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Monday, December 5, 2011

Genre Talk: Dreaming about Fantasy Part 1


Time to talk about fantasy.  Fantasy is my favorite genre, but one I hardly ever read because it seems to have so much horrible crap in it.  Maybe it's just because i love it so much, i'm more critical of it than other genres.  I dunno.  So what makes good fantasy?  I'll tell you, but the usual caveat that this is just one wannabe author's opinion still applies.

NUMBER ONE: The Fantastical

Much like my Genre Talk on horror, we're starting out with the obvious.  Ahhh, but don't brush it off so quick just because it seems so obvious.  This is the biggest stumbling block, and so often where bad fantasy fails.

A lot of writers and critics have said "There are no new ideas."  I disagree.  I don't think there are any new basic ideas.  By basic i mean the fundamentals of a story, the bare bones.  Like the story of Star Wars is the classic Hero's Journey (if you don't know what that is, you live in the age of Google.  Quit being lazy and go search) that has been told and retold thousands of times.    It will be told again for as long as there are people to read about it.  The new stuff comes in the details.  What makes this and other old stories unique?  What makes them fantastic?

So many (so very, very many) fantasy authors tread and retread the same details over and over, delivering the same results.  Go to a bookstore near you.  Go look in the fantasy/sci-fi aisle.  You're immediately going to see a bunch of covers featuring elves, dwarves, big muscle-dudes with claymores, and women in chain mail bikinis.  There will also be dragons.

That isn't fantasy.

Let me clarify: that is fantasy, but that's not all fantasy is.  So many people hear "fantasy" and immediately think of white-bearded wizards with crystal balls and bards and shit like that.  Fantasy is so much more than that.  Fantasy is whatever you can imagine.  It can be literally the craziest stuff you can think of.

Good fantasy is going to show me something I have never seen before.  I will be as dumbstruck as the characters on the page/screen because what I'm reading or watching is unique, new, and amazing to me.  I am fascinated.  It's kind of hard for me to be surprised or act shocked when I see a vampire or dragon for the hundredth time.  Yawn.

Now, a lot of this is execution.  Let's takea look at a very common and overused fantasy creature: the dragon.

The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik is fantasy/alternate history based around a simple but compelling concept: what if the Napoleonic wars had been fought with dragons?  Amazing!  I am already blown away. I've read alternate history before, but nothing like this.  Novik's dragons aren't terribly unique (some breathe fire, others don't, they can speak English or French or whatever), but what she does with them is.  She sets up whole military strategies and cultures around the dragons, altering familiar, and real, nations and their histories to adapt to the dragons.  How dragons are treated in Britain is drastically different than in China.  The core of the story is between the titular Temeraire and his captain, William Laurence.

It's not just straightforward "Napoleon is evil and must die."  Laurence has to navigate British society, his own changing attitudes of Dragons and treating them as more than just warmachines.  It's got a lot of layers to it and is really, quite brilliant.  Laurence changes very dynamically, and Temeraire is adorable with his reading appetite, curiosity, and slight naivete.  Novik's knowledge of history and how well she molds it around to fit dragons in is astounding.  I've never seen anything like it before or since.

Now, ugh, Eragon.  Eragon, by Christopher Paolini, is basically Star Wars by way of Lord of the Rings.  It's really astonishing how blatantly Paolini just copy-pasted the plot and key events of Star Wars into his own work.  That's another post though.  Eragon is all about the titular boy finding and then traveling and battling alongside his very own dragon, Saphira.  Saphira does nothing new.

Novik's dragons weren't particularly original either, but the world around them was.  Paolini's world of Alagaesia is the Chinese knock-off version of Middle Earth.  Saphira is the same wise, superior sounding drake that you've seen in numerous fantasies before.  She's inconsistent too.  When she performs a type of very advanced magic out of nowhere, a character just shrugs and basically says, "Dragons are mysterious," or something like that.  No.  What?  That's crap.   

Saphira is little else but a status symbol and a powerful weapon.  She makes Eragon stronger, lets him use magic more, and flies him around.  She has very little character (but then, this is true for all the characters in the story), and acts as little else but the impetus for the story.  If Eragon were the first fantasy story I had ever read, knowing nothing of fantasy, it would just be okay.  But anybody who is even remotely familiar with fantasy will get tired real quick of the cliche storm Paolini blows out.

So, you can do new things with old ideas.  But what about new ideas?  I'm going to talk about a pair of video games now, both in the same series: Morrowind and Oblivion.  They are the third and fourth, respectively, entries in the blockbuster Elder Scrolls series.  Morrowind was jaw-dropping amazing.  Oblivion was snore-inducing boring.  Here's why:

Morrowind showed me things i had never even dreamed of before.  Monstrous crab skeletons used as buildings, volcanic ash that mutated people into immortal tumor zombies, a skyscraper sized robot fueled by the heart of a dead god, a meteor frozen in time and turned into a prison for heretics, and a complicated civilization built on slaves, assassination, political maneuvering, and magic.  I still fondly remember that game and its rich, deep story of false gods, betrayal, spies, and reincarnation.

Oblivion is basically every medieval fantasy European cliche on parade.  Pine forests, rolling green hills, trolls, goblins, and a bad guy whose home consists entirely of spiky black towers and lava.  Friggin' BLEH.  The story amounted to this: stop the bad man from ruining cities.  That was it!  I'd seen everything in Oblivion a hundred times before.  Nothing was new, nothing was fantastic.  It was stale and old and busted and I was so disappointed.

So look, if you're going to write fantasy, please make it fantastic.  Whatever sub-genre you're writing in (urban fantasy, low fantasy, high fantasy, dark fantasy) make it stick out.  Do something new!  Show me something that is unique to you, that nobody else has done before.

All right, to wrap up, I'm gonna post a list of some of the more memorable things and ideas from various works of fantasy I've encountered over the years.

