The Conservative Impulse in Horror

This semester, as part of a course on horror fiction, I’ve been teaching the Stephen King novel ‘Salem’s Lot, which I picked for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it’s a fairly quick read, and sometimes that helps the students who are weighed down by end-of-semester work to continue doing the reading for my class! I also enjoy it because it’s so explicitly intertextual, continually referencing examples from the weird tradition, both high and low.

I thought I was familiar with the drawbacks of King going in – sloppy prose, a tendency towards sentimentality when it comes to children and romantic relationships – but what’s struck me, this time through, is how conservatively King interprets horror tropes, especially in the context of ‘Salem’s Lot, a vampire novel. As is the case with a lot of vampire novels, the blood-sucking aspect is rendered as a fear of sexual desire, but I was also distressed to see how the oncoming wave of vampirism follows (to some extent) class dynamics; i.e., the poor people who live in trailers spread their disease of ignorance onto the rest of the populace. 

This got me thinking – is there something fundamentally conservative in the American horror tradition, or is this only a matter of looking at a few isolated, paranoid names, like Lovecraft? Certainly the spread of vampirism through ‘Salem’s Lot reminded me of some of Lovecraft’s more inspired tales of xenophobia and class suspicion, like “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” 

I wrote earlier about how much I enjoyed horror for its sustained attack on the bourgeois idea of self, and how it refuses to take for granted many of the assumptions of stable societies and personalities that some literary fiction merely glides over, but it occurs to me, reading King, that this attack can be rendered in a less progressive way. In other words, in the hands of a conservative, sentimental writer, the attack on self (and society) can be rendered as a menace, and in the process a writer like King can end up implicitly romanticizing and endorsing an illusory vision of happiness and tranquility: in King’s case, 50’s era small town American life.

Of course, I don’t want to force this sort of interpretation on my students – but I also don’t want them to uncritically accept the world which King is creating, and since ‘Salem’s Lot is the last text on our reading list, I worry that they’ll forget the more radical vision of a work like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House in favor of the good v. evil / desire v. duty / innocence v. sin dichotomy King represents.

Some have suggested that horror itself is a conservative form – that because societal mechanisms of control (the state, the market) themselves exercise this control through the form of fear (fear of foreigners, fear of poverty, fear of death), the manipulation of these fears is intrinsically anti-progressive. I don’t agree with this idea – there’s no reason that an author can’t use fear to expose the rifts in seemingly whole systems of living, thereby criticizing them – but I do see how, as in King, the assault on the self that horror exercises can be turned in such a way that the reader turns toward comforting illusions of family and society for shelter. The trick, I think, is to avoid even this illusion: to reject all comfort, and press onward into the dark.

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