John Donne’s famous apothegm, “No man is an island entire unto himself,” is anathema to horror fiction.
Not that horror writers do not feel themselves part of the larger community of humanity; they are often there, in fact, in defense of that larger community, warning against social and cultural disintegration by means of metaphoric monsters.
No, the reason the statement runs contradictory to horror fiction is quite simply that, given the premises and purposes of the genre, the primary character or characters in horror must be “an island,” that is, must be isolated.
Isolated originally comes from the Latin insulatus, ‘made into an island,’ by way of French. And that is precisely what must occur to a character or characters in order for horror to be truly effective.
In some instances, that almost literally happens. A small group of people—often teenagers looking for some fun (i.e., drinking and sex) but occasionally adults as well—find themselves on an apparently deserted island. Through an occasionally improbable but necessary series of events, their boat is destroyed, disabled, or simply floats away on the tide, taking with it all communications to the mainland.
And then the group discovers that the island is in fact not deserted. It is inhabited by a pack of wild dogs trained to kill…; or by gigantic komodo dragons that systematically hunt down and devour members of the group…; or by sharks being bred for intelligence and rapacity…; or (as in one of my favorite B-movies) genetically altered shrews that look suspiciously like German shepherds wearing ill-fitting shrew-suits but whose bite is immediately fatal.
The story ends when some, most, occasionally all of the monsters are dead, and the few survivors (usually a male and a female, often a plucky sidekick as well) are saved by the adventitious arrival of a rescue boat.
More frequently, however, the ‘islanding’ of the characters is figurative. A handful of individuals arrive at the Bad Place, either by intention, conspiracy by evil-doers, or accident, and their car is disabled, forcing them to remain. Or the doors slam shut and lock themselves, and bars slide down over all of the windows. Or some other power constrains the characters to remain isolated from any help or support until the monstrum has devoured or killed almost all of them.
Occasionally, an entire town may be islanded. Sometimes, travelers simply don’t seem to notice the place as they pass, as in my Shadow Valley, or sometimes they pass directly through, even seeing but not truly seeing evidences of horror and terror and fear. In other instances, the town is effectively barricaded to defeat any attempts from outside to enter, as in King’s The Tommyknockers, in which backwoods roads are patrolled by motile soda dispensers; or in Under the Dome, in which, very much along the lines of a lab-controlled experiment, the town is surrounded by an impervious dome and the individuals inside—good and bad, greedy and selfless—are left to their own devices and to the horrors that they spawn among themselves.
The isolation may be literal, as in the examples above, or it may be figurative, as in psychological horror, in which the character(s) confront internal isolation. They may not be separated physically from the larger community around them, but they are entirely alone mentally and emotionally. To those around them, they seem crazy; from within their perspectives, only they can see the creatures that attack them…and perhaps pose a threat to the world itself.
Isolation, then, may take many forms, but it must be present in one or more of them. Even when there is a global catastrophe, as in Wells’ The War of the Worlds and the many subsequent films and print versions based on it, attention rapidly shifts from the larger to the smaller, the intimate. Britain suffers under the Martian bombardment in the novel, just as America does in the Hollywood manifestations, but the readers/viewers’ interest almost immediately concentrates on one person, two, perhaps half a dozen as they find themselves facing the invaders alone, usually in a half-demolished house, a crumbling basement with no exit except through the Martian encampment, or even within the belly of the beast itself, caught and stored in a receptacle connected to the Martian’s machine. In each case, the most crucial encounters occur when these characters confront and ultimately survive the depredations of the aliens.
The most obvious reason for this is that it is patently easier to empathize with individuals than with larger groups. In the 1953 film version, the audience can easily feel something when the minister is abruptly destroyed, whether it be sorrow for his death, anger at the aliens for their coldness in killing the one person who seems intent on communicating with them, or irritation at his stubbornness. But they are not invited, indeed are not allowed, to feel empathy or even much sympathy for the numbers of faceless soldiers apparently melted then disintegrated by the Martian rays.
