Where Have All the Zombies Gone? (the Dawn of a New Monster Era)


Truth be told, it is hard for this generation of Horror fans to remember a time without Zombies. Yet such a time seems to be upon us.

Rather abruptly (and some may think at last), the Zombie Craze seems to be fading.

What does it all mean?

And perhaps the more interesting question is – if your Literary senses are tingling –what comes next?

For those too young to remember, there have been other monster-dominated decades…and to fans of Literary Horror, such changes in Horrors represent changes in our times, our societies, our very self-image. More than any other genre, Horror “represents.” Horror is the spirit of the times…the Zeitgeist of who we think we are. And as such, these monster transitions can be very telling.

In Literature, Horror plays a unique and indispensable part. Horror mirrors our social and cultural failings: it is our dirty laundry, hung out for the world to see. And it is meant to awaken us, to inspire change.

Our World history and our regional histories are decorated by the monsters of our choosing. Pay attention: THIS is how Literature moves in Horror…

Because even if you don’t think your genre is speaking loudly in Literary terms – even if you “just” read or write pulp – monsters have historically been stand-ins for what scares us the most.

And what scares us the most – is humanity itself.

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Growing Up Zombie: the Decades of American Disillusionment

It came at the end of the Reign of Vampires: the rise of the Zombie and the apocalyptic visions of a world we were clearly eager to see end.

But for Literary watchers, it also came coincidentally during the tenure of the George W. Bush Presidency – a time (2001 to 2009) when the United States was shaken rudely awake from its American Dream, “given more real life strife than it had seen since in the 1960s, including two very long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, destruction on the home front in the form of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, plus massive natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, and the global economic meltdown [of] 2008…” And the subsequent Zombie movie milieu “fits in perfectly with these aforementioned national and world events because it functions on two levels simultaneously. On a literal level, Zombie movies concern rampaging monsters that want to eat your flesh and/or brains. But on another, more metaphorical level, these movies focus on the collapse of the familiar infrastructure that maintains our high-tech civilization.” (Muir 159)

This was a rather unpleasant rousing from our previous Literary monster decade – the Vampire Era – which seemed like a lazy summer reverie in comparison. Those were the times born of the Summer of Love and spurred by gender rights and sexual liberation. And I can’t help wondering if there must have been something about those amorous Creatures of the Night which pissed most of us off – or finished doing so – in order that we were willing to exchange Horror’s most beloved monster for something more like ourselves.

That’s right: we are the Dr. Frankensteins, creating the monsters in our own image. And therein hides the Literature.

The Zombie says a lot about us. The Zombie tells the world how we felt from the mid1980’s onward: like we were all being marginalized…like we were undervalued cogs in machinery that had swallowed us whole…like nothing of ourselves was valued or mattered. We began to see ourselves as hapless, unwitting victims. Conspiracy theories and suspicions of everything from our own neighbors, coworkers and government rose from the ashes of immolated Vampires. And we got angry.

It is no small coincidence that the rise of the Zombie coincided with the rise of Technology. In fact, the last time a monster rose in such a way to represent us en masse was during the Industrial Revolution when it was the Ghost who came to envision how we felt – like we were truly rendered dead and invisible in our own time…like the world suddenly lurched forward without us…like it didn’t even have the courtesy to wait until we died before burying us in time-stamped irrelevance.

During the Ghost Era we saw so much suddenly slipping through our fingers – some of it wrenched heartlessly from them – seizing our sense of spirituality and subsequent order of our universe and replacing tradition with an unsettling, rapidly changing uncertainty.

Literature abounds with examples of the heartless separation of humanity from a more acceptably paced march forward. Everywhere people were awakening as if from a stupor to find change unfettered, science dominating, the human touch in life left cold and uncaring. In the Ghost Era, we discovered we could no longer live the lies. And women’s voices rose in chorus to name the sins, spawning the Golden Era of spectral fiction that still today informs us strongly of that time in history.

It was not long after that our genre began documenting our own shock at the world around us…and all manner of Horrors and deceit and human tragedy was rendered in Horror form. From the psychological Horrors of Poe to the alien monstrosities of Lovecraftian nightmares, our genre continued to narrate the changes we all encountered, the fears we hid and the resentments we nurtured.

 

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https://tulsaballet.org/dracula/

In fact we had tried on many monsters on the way to the Vampire (a constant infatuation throughout our folkloric history) – including the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolfman – all in the attempt to make sense of self-discovery.

So when the Vampire came along again in the 1970’s to tease us about our sexual indiscretions, our Sexual Revolution and search for gender identity, the threat was more subtle…less encompassing… and certainly left us employed and believing what we did and who we were somehow mattered. It seemed a pleasant, if not superfluous distraction, its latent threat more shadowy. With the Vampire, the illusion that all was still well – just different – predominated. Not so in the Zombie Era.

When the Zombies rose, it was an apocalyptic moment. It was a sign that while we were sleeping, something had gone terribly wrong.

Much like the Time of the Ghost, the rise of the Zombie represented our minimalization by those we had trusted – a betrayal that wounded in private places made horribly public.

We had become mindless cogs in someone else’s machine. Our days grew from nine-to-five with weekends and holidays off, to 24/7/365…instead of eight hours including a lunch it became eight hours or more plus another for lunch, plus accommodation for breaks, plus longer and longer congested commutes, plus forget holiday pay or overtime, count yourself lucky you still have a job…plus fund your own darn retirement…and insurance…and education….

Worse, we now had jobs (many times multiple ones) instead of careers. And at any point, anywhere along the way anyone from a politician to a coworker could take it all away with a single fib.

We had trusted, invested, and committed. And we were summarily robbed. Unbeknownst to minorities and immigrants, the betrayal had at last reached all the way up the ladder of entitlement…We were – all of us for that moment in time – equalized by an impending sense of doom, poverty, ill health and despair.

The world as we knew it and had relied on with its haphazard, unequally applied rules, was indeed ending.

And so the Zombie rose…hungry for mindless vengeance to supplicate mindless anger at a mindless society which eviscerated us without apparent care.

Because the Zombie is all about humanity, according to John Russo in his foreward to The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead, “about human beings, with all their good qualities and all their bad qualities, having to fight for survival against tremendous odds and daunting, soul-deadening destruction…[and] how we may rise to the occasion when we are in extreme jeopardy or how we may fail.” (xvii)

So this Zombie was different than any Zombie that came before.

Simply rising from the grave with a need to dine on brains wasn’t nearly enough to satiate our fury at what was happening in the world – at what was happening to us.

This new Zombie did not rise alone, but rose in hordes….walked in herds…swarmed like hungry locusts to purge the land of all we had built.

And we were different too – we who survived the first onslaught to fight the menace. WE rose as well…grabbing guns and bats and crossbows and swords and hatchets… We fought back in unspeakable violence – so much so that we shocked ourselves.

In earlier versions of the Zombie, the Zombie was the Horror. In this one, it was not only how the Zombie comes to be, but the hideous violence that we ourselves inflict on the Zombie that is the real Horror.

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How Furious Are We? ZombieLit…

As in the Industrial Revolution, the Technology Revolution has disfigured our ability to see ourselves out of it, and we cannot separate this newer revolution from the human carnage of today. Now as then we have experienced massive job loss, massive blows to our loyalties, our sense of worth, our very identities. Talk of retraining the masses has been a lie for most of us; and when thousands of jobs are replaced by one or two, that leaves a lot of us free to stew in anger.

Unfortunately, we are not very creative when we are reeling in personal pain. How angry are we?

Just look at what we have undone in the United States with one rebellious presidential election. Because this is what is going to inform our Literature for the next few decades…

This is not about liking or disliking a president or American politics. This is all about the surfacing of major divisions that have been simmering beneath the surface of contentment and “progress” in our country and the world at precisely the same time Technology has completely reshaped how we interact with the world, how we process TRUTH and FACTs and understand what we ARE or ARE NOT entitled to…

Rather than fix the problems our own greed has created, we have chosen the old default in a time we should know better: to blame the Other.

This is why the Zombie has gone away…

The World as we knew it has ended. And no amount of tantrum-throwing is going to fix things. Yet far too many of us fear our own adulthood. We search for blame and make it up if it suits our purposes.

We have become exactly what our enemies have been calling us.

And it wasn’t the fault of a political party or one black President. It was the fault of our own insatiable greed – the greed to be better than our own neighbors, to keep our own job even if it meant hundreds of other people losing theirs, if it meant pretending it was their own fault for not being bright enough or lucky enough to live and work where the Tech Revolution had not yet reached its suffocating tentacles, to bestow the title of Too Big To Fail on an irrational, select few.

