Friday, May 24, 2013

Why I Think the Smartest People Like Horror

I'm excited to welcome L. Andrew Cooper to Book Den today! I invited Andrew to share his thoughts with us on why he believes the smartest people like horror, fantasy, and scifi. (I have to say I agree!)

Why do I think the smartest people like horror, fantasy, and sci-fi? To keep it simple, I’ll focus on horror, but a lot of what I’ll say applies to the others, too. The short answer is this: people who like horror can think and feel at least two often contradictory things at once, and that makes them cool.

But we have to imagine something else first. You walk into a bookstore. Which way do you turn—toward the “Literature” section, or toward the “Horror” section (if they even have one anymore… it might be buried under “Paranormal Romance”). Right away, you see a division I wrote about at great length in my book Gothic Realities. Since its beginning in the 18th century, horror fiction has been low culture, supposedly read by lower, deviant people. So you deviate your way over to those cases where half the shelves are K for King and Koontz—although having Ketchum, Lanyon, and Little so nearby doesn’t hurt that part of the alphabet’s glaring dominance—and you grab yourself something about, I don’t know, some cannibals in Maine (Ketchum), or maybe a Dionysian cult (Little).

Once you get to that first moment when a human body gets flayed and cooked and raped in whatever order, you ask yourself—how with this am I? And the only answer you can come up with is, not very. Because the reality of any of the above (flaying, cooking, raping), much less all, would not be a spectacle up with which you would put for more than a moment before either intervening or, more likely, going for help (hey, chances are you’re outnumbered, right?). You reaction to the spectacle is considering it as if it were that to which the word flay refers, but you are only able to tolerate it because of your knowledge of it as a spectacle. The same is true in different ways for “spectacle” in movies and “spectacle” in books—knowing that the image, what the words or the pictures describe, does not refer to a reality consensually regarded as “objective” makes the image accessible. It’s comfortably far enough away from flaying, cooking, and raping that you can be with it, a little, not very, but enough. And that takes a lot of mental processing, to get to such a position of experience where you can get the visceral closeness involved in the as if of flaying, and then to understand the critical distance where representation makes it a not-flaying, only a shadow of the real thing, a horror only a hint of the real horror. And then, at such a magnitude of disgust, comes the opportunity: what people are flayed, what people are raped, what people are treated in the horrific ways made fantastic here but real in other contexts that exist right here on this planet?

Jonathan Swift, of course, wrote: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.”

And Jonathan Swift was smart. Shakespeare was smart, all those ghosts. And Milton, making Satan such a sweet talker. And it seems like every novelist of note, just about, has dabbled in horror—all your nineteenth-century and Modernist superstars like George Eliot and Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle and Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner—and they were smart. But they’re over in the Literature section. Some dumbass must have made a mistake.

About L. Andrew Cooper:

L. Andrew Cooper thinks the smartest people like horror, fantasy, and sci-fi. Early in life, he couldn’t handle the scary stuff–he’d sneak and watch horror films and then keep his parents up all night with his nightmares. In the third grade, he finally convinced his parents to let him read grownup horror novels: he started with Stephen King’s Firestarter, and by grade five, he was doing book reports on The Stand.

When his parents weren’t being kept up late by his nightmares, they worried that his fascination with horror fiction would keep him from experiencing more respectable culture. That all changed when he transitioned from his public high school in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia to uber-respectable Harvard University, where he studied English Literature. From there, he went on to get a Ph.D. in English from Princeton, turning his longstanding engagement with horror into a dissertation. The dissertation became the basis for his first book, Gothic Realities (2010). More recently, his obsession with horror movies turned into a book about one of his favorite directors, Dario Argento (2012). He also co-edited the textbook Monsters (2012), an attempt to infect others with the idea that scary things are worth people’s serious attention.

After living in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California, Andrew now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he teaches at the University of Louisville and chairs the board of the Louisville Film Society, the city’s premiere movie-buff institution. _Burning the Middle Ground_ is his debut novel.

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Burning the Middle Ground

Burning the Middle Ground is a dark fantasy about small-town America that transforms readers’ fears about the country’s direction into a haunting tale of religious conspiracy and supernatural mind control. A character-driven sensibility like Stephen King’s and a flair for the bizarre like Bentley Little’s delivers as much appeal for dedicated fans of fantasy and horror as for mainstream readers looking for an exciting ride. Brian McCullough comes home from school and discovers that his ten-year-old sister Fran has murdered their parents. Five years later, a journalist, Ronald Glassner, finds Brian living at the same house in the small town of Kenning, Georgia. Planning a book on the McCullough Tragedy, Ronald stumbles into a struggle between Kenning’s First Church, run by the mysterious Reverend Michael Cox, and the New Church, run by the rebellious Jeanne Harper. At the same time, Kenning’s pets go berserk, and dead bodies, with the eyes and tongues removed from their heads, begin to appear.

Many thanks to L. Andrew Cooper for sharing his thoughts with us today!


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  1. "people who like horror can think and feel at least two often contradictory things at once, and that makes them cool." Never thought of it that way but I guess you're right.

  2. I am so glad that is cleared up, because I was feeling a little stupid lately! This is a great post and I love posts like this. Maybe one day there won't be a need to differentiate because Horror will be more accepted and understood as a meaningful genre.

  3. What a cool post, love the 2 contradictory at once.


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