I’ve been thinking a lot about horror lately, partially because I’ve been writing some and also because I was given and am in the middle of reading Impossible Monsters, a horror anthology about non-standard monsters edited by Kasey Lansdale.
A while ago, Clive Barker said on Facebook that he didn’t think happy endings belonged in horror. If there’s anyone in the world who can speak definitively on horror, it would be Barker who, if you’re not familiar with his body of work, I’d argue is an authority on it. But the statement got me thinking, not just about my horror but about horror in general and some of the other horror I’ve read. Is it true that horror shouldn’t have happy endings?
Consider Stephen King, another big name in horror. My wife likes to argue that King doesn’t really write horror per se, that it’s simply the genre that most closely resembles what he writes and so that’s where he’s put, but that he writes more heroic characters and hero’s journeys. You can see this in things like The Stand or The Green Mile but I would argue that while I think my wife is on to something, large swaths of his work are also definitely horror, such as It, Cujo, or Needful Things.
How does Barker’s statement apply to King? Well, King’s a mixed bag. It is definitely horror but with also a happy ending. Sure, not everyone lives but for those who survive life is definitely improved and they aren’t even left with the memories of Pennywise and what happened in Derry. Then there’s The Green Mile which, I’d argue, doesn’t end on a happy note at all even while it’s not much of a horrific book. In The Stand Las Vegas is defeated and Randal Flagg seemingly destroyed, but in the expanded version we’re left with a darker ending than what was originally released; Stu and Fran leave Boulder, seemingly disturbed by their neighbors slipping back into old, pre-Captain Trips behaviors which would indicate that they hadn’t learned from past mistakes and Randal Flagg wasn’t nuked but instead teleported somehow to a new group of people to influence and corrupt away from any agents of good. I could go on and on but it’d be more of the same; sometimes King has happy endings, sometimes he doesn’t.
While thinking about this I also considered other horror authors I’ve read. Brian Lumley, who wrote the Necroscope series as well as some great Cthulhu Mythos novellas, has a happy ending, of sorts, at the end of the first book Necroscope; sure his main character dies but his spirit lives on and will be reborn into the body of his son (with the power to pretty much learn anything). Koontz is similar in that many of his books have happy endings.
Barker? I’d argue that the “happiest” any of his endings are is that his characters manage to survive and that’s it.
For me, I don’t mind some happiness in the endings of horror stories; I mean, you better believe that I’d be having a beer or two in celebration that I wasn’t the one torn apart by werewolves, murdered by the dream-killer, possessed by some demon or infected by some kind of alien face-humper (Let’s be honest, “hugging”? Not so much.). I think it would be normal for people to be happy that they rescued their children from the supernatural clown entity or the ghosts in the television set even if they are still mournful about the fact their spouse, relative, or neighbor was reduced to their component parts and scattered about the place.
I think what’s true for me is that horror needs to involve transformation, change. Think about it: if you were exposed to the fact that humankind is nothing more than a race created by extra-planar alien-gods to be their slaves and playthings, as insignificant as an ant farm, could you go back to your normal life after that? Wouldn’t that knowledge change you in some fashion? I think it would and should and so I think those stories where everyone resumes life as it was before, as if having half their camping trip murdered by a guy with chainsaw never happened, just feel even less realistic. Consider the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with Sally sitting in the back of the pick-up truck, laughing in her relief and insanity that she’s finally escaped Leatherface and his family. Do you think, after seeing what she went through, after seeing what she looked like in the final moments of the film, that she was ever going to be the same again? No way in hell.
It’s one of the reasons why I really dig H20: 20 Years Later. In it we get to see the long-term effects on Laurie Strode, how she’s been impacted and altered by her encounter with her brother Michael. To say that H20 isn’t horror because Laurie kills Michael, saving herself and her son in the process, and thus it’s a “happy” ending feels false to me; Laurie might feel some relief that the threat of Michael is gone but she’s never not going to be paranoid about it and now, in some fashion, her son has had some of his ignorance and innocence taken away as he’s peeked into what his mother has had to go through.
That transformative power of horror is one of the reasons why I like the genre so much; horror is the laboratory where we get to put people into terrifying situations and consider what they might do, how it might impact them. Horror is a crucible, sometimes literally, that can lead to happiness or salvation, damnation or death, but it should always, in my opinion, involve change.