Thoughts on Beloved by Toni Morrison and Horror’s Literary Problem

Literary horror lovers, look no further. I’ve found it.

If The Shining is exemplary of commercial horror and House of Leaves of experimental horror, then Beloved is unquestionably the finest example of literary horror I’ve ever read.

I finished this novel by Toni Morrison over a week ago, and I’m still wrecked. Wrecked. Beloved is the most beautiful, chilling, heartbreaking, and ambitious novel I’ve ever read. One reviewer called it the great American novel, and I think I agree.

This is a difficult book to describe without giving things away. Instead of summarizing it for you, I’ll just link to the Goodreads summary of Beloved. Even that summary hints at but doesn’t tell what the book is really about, because Morrison’s reveal is slow and insidious and utterly unnerving. If you can get on board with this book without spoiling it for yourself, I say go for it.

I will give a disclaimer: this book is absolutely not for everybody. Many, many people just don’t like literary fiction. Many, many people don’t enjoy horror. This book is well and truly both, so I imagine the target audience (me, me, me!) is fairly small. If you want an easy read that gives you the answers, you’re going to absolutely hate this novel. If you like to feel comfortable and safe and inspired, you’re going to absolutely hate this novel. Beloved is difficult, daring, and thought-provoking. It’s gut-wrenching, dark, and frightening on many levels. If all of those adjectives piqued your interest, Beloved is probably for you.

Holy book gods, was it ever for me. How often do you find a book that challenges your mind, breaks your heart, shivers your spine, and tears out your guts?

It is worth mentioning that I happened to pick this one up as an audiobook instead of printed. I didn’t even realize until after I bought it that it was read by the author, but what a treat that turned out to be. Toni Morrison’s voice is spellbinding, and of course since she wrote the book, her reading was spot-on, using the perfect emphasis, tone, etc. throughout. I was really carried away by it. I felt immersed. Despite Beloved’s somewhat slow plot (lots of character backstory and time hopping), the pace never felt slow to me. I found myself making up excuses to listen longer. (Clean the house! Go to the gym! Do that errand that’s twenty minutes away…) I note the audio version not just because it was so good, but also because I read in reviews that the formatting/prose of the book was extra difficult for some readers. If you’re a reader who struggles with written dialect, stylistic punctuation, etc., then the audio might alleviate some of that.

The most amusing part of reading through reviews of this book were the claims that this novel isn’t horror. I know I talk about this a lot, but it’s because it directly impacts my life as an artist. Let me introduce you to a neat little bit of hypocrisy:

“Horror these days is all genre garbage. There’s nothing left but slasher trash and torture porn.”

That’s not horror; it has a message. It’s way too deep and meaningful to be shoved into the ‘horror’ genre.”

If you can’t see the problem here, I don’t know what to tell you. I believe you might be bias-blind.

If ever you’ve thought either of those things, I would encourage you to give Beloved a try. You very well may not like it, but it’s hard for me to fathom how anyone could not at least appreciate it. And to my eyes, unless your definitions are so narrow as to be utterly useless, it’s inarguably literary – and inarguably horror.

So why the great American novel? Well, I can say without spoiling anything that this novel tackles head-on the largest skeleton in our country’s closet: slavery. And Morrison doesn’t do it in a trite way. Nor does she do it in a sweeping, epic way. She does it in an intimate, unshakeable, impactful way.

Beloved uses the best of everything to its advantage. In the horror realm, Morrison is almost a literary Jack Ketchum – reminding us quite painfully that the deepest horrors are the real ones, the ones drawn from truth. She doesn’t hold back on the supernatural horror, either, but there are no parlor tricks here, no shock value. The supernatural element in Beloved is carefully chosen to support and expand the themes and messages of the book. We’re left terrified in a way that means something, shaken by the reality of our very history, our very world, and that’s what the best horror does. It scares us in a way that makes us think. It makes us examine and question why we feel repulsed, discomforted, or frightened, and what those reasons mean in a larger context.

In the literary realm, Morrison makes masterful use of her writer’s toolbox. The prose is unique and distinctly suited to its subjects. The difficulty of the book serves as a fitting form for the difficulty of the topics. The complexity here both mirrors and highlights the complexity of our world. The writing is exquisite. Beloved doesn’t put on any airs; the literary nature of it is simply the best vehicle for Morrison’s intent.

Have I gushed enough? This one goes on my favorites list for sure, so I’ve added Beloved to my Amazon store on the “horror recommendations” shelf. (If you decide to buy a copy, I’ll get a small percentage if you buy it there.) I have the paperback on the first page and the audio version on the last page.

Taste is taste. As I said, if you don’t like lit-fic or don’t like horror, or even don’t like heavy fiction or difficult reading or any other number of what-have-yous, this might not be a book for you.

But to anyone who claims that literary horror doesn’t exist, I say read this book. And to anyone who reads this book and still claims it, I say you’re crazy, prejudiced, blind, or all of the above, because Beloved is a masterpiece of literary fiction, a masterpiece of horror fiction, and a masterpiece of a novel. An unflinching look at our country’s horrible history through the lens of the hauntingly personal? Great American novel indeed.

Still looking for something to read here at the end of Women in Horror Month? Look no further than Toni Morrison, one of my new literary heroes.

[Note: In case you missed it, Simon Dewar interviewed me for Women in Horror Month!]

