This week’s issue of The Escapist is about horror, which I think is fitting. These are horrific times, after all, and I don’t mean in the commonly understood sense of the term.
Traditionally, when speaking of films or videogames, when people say “horror” they mean “guy with a knife,” or “several knives attached to a glove,” or “a mask made of human skin” or whatever. I suppose these things are horrifying from a certain point of view, but do they really represent the kind of horror that can creep into our everyday lives? I don’t think so, and neither does someone whom I consider to be an expert on the subject, Stephen King.
According to some literary critics, King’s sense of horror is fueled by feelings of abandonment and loss, perhaps catalyzed by the day his father anecdotally went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back. King himself has said alternately that what’s really horrifying is either the fact that the number of nuclear weapons in the world is sufficient to destroy the planet several times over or the possibility of losing someone you love. To the latter point, one of his most terrifying novels-turned-movies, Pet Sematary, in which the protagonist brings his dead child back to life, was written after King’s own son was nearly killed by a speeding motorist.
All of this amounts to the same thing, however. What really scares Stephen King, one of the most terribly gifted writers in the horror genre (one could also say in any genre), is knowing that something terrible is going to happen and being helpless to stop it. At the risk of comparing myself too favorably to a writer I consider a master of the craft, I have to admit that I feel exactly the same way.
While I’ve never encountered a knife-wielding masked madman, I have experienced true horror, and it did not take the form of running from a psychopath. In fact, of the numerous times during which I’ve felt my life was in danger (I’ve had some strange jobs) none of them evoked what I would call “horror.” Panic, perhaps, but that’s another thing entirely.
My personal moment of true horror, like King’s, involved loss, fear and helplessness. It involved feeling responsible for the safety and well-being of another soul for whom I cared immensely, and feeling powerless to prevent them from coming to harm. It involved knowing that only I could prevent a tragedy, and that I had no idea what to do. It also involved a small, blind dog named Roger.
Roger had been my companion for close to a decade on the day I almost lost him. He was one of the sweetest-tempered and most affectionate dogs I’ve ever known, but being blind, hard of hearing, chronically ill, frequently cranky and perpetually in need of a bath, he was not the easiest dog to love. And yet I did love him. You couldn’t spend a decade (or an afternoon) with Roger and not love him. He required constant care and special attention, but the experience was rewarding and, I have to admit, ultimately made me a better person.
One evening, while living in a desolate patch of wilderness in Central Massachusetts, I returned home from work to discover that the workmen who had come to fix a bit of bad plaster earlier that day had left the door ajar. In a panic, I scoured the house to find the dog, but he was gone. He’d let himself out and, like Stephen King’s father, never come back. Cue: panic. It was mid-winter, the ground was covered with hard-packed snow, it was below freezing in the sunshine, the sun was rapidly leaving the scene and my little, blind dog was somewhere out in the wilderness, lost and alone.
I realized then that this is what true horror means: the threat to something you hold more dear than your own existence, coupled with the absolute inability to do anything about it. My mind instantly flashed across the possibility of losing him forever, of finding him dead, or worse: simply never finding him at all. Like a flashlight in the dark happening across a killer with a knife, the mental image froze my boiling blood, and I felt as if I would scream, vomit, faint or all of the above. Of the many feelings I experienced in that moment, I can say for certain that one of them was horror. It is a feeling I hope to never experience again.
I eventually found him, thankfully. He’d wandered into the woods, fallen down a snowy hill and become entangled in a small patch of thorny bushes, where he sat, immobilized. I had no way of knowing how long he’d been standing there, shivering and crying, but I was glad I had found him. If he’d continued to wander he might have been gone for good.
As it was, I was able to get him home before anything froze off, wrap him in a blanket and feed him tasty meat strips until he eventually recovered. It would be another few days, however, before I would fully recover, and to this day I still shudder at the memory. Roger passed away in 2007 at age 17 and roughly 10 years after I’d found him wandering alone in the street one summer night in Texas. He traveled with me across the country (twice), saw me through numerous relationships and countless hardships and accomplished the rare feat of having urinated on 17 U.S. states and the Hoover Dam. He also changed my perception of who I am, helped me learn what truly matters in life and taught me (inadvertently) the meaning of true horror.