What is Horror?


This isn’t a blog that reviews the works of others. There’s a good reason for that – apart from massaging my ego, I haven’t read any decent fiction for a few months, despite buying books which have been breathlessly promoted as the best!, groundbreaking!, profound! That said, I may pad this blog out with my thoughts on books I’ve read, if the whim takes me.

Despite this not being a review blog, after reading a crime novel, I started thinking about the nature of horror fiction. Like pornography, we all know it when we see it, but it seems to me, after reading this book, that horror fiction has wider tentacles than the usual names and faces we associate with it.

And that novel? Memory, by Donald Westlake. Westlake was a prolific, highly acclaimed US crime author (though, under a variety of pseudonyms, especially early in his career, he published comedy, erotica, and science fiction) who died in 2008, but a book he had written in the 1960s, Memory, was unearthed and published by the Hard Case Crime imprint. It deals with the plight of the main character, one Paul Cole, actor on the rise and serial womaniser, who, caught one night in bed by the husband of the woman he is with, suffers a head injury which destroys most of his old memories, and severely impairs his ability to form new ones.*

I associate horror with a number of things, but what they all essentially boil down to is the upending of the certainties of life. Memory, however, has none of those underpinnings, but it does depict the complete destruction of the carefully built and maintained life of an average man making his way in the world.

Think about it – he can no longer rely on what he once knew – faces and names and places and people have been swept away. As an actor, he needs to be able to rely on memorising lines, and recalling past experiences and feelings to inform his performance. When your life has become a blank slate, what can you use to help you act? Without knowing anything about your past, who can you trust? who can you call on for help? and how do you help yourself?

And your identity. Cole, from the fragments we gather when he meets acquaintances of the ‘old’ Paul Cole, comes across as having been arrogant, cocky, confident, street smart and very sure of himself. The shell left behind after his concussion is none of those. Is the sum of a man his memories? and if those memories are gone, what is left?

Memory is an exercise in terse, economical writing, which gets down to the nitty gritty of human existence on the edge, depicting an existential crisis which can have only one ending, despite Paul Cole’s frantic efforts to hold it together. The horror comes from recognising how fragile our hold on reality really is – that what we assume are concrete facts and certainties can so easily be upended, leaving us bereft of everything we have come to rely on.

There’s an interesting discussion available as a podcast, which is well worth checking out. I really do recommend Memory, it is a great, thought-provoking and often deeply upsetting and unsettling story.

*Memento – yes, yes, there’s the same, very basic premise, but both are distinguished by being separated by 30 years, and having two distinct plots – Memory doesn’t really have one, while Memento is essentially a tale of revenge, again and again.

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