When is horror not horror?

Billy's Monsters by Vincent Holland-Keen

 

In the run up to the release of Billy’s Monsters here is Vincent Holland-Keen answering the very question I had when reading this book. Was it a horror book? Did my warped little mind make it scarier than it was for other readers? Enough of my prattling. On to the good stuff from.

‘Are your books scary in any way as there seems to be a lot of talk about monsters?’

Someone asked me this not so long ago after I explained I was a writer and that my next book was called ‘Billy’s Monsters’. It’s a fair question. The answer should be simple, but horror isn’t as black, white and bloody as genre labels like to suggest. Before I elaborate on that idea, I need to confess a few things:

  • I’ve never read anything by Stephen King.
  • I’ve never seen The Exorcist.
  • I’ve never suffered a drug-induced, hallucinogenic nightmare featuring flesh-eating toilet paper and urinals resembling various right-wing politicians spewing pus-laden piss over blood-stained tiles while ranting about immigrants, wind-farms and Miley Cyrus’s fashion choices. Seriously, it’s true. I don’t even drink coffee.

So, I’m not a horror aficionado. When I was very young, the only recurring nightmare I had involved volcanoes. Then I saw a TV show where a team of disaster troubleshooters faced down an impending eruption thanks to fire-proof asbestos suits. My next volcano-themed dream ended with a quaint stall that might have been selling mobile phone cases in another context, but here was selling the aforementioned asbestos suits. After making the necessary purchase, I walked off into the red fog pervading the scene and haven’t had a nightmare since.

Though there was that one time I dreamed a guy broke into my flat and almost gutted my stomach with a knife, but I handled it, so I don’t think it counts.

My worries came before I went to sleep. I did worry there might be monsters under the bed. I did worry the little people from the original ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ might be living in the cupboard in our hallway. But mostly I just worried about getting to sleep, because of course trying to get to sleep never works; insomnia being the subconscious mind’s not-so-subtle reminder that it’s the one really calling the shots.

And anyway, I figured if there were monsters lurking in wait, that meant you could talk to them. Telling the vampire in the airing cupboard that the little people in the hallway had been making fun of him again robbed both parties of their power to scare, just like seeing the monster in a horror film diminishes its menace, regardless of how gruesome it may be. As Veronica says in my novel ‘The Office of Lost and Found’ when shown a picture of the monster that’s been terrorising a young Billy: “He’d be scarier with more spikes on his face and chainsaws for fingernails.”

The unknown can be anything; the known could always be worse.

But there’s a paradox here. Existential dread only gets you so far. A vague, unspecific threat is not nearly as dramatic as an immediate and specific one. A monster that may or may not be lurking in the shadows is a wholly different proposition to a monster seen in broad daylight with dagger-like teeth a moment away from chomping off your most intimate of articles.

At this point, the line begins to blur between horror and suspense. Dangling the threat of terrible consequences creates suspense, which in turn can drive characters to action. Those terrible consequences could be a wife discovering her husband’s affair, or a man having his face eaten off by a demon. Both could be deemed horrific by the characters in question, but typically only the latter gets classed as horror.

I just searched Google for ‘Jurassic Park genre’. It came back with the words: fantasy, thriller, action film, science fiction and adventure film. But the movie is laced with sequences that would be considered out and out horror if this wasn’t nominally a ‘Steven Spielberg family movie’. Perhaps the first appearance of the T-Rex qualifies solely as thrilling because a dinosaur eating a lawyer off a toilet is comic rather than horrific.

To cite another Spielberg film: Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. It ends with gratuitous shots of melting faces, but most people don’t consider that a horror either.

That’s why I said at the start that horror isn’t as black, white and bloody as genre labels like to suggest. But I lied about the answer to the question.

‘Are your books scary in any way as there seems to be a lot of talk about monsters?’

The answer is simple, because the question leaves so little room for manoeuvre. Yes, there are ways in which my books could be considered scary in the same way that Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park could be considered scary. Or Alien or Hellraiser or Evil Dead 2.

Billy’s Monsters does contain bona fide monsters, murders and psychological torment. But it also has thrills, spills and a fair few jokes. I don’t know whether it’s a horror, a thriller or even a very peculiar romance. You might read it and cower behind the sofa, laugh uproariously or toss the book aside with a contemptuous snort, because that’s the truly horrifying thing about stories; what you take away from them is often more about those whispering voices in your head than the silent words on the page.

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