Now that job loss and identity compromise has begun to hit the last of the holdouts – the ones who belittled the evisceration of millions of their own countrymen and -women – NOW there is a crisis.

Now bonking Zombies with a hatchet isn’t enough and is no longer funny. It is no longer sufficient. Because it DIDN’T WORK.

Because it is the upper classes, the wealthy, the alleged job-makers who have risen unscathed from the death threat… Surrounded by hordes of Zombies too oblivious or too greedy or too fearful themselves, these ever self-wealth-replenishing masters of the universe cannot be reached. The boss you dreamed of walloping over the Zombie head or eating the brains of is safely in the bunker he had you build.

Anger is no surprise. Blaming the Other is the disappointment.

Most of us had so hoped we were beyond this…

It is a sad fact of humanity that when we cannot get at the real problem, we get at the one we can reach….the convenient one.

And sometimes we are so, so angry we are willing to divest ourselves of important things in order to release that anger in mindless vengeance.

This is how a country like the United States begins rolling back human rights. This is how we rationalize doing so.

We are so brainwashed into believing that only the rich – in their wondrous, pure humanity – have the capacity to save us, that we forget we saved ourselves by forming this country in the first place. We forget we gave all future generations the tools to save each other.

We treat the Other like those Zombies – rending them limb from limb without the slightest human compassion all in an effort to vent without biting the hand we are told feeds us.

How soon we all forget….

We forget the Native American code-talkers that saved us in one war, the African American soldier that (forgiving the rest of us our judgment of them) shared our fox-hole in another, the immigrant soldiers who fight the same enemies in our name in order to participate in what used to be the world’s greatest Democracy, the foreign nationals who have given their lives or risked them to stand beside us, the Asian Americans who have built our infrastructure – not once, but twice over now, the gay Americans who have given us incomparable culture in unexpected ways, the American woman who has fought her own battles while defending those that cast long shadows on a mutual future, the Founding Fathers who without remembering to define what a “man” was freed forever what the definition of a “man” would be…

For certain our history has not been neat. But at least we could claim a percentage of ignorance in and of our own times. This – this new monstrosity rising from the ashes of the Zombie Apocalypse – is being resuscitated in the full light of day.

Where we could excuse ancestors for misinterpreting, for doing the best they could with what they had and what information they had…This time it is on US.

This time it is on PURPOSE.

For those gleefully waving the bat, the flag, the hatchet and the noose, there will be no forgiveness by your descendants. The stain here will be too great to cover with lies the rest of the world can already see through.

That any of us would STILL resort to blaming whole peoples for our own errors in judgment, our own misplaced trust, our own unwillingness to remake and reinvent ourselves is just plain indefensible.

We are lazy.

We are greedy.

We are selfish.

Way to make the terrorists of this world look right. Because now that the Zombie is dead, something else will rise to take its place.

I am betting on the Werewolf.

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Not The Good Old Days, Howling at the Moon

Chances are, if the Zombie was different this time around, so will the Werewolf be. In fact, the “Modern Werewolf” has already done some serious changing – slipping away from the simple, unfortunate nip in the moonlight to become (like the Vampire) an empathetic creature.

According to Nathan Robert Brown in his book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Werewolves, “Werewolves are no longer depicted in exclusively negative or evil light. In fact, modern pop culture has embraced the werewolf as a rebellious antihero. Similar to modern-day motorcycle gangs, they move and hunt and live and die as a pack, and they live outside society’s rules. Pack law is the only law. In the last century, werewolves have been embraced by every medium of pop culture. They’ve become major figures in literature, films, art, comic books, and even video games. In America, urban legends about werewolves have sprung up with increasing frequency over the last 50 years.” (109)

I don’t know about you, but I see a lot of our modern outsider, rebel political factions right there. I hear the phrase “silent majority.”

Here we have a creature that cannot control its fury, who while in “human form” cannot fathom the carnage it creates, who cannot remember its animal behavior (which is far too convenient to ignore here), and who hides among the rest of us undetected, and for whom the end justifies the means. Like a mean drunk justifying his or her actions, everyone and everything else is responsible for the ensuing bloodshed – real or imagined.

Remember the last election? Yeah, I don’t know half of the people I thought I did, either…

But what I do know is that the Werewolf always denies he or she is a Werewolf – because that would be a horrible thing to be.

So they become in their own minds – if Were-anything – Werepoodles, I assume.

Where once they were unfortunate, hapless victims themselves… now with a kind of mental Photoshop, they are free to remake themselves into vigilantes – heroes of the state, the arm of popular justice…the same ones who say it is better to execute an innocent man now and then than miss one single guilty one.

And as we learned from the Zombie Apocalypse, there is safety in numbers…

Instead of being an isolated case, now we have Were-communities.

Like the Vampire Mega-Covens and the Zombie Hordes before them, we no longer think in singular terms….This is about survival. So what if other people think we are wrong to become a monster rather than cease to exist: they aren’t here with us.

Besides. They can’t get all of us if we swarm them, and if there is more than one of us, we are in the right…right? And if collateral damage happens, it cannot be helped…what can one person do in the face of the rise of Hell itself? The Devil made us do it…sure it looks like me, but it wasn’t me….I was just following the pack, the will of the people, orders….

For some of us, the familiarity of the excuses makes the hair stand on end, the hackles rise, our own fangs bare…

Like the Zombie Apocalypse before it, this new Horror is all about the Little Guy surviving the end of all reasonable things. And that means your neighbor may not in fact be your neighbor…but something else….something come to destroy all that the Zombies left of you…

And so what if the Werewolf is US? Or a spouse? Or a relative? Or a boss?

Forget the blood dripping from their lips….look at all of the STUFF they get to keep…

And if you keep feeding them Others, they might leave you alone.

Except they won’t. They can’t help themselves. They are sociopathic predators. You aren’t them. They are better than you.

Beware of Dog. Because like the Zombie Apocalypse, it is most likely not you who will survive. Once the carnage starts, we are ALL meat.

Read any old Werewolf story. Read what happens to the victims of the Werewolf.

In its animal form it can barely stop itself from devouring what it loves in its human form.

Do you want to take that chance?

How’d ya do stopping the Zombie Apocalypse? The Industrial Revolution? The Tech Revolution?

This is going to take more than Wolfsbane.

All of us better be prepared to lose some flesh.

Because if the Werewolf is back, we have to remember that as much as we once valued the human form, we are going to have to put the animal down, because indeed we might not be speaking of folklore anymore…

What cannot be trusted, what randomly and wantonly and indiscriminately destroys what we have – all of us – built, cannot be suffered to live and thrive and reproduce.

Horror “represents…”

Get your silver bullets. There will be blood. And this time, it will most likely be justifiably our own.

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References

Brown, Nathan Robert. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Werewolves. New York: Alpha Books, c2009.

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Film FAQs: All That’s Left to Know About Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Milwaukee, WI: Applause Books, c2013.

John Russo. “Why Don’t They Die?” Foreward. The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead Langley, Travis, ed. New York: Sterling Press, c2015.

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World View: the Secret Sauce of Horror Lit (What It Is & How to Get It)


In these increasingly hard times for Horror fans and Horror writers, one thing is clear: neither Horror nor Horror publication opportunities are what they used to be.

Having editors whose perspective has failed to move with the reality of the times, who consistently preach that cream always rises to the top and pronounce there are “plenty” of legitimate, Establishment-recognized venues looking for new talent, and who simultaneously bemoan the state of novice Horror writing without offering either professional coaching or a dream Craft Bible, doesn’t help. But it has managed to change a lot of the ways (un-traditionally published) Horror is now being written.

Contrary to Establishment insinuation, this is not a simple case of sour grapes.

Not only are Horror fans being “forced” to read more classics due to the smaller and smaller pool of Horror writers being published today, but so are Horror writers.

What are we to do with all of this Literary (and yes, I mean LITERARY) influence on our genre readers and writers?

And if we cannot look to our genre or higher education for the answers, who should we be looking to for craft guidance?

The answer: Literary Critics. And here is why.

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Great Writing Does Not Happen In a Vacuum

I honestly don’t know where the myth got started that real Writers spring from the womb all Literary.

When we look at all of the canons of writing, including the Western Canon of Literature – English Language Literature in particular – none of those writers were untrained: they were taught by their education, their reading examples, and their mentors.

When the education system focuses on things like Literature, what it means and how to appreciate it (appreciation not meaning exhibiting proper adoration, but actually interpreting, decoding, and understanding the actual words, concepts, and ideas therein) instead of passing standardized tests, that education feeds a young writer’s repertoire of subliminal storytelling; a blueprint forms in that student of writing’s mind – one they can imitate, elevate, or rebel from.

