Horror and fantasy aren’t just for Halloween

Where’s the escapism gone from reading? In defence of dragons, by Helen Moorehouse

Helen Moorehouse: Is literature only “valid” if everything is a harshly-lit mirror of current society, if it’s about ourselves?

Helen Moorehouse: Is literature only “valid” if everything is a harshly-lit mirror of current society, if it’s about ourselves?

 

It’s always the dragons, isn’t it?

So, what are you reading, someone asks. And for a second, they’re interested. You can tick all the necessary boxes – drama, intrigue, politics, sex and sexy people – but the second you mention a dragon, quick as the blink of an oversized reptilian eye, they’ve gone full Sharon Ní Bheoláin: “Wouldn’t be for me now”.

Similarly, produce a James Herbert or Jonathan Maberry, say, from your bag on the bus and see lips curl. “How do you read that stuff?”, you might be asked, the inference being that you’re actually as creepy as the content.

Hallowe’en is coming and everything is about going for ghoul. We’re all about the monsters, the ghosts, the horror – but for a limited time only. Because people who are actually into that sort of thing all year round? Well, they’re just weird.

Why not take ourselves back to fairy tales, to what we loved when we first started reading? Why not spark up our jaded imaginations and immerse ourselves in the impossible?

Are we, though? Those of us who enjoy reading “that sort of thing”? Why does the perception exist that reading fantasy and horror – a little indulgence of the imagination, a fondness for suspension of disbelief automatically makes you a freaky geek?

The mystery of it is that fantasy and horror, more than ever before, are everywhere – they are multisquillion-dollar industries. George RR Martin, for example, is worth an estimated $65 million, in the ha’penny place compared to Stephen King who is, at 70 years of age, worth a cool $400 million net, with TV adaptations and feature films of his books being released faster than a tiny car load of creepy clowns from a storm drain.

But somehow, the whole genre is still considered as, well, less than proper literature. It’s not to be taken seriously, and as for its consumers – well, they’re all hobbit-loving, cos players who call their children Squall and Aeziel and Slugsbane. There’s a place for people like them.

Well yes, there is, actually. Libraries and bookshops and shops and offices and our houses and what have you. Because quite a lot of us are “normal”, by so-called “normal” standards. And we just love stories.

When did reading a ghost story become “abnormal”, anyway? The great Irish storytelling tradition is packed tighter than a necromancer’s backpack with tales of the banshee, the puca, will o’the wisps causing road subsidence around fairy forts. So where is all that gone? What changed that made Irish people only want to read cookbooks, celebrity autobiographies and stark warnings by economists about how grim the future is, even without White Walkers? Where’s the escapism gone from reading? The joy? Where are the stories?

Is literature only “valid” if everything is a harshly-lit mirror of current society, if it’s about ourselves? How about we take a minute to look behind the mirror, though? To get away from ourselves for a moment of respite from sitting at desks, changing the nappies, putting the meals on the table, being stuck in traffic and watching bad-haired megalomaniacs slowly destroy the known world, by stepping into one of the myriad other worlds that are just waiting, ink on page, and have absolutely nothing to do with real life. What’s wrong with using reading to take a break? Why not take ourselves back to fairy tales, to go back to what we loved to read when we first started reading? Why not spark up our jaded imaginations and immerse ourselves in the impossible?

Why not discover that these books are as full of plot, intrigue, mystery, strategy and humour as anything perceived as “valid” literature; and that they’re not just whimsy – that they, too can be relevant; that books like the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett can contain as much insight and razor-sharp reflection on society as you could possibly find in anything more serious. As Pratchett famously put it: “Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”

The world of fantasy is encroaching on the shores of “reality”, however. You might watch Game of Thrones – maybe you came for the sex, but stayed for the scheming. You may even have been hooked on Stranger Things – who doesn’t love a good demogorgon? There’s a whole world of weird that’s opening up to people who haven’t tried it before. So what have you got to lose?

Horror and fantasy are beloved enough to spawn worlds of costumes and characters, enjoyed by millions of those who take so much joy in dressing up, and millions of us who wouldn’t, but love it the same – we all float down here, after all. It’s not just for deniers of reality, geeks, foil hat wearers and witches. Take some ghosts, or even dragons, off the shelves this Halloween and give yourself a delicious little scare at bedtime, or step back into a fairytale – you don’t have to stay there, and you never know, you might like it.
Ever This Day by Helen Moorhouse is published by Poolbeg Press, at 14.99

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