  • An archipelago where each island is an hour of the day (Abarat)
  • The Lord of Dreams inherits the keys to Hell, and holds interviews with various deities to see who gets them (The Sandman)
  • Basically all of The Twelve Kingdoms
  • An immortal demon that stalks battlefields looking to fight the strongest warriors (Berserk)
  • The Big Bad Wolf becomes the sheriff of a small, fairy-tale community in modern New York City (Fables
  • Machines powered by crystallized gods threaten to upset the balance of the world (Final Fantasy VI)
  • A forest with migrating trees (The Elder Scrolls)
  • An entire nation is woven and hidden in a carpet (Weaveworld)
There's tons more, but you get the idea.

Next time I'm gonna talk about Magic.

NO EXCUSES

So obviously I've been away.  I don't have a terribly good reason.  I've been lazy and my writing has fallen by the wayside.  I wrote a novel in 5 months though, so that isn't too bad.  Still, after reading that some people pound out novels in 10-15 weeks (whaaaaaat) it's kind of a kick in the ass to get back to work.

So here we go.

I'm making a commitment, a public commitment (to my 3 subscribers, one of whom is me, I don't even remember subscribing to my own blog.  What the hell?), to write more.  To write for at least 1 hour every single day.  If not my blog, then a novel.  If not a novel, then a short story.  If not a short story then fan-fiction.  Yes, fan-fiction.  Anything to keep me writing.

So, starting....now. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Author Alcove: The Writing Process



So now it's time for another segment I guess I'll be returning to regularly: Author Alcove (wheee alliteration).  This is when/where I'll BS about the nuts and bolts of writing as I see them.  I'll take this moment to say again that I am NOT a professional author or writer.  For now, it's a hobby for me.  And obsessive hobby that I do every day, but "Hobby" sounds a lot nicer than "unstoppable compulsion." 

Why am I telling you that?  Because I just want to be up front about my qualifications.  I've been writing for about 20 years.  about 15 years of that was total shit (but I was a kid, so I had an excuse).  3 years of that was  mostly shit with some good ideas, and the last 2 years have seen a significant decrease in the shit-to-good-ideas ratio.  I have a degree in this stuff, and it makes an excellent dinner tray when it's not gathering dust in the corner and being otherwise useless.  But I'm not a pro, and these are just my opinions, so use them as you will.

Okay, disclaimer over, let's get to work.

When I used to teach creative writing to my poor middle-school students, or when somebody actually gives enough of a damn to ask me about writing, one of the most asked questions is "Where/how do you start?"  A very good question, but one with a million and four answers.  Every writer has their own process from start to finish.  We all have our own rituals and idiosyncrasies because we're all basically crazy in one way or another.

If you're Jim Butcher (he of "The Dresden Files" and "Codex Alera" series), you sit down and ask yourself the "Plot Question" (which I'll explain in a bit), lay out the protagonist and antagonist, supporting characters, setting, and then make a plot arc, outlining the beginning, ending, and middle sections of the plot.  then you write rough outlines of a bunch of scenes, then finally sit down and write your story.

If you're Philip Pullman, you write a bunch of scenes and ideas on post-it notes, then stick them on a wall and rearrange them in various orders until you find a plot structure you like. 

If you're Stephen King, you come up with a situation (like, "Vampires in rural Maine") then some basic character ideas, and let the story play itself out and leave the plot to take care of itself.

Now, those are very simple overviews of how those writers do it.  Each of those writers is very successful, and is generally regarded as at least competent by critics and the general reading public.  However, none of them are right, and none of them are wrong.  The writing process is unique for each writer, and what works for them may be terrible for you.  The writing process I know best and am most qualified to talk about though is my own. 

Stories start with ideas, so I need one of those first. I get ideas from everywhere: music, clouds, other stories (movies, books, video games, TV shows, manga, anime, etc etc), and sometimes, and perhaps best of all, from out of the clear blue sky, like one of those anvils that hammer Daffy Duck into the ground. 

So once I have my idea, I make sure it makes sense, and what kind of story this is going to be.  Is it a short story?  A novel?  An epic?  Is it actually interesting or is this the mental equivalent of a fart; a noise but no substance?  If it actually seems like it will work, I hold onto it, and roll it around in my head for a week or two, taking down odd little notes on whatever paper is around.

I first write down the story idea.  I'll use my current work-in-progress for the purpose of this post.  Story idea: "A superhero in steampunk-type fantasy setting attempts to save the lower classes of his city from a crooked aristocrat." Okay, I can easily make that into a novel. 

After I have the basic story idea, I make the characters.  Now, some people have to plot the book first, and add characters later.  I can't do that.  Who the characters are and what they're like shape the story and change the plot.  If you have the story first, then characters, you're changing the characters to fit the story, which makes them inconsistent, flat, or lifeless, all of which are Very Bad.  So, characters.

I don't have reams of paper describing a character's motivation or personality.  I have a basic idea and a rough history, two-three sentences at most.  I give the characters a starting off point and they usually reveal themselves to me the more I write them.  I know that sounds strange, but when it happens, it's really cool.  They stop being just a character and they become a person, usually with faults and screw-ups and weird little tics, just like you or me.  I'd like to go more into character but this post is getting long in the tooth so we'll move on.

Story idea, check.  Characters, check.  Plot...aahhh.  Plot is the events within a story, while story is what the book/film/whatever is about.  Some authors think plot is something that comes naturally and should never be thought consciously about, while others feel you MUST focus all your energy on crafting the plot from thin air.  Like many things, my way is in the middle.

When outlining the plot, I make sure I have at least three things before I begin writing in earnest: the beginning, the middle (or inciting incident that sets the story rolling), and the end.  Now, I usually have more than that, like random scenes or lines of dialogue I'll want to use somewhere, but aside from those three major things, the rest of the story is a blank for me when I start. 

An author (I'm kicking myself because I forgot who, maybe Stephen King or Dean Koontz) said something like this (paraphrasing ahoy): "The writing process for me is like a road trip: I know where I'm starting from and where I want to end up, and maybe I know a few rest stops on the way, but most of it is just driving and finding out what's there as I go along, mile by mile."

That's how it is for me.  I've tried plot outlining every chapter and scene in the past and, inevitably, the actual story goes off those rails and into unknown (and often much better) territory.

So this has gone on for quite a bit.  That's my way of writing, and yours may be different.  If it is, awesome, so long as it works.  Don't listen to people or professors or even famous writers who tell you it must be done THIS WAY ONLY.  They're full of shit.  Do what you're comfortable with and whatever makes your story the best.   