When a novice reads published writers accepted as Literary, they further drive Craft elements into their subconscious and learn about plot and character development. They also learn what has been done, and naturally grow toward the unexplored territory of telling the same story only better…thereby producing new fiction. They also learn where trends are, what they are, and how to exploit them or defy them.

When writers are gathered into communities, the unpublished mix freely with the published. Novices get feedback – not always friendly, and not always accurate – but feedback about their writing. Feedback is what shapes a writer; he or she can decide to change their writing, or to defiantly refuse to alter their own vision. They can become an Establishment Writer like a Dickens, or a future genre-changer like Poe…or Lovecraft. But having a sense of community and a place inside or outside of its approval is crucial. Having some level of mentoring is crucial.

Our biggest problem today in Horror is the same as it is for all fiction writing: we have (hopefully inadvertently) hung a price on every level of instruction.

A University degree in this country can easily top over $100,000 for an undergraduate degree – a fairly useless degree in the employment market without even more education. To get to a Masters and a Ph.D., is probably a lot closer to half a million dollars…all that work and expense just to be underpaid in almost every employment scenario.

To self-educate is also expensive. No one – not even universities – are endorsing writing instruction manuals. There is nothing but silence and literally millions of “expert” voices trying to explain how to become rich writing fiction – not how to write quality fiction that apparently no one wants to pay to publish. A writer can spend literally thousands of dollars trying to get to the bottom of how to become a good writer…and never, ever get the full picture. Meanwhile, reading classic authors fortunately has gotten increasingly cheaper…but unfortunately at the same time mimicking these writers’ styles is strongly condemned. Reading “new” Literary Greats is chancey…there are few who are all-but-certain candidates of future admission to the canon…and even for those a single work in hard copy book form can cost anywhere from $14.99 to $39.99.

Today, mentors are something novices are expected to pay for. Editors claim they are far too busy to indulge daring but otherwise incompetent or not-yet-competent writers; conferences and writers’ retreats are thousands of dollars; professional groups have publication requirements and steep membership fees. Clearly today a writer must pay to play. “Unknown” writers are seldom truly that. And to suggest a writer should be a social media king or queen and simultaneously a palm-greasing networking butterfly is flat out offensive.

No wonder there is a noticeable gap in published Horror and new, innovative, original Horror. Great writing does not happen in a vacuum. It is educated, mentored, nurtured, challenged, and overgrown to be carefully and artistically pruned.

 

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Meet the Literary Critic: Your New Mentor

For many Horror fans and writers, our exposure to Literary Critics in our genre is most often encapsulated in those over-expounded, publicly untidy bouts between established Critic Harold Bloom and our very own Stephen King. But we also read essays of rebellion and exposition by Poe and Lovecraft who in their times set about defending the genre from other Bloom-like entities who decreed our genre as some form of garbage. So why should we even remotely be interested in Critical opinions?

The answer is simple: because in Literature, it is the Literary Critic who decides what is admitted to the canon – any canon, including the as-yet-unestablished Horror Canon.

This does not mean Critics are right, or are always right. Critics are human, and subject to bias, preference, elitism, and dislike – just like the rest of us. Their work is also meant and designed to inspire academic DEBATE…to spur (for the rest of us) water-cooler conversations about Literature.

And sometimes, like the aforesaid Mr. Bloom, they are long in their careers and unsettled by change. The field of Literary Criticism itself is changing. It has been forced to.

Not only are younger people put off by the automatic exclusion of contemporary writers they have come to appreciate, but they are more significantly aware of the very clear gap between “Literary Classics” and Modern Literature. Why, they have been forced to address, are there so few Literary writers today? Where is all of our Modern Literature?

The answer has been deduced to be: we are indeed still writing it. But it is because of two issues that it cannot be recognized as such: one, a living writer cannot help but influence a Critic’s interpretation of their work when Literature must stand on its own – cleanly away from the author – to be properly Criticized; and two, the original Literary Critical Theories were designed to accommodate those early writings, therefore they seldom fit contemporary writing models which therefore need new theories with which to develop academic study.

So there is a New Literary Critic afoot.

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Noel Carroll

This does not mean we dismiss Critics like Mr. Bloom, who is tremendously qualified and therefore entitled to and should express his opinions, as long as they pertain to Literary Theory as he understands it. Indeed, there is much to be learned from such a thorough Critic, as long as we realize that once a Critic wades into personal attacks we need to disengage and separate the truly Literary Critical comment from the desperate, frustrated, personal one.

Wv4

Harold Bloom

New Literary Criticism is, alas, however…new.

This is good and bad. Bad because we have few Critics in our genre. Good because there are plenty of English majors out there wondering what to do with their degrees…some of whom are Horror fans and would therefore have our best interests at heart in contributing to the development of Theories with which to analyze, discuss and debate our genre works.

That’s right: Literary Criticism is horribly academic. Dull, even. But interesting. Very, very interesting.

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S.T. Joshi

And right now, still at the forefront of our genre, are three Literary Critics of merit: S.T. Joshi, China Mieville, and Noel Carroll. Joshi once wrote in our genre. Mieville still writes – although he is categorized as fantasy/dark fantasy. Carroll is an academic, a Professor of Philosophy and student of film and art.

These three have – by simple timing (by being first) – become major players in how our future Literary Critics will look at our work in the Horror genre. And it is through their commentary – which often builds on those Poe and Lovecraft essays – which can offer us as writers and readers of Horror a much better understanding of everything from the classics in our genre to Craft.

This is important. In fact, right now, it is crucial.

Wv7

China Mieville

The Literary Critic is not charging us for the privilege of understanding how Literature works in our genre. In fact, the Literary Critic is desperate for us to understand…to grasp and start applying the essential Secret Sauce that makes Literature LITERATURE….your individual, unique, secret World View.

 Wv8

http://www.city-data.com/forum/religion-spirituality/686470-average-american-worldview.html

World View: Finding It & Using It

Believe it or not, you already have one.

If you ever say anything predicated with “I think” or “I feel” or “I believe” then you are guilty of having a World View. It may not yet be worldly, it may not be fully formed or fully informed. But if you have an opinion, then you have the roots.

Understanding how to employ World View is another matter. So we have to go back to the Critic for more information.

And all we have to do is read. And think. We are going to have to admit we need to surrender some quality time to studying Literary Critical essays…maybe even take a class if we can.

And then we need to re-read the works we love and the works they are predicting are Literary…see the similarities, the disagreements, the points at which we diverge. Because understanding Literature and Literary Critics means we have to be willing to work. But we also have to be willing to look at art naked – even our own art – to see the clockworks… the bones stripped of flesh. We have to see writing as mechanically assembled bits. We must stop seeing it as magic.

Oh, how we as writers hate that…

But in fairness, we have to. We do already dismantle the magic in fact, when we sit down to edit, to rewrite…to improve, to usurp the Muse. Why not do so using the Critic’s eyes? To see if we could go deeper? Twist the knife? Unearth the body that fertilized the plot in the first place?

The answer has historically been: because we don’t get it. And what the heck is a World View got to do with it?

Critic S.T. Joshi (whose professional opinion also places the Weird as separate and a possible fore-runner of Modern Horror) states it best in his discussion of Modern Weird fiction and its failures: “…it seems as if the whole approach to weird fiction today is flawed in its very conception. The purpose of most modern weird writing seems to be merely to frighten. This is an inevitable result of the elimination of a philosophical basis [my emphasis] for the weird: all that is left (if, indeed, anything is left) is the emotion of Horror…” (Joshi 2)

Now, I know what you’re already thinking…. isn’t that the goal? Isn’t that the point?

And the answer is no. Horror has too long been misinterpreted as having the one and only goal of scaring or unsettling the reader or moviegoer. But that is supposed to be the side-effect… the cherry on top. Because the real Horror is what spawns the emotion… what the story is really about.

Again, I hear you. It is about monsters. And the monsters scare us. Tah-dah!

But this is wrong. This is Hollywood in our heads….visions of sugarplums dancing in our fantasies chanting: sequel, prequel, video games, action figures…

Continues Joshi, “If I may utter an apparent paradox: horror fiction is not meant to horrify. This is to say that the primary purpose of weird fiction should not be to send a tingle up one’s spine….if weird fiction” (and therefore Horror) “is to be a legitimate literary mode, it must touch depths of human significance in a way that other literary modes do not and its principal means of doing so is the utilization of the supernatural as a metaphor [my emphasis] for various conceptions regarding the universe and human life. Hence the need for a world view that structures and defines the use of the weird in literature. Mere shudder-mongering has no literary value, however artfully accomplished.” (Joshi 2)

Did your writing life just flash in front of your eyes?

