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Shakespeare, I like to remind people, wrote horror. It’s hard to read the murders in King Lear or Macbeth or Hamlet, for example, and not think of it as anything but horror. Drama, for the Elizabethans, was a form of pulp fiction — entertainment for the unwashed masses while the cultural elitists wrote and read poetry. But the definitions of “poetry” can be fluid, and Shakespeare remains to this very day. He had his cake and ate it too, writing poetry, but writing it in a medium that the public, of all socio-economic stripes, could consume. I write this, partly because lovers of “dark fiction” are routinely asked to justify themselves, whether it’s from former professors or relatives and friends. Last I checked, Harlequin readers are hardly ever asked as much, “Why do you read/like romance?” For me, at least, horror fiction is a place that welcomes tragedy, which has a long, long literary history. Plus, tragedy allows you to examine life in its entirety, warts and all. I’m writing this, not because somebody has recently asked me, but because I just read a superb essay by Sarah Langan — one that argues the case better than I ever could:

When it works, horror gets as close to the veins of our emotions as any piece of literature is able. The monsters do not exist to frighten us, but to soothe us. Their existence reassures us that we are reading fiction. We’ve got a lifeline, in case the characters with which we are identifying drag us too far into uncomfortable emotional terrain. Our characters’ screams are our own screams, but when we are done, we can relax, because none of it was real, right? Except, we can’t stop thinking about the friends we met in those books. We hope that long after the stories ended, they lived happy lives. We hope they are okay. We hope we’re okay, too.

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4 Comments

  1. If you’re going to put horror and Shakespeare in the same sentence, you have to mention Titus Andronicus. Rape, mutilation, dismemberment, even cannibalism. Great stuff.

    http://www.shakespearegeek.com

  2. Agreed!

    And if we’re talking Elizabethan era, there’s always the wonderful tongue-nailed-to-the-floor
    Revenger’s Tragedy by Cyril Tourner

  3. Jeez, I need to go re-reads my Shakespeare.

    Cannibalism?

  4. Absolutely. Titus makes meat pies out of his enemies, and then serves said meat pies to his enemy’s mother. Pretty hardcore stuff.


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