***Mild Spoilers for The Vegetarian***
A core component of any good horror story is the characters’ apprehension of harm. Most of the time, the dread manifests as physical pain or violent death. Other times there are more abstract, existential ways of experiencing harm—a terrifying realization of past sins, slowly slipping into insanity, or losing one’s soul to a demonic entity. While physical pain will always be a powerful part of any scary story, an existential threat grabs me in a way most other types of horror don’t, probably because I have more to lose from an existential threat.
A realization that shakes a person to his core is, well, horrifying. It’s terrifying. Take the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus, who realized he had unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. Or The Orphanage, where protagonist Laura realized she was the one responsible for the slow death of her adopted son. Bodily harm is awful and painful, but an earth-shattering existential realization can destroy the very idea of who a person thinks she is.
It can be extremely psychologically tortuous to deal with something like that, to be confronted with our mistakes and the lies we tell ourselves. People go to great lengths to preserve the reality they wish to see, even at the expense of themselves and others.
It’s destructive on a profound level, even more so if I am responsible for the obliteration of my sense of self.
The idea of self-destruction, of an unsettling, dark urge to protect oneself, of refusal, of stubborn persistence, is what fascinated me about The Vegetarian. It’s a novel about confrontation, about purposeful “self-destruction.”
***Spoiler Alert: mild spoilers for The Girl With All the Gifts***
Stagnation is one of the unfortunate things avid horror fans deal with. For such a rich, dynamic, and prolific genre, horror often trades in the same old stories. Sometimes I feel like I’m experiencing the same serial killer thriller, haunted house short story, or post-apocalyptic zombie movie again and again. I’ve noticed a cycle to subgenres’ popularity, where one well-made novel or movie captures hearts, minds, and nerves only to inspire a lot of not-as-good imitations. Knock-offs are churned out in record time, and in the rush to get the product out, creators sacrifice quality and imagination.
This isn’t always a “bad” choice, since there is a lot of money in producing cheap and gory horror movies. It happened with zombies, possessions, and found-footage horror movies. It happens with vampire novels. These works have entertainment value, but they aren’t groundbreaking and become uninteresting.
As a fan, this vicious cycle frustrates and bores me. Horror is such a flexible genre, with great potential for constant reinvention. I always enjoy horror that offers something different.
Thus, whenever a movie or novel comes along that breathes new life into a worn-out subgenre, I can’t help but take notice.
Enter The Girl With All the Gifts, M.R. Carey’s innovative 2014 zombie novel. In a subgenre rife with the same old survivor story, Carey wrote a compelling zombie narrative reexamining many of the assumptions of the genre. The result is a novel that offers a fresh perspective on many of the tried-and-true themes of the zombie genre, including survival at all costs, us vs. them mentalities, and what it would take to rebuild a shattered world.