Friday, March 25, 2011

I've been trapped in Kim Jong Il's Basement OR What it's like in Korea




So it's been a couple months.  I'm very bad with blogs, what can I say.  The good news is I've been productive on other things, mainly writing of course, and getting more and more into an easy working groove.  So I guess it'd be useful for anybody perusing this blog now or in the future to know what it's like living and working in Korea.  So I'll answer some basic questions for you.

How did you get to work in Korea?

It wasn't too hard.  I went to www.interkrest.com and filled out the basic information, and wasn't an idiot.  The very kind and always helpful Mr. Choi helped with everything else.

What do I need in order to teach English in Korea?

You need to come from a country that has English as it's native language, a college degree in ANYTHING, a clean criminal record, and not be a moron.  Really, that's about it.  You do not have to speak one iota of Korean, have any educational background, or history teaching English.  You should be a pretty good speaker and be decent at writing and not having to lean on spellcheck though.

What kind of work would I be doing?

Chances are you're going to get hired by a hagwon.  A hagwon is an after-school center that specializes in a particular subject (i.e. Tae Kwon Do, Math, Science, Guitar, and of course, English).  Hagwons cater to a wide array of students, from kindergarten to high school kids.

Hagwons have weird hours, as they're after school centers.  You can probably count on working between 2:30 and 10:00.  some start sooner and get out earlier, some start later and end later.  Not all of that is work though.  I arrive at my hagwon at about 2:30 PM, leave at 9:50 PM, but only actually work about 3-4 hours of that.

It's kind of like college in that you have different classes on different days, and breaks between classes.  Even the really busy foreign teachers at my hagwon don't work more than 4-5 hours a day.

When you're in the classroom, you're following a book.  a lot of it is conversational, so there's a lot of questions and answers, though the content of that obviously varies with what age group you're with.  For my little kids, we play games and repeat basic sentences.  My older kids have long, complex conversations with me about current events and the like.  It's really, really easy, even if you have negative one hundred experience in teaching.

What's the pay like?

You can expect about 1.8-2.7 million won (about $1,700-$2,500 depending on current exchange rates) paid directly to a bank account the school creates for you once a month.  The school will also set you up with an apartment, rent free.  I only pay for electricity, water, and internet in my apartment.  That costs me about 70,000\ ($65) a month for all that.  My internet bill back home by itself was over $50.

Also, since you're not a Korean citizen, you pay next to no taxes.  I pay about 3% in taxes.  Nothing.  You also get decent health insurance.  I've been here about 5 months and I've got just under $10,000 (from $0 when I arrived) without really trying to save at all.

What if I don't want to work at a hagwon?

There's a LOT more opportunities once you get here.  There are regular schools you can work for, even universities (though universities require a bit more in the way of qualifications, like prior teaching experience, a degree in English or English related field (i.e. Literature, writing, etc), maybe a TEFL certificate, or a Master's.  Some of the high end universities require all of these AND more.  However I've also seen a job at Ulsan University that had the same requirements as my hagwon, so it depends.  The regular schools have roughly the same requirements as the hagwons.

I'm afraid of North Korea!

North Korea usually just bares it's teeth once or twice a year and does something stupid and things quiet down.  I was here when they shot the island off the coast of Incheon in November of 2010, and the attitude of most Koreans was that the North was crazy, and they went about their day as per usual.  If they're not worried, I'm not worried.

What do you like about Korea?

The food is amazing.  Lots of pork, beef, rice, and vegetables.  It's also really cheap.  I highly recommend you try shabu shabu, sam gyeop sal, bi bim bap, dong kas, chamchi kimbap, and, well, everything really.

The people will stare at you, but it's out of curiosity, not disrespect.  They're mostly polite.  there are some jack asses, but every country has those.  If you make a faux pas, they'll politely correct you, or usually just ignore it, and dismiss the social error as you being a foreigner and not knowing and they're cool with it.  You'll get a lot of random Korean people shouting "Hello!" at you.  They're mostly very friendly and sweet.

I also like that in the city, everything is in walking distance.  I can get most any place worth getting to in 15 minutes or less of walking, including work.  If I have to take a taxi, they're very reasonable and the cabbies are usually friendly.

What don't you like about Korea?

The traffic is insane.  I am never buying or renting a car here.  To hell with that.

Some of the things they do to western style food is a culinary crime.  You should not be allowed to put mayonnaise, corn, and shrimp on a pizza and be allowed to operate a restaurant.  Also, fried chicken is NOT Mexican food.

The television here is truly awful.  Every Korean show is about women crying and sad violin music playing.  Sometimes there is incest or gender swapping.  I don't even know.

That's really it.  This country's pretty great and I got used to it absurdly fast.  I still miss home, but Korea's a really swell place to live for a while.

Would you recommend teaching and living in Korea to others?

If you've got an open mind, aren't pants-on-head retarded, aren't a whining baby about things that are different, and want to experience another culture, absolutely.  I've already decided I want to spend another year here, maybe two more.  If you got more questions, post 'em in the comments area.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Genre Talk: Cutting Up Horror Part 6

So here on the last part of Genre Talk's first outing, we're going to wrap it all up by talking about...

WHAT HORROR IS NOT

1) Horror is not Gore

When people I talk to start to talk about horror, one of the first things they mention is that it needs a lot of blood and guts.  No. Wrong!  Bad writer.  Bad, bad writer.  Go sit in the corner and think about what you said.  If gore = horror, then movies like Saving Private Ryan, and Braveheart count as horror.  They obviously don't, so let's just put that ridiculous notion aside.

Blood and gore can be used to make the audience realize their own mortality and vulnerability.  Seeing somebody's insides is not a common occurrence in a person's life, and being suddenly exposed to a young, vibrant teenager getting their stomach ripped out by a monster can be horrifying, but there's more to it than the gore.  It's the sudden realization that this young person, who like most teenagers probably thought he would live forever, is having his existence cut short.  It's the supernatural strength of the killer making you realize your own powerlessness.  It's the fact that this guy dying in front of you was a person, and now he's just meat, and it could happen to you.