Good. Then there is hope we can extricate ourselves from writing like everyone else and starting to learn to write like only we can.

World view, you see, is quite personal.

But how do we see it? Especially if we are young, how do we know we even have one? If we are old, how do we know it is even relevant anymore?

If you are American, you can thank our current political circus for clearing all of this right up.

Whether you are for or against the one in the White House, chances are your world view is wearing plaid and day-glo colors. You know how you feel – passionately – about absolutely every utterance, every piece of legislation coming out of Washington. This is your World View. On drugs.

Do you want to build a wall, or rip it down with your bare hands? Do you believe immigration makes America stronger or weaker? Is religious diversity healthy or threatening? Should only English-speakers enter this country, or should we care about learning and preserving other languages? What about women’s reproductive rights? Climate change? Gun control? Voting rights? Civil rights? The definition of Civil Rights? Conformity? Rebellion? The Constitution? The Bill of Rights? Peace? War?

How you feel about – well – every issue this administration is hell-bent on reshaping or dictating how you should feel about – tells you what your World View is.

If only we could bottle it….But then, maybe we already have. In Lovecraft.

Says Noel Carroll: “It is clear that literary supernatural horror – which, by means of the morbidly unnatural (the repulsive), evokes [Lovecraft’s] cosmic fear – is attractive because this kind of awe responds to or restores some sort of primordial or instinctual human intuition about the world… The relation of the repulsive in horror to this sense of awe is that the morbidly unnatural is what it takes to trigger it. So we seek the morbidly unnatural in literature in order to experience awe, a cosmic fear with a visionary dimension that corresponds to instinctual, human views of the universe…Lovecraft appears to think that supernatural literature affords something like religious experience as well as a corresponding reaction against some kind of desiccating, positivist world view.” (Carroll 163)

If you look at what is being published today and come away feeling disappointed, unfulfilled and even irritated…If you just can’t keep yourself from rereading the Classics in Horror, chances are you already understand something of what Joshi and Carroll are saying…You just didn’t know you did.

We have –all of us – had our understanding of what Literature does deformed by what is now called “success.”

Ask any writer what “success” means and he or she will most likely say “earning a living with my writing”…. But what they mean is Hollywood in our heads….visions of sugarplums dancing in our fantasies chanting: sequel, prequel, video games, action figures…

Because that is what has been marketed as success: wealth… the power to dictate what you write and when.

Yet look at our Critically-besieged Mr. King.

Stephen King

Do you really think he wants to keep writing the same thing over and over? Look at the many times he has tried to break out of the constricting mold we have sentenced him to: Delores Claiborne, Full Dark, No Stars, Rose Madder, Lisey’s Story, The Green Mile, Joyland… All of these may ultimately score him the Literary recognition his mainstream Horror has been denied… and yet we want and demand more Christine, The Shining, Carrie, Pet Cemetery… And because those are the moneymakers, so do the publishers. So he keeps churning them out for our pleasure (and we do thank him, but at what cost to his personal ambitions?)

Likewise, the sheer numbers of his sales potential, peripheral options, merchandising opportunities… these are dangled in front of novices and labeled “success”…

What we have to be asking, is “is it really?”

If Lovecraft had been born in today’s environment, he would likely have kept his mythos… but he would not be placed in front of us as a “success.” Lovecraft would have none of the commercial criticism or demand that we have laid on King; he himself was too…weird. He avowed repeatedly that he did not desire “success,” that he would not change what or how he wrote to please anyone other than his own muses.

And look what we inherited.

This is the Critic’s point. This is Joshi’s point.

If a writer writes for anything other than the art of communicating a real concept about the universe and human life…if we don’t touch depths of human significance, then we are flirting with being hacks. We are prostituting our talents.

While we are all aware of the need to pay our bills, we must (daily) decide if what we write and the way we write it is important enough to keep it sacrosanct… to choose to go unpublished if the alternative means writing more fiction that has no soul…that is in Joshi’s words…”lifeless.”(3)

How to do this is another argument. Therefore, it will be my next post.

But the current question, the question of this post, is should we? Should we start pushing our World View into the Muse?

Should we seriously consider what the Literary Critics say? Study their comments? Consider if they might be in fact, right?

I strongly suspect they are.

There is a whole boatload of soulless fiction out there, convincing publishers that good Horror is not selling because it is not being written…maybe because the genre is all used up, or that no one buys new Horror because it is “somehow” inadequate and substandard despite all the editorial begging.

And the truly disturbing thing is that they are using this very set of speculations to reduce the publication of Horror titles…to reject new Horror writers.

The Literary Critic is telling us why.

The Literary Critic is telling us what is wrong and what must be fixed if Modern Horror – especially Modern American Horror is to ever regain its former popularity, to rise to the level of Real Literature… To grow from the likes of Poe and Lovecraft. To grow the genre…

And what Horrifies me most…is the thought that I am still writing it myself, that I have not learned – mastered – the Craft of infusing my own words with my own passionate beliefs. I realize that my own interpretation of how to write good Horror has been corrupted by the very system that claims it wants better.

So where do we begin?

Perhaps with Joshi, one of the world’s foremost experts on the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

He says about the few success he sees in modern weird writing: “It can be seen that these novels have virtually nothing in common with each other, either in theme or in style or in execution; it is simply that in each instance the author [my emphasis] has conceived of a scenario that is sufficiently complex and sufficiently supernatural in its essence such that a novel is required for its exposition.” (Joshi 10)

So where do we begin? With World View — not preaching it, but showing it.

We begin with ourselves. We begin with our passions. We begin with finding ways to say what we really think about the world. This means we have some thinking to do, to discover what we truly believe and what is truly true. We have skills to hone as we set those rampaging emotions loose upon the page as we try to say what we mean and mean what we say. But we have to begin. And where we begin is shockingly easy.

We begin with the monsters. We begin with US.

References

Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, c1990.

Joshi, S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, c2001.

Slender Trends In Modern American Horror: How Original Are We Really?


For most of us older Horror writers and readers, the whole Slenderman takeover of youthful Horror audiences has remained slightly under the radar. Were it not for the heinous attempted murder trial of two unbalanced young girls which keeps resurfacing, it probably would have remained so…For many it is shocking, alarming…coming from nowhere – which makes it even more terrifying to contemplate.

Except for one thing: this whole scare-the-kids business with men in suits has been done before.

It might come as a shock – if not a disappointment – that the whole mythology of Slenderman is as old as, well, dirt. The fact that it tends to resurface in each generation or so is of mild interest, and often fanned by spinners of paranormal legend-making, offered often as proof that there are some paranormal “things” which have some basis in reality…thereby escalating the level of fear with which we treat them, and providing an emotionally charged platform from which to lob scary tales to haunt the young among us.

It works. Therefore, it is repeated.

But why does it work? And what in the world has the likes of Slenderman to do with Horror Literature?

Slend1

Literature is For the Formally Dressed: Bring Your Tux

Literature (some will argue) has its own formula. Yet it is in the genres that we are most likely to encounter noticeably familiar rhythms and resurrected themes. Therefore, time and again Horror writers must do battle with originality within the framework of …formula.

Genre audiences have certain expectations. And as such, this has led to what are called “conventions”… certain established rules for achieving that expected outcome. And those conventions have in turn led to an overt expectation of formula. In genre Horror the most common denominator of formula (and therein subsequent convention) tends to be derived from folk and fairy tales, and “new” fairy tales – the urban legend.

Now, formula is not always bad. Consider it to be like music notation…a kind of framework upon which all the magic happens: it is both necessary, and noticed when it is missing. However it can be more flexible than we have allowed for it, as long as changes are clearly organic and roots remain visible.

Most often, we recognize certain “melodies” in writing. These are often the side effects of a subliminally understood meter or pulse behind the words – the “beat” that gets us moving, that connects to emotions.

In writing, words can be every bit as primal as a drumbeat. And to understand the connection between what we do now and what has been done in the past, we need only look as far as fairy tales and campfire tales…urban legends…myths. These are the past tense of genre. And while they are fun and intriguing, writers must exercise caution because these are powerful and obvious patterns – we must decide if we meant to make the connection obvious, and at no time should we attempt to “trick” or “surprise” the reader with the fact of those patterns: we simply won’t succeed, and our story – no matter how capably written, will be rendered “trite” and our plot overdone.

These are our primitive instruments. And being the first things we derived to create word-music, we tend to revert to them often. Simply, we value their power – their ability to really connect into our primal memories to summon certain emotional reactions.

