I believe this to be timeless wisdom, though penned in 1976. It is for these reasons I love older terror fiction. And it is for these reasons that I dislike a lot of modern horror fiction.
AFTERWORD by Kirby McCauley
FRIGHTS (an anthology of new horror stories), St. Martin’s Press, 1976
‘The tale of terror is one of the oldest forms of storytelling, inherent to every human culture. It has been with us from the very beginning, whether in stories told around campfires or represented in drama, art, whispered over [our] night fires—or in broad daylight, for that matter—of brushes with scary things. And men who have put their experiences of awe and fright in written form have done so since earliest times, from The Odyssey of Homer forward to the date you see on your daily newspaper. Many of the great literary figures have created works of terror and the supernatural, Shakespeare, Goethe, Poe, Balzac, Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Maupassant, Kipling, Mann, to name only some. The appeal of “things that go bump in the night” is very basic everywhere. And now this form [—i.e., the terror tale—of storytelling] is perhaps the last strong outpost of Romantic expression in the arts.
And yet, for all that, particularly in America, there is a kind of stubborn supercilious refusal in many quarters to recognize this kind of story as a literary form worthy of attention by serious, intelligent readers. The reasons for this are doubtlessly many, but one is surely the tongue-in-cheek interest in bad horror movies and their overworked reliance upon familiar supernatural characters, Dracula and Frankenstein the two best known. All these stereotypes have their place, but how big a place is the question. Where the interest seems to be destructive is when the essential inspiration and attitude [are] irreverent or sadistic. Concerning the former, I am among those who believe that the magazine “Unknown” and magazines in its tradition failed because their predominant premise was too whimsical. “Unknown” did run a good many excellent stories, but also a good deal of “cute, clever, and amusing” material written by writers having a condescending, self-indulgent fun at the reader’s expense. People do occasionally like humor in their supernatural tales, and, indeed, there is an element of ironic humor near the heart of the good story of terror; but it must be carefully controlled or the reader is unlikely to engage in the sober kind of pondering necessary for maximum enjoyment of the strange story…
The mainstay appeal is the chill of probing the unknown, as the bestselling books in the genre testify. And the tale of the humorous macabre is usually most satisfying when written by those who have reverance and love for the non-humorous supernatural and who themselves write it well—a W. W. Jacobs, a Robert Bloch, or a Gahan Wilson. One knows in reading their funny supernaturals that it is an affectionate and respectful use of humor, and, probably deep down, a usage that is made with an occasional look over the proverbial shoulder. Many of those attracted to the light and whimsical tradition have, I would suggest, weak credentials in the respect and reverence department: their true loves are elsewhere—and it shows.
The intrusion of the sadistic into the supernatural terror story is more serious and perrenial. Any genre that frequently has to do with fear and death must naturally approach territory that is ripe for sadistic treatment. But not only is there a difference in treatment between the sadistic story and the true supernatural story, there is an equally great difference in inspiration and appeal, as Fritz Leiber ably points out in the Introduction to this book. Tales of the supernatural appeal on many levels, but none of them involve a focus on physical suffering and unpleasantness for its own sake.
Labels are tricky. What does one call this rather broad same-spirited form? I tend to prefer the term “terror”, but it seems to me only one of several satisfactory ones. Many are turning away from the word “horror,” but I like all the terms: stories of horror, wonder, terror, fantasy, the inexplicable, the supernatural, as long as the inspiration is not that of the dilettante or the sadist. FRIGHTS is the title of this collection because it seemed to me to convey a welcome to a broad variety of eerie and suspenseful stories. Additionally, I tried to collect stories that are a bit different, that struck me as more than another vampire story or another deal-with-the-Devil story; the somewhat off-road modern tale of suspense and horror was my goal. And- –important, I think—all the stories in this book have never been published before. There are, I believe, some very vital and fine things being written today in this field, and there should be more places to focus those new works.In a small way I hope this book enlarges that showcase.’
New York City
January 11, 1976
Jacket & Paperback Cover Art by George Zeil, 1976
(Images: Abe Books; Too Much Horror Fiction)