If you just have gore, and blood, then you might as well have the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Blood and gore isn't scary, but the reasoning behind its appearance on the page, or on screen, can be.

I've very rarely ever been disturbed or grossed out by blood and guts since I got past the age of 12.  I will watch the goriest, flesh-ripping scenes in Hellraiser while eating a pizza with extra tomato sauce.  However, I'd like to describe an entirely bloodless scene from an anime that I had difficulty watching at the age of 25 to describe effective violence.

The anime is Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (Which translates roughly to When the Cicadas Cry) features a scene where one of the characters has pissed off some yakuza types, and has to make amends by hurting herself.  This is done by inserting a small, lever like device under the fingernails of one hand, and having her hit the end of the lever with her other hand, ripping her own fingernails off.  If you actually want to watch it, you may do so HERE. There is no blood.  You don't even really see the nails coming off.  You see the girl screaming as she brings her fist down on the lever, and hear a sickening crack! and see her facial expression.  That one scene was way more disturbing and effective than a hundred Freddy Kruegers disembowling a hundred dreaming teenagers.

This is part of the reason The Demonata isn't scary (Yes I'm picking on Darren Shan again).  Shan relies entirely on blood and guts and mutilation to instill fear.  That's his crutch.  He leans on gore through the entirety of his books, to the point of it being almost comical.  There's so much of it, it loses meaning.  There is nothing left to your imagination.  Darren spells every single thing out on the page for you.  Maybe he's trying to be edgy, who knows.  really, it just comes across like a seven-year-old saying bad words in an attempt to shock me with how mature he is.

So: blood and guts =/= horror.  Get that in your head.

2) Horror is not saying "Boo!"


"Boo" moments are when everything is quiet and then something pops out at you.  You jump and if you're on a date maybe you grab onto your partner for security or to cop a feel or something.  The moment passes and things go back to normal, tension gone.  This isn't horror.


Good horror lingers like a bad smell.  It sticks with you long after the credits have rolled or the last page has turned.  When you are alone at night, it's what makes you turn away from those shadows in the corner, or think twice about leaving the safety of your bed to go to the bathroom.  It does not rely on a single jump-in-your-seat moment.  That's cheap, and any idiot can do that. 

3) Horror is not The Monster

First of all, I'm using the term "monster" to refer to the primary antagonist in a work of horror.  It doesn't have to be a literal monster.  It could be a guy with a knife, or a sentient fog bank, or a disease, or whatever.

Now, I know this might sound a little weird but hang with me.  If a writer focuses everything, every ounce of fear, suspense, and all that on the antagonist (Monster), then they're limiting themselves.  The fear is only coming from one direction, and that makes it predictable, which makes it less scary.  The monster can (and definitely SHOULD) be part of the ongoing terror, but he shouldn't be the end all and be all.

In Stephen King's (There he is again!) The Shining, a lot of the fear comes from the demonic hotel.  It also comes from the husband, Jack, who is slowly losing his mind.  It also comes from Danny, the little boy, who is displaying increasingly disturbing and nightmarish psychic powers.  And it also comes from the weather outside, which is dark, and cold, and just as lethal as anything inside the hotel.  That way, if you're not being scared by the hotel, you're probably getting scared by Jack, or if not him, Danny, or if not him, then by the encroaching storm acting as a trap.  There's always something going on.

But if you focus all the fear on one source, then when that source is defeated, or escaped from, or whatever, the fear is gone.  Like I mentioned above, good horror stories stick around.  They cling to you long, long after you've put them away.  If you're making your story all about the monster, you're making a monster book/film/comic/whatever i.e. King Kong, Godzilla, etc, not a horror/book/film/comic/whatever.

4. Horror is not Static

What scares me does not necessarily scare you.  What scares you may not scare me.  What terrified people fifty years ago is sometimes laughable by today's standards.  What scares people changes.  I tried to hit on the most basic, universal things that frighten people, but not even those apply to everybody.

If horror were the same thing, all the time, it would be knowable, predictable, and unsurprising.  But it changes, and needs to keep changing in order to stay fresh and continue to scare people.  That's The Unknown.  If you're seeing a trend in horror, buck it, shake it off, and do something different.

And now, time for some...

RECOMMENDATIONS

These are works I enjoy immensely.  I'm not going to list ALL of them (we'd never leave), but I will list some.  I'm going to pass on mentioning works I've already mentioned for the most part, since I've talked about them before and don't need to again.

FILM

1: The Thing
2: In the Mouth of Madness
3: Ringu
4: Alien
5: [REC]

BOOKS

1: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
2: Books of Blood by Clive Barker
3: At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
4: Phantoms by Dean Koontz
5: The Mist by Stephen King

VIDEO GAMES

1: Silent Hill 2
2: Amnesia the Dark Descent
3: System Shock 2
4: Fatal Frame 2
5: Condemned: Criminal Origins

GRAPHIC NOVELS

1: 30 Days of Night by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith
2: The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezu
3: Uzumaki by Junji Ito
4: A Small Killing by Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate
5:The Nightmare Factory by Thomas Ligotti and various artists

And as a bonus, if you want some horror music to listen to while you write, I suggest the following:

MUSIC

1: Silent Hill 2 OST by Akira Yamaoka
2: Miasma & The Carousel of Headless Horses
3: Godspeed you Black Emperor
4: Hellraiser OST by Christopher Young
5: Hanging Gardens by The Necks (this bears special attention because while it isn't as openly creepy as the others, I do find it kind of surreal and moody.  It's also one song over an hour long, so you'll likely have to buy it if you want to hear it)

And that's it for now!  Hopefully you got something out of my first Genre Talk.  If you have something you'd like to see me inexpertly tackle in the future, post here or something.   

Friday, January 7, 2011

Genre Talk: Cutting Up Horror Part 5


Second to the last part here folks.  This will be the last thing that I think good horror needs to have.  It stems from a question somebody asked me a long time ago.  They asked me what the point of a horror story was.  Like, a common plot point they shared.  killing the monster?  No, not really.  I mean ,that can be important, but there's a lot of non-horror that focuses on killing the bad guy.  Saving the day?  No, that's a bit too heroic, and I don't think of heroic when I think of horror.  After a bit of thinking, I had it.  Which takes us right into...