This is exactly what Slenderman (and all characters of his ilk) are designed to do. In Horror, we take the word-music and make it discordant, disharmonious… unsettling and uncomfortable. To do this we must know what is pleasing and soothing in order to not-do it.

Horror is not about banging on the piano keys. It is about playing something with patterned dissonance – intentionally and artistically. This is why some Horror with violence is gratuitous and cheap, but the same act in another story is powerful in a Literary way. As Horror writers we have to be aware of where the line is and make educated decisions on when we cross it and why.

A masterful handling of such details is how inventions like Slenderman got their start and manage to hang on. And on.

There are simply certain images which disturb us on a basic, primal level. Typically these images are discordant. Dissonant. Out-of-step with what we perceive as reality.

Slend2

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Babadook

This makes nightmares plumb hunting grounds for such images. As biology has taught us, every animal is prey for something else. So logic follows that if one is an apex predator, what could be more terrifying than that which stalks us?

The whole Slenderman profile speaks volumes about our modern fears as well as a few primitive ones. Today in “civilized” countries such as the United States the biggest villains are the faceless persons of privilege and power – the ones who move behind the scenes and treat us like their personal puppets. Their henchmen – figures of authority including government, law enforcement, religion…

It does not take much of a leap of imagination to see those representatives – the Enforcers of our warped society – within the description of Slenderman. We even speak of such authorities in derivative terms, reducing them to what they wear (“suits” and “uniforms”) to what they do (“Pencil pushers” “thought police” and “enforcers”). We proudly declare them “faceless”…”stalkers”… “dark web”…”hidden or shadow government”… They routinely take our children, curtail our rights, manipulate our reality, garnish our wages. “The long arms of the law”…. “the tentacles of government”… “the mind control of religion”…”the opiate of the masses.”

Never mind the perception of stranger danger… the constant presence of real fears of child abduction and the disappearing of whole children and people, the constant threat of societal perversion right here in our society… We were primed for the return of the Slenderman; we simply had not named him in this country…

But there is more to this picture. Because whether it is about survivor guilt or our own personal fears of the once-again suddenly noticeable influx of Others – of immigrants and different customs, language, and religion, we have customized a very old motif to fit modern worries.

And perhaps our human attachment to guilt – collective, racial, personal – all fold into those nightmare creations to build monsters which come at us from planes of existence which we cannot have control over. Perhaps it is a sense that we deserve whatever comes to us, combined with the knowledge our own perception of things has taught us: that when entities are vengeful they often take down whatever prey is available because they cannot reach the ones most often harboring the fullest measure of responsibility.

In other words, the innocent pay most often the debts of the guilty.

Peripheral damage. Collateral damage. Accident. Tragedy.

Humanity provides all manner of words. The Horror is that it changes nothing to cast labels along with our aspersions. But it does give us permission to revel in our customized misery. No one suffers like we do…

So when we create monsters, it is important that we be willing to sacrifice characters our readers have invested some of themselves in. It is important that we remember our own fears in order to translate them to the page.

Our history in storytelling assures us that we will not have to travel far to find such figures from which to diverge. Says Martin Tropp in his book, Images of Fear: How Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1918):

“The continued remodeling of popular myth is behind not only of the purpose and power of the horror tale, but also, as Bruno Bettelheim has shown us (in The Uses of Enchantment) one reason fairy tales have remained popular among generations of children…fairy tales have been shaped by their audience to reflect their wishes and fears. Certain patterns recur because the problems they echo are common to children – among them the fear of abandonment by parents, competition with siblings, the conflict between the allure of pleasures and the demands of growing up.” (7)

(I know. You are not children, you say. You are practically adults. I do know, because I was once you. In fact, only the mirror reminds me otherwise from time to time. And therein we are unavoidably linked.)

But here is the thing: as young adults, we all feel a weird pull toward the supernatural. It is a natural curiosity, typically happening when we fancy ourselves old enough to rightfully question our parents’ real authority, their religion if any, and the meaning of death.

Just like the wee children in fairy tales, we wander about in dark forests, invincible and immortal even as we know secretly that we are not. With a sense of superiority, we leave bread crumbs only to have wildlife eat them, leaving us stranded and lost. We test the things that threaten to get us if we cross the line. We buck authority, flaunt our youth. And we do it out of fear. We do it to prove we can out run those fears. Because bad things always have to happen to everyone else.

Except that they don’t. We see it right now with school shootings. With inner city crime. With war.

Continues Tropp, “Like classical or Christian mythology, stories like Frankenstein, Dracula or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thoroughly permeate our culture; you don’t need to have read the novels to have felt their power… And if myths are…the dreams of our race, then these [retold and reworked] myths have become our recurrent nightmares” the constant retelling of which “never tires of ordering and re-ordering in its search to find them a meaning.” (7)

Did you see the point where Literature and Horror collide?

Literature is all about bringing truth to the table. Fairy tales deal with raw truths about the human condition. Weave that into a tale which resonates with readers to inform about a period of time, an incident that will become history, and you are flirting with Literature. Horror in Literature.

It only makes sense that we would choose a fairy tale guy wearing a formal suit and sometimes a top hat to do the deed…

Slend3

Fairy Tales Are Not For Children

Having been surrounded by nursery rhymes and geese wearing bonnets, it is entirely possible that you have no idea about the true nature of fairy tales, or fairies for that matter. Especially in the United States, we have sugar-coated our fairy faith with Disneyesque sparkle and glitter. Happy Ever After is our mantra.

But in reality, fairy tales were never meant for charming children. They were most often meant for adults, and when offered to little ones were done so with the intent of keeping rebellions in line. They were “cautionary tales” whose violation resulted in death.

How grim is that? Very Grimm. Go in search of the original stories and you will never be the same.

Reach into Celtic Fairy traditions and you will not find nice things. Fairies of old are first and foremost supernatural beings. Not human. Never having been human to anyone’s certainty. But they are full of treachery and tricks, working within their own understanding of rules and acceptable behavior.

Yet we have done our best to neuter them. We have turned on our electric lights, made leprechauns dance on bar tops, and spun Red Caps into singing miners. We absolutely will not acknowledge any other version of fairies than the kind that emit rainbows and hawk sugary cereals.

Match that against the monsters we now create upon their templates.

Because in order to put the Horror back into our storytelling, we needed to pretend we were being original when we made Slenderman up. Imagine the Horror… when that was indeed closer to the original…

When a monster so stacked with imagery which has been proven through the centuries of fairy tales, ghost lore, supernatural stories, and urban legend to terrify… springs forth, it does so in three dimensions. This is top class monster-building, and it only works when the general target population has never heard the original tales in order to connect them up.

Slend4

The Phantom Coachman https://atashafyfe.wordpress.com/2017/10/22/ghosts-of-the-road/

This is how the younger generations become “easy” marks. And every year there is a fresh infusion of teenagers who have never heard of or read about certain monsters.

And so this is also why genre Horror is solely presumed to be an emotional playground for teenagers.

Never mind that this is a misconception. Never mind that Horror has even more in store for adults…

The constant recycling of monster traits can lead to some pretty heady stuff. When we as writers tap into primal imagery which has survived with its “scary” intact for centuries, we have the ingredients for a monster that will cling to the imagination in ways that do not let go.

According to Jonathan Gottschall in his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, we should never underestimate the power of primal images to hijack our reason. Says Gottschall: “Take fear. Scary stories leave scars. In a 2009 study, the psychologist Joanne Cantor showed that most of us have been traumatized by scary fiction. Seventy five percent of her research subjects [my emphasis] reported intense anxiety, disruptive thoughts, and sleeplessness after viewing a horror film. For a quarter of her subjects, the lingering effects of the experience persisted for more than six years… for 91 percent of Cantor’s subjects, scary films – not real world nightmares such as 9/11 or the Rwandan genocide by machete – were the source of their most traumatic memories.” (149-150)

No wonder Moms everywhere warn against watching those scary movies.

And no wonder we sneak downstairs when the house is dark and watch them anyway. Sometimes, to life-changing effect.

Slenderman is no different when you take away his tux. He is merely a continued reshaping of a reliable mythic monster.

Slend5

http://skulduggery.wikia.com/wiki/Springheeled_Jack

Alleged to have been “officially” created by Eric Knudsen in June 2009 for a website writing contest, Slenderman burst upon the internet scene and has not looked back…

But we need too. Because according to Knudsen himself, the monster was based on Mothman, Men in Black, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the collective works of H.P. Lovecraft, Shadow People, and the works of Stephen King, among others (Redfern 19-20) This means he was more re-invented than invented…more invented than “discovered.”

