At the Boundary of Normal: History and Horror
History and horror have a lot in common. Not just through their ability to bring darkness into fiction, but through the way they make us feel. It makes them a perfect combination of genres.
The Essence of Horror
Horror stories are all about events at the edge of normal reality. A clown who tips over from unsettling into sinister. Shadows in the woods that move from more than just the wind. A stranger in the street who is stranger than we ever imagined.
As explained in an article at Filmmaker IQ, while grounded in reality and relevance, horror also requires us “to face the unknown – to understand it and make it less scary”.
The Essence of Historical Fiction
Historical fiction also lies at the boundary between the familiar and the unknown. The life we see is like ours but different. People live, love and work much like ourselves. They have families and faith, feelings and furniture, the same range of sublime and the mundane as us. They may even live in the same places we do, share our religion, nationality or politics, depending upon the book and the reader.
Yet life in historical fiction is also different. When people sit down to dinner the food is not quite like ours. The clothes are different. The houses are different. They live in our reality, but made unfamiliar by time.
With both placing us at the edge of our reality, it’s almost inevitable that history and horror can work well together.
Foreshadowing Through Difference
One of the most obvious ways in which a historical setting can support horror is through foreshadowing. The different beliefs of people in the past can be used to bring in ideas that we no longer find plausible, such as monsters in the forest or the existence of demons. Ordinary conversations can refer to elements of the supernatural, setting them up to emerge later in the story.
The different reality of the historical past can also be used to foreshadow danger. Medieval Europe was rife with inter-personal violence, in the streets as much as the battlefields. The Aztec empire was the site of brutal human sacrifices. Hunger and disease plagued humanity from the dawn of time. Such themes can be used to create a sense of dread even before the supernatural enters. In a story like Charlotte Bond’s The Poisoned Crow, the dread of violence and forced marriage sets the tone from the start.
Creeping in Through the Unfamiliar
Unfamiliarity can misdirect the reader as much as it prepares them. A malformed stranger and a beast growling in the forest may make us fear that the moment of horror has come, only for them to be unmasked as a leper and a wolf. Tension is built and relieved for a greater shock later.
All the while, the feelings provoked by history and by horror accentuate each other. By facing both at once, we get a deeper sensation of something familiar and yet unfamiliar, something not quite right. David Tallerman’s The War of the Rats deliberately toys with combining the unusual and the mundane. A rat infestation is made worse by the trenches of World War One, becoming something truly horrific. The combination of the ordinary and the awful makes the story more unsettling than if it were set in the modern world.
Horror and history play similar tricks on our minds. They play those tricks particularly well when they get together.
About the Author
Andrew is a Yorkshire based ghostwriter, responsible for writing many books in other people’s names. He’s had over fifty stories published in his own name in places such as Daily Science Fiction and Wily Writers. His historical short story Honour Among Thieves is available for free from Amazon or Smashwords. You can find stories and links to more of his books at andrewknighton.com and follow him on Twitter where he’s @gibbondemon.