I decided what I want to do with Servante of Darkness. I want to use it as a soapbox/forum to address horror and its branches in a scholarly way. I want to discuss it as literature. I hope that by doing so I can help elevate its status a notch in the scholastic community as well as for the mainstream fans of the genre. That is direction this column will now take.
In today’s column I want to address the meaning of “psychological horror”. After a bit of discussion, I will analyze "The Day the Leash Gave Way And Other Stories by Trent Zelany", Wilder Publication, in terms of the application of this meaning.
Horror in the Age of Romanticism was a combination of beauty and grotesque elements. Dracula fed on beautiful women. The lovely vampire Lilith drank only the blood of children. The Frankenstein Monster was an intellectual. “Disparate elements become united because Imagination reconciles opposites,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge expounded. Kierkegaard approaches Irony in the same fashion: “Irony limits, finitizes, and circumscribes and thereby yields truth, actuality, content; it disciplines and punishes and thereby yields balance and consistency.” Today, this balance between extremes subjectifies the elements of Horror; the reader faces the horror within himself, and when the subject is the reader and the extremes are the source of the book or story, this extended balance between reader and book, we call “Psychological Horror.” In essence, the reader journeys into the depths of his own dark side by way of the story which contains attractive elements leading him to grotesque elements. He becomes Kurtz going down the natural beauty of the Congo River leading him to “the horror, the horror” (Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad).
The Day the Leash Gave Way and Other Stories [Leash] by Trent Zelazny, Wilder Publication, exemplifies Psychological Horror (PH) in modern Horror with its balanced structure of story form and its effect on the reader. Zelazny echoes the Romantic Horror writers’ definition of PH in an interview with Darrell Schweitzer (Windows of the Imagination: Essays on Fantastic Literature, , Speaking of the Fantastic I and II, [2002 & 2004, respectively]). He says, “[PH] is a study of the negative side of human behavior…. I do believe everybody has some serious darkness inside.” But how does he involve the reader to share or partake in these personal demons? That would be through the use of “fear.” Zelazny explains, “People can be afraid of many different things, and being scared is often very unpleasant. But there can also be a thrill when your fears are invoked without actual danger.” However, there must be some form of danger, albeit in the form of a ‘suspension of disbelief.’ The ‘thrill’ for the reader is in the safety of the story, just as the thrill of a roller coaster ride is in the safety bar that keeps one from flying off into space, even as the possibility exists that one can actually be ejected from the safety seat accidentally. The fear is real; it is the safety that is imaginary.
In Hooch, the first story of twenty-three tales in Leash that establishes the Romantic structure from the start, the PH elements revolve around the pretty girl Darlene and her questionable status regarding genital crabs. Just as our protagonist Tim is attracted and repulsed by the young girl, so too is the reader. The element of danger begins with the risk of catching crabs and escalates when the bully Alec and his crew arrive. Tim’s friend, Harry, is beaten by the gang, but Tim and Darlene escape to relative safety. The reader rests easy now that the danger has passed, and Tim’s thoughts return to the matter of whether or not Darlene is safe to have sex with. But the safety is short-lived for Tim. Darlene’s father suddenly appears, beats him into the street, where a truck hits him, knocking out his left eye before killing him. The reader is blind-sided; while he thinks that Darlene probably doesn’t have crabs or an STD, hoping that he will see Tim score, he instead witnesses Tim’s gory death. Zelazny has pulled the safety net out from under his reader. The danger never passed; it merely changed circumstance. The reader was thrown from the roller coaster, albeit an imaginary one.
In Acupuncture, the narrator’s cute wife with the “sunshine” smile provides the attractive element while the use of acupuncture needles provides the horrific element in the torture of his wife’s lover. The reader is lured by the extramarital affair, and then watches the torture at a safe distance while sympathizing with the narrator’s plight as cuckold husband. It is difficult to avoid the double meaning of the word “prick” in this story. “Like a dick, a needle’s only so long,” the narrator informs the reader as he pushes the sharp slim instrument into the victim’s eye, while referring to seeing a light, which echoes the “sunshine” of his wife’s smile. To a lesser extent, the story Competition follows the same pattern as Acupuncture, without the drawn out torture scenes. On My Feet replaces torture with murder, but has the same construct. In The House of Happy Mayhem, Zelazny maintains the balance of PH with a stalker and his “Laura,” the girl of his obsessions. But the reader is drawn out of this happy fantasy in the stalker’s mind when he pulverizes the face of James, Lisa’s (Laura’s in his mind) husband as they lay in bed. The majority of the Leash stories follows the same structure.
It is good to see Trent Zelazny carrying on the rich tradition of S.T. Coleridge, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, and the other Romantics who put the super in supernatural. Zelazny has simply factored in his own darkness to the tradition, especially in The Day the Leash Gave Way and Other Stories, giving us a modern definition of Psychological Horror to apply and advance both critically and creatively. Structurally, the author’s work would fit between the irony of O’Henry’s endings, especially Zelazny’s iconic use of gory surprises, and the epiphanal endings in Dubliners by James Joyce, similar to Zelzany’s descriptions of his characters’ personal moments of darkness and their hope for light. But it is in the evolving tradition of the literature of Horror from the Romantic Age to the Modern movement where Trent Zelazney fits best.