Slend6

https://www.dmhsperspective.com/government-and-their-secrets/2017/01/16/the-real-men-in-black/

The Slenderman template has a long history, stretching as far back as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Spring-Heeled Jack, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon…even spirits that haunted stately houses in Britain with tall, dark ghostly figures or stalked the moors, or drove phantom coaches…

All of these images work for a myriad of psychological reasons. For example, we have a built-in, hard-wired obsession with tall, thin, spindly characters in black, nattily dressed, and often sporting a full complement of razor sharp teeth when they aren’t missing eyes or mouths or features in general.

We are afraid of….strangers. Especially if they can just vanish before our eyes, or come and go out of fevered dreams…

Strangers have always been dangerous…whether we are talking child abduction, fairy/child abduction, avenging spirits of the murdered or apparitions of the improperly interred dead, outcasts that stumble across one’s tribe, or the only survivor of a plague… strangers often brought death to our ancestors. And they still do in some Walmarts, some high schools, some workplaces, some highways…

Yet in order to propagate fear properly, monsters’ tales must be told. And retold. Embellished. Made familiar and too close to home. It may well be why campfires were invented. And perhaps most importantly, scary things must be shared and believed in because adults do not believe in them.

Yet, the secret is…we still do. We just pretend we don’t. Because at our age, we know there is not a darned thing we can do about them.

This is how the Real World becomes entangled in fairy tales – and I mean the real kind of fairy tales that never end well – when Horror becomes Literature because “…sometimes what needs to be expressed can only be done through the monstrous, for sometimes the human condition is monstrous, defined by the breach of the boundaries between the sacred and the profane, the normal and the abnormal, good and evil, right and wrong.” (Held 4-5)

This is why I became a Horror writer.

And the sooner we see Slenderman as a stand-in for our deepest fears, the sooner we can make newer, scarier monsters from his mold.

Slend7

On Finding the Original in a Many-Splendored Slender

I find it interesting that Slenderman has begat endless progeny in Horror, and that his likeness and progeny proliferate right now in American Horror.

Whether we are talking film or writing, we are being drawn into the vacuum of the tall thin monstrosity that stalks our world. He hides in the forest – a Freudian reference if ever there was one – lurking in our primitive desires and fears.

But like all fairy tales, his presence in our fiction has issued a new challenge to Horror writers. Tell any tale you want, but find the point of originality.

Here again, writing becomes like music. And like in music, in writing we have Jazz to deal with.

In music, there is the following of notes, and there is improvisation. If Horror writers insist on using our primal templates, we must also find a way to deliver the monster in some sneaky, unsuspecting way.

Some say all tales derive from fairy tales and their ilk…some say there are only three original plots in fiction.

But even if that is true, we have only to look at the many stories that these seminal stories themselves begat to know we can one-up the original. We simply have to figure out how, why, when, and where. We have to write and then edit with the realization that when we borrow these primal templates,  the melodies are familiar — but we don’t want them completely recognized. We need to surprise in order to delight, to terrify, to unsettle and then haunt.

And sometimes this unfortunately may mean shelving a monster because the sacrificing the original just won’t do. It won’t matter how well a story is told if the only image that surfaces belongs to another story. We see that now with all wizards and witches in Young Adult. Just stating the premise alone is flirting with professional rejection. We are still seeing the same problem with dragons in Fantasy. On one hand, a writer set such glorious imaginations on fire that the creative waters are bursting the banks, but on the other, the audience now needs time to forget in order to be surprised again.

It is an unfortunate characteristic of our species that we endlessly search for patterns. And when we spot them in fiction, they spoil the yarn.

Slenderman is doing this now in Horror. He has replaced Zombies, which replaced Vampires. And we are now nearing tilt.

Writers must endlessly search for the new angle on the old tale. And “sometimes only horror can say what needs to be said” (Held 5).

But we need not despair. Says Jacob Held in his introduction to Stephen King and Philosophy titled, “On Writing Popular Philosophy”: “Noel Carrol notes that ‘the attraction of supernatural Horror is that it provokes a sense of awe which confirms a deep-seated human conviction about the world, viz., that it contains vast unknown forces…’ we are attracted to that which horrifies us.” (6)

And indeed we are. The popularity of fan fiction websites like CreepyPasta which contain whole sections of fictional Slender tributes are the proof of our own self-horror. The fact that even left to our own devices we primally gravitate to the same monsters over an over are not proof of their existence, but proof that we fear ourselves most of all. We fear what we have become. We dread the endless threat to innocence. We fear we are already in a fairy tale of the old school…

Deep down, we know the truth: we are all faceless ruiners of innocent humanity. No wonder we see suits in the trees with preternaturally long arms waving and probing the night to grab us and drag us to face the laws of the dark forest… Judgement and justice always seek us out.

We cannot make a single choice that does not have ramifications which ripple across our geography and potentially damage other human beings.

And yes, we wear our finery when we wreak our havoc, top hat and tails, our suits and facelessness, professing our own innocence in the doing of our misdeeds. That we fancy ourselves as innocent makes us fair game for the tentacled arms of justice. It makes us deserving of the night gaunts and haunts that stalk the dark, wild areas of our imaginations.

This is what causes Lovecraft to capture us: our fear that we do not deserve the planet we occupy. Cthulhu waits. Judgement is pending. And all manner of dark things have come to course the night-world and hunt us. Including Nyarlathotep…a god masquerading as a man dressed in black… (Bilstad 208-209)

It should not be a far leap to see that the current impact of Slenderman on modern American Horror is nothing more than a continuation of a tradition of guilt and hair-raising storytelling. Because creating guilt even where there might not need any to be is part of our human legacy. But those among us – especially young, idealistic teenagers – who are just starting to explore the world around them as well as their own places within that world – are especially susceptible to the myths that spring from our very DNA.

This is not a bad thing at all…it is, rather, how great Horror gets its start… Because it is within those memories, those glimpses into the indistinct shadows of night where hungry, faceless things await us with inescapably long arms and featureless faces that we will see reflections of ourselves.

And the monsters just keep on coming… like they’re rolled out on a rack…

 

References:

Bilstad, T. Allan. The Lovecraft Necronomicon Primer: a Guide to the Cthulhu Mythos. Woodbury, MN: Llewelyn Publications, c2011.

Gottshcall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2012.

Held, Jacob M., ed. “Introduction: On Writing Popular Philosophy.” Stephen King and Philosophy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, c2016

Redfern, Nick. The Slenderman Mysteries: an Internet Urban Legend Comes to Life. Newburyport, MA: New Page Books, c2017.

Tropp, Martin. Images of Fear: How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1819). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, c1990.

 

Caution: Tentacles May Deploy Without Warning (or, How Your Age Informs Your Fiction Writing Success)


When I was a teenager, I loved horses. I rode competitively briefly, showing other peoples’ hunters… and I desperately wanted one of my own.

Standing next to a fellow rider once, I was asked if I had my own horse. I replied, no…but I hoped to have one someday. The girl snorted, looking down her nose at me. “If you really wanted one,” she said, “You would have one by now.”

Little did I know, this was how the world would be looking at my writing forty years later.

If you were any good, you would be published by now…

To my Horror, I actually believed that for an ungodly long time.

 Age1

The Truth About Age in Fiction Writing

I have often wondered why no one ever discusses age (like race) as a contributor to Horror fiction.

I have often wondered why once we are ensconced (read trapped or buried) in other careers, relegated to merely dreaming about our writing, we stop believing publication is possible. Or viable. That we come to believe success in writing is only for the young among us.

Some of this is the fault of the marketing machinery of Big Publishers, who like to advertise new writers as “the next Stephen King”… implying that such a writer is a youthful puppy, a keeper, a long termer, a veritable gold mine of future works to be immortalized in film. And sometimes this is because Big Publishers NEED another Stephen King… because some day they will have to navigate our genre WITHOUT him…

But many times it is also because those of us who are right now the Old Writers struggling in the genre grew up with a totally different concept of success – actual examples of lives lived writing… even writing even mediocre Horror fiction. We grew up with the 1970’s Boom, and so to us, success means writing a novel or two in our twenties and transcending into being a Professional Writer. To us, success has been painted as being able to not only make a living off our work, but living well…

Yet if that scenario failed to play out, we start doing the math. After years of listening to the many criticisms and following the life-plans dictated by other people, we wonder: is there still time? Will we live long enough to woo Big Publishers into paying us Big Money contracts (the kind that don’t exist anymore), and didn’t we miss the boat already if we can’t be young and flaunt it? To do all of the things we wanted to do as rich, successful authors?

Old writers are often their own worst enemy…

But then we have had a lot of help in twisting our own self-images.