NUMBER FIVE: Survival as the Goal

Unlike a lot of stories that have some greater plot (a self awakening, saving the world, finding a treasure, etc), the main goal of the protagonists in a horror story is a very simple and basic one: to survive.  They are not heroes, they are normal people (just like you).  They are not trying to be noble, or even brave, they're just trying to run away from the thing that wants to rip their guts out.  

That isn't saying there can't be more to a horror story than that, but I think that survival needs to be the raw and vulnerable heart of any horror story.  Survival is something everybody is concerned about.  It's a fundamental part of our species, hell, of every species.  Threatening that triggers a downright ancient response in people.  Every single one of the examples I've given threatens, at the very least, the physical existence of the protagonists, if not their mental and/or spiritual survival as well, but let's look at some new ones just for kicks.

In Clive Barker's (another one of my faves) Hellbound Heart, better known as the Hellraiser series of films, there's a lot to be scared of.  Very briefly, the novella is about Frank, a hedonistic asshole who finds a little puzzle box called the Lament Configuration.  He solves it, believing that doing so will open up otherworldly delights for him.  it summons the Cenobites, (Angels to some, demons to others) who don't draw a line between excruciating pleasure and blissful agony.  they take Frank into what will be an eternity of torture.

Years pass and, long story short, Frank finds a loophole and manages to escape back into our world, leaving the Cenobites behind.  With the help of his brother's wife, he becomes more substantial by consuming the lifeblood of others that Julia brings to him.  Kristy, Frank's niece, gets wise to all this and steals the puzzle box after realizing it's somehow important.  Upon solving the puzzle box, the Cenobites appear, but Kristy strikes a deal with them: she'll give them Frank if they leave her alone.  It all works out in the end and Frank and Julie go back to the Cenobite hell, and Kristy lives her life.

Kristy's terror, Frank's terror, and the reader's terror stems from not the Cenobites themselves (though they are disturbingly horrific and awesome), but rather, what they can do to you.  Torture is bad enough.  There is a visceral, gut terror at having your body cut into little pieces.  The Cenobites offer more than that though: there is the spiritual threat at imprisoning your very soul for eternity, and the mental threat of driving you insane.  Maybe even, god forbid, insane to the point of reveling in having your body ripped apart for years on end.  Brrr.

Kristy reacts to the Cenobites not out of some nobler intention to stop Frank's murder spree of innocents, or because she empathizes with the plight of the Cenobites, but because if she doesn't they will "rip her soul apart."  Frank didn't escape the Cenobite domain to spite his captors, or take his new found knowledge of torture to Earth to lord over men.  He did it because he was terrified and ruined and desperately wanted to live again.

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons is also about survival.  It centers around a small group of boys over the course of one summer, who discover a supernatural evil in their town that is growing in power.  It kills anything that opposes it, including one of their good friends.  In a lot of ways, it's comparable to Stephen King's ItIt has slightly nobler intentions behind the actions of the protagonists though, and they often knowingly put themselves in harm's way to defeat a great evil that doesn't directly threaten them anymore until they go back to confront it.   

Summer of Night has the boys themselves swept up by the events around them, and are targeted by the evil itself, and finding out later that said evil was expanding and would have consumed them eventually.  So they fight it out of a need to survive.  There's some revenge motivation mixed in there and they do save a lot of other people, but really, they're threatened too, and they're saving their own asses just as much as anybody else's.  That's the big idea: they're targets, and they have to survive, so they fight.

A story like It while absolutely amazing starts as horror when the protagonists are little and are made targets of the titular It.  But then they grow up, and make the conscious decision to return to their hometown of Derry and confront the supernatural terror and save future generations of kids, and get revenge for the death of the main character's little brother in the beginning.  It is a horror story, make no mistake.  It has the intent to horrify from page one.  The other elements are a toss-up though, and I'd never rate It  as one of the scariest stories I've read.  Some of the elements are downright terrifying, but seen as a whole, I've always thought of it more as a horrifying epic, rather than epically horrifying.

I'll stop here for today.  Next time is the end of this round of Genre Talk, when we'll talk about What Horror is Not, and I give you some Horror Recommendations

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Genre Talk: Cutting Up Horror Part 4

We're coming up on the end folks.  But for now, let's enjoy it while it lasts and try and perceive...

NUMBER FOUR: The Unknown

According to H.P. Lovecraft, this is the numero uno human fear, and I'd probably agree with that.People are afraid of what they cannot see or understand.  This is why the dark is still such a primal fear for so many people, because the dark can conceal any number of things from our perceptions.  And, as I've already said, not know or being in the dark (literally and figuratively) is a form of weakness, which makes us vulnerable.


The danger of using the Unknown too liberally is that you wind up revealing nothing, which will frustrate your reader/viewer/whatever.  the opposite side of that coin is revealing everything and killing any sense of mystery or dread you may have built up.  The sweet spot is in the middle, where you reveal enough to answer some questions, but ultimately wind up creating more.  The mystery is still there, but not all of it.  Stephen King (ohhh there he is again!) has a good analogy for this.  You want to open the door a crack so people can peek in, not throw it wide open or keep it locked shut.

For my first example, I'm going to use something you probably haven't heard of: a short Japanese manga called The Enigma of Amigara Fault by Junji Ito.  A localized earthquake happens in a distant prefecture, causing a fault in the side of a mountain to split, revealing a vast, smooth surface of vertical rock with people shaped holes in it of varying shapes and sizes that disappear into the mountain. 

Owaki and Yoshida are two young folks who are curiously drawn to the fault by some unknown compulsion.  There they meet Nakagaki, a somewhat crazed young man who stares at one of the people holes and says "This hole was made for me."  He clibs in, and vanishes into the darkness of the mountain.  Owaki later has a dream that he is Nakagaki, trapped deep within the mountain, unable to move, or see, or do anything but scream into the lonely darkness of the mountain's innards (oooh isolation again!).

