The Elements of Horror: The Gross Out.
There’s a famous quote from Stephen King which says something like: “I consider terror to be the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrify the reader. But if I cannot terrify, I’ll horrify. And if I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross out.”
Mainly today, I want to talk about the gross out and its role in horror fiction. The gross out occurs when the reader makes the “disgust” face. The reader’s head recoils slightly from the page. The mouth curves back and down and the lips purse slightly as if the person has tasted something foul. The nostrils are flared, not to draw in a scent but rather to push air out so no scent can get in. Imagine what your face does when you smell something that really stinks and you’ll have the disgust face.
Disgust is an emotion, and as such it is capable of being evoked by physical description. Disgust is generally one element of horror, but it is, to my way of thinking, the least important element. Disgust is also easy to evoke, although easier in some readers than in others. I’ve read a lot of horror fiction in my day, for example, and written quite a bit, and it’s pretty hard to gross me out. A scene written purely for the gross out is thus likely to work best on those who read little if any horror. A good horror writer can typically gross out most folks with a snap of the fingers. But all you do then is send those folks away from your work, not draw them in. For the gross out to work it has to be only one element, a minor element, among all the other elements of good storytelling.
To avoid grossing out my blog readers, I’m going to give only vague examples of what I’m talking about below. I recently read Spawn by Shaun Hutson because someone said he was one of the grossest writers out there. The book certainly had a lot of grossness in it. For example, one early scene has hospital workers burning bed linens stained with all manner of bodily fluids. I made the disgust face at the description, so Mr. Hutson achieved his aim there. The problem was, I felt nothing other than disgust. A later description of aborted fetuses worked the same way. Disgust plus disgust does not make horror. It’s more like showing people boogers and watching them recoil.
At the same time, however, I was also reading Beyond the Porch Light and Other Tales by our own Ferrel D. (Rick) Moore. Now, Rick Moore understands what makes horror work, and he applies all the elements in a seamless meld to evoke the full range of human emotions. Yes, there is an occasional element of grossness, but it is only a dash of seasoning to work that mixes fear, loathing, terror, shock, and—-very importantly-—love and affection into the story recipe. Here’s a great line from Moore’s story “Burying the Past,”: “…he would have seen that fear, loathing, and anger slithered behind the old man’s eyes like the pale worms that moved beneath dark porches.”
There! The “pale worms” evoke just a hint of grossness, a hint that doesn’t overwhelm but takes the reader deeper into the place where true horror dwells. That’s when you know you’re in the hands of someone who cares deeply about the craft of writing horror fiction. Moore wants to wring every emotion out of you, not just turn your stomach. That’s the mark of a good writer in general, and of a good horror writer in particular.
I haven’t quite finished Beyond the Porch Light… yet. I have one story to go. So far my favorites have been the title story, and an awesome little tale called “Electrocuting the Clowns.” All the stories are good, however, and I have no reservations about recommending this collection to anyone who likes good storytelling. And if you like to feel a little shiver while you sit and read, while the sun slowly sinks outside your home and the darkness comes creeping, then all the better. Just don’t venture beyond the porch light.