One of the things I like about Horror Fiction is that there are so many branches growing from its gnarled trunk.
There is the Science Fiction oriented Horror Story, the Gothic Story playing with archetypical fears, the psychological horror, the speculative horror, the splatter story, the vampire story, ghost stories and monster tales. The variety of ways in which the horror is presented is as extensive as the emotions the stories trigger. Some of these stories make you so scared and uneasy that you will keep the lights on at night because you can almost feel the invisible creatures lurking in the darkness of your bedroom. Other tales might make you sad because they remind you of something you have experienced or an injustice you have witnessed.
But then, there are also those stories, dark and horrible as they are, which dare put words to your most sinister dreams and excite you in ways you might be ashamed to admit.
For years now, sexy vampires have conquered television and movie screens -some were good hearted: Prince Charming’s fallen brothers, others were evil and dangerous: their cruelty making them all the more tempting.
The same applies to man eating women, devils in super-model bodies with beautifully harmless looks.
Dark can be pretty sexy. Danger is sexy. And, unfortunately, violence might be sexy too.
The connection between sex and horror fiction goes back to its beginnings and found its way out of the chambers of hidden desire into the world of literature thanks to one man, who had been shunned for many centuries and whose writing has been unjustly underrated:
Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis of Sade (1740-1814).
The eponym of Sadism was not only famous for his scandalous lifestyle which horrified contemporary society more because of his blasphemous opinions than for his abusive treatment of women of the lower classes, but he was also a writer. Writing was his only pleasure during the many years he spent in prisons or lunatic asylums, it was the only outlet he had for his (kinky) mind. The interesting thing about Sade is that he was one of the first who dared to put words to all those things which had certainly been part of the human mind for many centuries if not millenniums, even though we nowadays tend to blame modern media for – let’s say “irritating desires”.
The pleasure in causing pain is something we might have inherited from our animal ancestors. Other than the bloodlust of carnivorous animals, for humans it’s mostly a lust for power; to have the power to control another person to the point of hurting them physically, psychologically or emotionally.
The main question here is, how much can art add to these primitive longings? Can books, illustrations and images be blamed for intensifying the desire to hurt and dominate?
When you look at the “perverted” world of de Sade, there is hardly anything left that he did not describe, or that modern literature and media has come up with on its own. In 18th century France there was no television, certainly no public theater plays displaying “sadistic” scenes and only a few illustrations which made it to print. Where did he get all these ideas from?
Like many other controversial personalities, Sade started an ongoing discourse. His writing had an important influence on symbolism, psychoanalysis and the literary avant-garde.
Many of his descriptions anticipate milder versions found in Victorian Gothic tales.
“You always have to return to Sade in order to explain evil.” (Charles-Pierre Baudelaire)
Artists often walk along the thin line between provocation and disgust. How much can you dare to show or describe? When do descriptions of violence become too graphic and fail to have any effect other than distaste? Could art even be a therapeutic way to live out all those secret desires of violence and pain without causing real harm?
Reading de Sade shows us first and foremost one thing: some thoughts and desires might be horrible and “wrong”, but they are there. We’d better find a soothing way to deal with them.
My recommendations for further reading:
Here is an interesting book on de Sade by the feminist writer Angela Carter:
Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History by Angela Carter