This emphasis on one-on-one, face-to-face confrontations creates greater tension during the event and thus greater surprise and relief when the creature is defeated by the few rather than the many; in the Wells tale, by the smallest and seemingly most innocuous of creatures, bacteria. Their chances of success seem miniscule, especially when the creature has thus far proven indestructible, and thus their ultimate triumph becomes that much the greater.
Arranging narrative events so that the hero is somehow isolated from most or all companions, then forcing a final battle between hero and villain is not unique to horror fiction, of course. It stems from some of the earliest recorded storytelling and finds its first full expression in the epics of antiquity. Homer’s heroes consistently face each other—and occasionally rival gods—in single battle around Troy. Gilgamesh and Enkidu face and kill the forest spirit Humbaba.
Millennia later, the trope had grown and enlarged. Grendel is a monster of such strength that he can, the poet assures us, kill thirty stout warriors; no wonder is it, then, that when the hero arrives—thus isolated from his own people and culture—the poet is careful to mention that he has the strength of thirty men…and hero and monster can justly fight each other for supremacy. The battle with Grendel takes place at night, when the other warriors are asleep; the battle with Grendel’s Dam, in a cave beneath the mere; the battle with the Fire-drake between it and Beowulf while his sole companion waits in the distance. In every instance, isolation, then the confrontation with evil.
Such battles were treated lovingly by epic poets, each combatant willing not only to boast of his own bravery, courage, and strength, but also of the opponent’s; the result of this tendency—epic flyting, as it is called—was that no matter which side prevailed, the contest itself was elevated by the renown of the participants. If the hero lost, well, look at the prowess of the villain. If the villain lost, the hero gained that much more in stature.
Genre fiction of all sorts exploits the implicit power of isolation and confrontation, from the shootout at high noon between sheriff and villain, with the townspeople carefully hidden or standing along the street, unwilling or unable to participate in the fight; to the midnight firefight between doughty detective and sleazy blackguard in an unlit, unkempt city alley.
There is a difference, however, between that final confrontation in most horror and what happens in contemporary genre fiction, and this difference actually harkens back to the origins of the image—ancient epic.
As long as the battle occurred between two humans, no matter how elevated their genealogies, the story is epic. As soon as the gods step down to intervene in person and become active in the battles, the story ceases to be strictly epic and takes on religious overtones. And we know that regardless of the immediate outcome, the hero fighting against the gods (as in the Iliad) or slaying one of the immortals (as in Gilgamesh) will be punished. It is enough that Beowulf slays both Grendel and Grendel’s mother; but when he steps out of his restricted role as king and attempts to become a hero again, ignoring the threats to his people by enemies from all sides, and sets out to slay the dragon, he is doomed. He must die.
Things are not quite that simple for the main characters in horror fiction. Even though he, she, or they have been in some specific way set apart, isolated, the thing that they must battle is not (or, often, no longer) human. There is no specific equality—likeness of kind—such as we find in ancient epic and that insures ultimate victory to (usually) the hero. Nor is the intruding creature quite god (Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones to the contrary) since they can be and usually are either destroyed, defeated, or sent back from whence they came…by mere humans. And for that act, there is generally no concomitant divine punishment.
There are many exceptions to these general patterns, of course. It is possible for everyone to die, as in King’s elegant short story, “The Raft.” Or for most of them to die, and the survival of the isolated few left in doubt, as in his novella, The Mist (the ambiguous conclusion of which I much prefer to the forced ending in the recent film version). Or for the monster simply to retreat and, presumably, return in a sequel, bigger, meaner, and more vicious than ever, as is suggested in the conclusion of The Shining.
But regardless of these exceptions, the larger pattern remains. One, two, a handful of individuals are isolated, brought to a Bad Place of some sort, and there—much to their astonishment, initial incredulousness, and ultimate horror—forced to confront something beyond their experiences, beyond their imaginations, beyond their apparent strengths.
And somehow defeat it.
Michael R. Collings is the Senior Publications Editor for JournalStone Publishing; an Emeritus professor of English from Pepperdine University; author of the best-selling horror novels The Slab and The House Beyond the Hill, as well as other novels and collections of short fiction, poetry, and literary essays; and an inveterate fan of all things grammatical and syntactical. His writing are available here, at starshineandshadows.com, at journalstone.com, and at hellnotes.com.