sometimes considered horror-sf crossover books – and a better informed and more intelligent review than many magazines in the field – was Necrofile: The Review of Horror Fiction edited by Stefan R Dziemianowicz, S T Joshi and Michael Morrison, published by Necronomicon Press, Rhode Island, USA, from Summer 1991 to Spring 1999 (32 issues). Relevant anthologies include Tales of Terror from Outer Space (anth 1975) edited by R Chetwynd-Hayes. [PN/JC]

see also: Dark Conspiracy; Doom.

further reading


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