When I feel the need for cheap thrills, I have traditionally turned to horror fiction. I’m not sure precisely why I do this; a bad horror story is a pure disappointment, whereas a good horror story can fuck me up for days, but neither outcome is particularly pleasant. And yet, at a rate of once every year or so, I will inevitably return to these stories for a few days in a deliberate attempt to induce terror.
Good horror can be hard to find, though. Horror tropes can go from being terrifyingly novel to being pitiful clichés probably faster than in any other genre. When I first encountered the works of HP Lovecraft, for example, they produced the desired effect… but as I read more of them, and more of his imitators, I came to notice how repetitive they were; worse than that, I started to notice Lovecraft’s obvious personality tics, and this in turn lead naturally to reading most of his stories as the silly psychological projections of a stodgy, unreformed, puritanical old racist. I still find a lot of his stories to be fascinating, mind you, but no longer particularly frightening*.
I’ve pretty much given up entirely on most “mundane” horror about serial killers and the like; serial killers are not, frankly, terribly interesting, and there are, after all, only so many ways to die. Likewise, I’ve soured on most “supernatural” horror; it has become very difficult for me to take a monster seriously when I know that Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be able to kick its ass before the first commercial break. Psychological horror does nothing for me, since it’s only scary for me to the extent that I sympathize with the characters, and in truth, if I know that the characters are existing in a horror story, it becomes very difficult for me to get emotionally invested. Zombies have been done to the death, reanimated, and then done to the death again. And Vampires, in their modern form, have just become at worst a bunch of serial killers with fangs**.
Surreal Horror is the only subgenre that still does it for me. I was wondering why that was, and then I realized: surreal horror is frightening because it has the logic and pacing of a nightmare. “Lost episode” creepypastas are completely played out now, but I have to admit that when I first read “Dead Bart” a few years ago, it fucked me up for quite a while: and the reason is that it literally reads like someone had a bad dream about the Simpsons and then wrote it down.
So that got me thinking: what if we were simply to write down nightmares? Just interview people*** about their most terrifying dreams, get a team of writers together to synthesize them into coherent narratives, and hire a team of artists to provide appropriate surrealistic illustrations? The different stories could then be brought together into an anthology, and thus would be born the most terrifying book ever written.
*Many of his stories, for example, talk about how science is a mistake because eventually it will force Humanity to face dark and terrible truths about the cosmos that our meagre minds are incapable of enduring. This is a neat idea, but it’s fatally undermined by the fact that all of the cosmic horrors that he describes in his stories are things which I, personally, would really want to go and investigate.
**I bet that you could still milk some pretty good stories out of mediaeval English Revenant legends, but no one seems interested in doing so.
***I’m going to say that children would be best, as their nightmares probably come the closest to representing “primal fears,” rather than just personal traumas or anxieties.