One of the finest pieces of horror I’ve encountered is Loren Eiseley’s “The Dance of the Frogs“. I doubt Eiseley wrote this intending it to be horror. If he did, I have to find more horror writing by him (consider “The Fifth Planet“. Not quite horror but damn close). It is brilliant.
Horror done well is subtle. Horror can’t wack you over the head. It has to seduce you. It has to sneak up on you, entrap you. Horror, done well, must take you from comfort and peace to helplessness and inevitability.
Horror done well allows you no sure escape. Questions regarding safety, yes, freedom from worry, no. The original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie (with the original ending and based on the Jack Finney novel, The Body Snatchers) is an excellent example of horror. Horrific things do not make good horror, horrifying situations make good horror.
Horror drops clues that nastiness is coming. It gives you a chance to escape while drawing you in an inch at a time. The creature that kills you unexpectedly and without warning isn’t horrifying. Finalizing, maybe, but not horrifying. It’s too quick, too final and you don’t suffer.
The monster that pursues you relentlessly, that is unstoppable yet always just too far away to get its decaying hands or tentacles or whatever around you, that constantly wants to deal you a deathblow and gets closer and closer without delivering that final stroke (remember the T-Rex chasing the buggy in Jurassic Park?). What makes it horrifying is the growing sense your situation is hopeless, that powers beyond your control have singled you out for some nastiness and yielding to the inevitable might be a good thing because then if would be over and you could rest.
Pure horror comes from within, from our natures, when we succumb to our lesser instincts and desires and reason is kicked out. Horror is when we willingly journey into the dark, lose our way and can’t make it back. Don’t believe that Aztec curse is real? Take the gold and find out. Don’t believe in magic potions? Take a drink and see. Horror leaves the door of escape open until you’ve wandered too far to use it. Horror lets you see it’s still there, still open, just useless to you because you didn’t believe, didn’t think, your ego or vanity grew out of control.
Real horror is when you’ve got no one but yourself to blame. Stephen King’s The Crate isn’t a horror story (except, perhaps, to Wilma), it’s a story of friendship with some horrifying things happening along the way. Or if it is a horror story, is about the horror of being in a bad relationship and not knowing how to get out.
Real horror is rare and when you find it, relish and rejoice in it.
Eiseley the author
Eiseley isn’t known as a fiction writer. Many call him “a modern Thoreau”. I read “The Dance of the Frogs” in The Star Thrower, a posthumous collection of his work. Somewhere around a third of the way through the book I considered giving it up. Eiseley may have been an outstanding scientist, naturalist, a modern contemplative, et cetera, and the first part of the book bored me. His style was too contemplative. I kept on thinking “Come on. Make a decision or reach a conclusion.”
Something kept me going (thank god for those inner voices). “The Dance of the Frogs” caught me completely off guard. I finished the story before I recognized how chilled I was, what a sense of terror, horror, it gave me. Some of that is because I wasn’t prepared for a horror story (I still don’t know if he meant it as one). I’ve read it twice in two days and will read it again, I’m sure.
I started analyzing it a few nights back, wanting to learn how this naturalist writer could draw me in so gently then turn me so completely. Note than an analysis isn’t a critique. I’m doing this for my benefit. I’m sharing it because 1) sharing is something I do and 2) others may benefit from this exegesis.
The complete Eiseley’s The Dance of the Frogs can be found at Altruistic World Online Library. I analyze the first three paragraphs here to give readers an idea of the study involved (remember, real horror is subtle. Read close to get everything that’s there). I hope you find it useful. Definitely hope you read The Dance of the Frogs to the end.
Eiseley’s writing is in normal text, my analysis is in [[bracketed red text]].
<The Dance of the Frogs>
He was a member of the Explorers Club [[The main character of the piece isn’t the narrator, it’s an unnamed “He”, and “was” places us firmly in the narrator’s memory, his past. The “Explorer’s Club” adds more mystery, a dabbling in some kind of unknown. We haven’t finished the first sentence and we’re already called into the mythic]], and he had never been outside the state of Pennsylvania [[A contradiction, the mythic meets the sensory, hence we’re in some kind of Borderland between the real and the unreal. The two pieces of the first sentence put together and you’ve set the reader up for some kind of conflict; modern – Pennsylvania – meets ancient – Explorer’s Club.]]. Some of us who were world travelers used to smile a little about that [[What started as an atmosphere contradiction becomes a personal conflict]], even though we knew his scientific reputation had been, at one time, great [[Conflict increases. The narrator’s distancing himself from the main character in time and space, also in age, education and accomplishments/achievements. The narrator’s attitude is one of indulgence.]]. It is always the way of youth to smile. I used to think of myself as something of an adventurer [[The narrator’s preparing us for something revelatory by self-deprecation]], but the time came when I realized that old Albert Dreyer, huddling[[excellent word. Has the connotation of something hidden or hiding]] with his drink in the shadows[[ditto]] close to the fire[[use of primal imagery]], had journeyed[[another excellent word. It’s older and has a mythic aspect. People travel to go somewhere, people journey to find or learn something.]] farther[[excellent word choice]] into the Country of Terror[[This is the money phrase. It clinches all the emotional energy/nuance preceding it]] than any of us would ever go[[The narrator states that he/we, who thought himself/ourselves bright and full of adventure, are nothing compared to the main character and their exploits]], God willing, and emerge alive[[ditto]].
He was a morose and aging man, without family and without intimates [[creation of distance between narrator and main character]]. His membership in the club dated back[[another call to the mythic, the ancient, to antiquity]] into the decades when he was a zoologist famous for his remarkable experiments[[Put all this together and you have the lunatic scientist who’s discovered something remarkable that’s turned him mad]] upon amphibians — he had recovered and actually produced the adult stage of the Mexican axolotl[[the specificity is brilliant because it’s exotic, unknown to most readers yet adds validity, plausibility]], as well as achieving remarkable tissue transplants[[excellent foreshadowing and again, just beyond the average reader’s experience and ken]] in salamanders. The club had been flattered to have him then, travel or no travel, but the end was not fortunate[[nice hinting, foreshadowing leading]]. The brilliant scientist had become the misanthrope; the achievement lay all in the past, and Albert Dreyer kept to his solitary room, his solitary drink, and his accustomed spot by the fire[[After all the praising we come back to that distance between the narrator and the main character. We also have the addition of “solitary”, perhaps a hint to some secret the main character has]].
The reason I came to hear his story was an odd one[[“odd”, an uncomfortable word]]. I had been north that year, and the club had asked me to give a little talk on the religious beliefs of the Indians of the northern forest[[religious, Indians: more hints to mythic]], the Naskapi of Labrador. I had long been a student of the strange melange of superstition[[ditto]] and woodland wisdom[[nice juxtaposition: superstition v wisdom. “They know something we don’t”]] that makes up the religious life of the nature peoples[[“nature peoples”: they’re not like us]]. Moreover, I had come to know something of the strange similarities of the ‘shaking tent rite” to the phenomena of the modern medium’s cabinet[[The introduction of something alien, the “shaking tent rite” and linking it to something recognized as a fraud, the “modern medium’s cabinet”]].
You can find other readers’ reactions to “The Dance of the Frogs” on phoenixbookreview and artbrulant.