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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. :]