Elements that Make for Good Horror Fiction: The Great God Pan and The Three Strangers

Essay by defy.gravityUniversity, Bachelor'sB, September 2009

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A good work of horror fiction is something that involves not only a good author, but a good reader. One cannot go into a work of horror fiction expecting clichés and out of this world monsters (at least not all the time). A good work of horror fiction should evoke a bodily response (heart pound, hands sweat, expression of disgust on your face…) because of the content of the story. The content and plot of the story should feel like you are riding a roller coaster: little is revealed about the path you are about take, you can’t see or think straight, you can only see the whole thing once it’s over and you can’t get off once you made the choice to get on. Good horror fiction depends on a good amount of detail, but not so much as to give away the surprise at the end, which should disgust us, shock us and captivate us.

By the end of the ride that is a work of horror fiction, we should feel as though we were confronted with our fears. The challenge the horror fiction author faces is to embody all of these characteristics in a short story.

Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan is perhaps one of the most horrifying stories in the Wagner-Wise anthology. The story feels like a roller coaster while reading it. You get a small glimpse of what the story is about from the first few pages: evil scientist makes a monster and it’s going to be bad. This is evident when “Clarke felt sick and faint” (p. 586) during the procedure that creates the monster. After this glimpse, we decide to get on the metaphorical roller coaster, having seen the story as a whole we now become more intimate with it and all its ups and downs. The ups of the story tell us some information about the end of the story (imagine being able to see some of the rest of the ride when you go up a hill on a roller coaster) and the downs are then us trying to make sense of the information before new information is presented. Examples of ‘ups’ in Machen’s story are: the child being frightened by Helen in the forest, Herbert’s story of Helen corrupting his soul, and the strange deaths surrounding Mrs. Beaumont. The downs are therefore, right after this information is revealed. You know it was something important, but you’re not sure what yet. However, the real horror of this story is in its religious overtones. Raymond says that being an idiot is a small price to pay since Mary has “seen the Great God Pan.” Seeing the god Pan means that one was impregnated by the Devil himself. This is absolutely horrifying to the readers, especially if they believe in the Devil and the spiritual realm. The fact that someone would force and facilitate this act is, at least to me, absolutely terrifying. While reading it I remember my eyes widening in disbelief of Raymond’s actions. This story brings up the very real fear that many people have regarding the Devil: the shear fact that he exists and the power that he wields. He has mad Mary’s child so evil that men are committing suicide just to get away from her, to get her out of their mind. Helen kills herself at the end of the story, which is a testimony to the fact that the only way to have a chance of escaping Satan’s power is to die.

However, not all the stories in the Wagner and Wise anthology are as good as The Great God Pan. Thomas Hardy’s The Three Strangers does not use any of the aforementioned strategies or elements of good horror stories. In fact, The Three Strangers is not a horror story at all. There is nothing in the story that illicits any sort of fear reaction: no sweating, expression of disgust. There is no roller coaster like feel to the story. It takes a long time to get started and when the story is over, the reader feels as though it was a waste of time, like the end of the story was easy to figure out. It’s a disappointing read and to be included with such a great work as The Great God Pan is misleading and unfortunate for future readers.

But I suppose it is true that not everyone will enjoy the same horror fiction, because not everyone is scared by the same things. But it is fair to say that horror fiction needs to illicit a response from it’s readers in order to be successful. The Great God Pan encompasses the elements that I believe to be a good horror story: the feeling you are on a roller coaster, bodily reactions, and a confrontation of our fears. Whereas The Three Strangers does not use any of them, and is therefore unsuccessful as a short work of horror fiction.

Works CitedHardy, Thomas. “The Three Strangers.” Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. eds. Herbert Wise and Phyllis Wagner. New York: Random House, 1994. 60 - 82.

Machen, Arthur. “The Great God Pan.” Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. eds. Herbert Wise and Phyllis Wagner. New York: Random House, 1994. 579 - 632