Yoshida finds a hole that was made for her, but she and Owaki cover it with stones, and go to sleep later.  Owaki has another dream that night, about ancient times, when people who committed terrible crimes were placed in the mountain as punishment.  He awakens to find Yoshida gone, the stones covering her person-hole removed, her backpack beside the hole.  Feeling rather useless, Owaki wanders until he finds his own hole, and enters it.  Six months pass, and another earthquake occurs, opening another fault on the opposite side of the mountain.  there are holes on this side, but they're thin, twisted, inhuman shapes.  At this point, an excavator looks in one of the holes and sees a horribly disfigured alien shape sliding toward them...

There is a lot left unsaid in Amigara.  Like, how were the holes made?  How do people know a hole is theirs?  How can they survive while being so horrifically twisted out of shape?  Are they alive once they reach the other side?  Why is Owaki having these visions?  If this were a longer story, it would seem pretty lazy, but  Amigara  is short and sweet enough to make the questions tantalizing and spooky rather than irritating.  The unknown aspects of the holes, their origins, their mechanics, what crime warranted being put in one, all make the story scarier.  If Ito just came out and said "Well, an old wizard put a spell on the mountain," then that wouldn't be scary.  We'd stop being in horror and go over into dark fantasy. 

But we don't know, so it's scary.  By the way, if you want to read the comic you can check it out HERE.  Be advised that if you already suffer from claustrophobia, reading it is a bad idea. 

Next I'm going to look at one of my favorite video games of all time: Silent Hill.  In SH, the protagonist Harry, is on the way to the eponymous town for a little vacation with his daughter, Cheryl.  Their car crashes, and Harry wakes up to find his car ruined and Cheryl missing.  He catches sight of her in the heavy mist of the town and takes off in pursuit.  He quickly finds out that this is not a normal town, as it will constantly flip from a mist-shrouded and eeriely quiet town, to a black-as-night, nightmarish hellscape full of rusted metal and gore and arcane graffiti.  Inhuman beasts dog his steps, and Cheryl is always just out of reach.

Through the whole game, the story is constantly tantalizing you with scraps of information.  The few humans you do meet always seem to know more than you, but don't reveal much of anything.  Where are the people of Silent Hill?  Why does it flip realities like that?  Where do these monsters come from?  What in the name of god is going on here?

You don't know, so it's scary.  In addition to the actual writing being mysterious and murky, there's a very neat game mechanic (I know this has nothing to do with writing but it's still cool): you find a radio that emits hisses of static whenever monsters are near.  Since most areas of the game are either covered in thick mist or pitch black, this always means you will hear a monster before you see it.  Something is coming?  What?  You don't know.  Is there more than one?  Maybe, but you don't know.

When I was really little, I watched Scooby Doo.  I remember one episode, when I first started watching it and hadn't figured out that the bad guy was always a dude in a mask yet, one episode scared me.  It took place at some old radio station and some kind of glam rocker clown ghost was haunting the place.  There was one scene where there was a long shot of a hallway with a corner, and the ghost's shadow comes around the corner.  That scared me stupid.  I stayed well hidden under my Transformer bedsheets where good ol' Optimus would protect me, thank you.  Then the clown ghost showed up, and they caught him, and he was a dude in a mask.  All of my fear, every drop of it, vanished immediately.  Mystery solved, terror gone.  By exposing the source of danger, you expose its limitations, its weaknesses and faults, and take its teeth away.

I'll throw out a couple more quick examples from previous entries and then call it a night.  In the original Halloween, you never seen Michael Myer's face.  In Reaper's Image, you never actually see the Reaper, and you never know what happens to the antique dealer.  In Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, you don't know where the gremlin came from, or why exactly it's ruining the plane.  In CUBE you don't know who put the people in the titular cube, or how they got there, or where on Earth (if they're on Earth at all) they are.

Conversely, in The Demonata, Darren Shan parades his demons out for everybody to see by chapter two, and explains their motivations, home world, history, interests, weaknesses, and everything else by the end of book one.  Way to go "Master of Horror."

So that does it for part four.  I've got two more in me, and next time it's all about Survival.      

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Genre Talk: Cutting Up Horror Part 3


I think we're about halfway through this little autopsy of what makes horror tick, so let's not dilly-dally about, and talk about...

NUMBER THREE: Isolation

This is related to vulnerability in that being alone is a type of weakness, but it bears special mention because of the place it holds in the human psyche.  Being alone is a fundamental fear of humanity.  That could be in the short term (you're walking down a dark road by yourself and it's creepy and you wish you had a buddy with you) or the long term (you live your life in complete solitude: no friends, no lovers, no family, and ultimately die, alone and forgotten).

Being alone is also directly tied to our animal instincts: at our core, we're still herd/pack animals.  We feel safest around others of our kind.  together, we are stronger than we would be alone.  And even if the scary monster can still kill a whole crowd of people with ease, it's possible to use the crowd of people as camouflage and slip away into another part of the herd.  If we're around other people, the police can be called, an ambulance can arrive, and all will be well.

But if we're alone...if we're cut off from civilization, or our pals, then we are well and truly screwed.

Time for a classic bit of motion picture horror: John Carpenter's Halloween.  Halloween is one of my favorite horror movies because it is basically horror boiled down to its essential elements (I'm talking about the original here, not the piece of shit Rob Zombie made.  You're an awesome musician Rob, but every movie you've made has sucked famously.  Know your strengths dude.) Despite being in the middle of suburbia, poor, poor Laurie Strode winds up alone and trapped by her psychotic brother, Michael Myers.

Good 'ol Mike knows that isolation is a fundamental fear, as he goes about methodically killing the people around Laurie until it's just her, and him.  Oh, and that cool-ass doctor who shoots him like, a hundred times.  But until he shows up, Laurie is basically on her own.  And worse, when she's not alone and knows Mike is coming for her, she has to spend precious seconds seeing to the safety of some little kids.  There's a lot of excellent work done with this idea, where Laurie runs out into the streets, screaming hysterically for help to no avail.  It's eerie seeing middle America so vacant, empty, and threatening.  That freaking piano track doesn't help things either.

When the day is saved by Dr. Loomis, and Michael mysteriously vanishes, we get to see cop cars, flashing blue and red lights, and Laurie being put in an ambulance.  Society and the herd has returned, and even if Michael out there somewhere, at least Laurie isn't alone anymore.  With people comes safety.