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  • Isn’t Kafka’s Metamorphosis considered literary horror? I think a bazillion high schoolers would think it was. It’s sooo sad that horror is likened to garbage. You’d think greats like King, Koontz, and McCammon would have elevated the genre in the minds of people. (Nonetheless, public perception is why I’ll bill mine as “Thriller” and not “Horror.”)

    • Yes, Kafka writes a lot of literary horror, and it’s excellent! Unfortunately, though, he’s not often acknowledged as horror by the literary elite, much like Morrison. In fact, I didn’t even know Kafka wrote horror until I happened to read him myself. No one ever told me; I had never seen it mentioned anywhere. I was shocked!

      • FYI – I loved your new article on Writer Unboxed. I commented but I think it’s caught in spam, so I tweeted it! Have a great weekend, Annie! 🙂

        • Whoops! You’re right; it did go into the spam folder, but I pulled it out. Thanks so much, Lexa!

  • Cynthia Robertson

    I haven’t read this one in so long I can’t recall what I thought of it! But now you’ve made me want to pick it up again, Annie. Like right now. 🙂
    Checked out the Goodreads page, and it’s funny how polarized readers are over this one.

    • Yay! I bet you’ll love it! Yes, the reviews were fascinating. It’s such a heavy, dark book, though, that I’m not at all surprised how many readers hated it. Not everything can be for everyone. In fact, sometimes I suspect that the very best things are for the very smallest audiences.

  • Regina Richards

    You’ve convinced me. Now i have to read it. 🙂

  • Carie Juettner

    Another book added to my to-read list. Thanks, Annie, for these stellar reviews and for pushing some of us to read things those more difficult (but worthwhile) texts.

  • Horror is often just metaphor (I don’t mean “just” to be dismissive), the external projection of an inner fear or terror. In the case of Kafka (nice reference, Lexa), the bug is society’s personification of Gregor Samsa. I haven’t read Beloved in 17 years but I remember being pretty riveted as well. No other Toni Morrison novels – I’ve also read Sula and the Bluest Eye – has stayed with me quite the way Beloved did. And yes, slavery is such a powerful theme. Faulkner once said “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” Quite aside from fear or terror, unsinkable memory may very well be the most spellbinding application of horror in literature. Certainly it is the case in Beloved.

    • Yes, I think the best horror explores our fears thoughtfully, whether literal or metaphorical — because even literal (external) fears are due to internal reasons. Fear of pain, fear of death, fear of solitude: these are all emotional fears despite being physical threats. I love the Faulkner quote. Crimson Peak plays with the idea as well, as many ghost stories do. “Ghosts are a metaphor for the past” and what not. It’s a concept that won’t go away because it’s just so very powerful.

  • Peggy

    Great review! I’ve only read one book by Morrison and never knew that she also wrote horror. Has anyone seen the movie by Jonathan Demme & Oprah Winfrey? I read a fascinating old article about it and Oprah (Baltimore Sun), which said,

    …”the horror continues virtually unabated for two hours and 45 minutes. At times, “Beloved” looks less than a meditation on the past than a Stephen King horror thriller.
    Demme set out to make a terrifying ghost story, and he did.”

    So, at least one critic knew horror when they saw it! Book & movie sound just heart-breaking and gut wrenching. This is a good discussion, and Jay Lemming, I enjoyed your comments.

    • Thank you! I remember when that movie came out, but I just can’t bring myself to watch movie versions of books I love so much, no matter how good people say they are. I have a certain interpretation, vision, and “vibe” from my reading, and I like to hold that. Seeing someone else’s portrayal usually over-writes my own. Still, it sounds great, and I’m glad it was made and recognized as horror. I imagine the movie version makes what seems obvious to me much more unavoidable to viewers.

  • That is an astute call on Beloved– it really is horror. Interesting!

  • A. B. Davis

    I love your enthusiasm in this post, Annie. How strange seeing your review here and knowing people in my graduate classes who had raved about this book and never once acknowledged that it was horror. Indeed, I’m sure they did not even think of it as such with the stigma that has been attached to our precious, dark genre. I am so excited to get to this book!

    • Thanks Ashley! That doesn’t surprise me at all. This book might be a hard one for you to read, just a heads up. PM me if you want to talk about spoilers!

  • Pingback: Why I Was Wrong to Stop Writing About Horror Fiction - Jay Lemming, Author()

  • jclementwall

    I love Toni Morrison. Jazz is one of my favorite books of all time (and the two people I recommended it to couldn’t finish it). I’ve never read BELOVED, but I’m going to now. Quite possibly next.

    Also, I love when you talk about horror, all that it is and isn’t. Honestly, I don’t do it with horror, but I’m very guilty of having some genre biases that are completely unfair. It took Neil Gaiman (American Gods) to get me on board with Fantasy. I’m grateful for writers like you (and Gaiman, and Chabon, and…) who keep making the point that genre fiction isn’t inherently worse than (or even different than) literary fiction.

    • I’ve never read Jazz. Should I add that one to my list? I read The Bluest Eye in college and loved it, though it was also heartbreaking. I love that you love when I talk about horror. 🙂 Honestly, we all have genre biases; I do too. The important thing, for me, is to remind myself what’s just taste/preference and what’s potentially keeping me from reading something I’d love if I only knew.