A Dark Mirror: How Horror and Crime Fiction Help Us Examine Ourselves

A couple months ago I was reading an ARC of Jennifer Hillier’s Little Secrets while also preparing a workshop on social media and book marketing. Hillier’s novel is a chilling, emotionally gritty examination of grief and the things we do to protect what we love, but it’s also much more. While it stuck with me for various reasons, the one that stood out the most was the way Hillier presents social media as a place where we go to (re)define ourselves and how we construct personas to present a discourse, a constructed reality, that sometimes strays far from what our real lives look like. The idea was not new to me. In fact, I had worked with hyperreal identities for most of my PhD. However, the way the topic was treated within the framework of the novel made me realize Hillier was using her narrative to say something smart, something other people say in the context of academia, in a superb thriller. 

Hillier’s novel added a bit of intensity to an itch I’d had in the back of my brain for a while. Crime and horror are two genres I read constantly, and they often offer incredibly smart observations about life as well as sharp critiques of contemporary society. In many cases, crime and horror writers deconstruct things in order to understand them, and their narratives reflect that process. As a reader, I’ve always been aware of that. As a book reviewer, I often talk about this process and the resulting fiction. As a writer, I felt the need to articulate it all and share it with others, to point at genre fiction and say “Look, this is the best, smartest, most engaging writing out there and it shows us to ourselves!” 

Now, I’m not saying science fiction, literary fiction, or romance can’t be smart or give us a look at contemporary society and its problems; what I’m saying is that horror and crime stand at the forefront in terms of holding up a mirror to society and showing us the best and the worst it has to offer. Hillier’s novel is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If you want to stay with social media, look no further than Adam Cesare’s Clown in a Cornfield, a gruesome, wild YA horror novel that shows how recording things to put them online is sometimes the reason why things are done in the first place. And that’s just one of the many elements Cesare tackles in the novel. 

Perhaps the best way to illustrate how crime and horror hold up a mirror to the world is to let a great novel offer you an incredibly timely example. Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song, which is about a pandemic and was released during a pandemic, is the perfect book to do that. All you have to do is take the current situation, keep it in mind, and read this paragraph from Tremblay’s latest: 

“The virus doesn’t herald the end of the world, or of the United States, or even of the commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the coming days, conditions will continue to deteriorate. Emergency services and other public safety nets will be stretched to their breaking points, exacerbated by the wily antagonists of fear, panic, misinformation; a myopic, sluggish federal bureaucracy further hamstrung by a president unwilling and woefully unequipped to make the rational, science-based decisions necessary; and exacerbated, of course, by plain old individual everyday evil.”  

That is a snapshot of the COVID-19 pandemic that, although found in a horror novel, rings so true it could easily be considered nonfiction. 

Want another dose of reality? Take the opioid crisis. There are two new novels out there that get to the core of the problem and show the human side of it, David Joy’s When These Mountains Burn and David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts. These novels have absolutely nothing in common in terms of plots or characters, but both share an undeniable sense of place and both look at the people affected most by the opioid crisis: those who use and those who love those who use. Both novels also explore the reality of shifting cultural landscapes, Joy in the mountains of North Carolina and Weiden in the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Geographically and culturally, these novels are worlds apart. However, they share a soul, a broken heart that wonders how the opioid crisis can be managed; a broken heart that looks at the importance of the things that die in the name of that monster called change that we sometimes let in because it comes disguised as something that calls itself progress.  

And horror is doing some of that looking that Joy and Weiden’s crime novels do so well. Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians is one of the sharpest, most unsettling reads of the year, and it includes timely discussions of what it means to be Native American today. Here’s what I said about it for NPR: 

“Besides the creeping horror and gory poetry, The Only Good Indians does a lot in terms of illuminating Native American life from the inside, offering insights into how old traditions and modern living collide in contemporary life. Jones, who is Blackfeet, tackles everything from marriage with whites to sports to drinking and life on the reservation. On one hand, he pays tribute to Blackfeet culture and speaks about their practices and connection to nature with reverence. On the other, he says flat out that the “three-braid days are over and done with,” and that Native Americans have nothing in common now with the images that popular culture has perpetuated about them, all of which are cliché, disconnected from reality, and grotesquely reductive.” 

The same goes for being Black in America and S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland, a novel that constantly tackles the space Black people occupy in comtemporary America not because they chose to but because they were pushed there. P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout does the same but with much more anger and in historical context. In fact, the beauty of this novel is that it is full of magic while also taking an unflinching look at the country’s history of racism while inviting us to channel our anger to destroy the KKK. 

The list goes on and on. Horror and crime fiction often push close to nonfiction to show us a filtered reality we might not want to see, or which might not be our own. One of the things I try to do with my work is to remind people that narratives about poverty and migration aren’t about poverty and migration, they are about the people who go through these things. It is a conscious decision I make every time I sit down to write: to bring horror, noir, and magical realism together to talk about real problems while trying to be as entertaining as possible. It is something that many contemporary genre authors are doing, and it is something we should all appreciate and pay attention to because sometimes fiction is the best way to tell uncomfortable truths. 


Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.


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