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 It. It 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.