H.P. Lovecraft, in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, remarked that, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
He was, in my opinion, completely correct. The best horror stories, the ones that give you that spooky, unsettled feeling, are those that leave you with unresolved questions. Obviously, however, there are other things that we can fear, and excellent horror can tap into other emotions, such as love.
I was thinking about the use of love as a vehicle for horror fiction the other day. There are, of course, many stories which do this, but one subset of ‘love-horror’ fiction gets relatively little play, to the best of my knowledge. There are stories which treat, either directly or through metaphor, the awful uncomfortable feelings one can get when faced with genuine, but unwanted affection from an unsuitable suitor. I don’t count stories which deal with stalkers or evil, twisted suitors, of which there are many.
Only a few stories come to mind in this subset. I list them below for those who might want to look them up and read them first; I follow this list with a more detailed description of each tale, which contain significant spoilers:
- How Love Came to Professor Guildea, Robert Hitchens, collected in Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, Cerf, Wagner and Wise, eds. (1994). This is a must-have collection, by the way, for any horror afficionado. A spirit moves into the Professor’s home.
- The Burr Woman, Raymond Van Over, collected in Monsters You Never Heard Of (1983). The most creepy story about a parasite you’ll ever read. The title is quite descriptive.
- Being An Angel, Ramsey Campbell, collected in Waking Nightmares (1991). A voice in a young man’s head leads him to success in life — but at what cost?
- Love Song From the Stars, Robert Sheckley, collected in Weird Tales, Seven Decades of Terror, Betancourt and Weinberg, eds. (1997). An illustration of the consequences of a one-night stand.
A bit of discussion about each of these tales:
*** SPOILERS ***
- How Love Came to Professor Guildea. This is the best story of the set, and the horror builds slowly and inexorably during the telling. Professor Guildea, a rational, scientific man, inadvertently lets a spirit into his home. The spirit, which is never seen, is evidently of some sort of mentally disabled person. As the story continues, it attempts more and more to show its affection for the Professor, culminating in a powerful ending.
- The Burr Woman. I must have been only 13 or 14 years old when I read this story. The burr woman is a short, apelike creature that attaches itself to a person’s back, burrowing deep into the skin and gradually exerting mental control over its host. The story concerns a man’s struggle to continue living his life with the creature clinging to his back, making continual psychic demands. At the climax, the man hurls himself off the edge of a ravine, killing himself. The burr woman detaches herself from him, and sets off in pursuit of the story’s narrator, who we last see fleeing madly on his horse-drawn carriage from the inexorably following burr woman.
- Being An Angel. A young man, struggling to pass his school exams, starts hearing a voice in his head tell him all the answers. He passes easily, and gets through a difficult job interview with the aid of the voice. Once he starts to work, though, the voice becomes more judgmental, even nasty, and starts to assert control. It turns out that excessive, unwanted love can come not just from prospective suitors, but also from overprotective family members.
- Love Song From the Stars. More sci-fi than horror, but can be horrific if you think about it a lot. A self-envisioned ladies’ man encounters a lovely woman on a deserted Greek island. He smooth talks his way into some sex, but then finds out that he’s now going to be the ‘mother’ of her alien progeny. And they’re mated for life.
*** END SPOILERS ***
These sorts of stories really creep me out. I think everyone has had a moment when they were receiving unwanted positive attention, be it from a romantic interest, a family member, or even a particularly needy friend.
I’ll touch upon other horror themes in later blog posts…