Because most dark fantasy contains elements of both, this is an oversimplification, but you can roughly classify such stories as belonging to one of two genera: atmospheric fiction that primarily employs hairs-rising-on-the-back-of-the-neck uncanniness (many classic ghost stories and some recent dark fantasy such as Caitlin R. Kiernan’s novels The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl) or gore-and-splatter festivals such as the vast majority of zombie films and the cheesier horror novels.
While some of the stuff I write includes a few grisly scenes that I would advise tender-minded adults and children to skip, in my own reading I prefer the more subtle, atmospheric tale. The character development in the atmospheric stories is generally much better, and, at its best, contains the finest prose you will find in our genre. Stephen King dedicated one of his books to Shirley Jackson, author of The Haunting of Hill House, because Ms King “never had to raise her voice.”
Ms Jackson’s most famous novel, published in 1959, was contemporary fiction at the time, but the story would be harder to write now except as a period piece. (By the way, if you want to see a film version, seek out the black-and-white original The Haunting, not the appalling, dumbed-down remake from a few years back.)
Our society has changed a great deal since Ms Jackson wrote her masterpiece – some of the comments of the male characters would elicit more than strained smiles from contemporary women — but the primary reason that it would be harder to relate the tragic tale of Eleanor at Hill House as contemporary fiction is that our over-connected lives now lack two important ingredients in classic atmospheric horror: quiet and isolation.
To select an example of atmospheric horror that was consciously done as a period piece, consider the plight of the the young Edwardian solicitor in Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, which is a good example of classic atmospheric horror. (The film, by the way, does not entirely follow the book in that the film version caters to the cheerful, even-the-dog-makes-it sensibilities of American audiences, particularly by tacking on a happy ending that wasn’t there in the original material.)
His employer sends the protagonist on a journey to sort out the complicated financial affairs of a deceased, elderly client. This task will take some time because the old woman’s filing system was to stuff important papers into random spaces throughout her large, cluttered, and dimly lit home, Eel Marsh House, which is located along an especially bleak stretch of British coastline.
The only time you can get to the house or depart from it – something you will want to do, hurriedly, if possible – is at low tide. At all other times, the property is an island.
Not only is the place difficult to get to or leave, but the residents of the nearest village, which isn’t all that near, shun it.
As in life, in fiction bad decisions drive everything, so the solicitor decides to stay in the house by himself while he sorts out his client’s financial chaos. Before long, of course, he starts to hear the sounds of other people– or, at least, what used to be people — in a place where he knows he is utterly alone. Enter the uncanny.
But would this work as a contemporary story? In the Edwardian era, our solicitor-protagonist would not have a television continuously blaring cheerful idiocy the way middle-aged and elderly people do now. He would not have white ear buds blasting bad music into his ears as the contemporary young do.
The past was a different country. It was a damn sight quieter. Our protagonist would hear those soft, impossible, uncanny footsteps. A modern character might not.
And he would be alone. He wouldn’t be able to take a picture of what rises from the graves and use his smart phone to post it on his Facebook page. He wouldn’t be able to tweet to his thousands of “followers” and insist that someone show up in a helicopter with a news crew and a pizza and get him the hell out of there. If he could do those things, his situation would be no more scary than one of those “reality” shows about “ghost hunters.”
The classic atmospheric story works best in quiet and isolation. In that way, the old-style tales are rather like reading and writing fiction.
You can watch a movie or go to a play or a musical performance and share the experience. To read fiction is to take the script, the short story, or the novel and stage it in your head in a way that can’t be shared. You and I may read the same book, but we will stage quite different versions of the play in our heads.
Reading a book is still, thank God, a private experience, one of the few remaining on this over-connected planet where corporate software monitors and records our every click and keystroke and gesture.
I appreciate a writer who writes for that solitary reader who wants to unplug and drop out and not talk to or be watched by anybody, at least for a little while.