What makes a good ending? Is it a requirement that the heroes prevail and ride off into the sunset with the gold and the girl to live happily ever after? If that's not the ending, is there a "To be continued..." required instead? Is it a bad thing when a story ends and we have almost a sense of loss rather than a sense of triumph?
As I've said before, people read to escape from the pressures of their lives. Nothing provides such a respite as a good book that almost literally sucks you in and makes everything else seem miles away. In that vein, a book that doesn't end in a satisfying way almost feels like it wasn't worth the ride. A good escape takes you away, runs you through the wringer, hangs you out to dry and then returns you almost better then when you started. Good books full of heroism and triumph can actually help to restore a lost faith in humanity and they promote the idea that when the chips are down, people can overcome anything.
There's a reason it's called Fiction.
Life is difficult. Very often it goes in directions that we don't like and things end in ways that aren't at all satisfying and can leave people's spirits broken and battered. Rarely in life is there such a thing as a happy ending and even then, they usually come at a great cost. There is a reason we NEED such escapes as books and movies and long-running television series. So why waste time on escapes that don't fulfill us and restore our spirits in some way?
Horror is special.
It's true. We get away with things nobody in their right mind would allow in any other genre. A Romance novel without the ride into the sunset? A Fantasy adventure where the dragon cooks the knight in his armor then devours him along with the princess? A Mystery without that final answer? No way. None of those books would last more then three months on a store shelf. But, Horror? Well, if done properly, we are more than welcome to take the hero of our story, drag him through hell for three-hundred pages and on the last page toss him spent into the pit. Some of it is the sense that "Hey, it's Horror, what did you expect?". There is more to it than that.
When we pick up a Horror novel, we think we have a decent idea what to expect. Most of the time, we're not looking for a feel-good story. We're not looking for a book where we can close it after we're done and go prancing through a field of lilies. You pick up a Horror novel for one reason, and one reason only. To be scared. A lot of good Horror stories pick you up, carry you along through pain, anguish, terror and what could probably be construed as torture in some cases, but in the end relent, confide in you that it was all just a dream and they then return you from whence you came no worse for wear. There is nothing wrong with that.
Then you have Horror stories. Ones that truly grab you by the throat and don't let go, even after the story is long ended. Slasher movies are notorious for this, where we see the hero of our movie defeat the monster/killer and resume their lives as normal, and yet the last scene of the movie is the monster/killer resurfacing to torment someone else or even starting over on the hero we thought had won. The Nightmare on Elm Street movies were some of the best examples of this. The Saw series, while not quite as obvious, generally left you with a feeling that the end of the movie wasn't the end of the story and left you itching to know what was next. The last movie I want to mention is Stephen King's The Mist. The Mist is a masterpiece of a horror tale, with monsters which are only the equal of the people they feed on, culminating in an ending which leaves you sitting there in shock at what you just witnessed.
The ending of The Mist is partially what brings me to this whole discussion. Through everything else in the movie, be it the horrors of the monsters or the horrors which people can inflict on each other, the true horror is the ending itself. It is a horror very few writers dare to attempt and even fewer can successfully pull off. It's the horror of acknowledging that things don't always work out for the best and that sometimes we fail no matter what we do.
In a genre where we take truths and fears and shove them so close into people's faces that they can count the hairs on a spider's head, the harshest fear of the rarity of the happy ending is almost taboo. After all, people read to escape their fears and the stresses of the real world, they're looking for something to ultimately make them feel better, about themselves and about their situations. They might pick up a Horror novel to live in the fact that their boss screaming about a deadline isn't near as bad as being chased through the woods by a werewolf or being abducted by aliens, but the desire to feel better about their situation is still paramount in their choice of that novel.
This final horror, which is so rarely used is actually not just a trick a good writer can use, it's a challenge to the reader. It's almost demonstrating the writer's faith in humanity and thus bringing about a happy ending for the reader in a roundabout, twisted, and fitting way. A good Horror story, which drags you into Hell and then leaves you there, isn't saying "This is how it is." as much as it's saying. "I brought you here because I know you will find the way out." Like all good stories, it carries you away, but then when it's over, it doesn't do the work of bringing you back to shore like others do.
The final horror of the ending which revels in the fact that things don't always work out is NOT the end of the story. The final horror isn't there for the characters in the story to face. The final horror is there for the reader to face and to find their own way to triumph over it. Even though there may not be a ride into the sunset, or a final answer to all questions; It can be, in some ways, a better ending than any other ever written.
~ Shaun Horton
"Try not to take life so seriously. Nobody gets out alive in the end, anyway."