So there's that: the obvious physical isolation that Laurie goes through.  But what about mental isolation?  What does that mean?  In short, that means everybody thinks you are crazy when you say there is a monster after you, because they can't see it.  But you can.  you can see it getting closer, getting ready to bite your head off any second.  Nobody else acknowledges it though.  It's just you and it.

A good example of this is Richard Matheson's classic short story (and legendary Twilight Zone episode) Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.  In the story, Bob, a salesman who has a previous history with mental breakdowns, is on a plane.  He looks out the window and sees some hideous creature screwing with the wing.  Bob tries to alert his fellow passengers to the danger, but whenever anybody else takes a look, the little gremlin ducks out of view.  Bob is on a plane full of people, and yet he is alone.

Nobody else believes there is a malevolent gremlin on the wing of the plane, trying to kill them all.  Bob's the only one who knows.  Despite frantically trying to alert his wife, the stewardess, and the captain, nobody believes Bob, and he's forced to handle the problem himself.  Bob saves the plane, but everybody still thinks he's crazy.

There's one more example I want to bring up.  It's a short story I read in a book of scary stories for kids, and I don't recall the name.  A kid and his parents are traveling Africa via one of those little personal airplanes (Dad is a pilot).  After filling up the plane with fuel, Dad asks Kid to check the fuel cap before they take off.  Kid is in a crappy mood so he ignores his dad and they fly away.  Mid-flight over the Sahara, they discover the plane is leaking fuel, and they crash.  Dad dies on impact.  mom's back is broken and she is unconscious.  Kid survives with a few scratches, but now he's in the desert.

He decides the best thing to do is go for help, so he takes a little water after forcing his unconscious  mother to drink some.  He walks for days, drinking the last of the water.  He's about to keel over from dehydration when he sees something on the horizon.  He runs toward it and then stops in horror.  It's the plane.  His plane.  He's gone in  one big circle.  His mother has died while he was out wandering around.  The boy collapses against the side of the plane in the meager shade, smelling his parents, alone for hundreds of miles.  It is strongly implied that the boy has already died, and this is Hell for him: an endless loop of guilt and isolation.

Let me reiterate that this was a kid's story.  I read this in the 5th grade after I bought it at one of those Scholastic book fairs.  Everything about that story (except the title and the name of the book it came from) has stuck with me for over fifteen years (by the way if you know the name of this book and/or story, please tell me because I would LOVE to find it again).

That image of a boy, alone in an empty landscape of sand and sun, wandering forever in a cycle of guilt and fear, scared the snot out of me.  Some folks say Hell is other people, but I'd say it's their absence.  Damn near anything is tolerable as long as you have somebody to share it with, to lean on when things get their darkest.  But if it's just you...then you're easy prey.

We're coming up on the end of the first segment of Genre talk next time, with The Unknown.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Genre Talk: Cutting Up Horror Part 2

Continuing our discussion about Horror from last time, we'll jump straight into the thick red mess of things, and discuss...

NUMBER TWO: Vulnerability

The protagonist, or whoever it is the audience happens to identify themselves with, must be vulnerable in same way, shape or form.  If they are not vulnerable, any sense of fear is lost.  By being vulnerable, the audience can connect to their own sense of inherent squishiness and mortality.  Those teenagers Jason is chopping up like Yule logs could easily be you, the audience, were the circumstances different.

You ever watch one of those daredevil guys do some insane stunt, like jump his bike over a hundred flaming buses filled with rabid wolverines or something?  The second he goes off the ramp, you probably get at least a little nervous about him crashing (and let's be honest, the dark little part of you that you ignore and pretend doesn't exist in polite society is secretly wringing its hands in the hopes that he will crash, but that's a discussion for later).  It's because you know that guy is just as human, and mortal as you, and you naturally empathize a little with the risk.

Horror tries to do the same basic thing: it wants you to put yourself on the screen, the page, or whatever, and feel the terror the characters feel.  Good horror does that by making its characters helpless in the face of some greater threat, and exposing them to it somehow.  They can run, but they can't hide.  Bad horror never makes that connection, either by making the characters to strong/fearless/prepared, making the bad guy too weak or stupid, or never really making it seem like anything is at risk.

Stop.

Example time.

I'm going to mix things up and use example from two different mediums: CUBE which is a Canadian psychological horror/thriller film, and The Demonata, a series of books by Darren Shan. 

The plot for CUBE goes like this: several people wake up in surreal, empty square rooms of varying colors with no memory how they got there and no idea what they're doing there.  They soon discover, rather gruesomely, that some rooms contain lethal and exotic traps, while others are safe.  They have no food, water, or anything but their own clothes, and time is running out for them.

In CUBE the characters are vulnerable in a lot of ways: first, they're human, so they get cut up, burned, melted, stabbed, and diced just like the rest of us.  Second, they don't know what the hell is going on.  Their ignorance and confusion (a confusion the audience shares 100%) makes them just as vulnerable as their lack or steel-reinforced body armor.  Third, they distrust each other, right from the start.  Even among their group, there is the potential for harm to be done from within.  Even the so-called "Safe-Rooms" present the threat of wasted time, and dying of thirst, or starvation, or whatever.  They are vulnerable from the opening second of that film until the credits roll.

CUBE isn't a perfect movie, but it is a good example of vulnerability in horror, especially done on multiple levels.  Vulnerability can be mental and physical, and the fact that the audience remains as perpetually confused right along with the characters makes empathy with them that much easier.

Now let's (regrettably) look at The Demonata.  The overarching plot of the series revolves around the absurdly named Grubbs Grady, who has his family butchered in front of him by demons, then goes to live with a mysterious uncle who teaches him about the demons and other things as well.  Among the many things Grubbs learns is how to use magic.  This is not a clever magic system with rules, and patterns to it, like in Harry Potter, or any of another number of books with well-constructed and unique magical systems.  this is Deus ex Machina magic.  Nothing else.

During a fight with two demons, Grubbs gets a hand (or arm or leg or something like that) cut off, then uses magic to reattach it to himself within seconds.  He laments that "it still hurt though."  Later, he is being chased by hungry demons while trying to save a bunch of people, and turns his legs into swords and impales one of the demons, then summons a magic force field out of thin air that totally blocks the demons, but lets the people pass through unharmed.