Because I have also wondered when it became okay to associate older, unpublished writers with failure…to make it an inside joke.

And why is it “proof” of talent or vision to not only get published, but to be young and rich and published? Only some of us are old enough to remember when that was even possible…

It’s not like editors know the ages of submitting authors either… So it must be coming from ourselves.

We have bought into the mythology that unless we are published when we are young, and are thereby a “Professional” (and rich) Writer well before we are thirty, we are simply not good enough…We didn’t want it badly enough. So now we don’t deserve to associate with Real Writers…

Suddenly there is an accompaniment of snorts and sideways, condescending glances… Suddenly we are out of the loop, out of style, and unable to gauge exactly when that moment of stellar success was supposed to have happened.

To make things worse, we keep moving that secret Age of Success, the one that marks the moment we should resign ourselves to other jobs and other careers… Whose idea is that?

Writers of our genre come in all genders, ages and colors, all geographic locations and climates, all political and religious bents. Yet time and again we are given a prepared profile of the Professional Writer… in our genre, typically still a Caucasian male, young enough to remember his youth and still writing about it and his own young adulthood.

Women writers of Horror, it seems, are more readily painted as Young Adult writers, or writers of fantasy. We are to be seen and not heard, demure… nurturers of young readers. We have, apparently, even lost our genre identities as the mistresses of the ghost story. We are not to be taken too seriously.

It gets worse the older we are…

Collectively, we have lost our voices as men and women unafraid to write as older men and women. It is kind of like being in Hollywood… as though we are being (in not-so-subtle ways) coached to disguise our ages (when not our genders) by writing about youth, as though the only ones interested in reading Horror are the very young people the Establishment tends to claim don’t read anymore…

These are all lies, I tell you…lies!

Not only is Stephen King the proof, but so are writers like Ramsay Campbell, Anne Rice, Richard Matheson, Dean Koontz, Neil Gaiman, Tanith Lee, Dan Simmons, Clive Barker, Bentley Little, and Robert R. McCammon… all of them “vintage” and still carrying our genre…even in backlist titles.

As a reader of many of them, I have watched a good many protagonists creep up in age… leaving behind that New Adult thing that has tried to insert itself between Young Adult and Real Adult fiction. Our own writers have tried to drag Horror back into the Adult arena, dancing with Literary values by writing stories which are in themselves proof that some of the best Horror gets written after we grow up. Everywhere there are signs being downplayed and ignored… Horror is growing up.

So why does the myth of youth persist when defining New Writer Success in our genre?

Who has commandeered the profile of writers to suggest that if a writer has not “made it” by the time they are in their twenties and “established” by their thirties, then Fate is telling you they are not worthy?

The truth about age in Horror fiction writing is this: youth is where we learn about what scares us the most; old age is where we learn about confronting that fear… So while we may have great scary ideas as young writers, and we might write boldly about those things, as older writers we know how to throw and receive a punch. We are, in fact, more likely to generate Horror fiction with Literary elements.

Why?

Because it takes some living to write what you know.

And it takes even more living to write what you believe.

The truth about old writers, published or not?

Writers, like fine wine, improve with age…

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Getting Past the Stereotypes

Like most Horror writers, I started writing pretty early – toying with ideas when I was a teenager, heavily influenced by the many writers of our second Golden Age of Horror and Science Fiction in the 1970’s Publishing Boom. This was the time of the paperback – what book peddlers call Mass Market paperbacks, and what was then bursting onto the scene as “Pocket Books” – those small paperbacks for under $5 that were on racks and spinners in every grocery store, hospital, drug store and airport.

This was when fiction was so mass-produced that the impression was left on many a young writing hopeful that there was a living to be made writing fiction and an unending world of story to be savored out there. Who would have thought it was a phase? Who would have thought that pulp stories would be pushed out of our immediate consciousness and that book prices would rise precariously, nearly putting fiction out of reach entirely, and severely limiting our choices both professionally and as readers?

Sadly, the demise of the age of the Mass Market paperback came with another price: the end of the Mid-List Author, the complete and utter destruction of writing careers, of publishing careers, of…writers.

Many of us were left adrift with our dreams. We had nowhere to go… And when former industry standards are being laid off, let go, and dicked over, when top editors are being unceremoniously dismissed… What hope is there for unknown writers?

Most of us were forced to abandon our dreams, to sell them out for “real” jobs, coerced into believing that because “anyone can write, writing is no worthy talent.”

So we spent decades writing stellar letters, correcting CEO’s bad grammar, creating easy to understand Standard Operation Manuals and Employee Handbooks. Later, we did some awesome presentation materials, edited scientific reports for style and grammar, we made the coffee, we cleaned the bathrooms.

And all the while Stephen King kept writing, kept being published, kept proving that it’s the story, dummy… it’s all about the story…

So pardon my generation if we took a little while to find our way back to sanity. It only took being sold out by every generation that went before and half of them coming after, by losing our alternate “careers” and retirement savings and being passed over for real jobs no matter how often we returned to schools and collected degrees, and maintained GPA’s our younger classmates seldom did.

It took realizing that we have been had… that we have been cheated and tricked and bribed out of our real purposes in life…

It took realizing we sold out…

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That means that yes, my generation is in the midst of an epiphany.

And no matter what other well-meaning folks or scheming cads intended by saying what they said to us… We did this to ourselves. We abdicated…

And we are all the more miserable for having done so.

I think if older writers have one message for the younger ones shyly coming up behind us it is this: stop listening to the “experts.” Especially today, the rules are being rewritten, flaunted, disposed of.

Make your own. Take your own life by the horns and don’t look down, don’t look back, don’t let go…

This means that just like this old Horror writing woman, you have to decide what will be important in your life: holding onto what makes you, you… Or pretending that “someday” will come before you die.

It means whether you are male or female, you cannot believe in stereotypes… like old people will only write fiction other old people will want to read (like filling a niche is a bad thing), or that old people can’t write fiction that relates to younger readers.

Pish tush.

It only means we really, really shouldn’t try to write in “modern” slang, to believe our own stereotypes about young people.

We Ancient Ones have had quite enough of the stereotypes, anyway. And if you are a woman, chances are you have been hearing them since you lost that 20-something baby fat and your front end alignment started needing annual adjustment.

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The Eldritch Uprising

You may not have noticed, but there is a movement afoot. A bunch of old folks have gone rogue and started looking for “second” careers… (I am on number 39, thank you, Silicon Valley.)

We have realized that we are NOT our jobs, but our jobs may in fact be US. Who we are at the end of the day comes down to what we believe about ourselves, about happiness.

So many of us who tried to be writers just in time to become other cogs caught in other machinery have begun to come home. Just in time, too… because now we don’t need the Mass Market boom, or the classy sassy editor, or the big New York publishing machinery – it would be nice, but we don’t need it.

Because the same technology that vampirized our savings accounts and fake careers, has also provided us with the ultimate put-up-or-shut-up opportunity: self-publishing.

And ironically, what we hear from traditional publishing is a whole lot of whining about quality.

For sure, the price of self-publishing sometimes comes at the sacrificial altar of quality… But if we apply what we learned working in all of those endless clerical jobs about editing and presentation and layout and marketing…

Come on. You fellow old folks know exactly what I am saying… we already ran companies, offices, projects…

And if we can do them for others we can darn well do them for ourselves.

We just have to keep ourselves from getting giddy – drunk with excitement and anticipation, blinded by the possible rose-colored glasses of delusion.

Sure maybe we are J.K. Rowling’s long lost Literary Twin, the New Stephen King…

But most likely not.

So our rebellion must be tempered with humility. Don’t rush to publication. Don’t assume your writing is “good enough” without having others (who don’t care about your feelings) read it. Pay people to judge it. And learn how to fix the things that are found to be wrong…

As Eldritch Ones, we must realize that we may indeed have missed the boat in the quest to have our work to be well-read and to die famous, to quit the day job and live adequately on Social Security.

But we have not missed anything of Life. We still have the capacity to break barriers, to create something new in the vacuum of modern genre writing, to be… rebels. Old rebels, but rebels nonetheless.

Maybe that’s especially true for older women…Maybe nobody ever suspected you had Horror stories tucked away in your cookie-baking apron, or that you’ve fed every co-worker who ever got you laid off to the most unspeakable of monsters…

The bottom line is this: when writers get old, they write what they think. It’s a miracle. We stop caring what other people think.

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Your writing is what you say it is, not what others say it is. It is also where you say it is… there is NO timeline, no age limit constructed by people with questionable motives and possible psychological issues of their own.

