Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Introduction: The Terror! the Terror

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Introduction: The Terror! the Terror

Article excerpt

   Terror and Horror are so far opposite,
   that the first expands the soul and
   awakens the faculties to a high degree of life;
   the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.
   --Anne Radcliffe, "On the Supernatural in Poetry" (1826)

   The difference between Terror and Horror
   is the difference between awful apprehension
   and sickening realization; between the smell
   of death and stumbling against a corpse.
   --Devendra P. Varma, The Gothic Flame (1957)

   We experience "horror" when we see or read
   about something bad happening to someone. However,
   we only experience "terror" when we feel
   the horror is happening to US!
   --gene_s, on-line discussion

   Horror is cold. Terror is hot.
   --SYborg, on-line journal entry

The search for these gleanings from popular writers and keyboard philosophers was inspired by a distinction made known to me in my college days, now only vaguely recalled, between horror as fear discerned "at a distance" and terror as fear discerned "up close." Horror in such a formulation is so ineffably alien that it remains unknowable, no matter how close it may come, while terror lurks in the mundane corners of existence, its eruption in the hearts and hands of fellow-humans never failing to shock. The distinction is echoed by "gene_s" above, who tropes on the all-capped "US" to define terror as that which happens to either the collective self or the unsuspecting nation; the "US" has been criticized by citizens and non-citizens alike for keeping worldwide terror at horror's length until it at last hit home on September 11, 2001. Among producers of the centuries-old horror tradition in literature, terror is the semantic straight man to horror's more graphic, dramatic, all-around meaningful appearance on the stormy, shadowy narrative stage; yet we have come to understand that since Radcliffe's day, for better or worse, the terms have traded places in the cultural imagination: "horror" is a quaint effect from a more readable era, no longer even comparable to a "terror" that has been whisked from its post on the generic margin of literary sensibilities to the religious, cultural, economic, political centerstage. Does terror expand the soul and awaken the faculties to a high degree, as Radcliffe averred more than a century ago? Is that how we should think about the bombing of Afghanistan and the war in Iraq? Varma's more recent "awful apprehension" confronts us with her latter term's double sense of fear and understanding--indicating a relationship between what terrifies us most these days and what we should have always known--and calls sharply into question the blissful ignorance that has until recently so heavily constituted American foreign policy. That is, to the degree that terrorist acts are inseminated, anticipated, or replicated by the terrorized individual, group, or nation, both victim and enemy are "US!"

As Americans joined on September 11 those around the world who walk in daily fear of snipers and suicide-bombers, so also did they "join the army" in the U.S.--reluctantly or with zeal--in a manner reflective of many Middle East and developing-world nations where universal conscription is the norm. Not only was every American--though perhaps especially those tuned into the television or radio in "real time" that morning--shoved onto the front line as the recipient of a personally directed political assault, but in the following days and months, Americans began marching--in shoeless lines at the airport, in protest of the war in Iraq, in xenophobic "watchdog" posses, and in haste to the gun store where record sales were reported immediately following September 11--and have not laid down these burdens since. Both liberals and conservatives in the U.S. are on "maneuvers" reminiscent of their protest actions in the late '60s, and face the prospect of new "disciplines" (i.e., lost freedoms) imposed by orders like the Patriot Act. …

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