Just when you thought Horror couldn’t dig any deeper… along comes World War Moo: an Apocalypse Cow Novel by Michael Logan, and sequel to (you guessed it) Apocalypse Cow.
Yep. Zombie cows take over the world by infecting humans in Great Britain…the only way to save the world: dropping The Big One on the Motherland.
In reading the premise alone a radical idea occurred to me: Could this be (more than just social satire) a commentary about British Horror?
At the risk of revealing just how much Literary Criticism I read and inventing a whole new kind of cow tipping, I have to admit that before I discovered the author was a Scottish freelance journalist, I was secretly hoping he was American. Why? Because in the American versus British Horror contest, it just adds up – and the premise is just too apt.
More specifically…Isn’t the nuking of our ally-gone-Zombie the only way American Horror can beat the British? This is a question I have long pondered… the British being so good at Horror and all.
Of course my hopes for the truth of the motivation and the authorship was not to be. But the ease and speed at which I jumped to just such a conclusion was a revealing point in itself. Could there really be such animosity between the two schools of Horror thought?
A Little Something to Chew On
Trust me… this is indeed a reasonable debate within the genre.
There has been a rivalry for some time – mostly a rivalry fed by American envy of British history and atmosphere (inadequately masked in an oft-denied-methinks-the-lady-doth-protest-too-much kind of way), and aggravated by an obvious-by-McMansion longing for cryptic countryside, declining castles, ruined abbeys, all cloaked in moody weather. The subverted conflict has been complicated by plenty of Horror written in spite of the British (their ghostly presence a thing we in America seem always to be pushing against in a subliminal and almost imaginary duel)…
Sitting in a newer country with significantly less ruins and more shallow, more recently transplanted religious roots, American Horror is typically more slap-dash, more gore-laden, reliant upon the questionable actions of characters instead of couched in conventional isolation and murky scenery left reeking of legend and myth. We simply don’t have the same geography, the same weather, the same local history, nor the same respect for the primitive, hoary roots of our genetically-driven fears. That changes things.
With few exceptions, the British are masters of atmosphere, the slow-cookers of tension and dread; Americans are the McDonald’s of Horror – a swift drive-thru of cascading shocks to the palate.
It’s an artistic difference. But it’s also an historical difference that separates our styles. We tell ourselves we don’t connect with the slow, ponderous knitting of British Horror – yet for many Horror fans, British writers remain unequalled in the genre.
After generations of bloody, guilt-producing, family-dividing history, the British have nailed the Anglo fear spectrum. Americans – on the other hand – remain in denial of the truths that lie buried in much of our Horror literature – we create metaphors and parodies, parables and allegories to dance around while strangely avoiding our own shadows instead of Literarily meeting them head on. But we never dance completely naked. We know what we’ve done and we still make excuses for it.
That’s right. I’m saying it right here:
Even when we create monsters to confront our own evils, we insist that the monster loses – especially after making it worse than ourselves – the monster-makers.
We separate ourselves from what we’ve done and “go all Rambo” where the British writers dangle their characters over the roasting pit and watch them squirm – which says more about humanity and human vanity (just the things a Critic can love).
And we don’t apologize for it. We revel.
The James Fenimore Cooper Effect
I really, really tried to like literary author James Fenimore Cooper’s “westerns” of the colonial period. What I hated was the sudden, miraculous “save” his hero always and inevitably “happened across” just in the nick of time to spare himself (and others) from certain death. Much to my chagrin, I find that very plot template in contemporary Horror. Mostly American Horror.
In our tradition, we tend to hide behind the literal execution of Horror as implemented by monsters… so many monsters. In the American habit of “more is always better” we inundate our Horror with as much gore and as many monsters as we can cram into a plot. We are always overrun. But before we can face justice, we chicken out and cheat; we create and elevate heroes to obscure our earned and destined fate of damnation for our crimes, our massacre by avenging agents. Tah-dah! There appears a fully loaded rifle in the crotch of a tree…
Too many times, this leads to unsatisfactory, anti-climactic endings… to tales that lose their scare-factor as well as their literary value.
The British—on the other hand—stew and connive and struggle with guilt where individual monsters come for justice. There is much more introspection with plenty of room and prose for monsters to stretch their tentacles.
Perhaps the American attempt to find our own ever-changing national identity has proven unwieldy in our creation of Horror. We are still shaping our tradition, because our history is too recently shaping us.
That – and we haven’t apparently had enough therapy.
But the British writers also seem to have earned the respect of their audience and their Critics. Not so on this side of the pond. American Horror doesn’t yet resonate naturally with Literature on a primal level. We haven’t mastered the balance to achieve created consistency. Nor have we accumulated the requisite number of necessary Critics who know our localized Horror history.
Instead we are still debating sales and audience popularity versus Literary values – which are typically different ends of the same beast. We tend to think that liking a story elevates it to Literature without understanding the qualifiers of Literature or the Literary Critic whose job it is to defend those qualifiers.
We also seem proud to not educate ourselves enough to argue those very points. Like a tourist in a foreign country, we just talk louder.
Perhaps it is our minimized study of English language Literature that has driven us to this cliff. Americans put a lot less emphasis on the importance of the arts in education than do the British. We even redirect students of the Arts to vocational interests that favor higher hourly wages. This is costing us in the creation of arts in general, as well as the creation of arts with depth and breadth and scope as well as in the ability to expertly discuss and argue points.
This national lack of commitment to arts history is also compromising our ability to see and/or create Literature (when we want to).
We are typically uneducated (ignorant, not stupid) with regard to Literature and its Critical values, so we cannot see the merits that all fiction is held and judged against. We fight invisible monsters of our own making. No wonder everyone else is baffled by our fancy footwork.
We take umbrage when our favorite author is disrespected by The Establishment. And The Establishment is in fact exploring its own restrictions and making its own refinements to be more inclusive of the living, changing nature of Literature based on living language and living culture. Debate is open. Change is in the air.
But we need to know from what to what in order to appreciate it and to communicate it.
There will be no rifle hidden in the crotch of any trees for us; Natty Bumppo is the myth. We will have to fight our way out of our own obscurity.
And yes, while Literature may often happen by accident, we have little hope in creating it in Horror if we have not dedicated ourselves to the study of Literature (as well as pulp) in order for our writing minds to mine from those goldfields. One has to know it to use it, rebel against it, or write well in pure spite of it.
Because Horror is a tradition, there should be a traceable, noticeable lineage even as the wicked plant grows. This is true no matter which side of the pond we write on. American Horror is still English language Horror.
Long Live the Queen
I suppose this means I personally have a greater appreciation of British Horror than American Horror, especially Literarily speaking. But it is because reading British Horror tends to be a more Sensurround experience that follows me into REM sleep. American Horror remains less creatively dense, and therefore stays visceral instead of getting in between primal sheets of DNA. I can read or watch American Horror and go right to bed. British Horror tends to require a bit of a decompression before sleep.
That means something.
True rebellion should show as a graft with its own, differing flower. Instead, American Horror is like kudzu…growing wild everywhere, covering everything, but not native either. Does American Horror simply hope to overrun the British with sheer numbers? Perhaps we should just go on and compete… provided the whole Zombie Cow thing doesn’t work out in our favor.
They say that the DNA from Pacific salmon which swim the coastal range rivers show up in the DNA of inland forest trees…
Shouldn’t Horror be the same?
(That’s Michael Logan, Apocalypse Cow, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, c2012, ISBN 9781250032867, pbk $14.99, and its new sequel World War Moo, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, c2015, ISBN 9781250061652, pbk $15.99)