This is not only lazy writing, it isn't scary or tense at all.  I've heard some people argue that Demonata is really just dark action or something, but it's touted by the man himself as "The latest series from the Master of Horror!"(By the way, Stephen King and Clive Barker are both still alive. So right now, he's just the master of the incorrect label) so I don't want to hear that this isn't supposed to be horror.  It is, it's just awful.

When your main character can warp reality to his whim nothing is scary anymore.  I know he's just gonna pull some mumbo jumbo out of his ass and be okay.  and if he does get hurt, he'll just use magic later.  Another example of this is done before Grubbs even knows he has powers.  After finding his family dead and the demons in his house, Grubbs runs for the back door, knowing he won't have time to open it before the demons fall on him and eat his gizzards.  So he just follows some random insinct he has and dives for the too-small doggy door, only to have it expand on its own, and he goes literally flying through it, and into the sky beyond before crashing in a bush.

Horse. Shit.

Lazy, lazy, lazy writing.  The buildup and shock of finding his dead family, the tension of being chased by a pair of demonic murderers through his own familiar, memory-laden home is knocked down like a stack of child's blocks because ol' Darren decided vulnerability wasn't important.

Please note that this doesn't mean your character having powers is bad.  It can still be good and be horror, and have a magically-gifted protagonist, but they still need to be vulnerable.  Another film example: Poltergeist.  The little girl is a powerful psychic, but her power serves as a beacon for ghostly creatures that want to take her, rather than anything good.  If you're going to add a character with power, first of all ask yourself "Why?", then ask if this is serving to make them more vulnerable somehow.

Maybe the protagonist is wounded and has the ability to regenerate, but must drain energy from one of his friends who are helping him, thus weakening the group and making them easier targets for the bad guy.  Or a girl who can fling magic around like nobody's business, but whenever she uses it, it's like she's sending up a flare for the faceless soul-eaters that are hunting her.  What's the other side of the power coin that's going to keep us in the horror genre and not just turn this into a bloody action story?

Well, that's all I got.  See you next time for Part 3: Isolation.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Genre Talk: Cutting Up Horror Part 1



So since one of the things this blog is supposed to be about is writing, I figured I should write about it.  I'll start by saying that I'm only published in the very loosest sense of the word.  I won a contest in a magazine back in 2006 (I think) that wasn't for any money, just bragging rights, and not much of that either.  I had a few book reviews published in a literary magazine centered on the young-adult and middle-grade markets, but that was really only because the editor of the magazine was the professor of one of my classes.  I've also got some stuff up on Weaponizer if you care to check that out.  Weaponizer is a great e-zine, and there are some really talented writers on there, and the editor, Bram, seems really nice.

Anyway, that's just to establish that I'm not an authority on anything I'm about to talk about.  I've studied it, I enjoy it, but I'm not a master, and I don't have any professional chops to back up my opinions.  Which is ultimately all these are: opinions.  Writing is an art, and like any art, it's incredibly subjective, prone to the various viewpoints and interpretations people are capable of.  So if you like what I have to say on any given topic, cool.  If you don't, that's okay too (but then why are you reading this? Piss off.  Go read the lolcats blog or something).

Okay, let's begin!

What makes horror, horror?  What separates it from suspense, or thriller, or something like that?  Well, a lot of things.  But let's take a look at the most obvious thing that makes horror, horror.

NUMBER ONE: The Intent to Horrify
I know this seems a little bit "Herpy derp" but it's easy to overlook, and must be included if a work is going to count as horror.  If the intent of the creator isn't to scare people on some level, it cannot be horror.  Please note that this includes things that scare you, but were not created for the purpose of doing so.  Like something eerie that scared you as a child (Frikkin' CLOWNS).  One of my favorite websites, tvtropes.org, has a term for this (as they seem to have for everything): Nightmare Fuel.  It's a very apt name and there are a lot of good examples on that page if you decide to check them out.

So let's look at a couple of books: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, and the short story The Reaper's Image by Stephen King (who I will be referencing a LOT, because A) the dude writes a ton of horror and B) he's one of my literary heroes).

In Fellowship there is a lot of scary shit: Nazgul, cave trolls, a balrog, (arguably Tom Bombadill) and more.  The Nazgul I found to be especially eerie and scary.  However, as scary as the evil-serving former kings of men may be, I was never horrified by them.  They were meant to incite some fear, yes, and impart a sense of danger and the supernatural evil of Sauron, but their purpose was not to terrify the audience.  Frodo and the others, certainly, but not me, the reader.  Nor did Tolkien mean for them to outright terrify the audience.  The purpose of the Lord of the Rings is not to spook the reader, but to entertain them with an epic fantasy story of good overcoming evil (along with a lot of other more complicated things I'm not going to cover here).

Now look at King's Reaper's Image.  If you're not familiar with it, it involves an antique dealer going into a museum to buy an antique mirror that is rumored to occasionally display the image of the Grim Reaper to certain people, and those that see it always vanish mysteriously shortly thereafter.  The antique dealer notices a smudge or something in the mirror, and the museum caretaker informs him that he's seeing the Reaper himself, God help him.  The dealer scoffs at this, but feels some dread, and rushes up a flight of stairs to excuse himself.  He never returns.  He's just gone.

Now, I'm really cutting Reaper's Image off at the knees with my description, but it gets the basic point across: to scare you.  Whether it succeeds in unnerving you or creeping you out is beside the point.  King wrote it with the intent to give the reader the heebie jeebies.  He didn't need nine undying kings in black cloaks on devil horses, or a towering demon of fire and smoke wielding a giant flaming sword; he needed a dark shape, and his own desire to creep you out.  We don't know exactly what happened to the antique dealer, and that ties into another important aspect of horror I'll mention later.

So I'm going to wrap this up.  Things can be scary.  They can be creepy, and unnerving, and terrible, but unless they were created with the will and purpose of making you afraid, they aren't horror.

That's it for this round of Genre Talk (Ooooh I gave it a cheesy name!), join me next time for part 2 on Cutting Up Horror: Vulnerability.

EDIT: Oh yeah, and Happy New Year everybody. :]