We also come to realize that by doggies we have opinions that do not have to conform, that we are as writers generally not conformists as a rule… that maybe, just maybe we should have been torching our own underwear with protest groups a long time ago instead of letting the Herd think for us.

Maybe that is how we turn it around. We realize maybe to our own perverse shock and joy that all of these years we really were feminists, or conservationists, or advocates for the unlikely and un-preferred.

And then things like Literature begin making sense… becoming even more mysterious, carrying codes and secret language we never before picked up on. And we realize with giddiness that we can write that way too…that it is the unwritten, unspoken challenge of the profession to do so…

Suddenly we realize we have actual opinions about the way things have played out in wars, in society, in the ways we treat each other right here in our own generational decades.

Suddenly our age informs our writing… and we cannot stop it.

And we begin to build monsters, looking for ways to say what we have by evolution come to realize: that we are where we are because we did not speak up when it counted, when it was for ourselves. We believed the mythology. And there is only one way to break out of our self-imposed misery…

We write. We are writers. That is what we do.

Don’t be surprised if there are tentacles.

We warned you.

 

Monster Love: Embracing Kaiju as a Horror Subgenre — Because How Can We Not?


For those of us constantly rummaging around the subgenres looking for inspiration and just plain fun Horror, there is a “new” discovery to be made. It is called Kaiju and it comes at us – like all good monsters – from several directions at once: graphic novels, comic books, classic science fiction, classic Horror, and black and white cinema… most obviously from scarier minds in Japan.

The really great thing is: you probably already know it and love it… because especially for Horror fans in the West, the newest thing about Kaiju is its name.

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http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/giant-monsters/images/36716011/title/godzilla-1991-wogzilla-wallpaper

Love Me, Love My Monster

We’re talking big monsters... Really big. This is Kaiju…

And while if you are a Lovecraft fan, such monsters are already part of your Horror bestiary as part of Weird Fiction, many of us have left them snugly contained within the Lovecraft mythos, and the dusty black and white and colorized Cinema Scope corners of early science fiction cinema.

Therefore, even as we of the Horror genre love them, we’ve also been conditioned to consider giant monsters “done” – as in someone already thought of that… But like all great concepts, what we need to rebel against is the editorial mindset that says exactly that…

Because while the wielding of giant, towering monsters may have been done, it hasn’t all been done… There is plenty of room in our Horror landscape for many more great monsters, for other mythos catalogs… and for ever more apocalyptic destruction of the human ego.

It has been graphic novelists and comic book folk who have led the way in this giant monster revelation. And it is them we should thank heartily; because big monsters are back. And they are awesome.

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Says Robert Hood in his introduction to The Mammoth Book of Kaiju, there is just “something cathartic about watching giant monsters trash cities.” And he could not be more correct… especially now in our world with so much human arrogance on display. At a time when so many of us are being victimized by the very things that were supposed to liberate us from poverty, ignorance, and isolation, we find ourselves feeling as helpless as teeny tiny people fleeing nuclear-mutated monsters on the beach – with about as bleak-appearing future.

Under those circumstances, it is hard to not root for the monster… who is always both us and our fears.

Never mind the Literary insinuations here, the associations with certain world leaders and their bull-dozing opinions, the metaphor of technology versus the little guy, the absolute sense of loss of control that haunts and torments our daily lives whether we live in a war zone or suburbia.

With giant monsters, our familiar problems are minimized, and our humanity is a thing to be found in common. Here we can give ourselves permission to cheer on a Russian pilot or an American capitalist, to fear for a Japanese boy or a boatload of immigrants caught between the monster-filled deep oceans (with a nod to Freud) and New York harbor or downtown Tokyo.

Yet we can also subversively love the monster… a thing we ultimately discover we created… and which has come for justice.

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And it has been coming for us in cinema since at least 1925, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and in modern Literature since at least 1870 with Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and yet again in ancient storytelling since The Epic of Gilgamesh emerged from Mesopotamia in 2100 BCE…(Hood 6-9)

Clearly humanity has had justice – if not deep psychological issues – for a long, long time. And we have learned to savor the moments when it all comes messily together.

For example, most of us have wonderfully fond memories of the first time we saw Godzilla trample Tokyo. But other than adjectives like “fabulous,” “terrifying,” and the “unstoppable titan of terror”… for a long time we didn’t have any terminology for it.

Part of this has to do with our own isolationism in the West, and part of it has to do with our level of interest. We had already half-way consigned big monsters and their outdated atomic connections to yesteryear, when suddenly everything “retro” was in – and the more vintage, the better: all of the old B-movies laced with drama and an older idea of terror was suddenly back in style.

With technology and the Nerd Boom came the resuscitation of old kitschy pleasures made more “cool” by computer imaging and more impressive by the achievements of those working with a lot less available, while simultaneously harder to finesse and more creatively achieved special effects. Suddenly we gained a more generic interest in film history and trivia. We took note of the use of lighting and hard-won effects, of actors and locations, of directors and producers.

We have to admit we love them – the monsters, their makers, the actors and the effects – so we fell in love anew.

As Science Fiction and Fantasy received the bulk of the breath of new life and new interest, we started developing a passion in becoming nerdishly authoritative in certain histories. How genres have evolved and who contributed what to the evolution has become a niche hobby.

Bit by bit, even in Horror we have all started wanting to know the histories of genre writing, and we now actually read those boring forwards, introductions, and afterward essays that we used to rip past in our rush to scare ourselves. We are no longer satisfied to hear someone just say something about a canon work or a writer: we want more – we want to be experts ourselves.

And even more significantly, for perhaps the first time in its history, Pulp fiction is no longer disposable fiction…It has a place in our momentum and our hearts. We are digging through old boxes and collections, looking for the stuff most of us threw away and a few had the love and foresight to horde in dark, forgotten places. A whole cadre of private collectors has arisen to catalog the works no one thought held any significance.

And we are finding that all work – even genre work – has significance.

The current gap in Literary Criticism and modern works has opened another unexpected door: through our passion and our own connecting of Pulp works with the evolution of genre Literature, we are legitimizing ALL of the work that has gone before.

While Critics are collecting their theories and thoughts, writers and lovers of writing are gathering their stockpiles of early works, creating more…building a legacy.

So much of this starts with giant monsters – with Kaiju. Because it was film and comics that opened that so-important door.

This almost-academic interest is a sea change in fandom. And it means that it’s not just editors who know stuff, or share stuff, or defend stuff.

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http://www.awayfromthethingsofman.com/2016/10/the-big-road-trip-part-3-g-fest-xxiii.html

Led by the example of rabid film buffs and hardcore comic and kaiju fans, more and more of us who roam the fiction genre landscape are wanting details too often referred to and seldom explained. There is a demand for genre history, an actual interest in the history of fiction writing, in the biographies of writers and the publications they appeared in.

It’s been a great time for genre fiction and genre film.

Because it is precisely this passion that is also laying the fabulous groundwork for genre folk to become part of Literary-type discussions. It is subjects like Kaiju that are teaching us that there is a lot more to genre than the Ivory Towers have both believed and inferred. And maybe – just maybe – this lays even more groundwork for the legitimizing of genre as Literature…

While Science Fiction and Fantasy have enjoyed greater academic respect than Horror fiction, in our genre we are well aware of the constant cross-pollination of SF&F into our works, and the constant muddying of the genre waters. Books and films like Alien, Jurassic Park, Jaws, and even Harry Potter are the most easily seen as being both or either genres.

So it is easier to see where Kaiju shares Horror elements, and could have been originated as Horror…large crowds screaming in terror, monsters snacking on slower humans, the insinuation that we ourselves – like Frankenstein’s monster – created the problem, all contribute to the embrace of big monsters by Horror fans.

The flames are further fanned by the reality that with less Horror finding publication, our fanbase is looking around for something else to read, to embrace. The current boom in comics and graphic novels means we – and our money O New York Publishing Machine – are drifting to these artistic offshoots. And we are liking what we are seeing.

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http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/jul/10/midday-movies-what-kaiju/

This means that we are becoming closet Science Fiction and Fantasy fans, looking for the Horror. And we may well bring some of what we find back into the Horror genre – for good or ill.

But it also means that both traditional publishing and academics are going to have to start nailing down not only specifically what makes Horror “Horror” as a genre, but why it is important that we look individually at works to allow them into our canon, and not classify authors.

And somebody out there is going to have to admit that Horror is NOT dead, many of its fans do NOT age-out of the genre, and writers are STILL writing it despite the lack of markets and a certain amount of commercial judging.

While for writers it often feels more like American Idol than simple submission of our work, it only proves that the genre is changing faster than its editors and publications can keep up.

And that is another reason we who write Horror need to take a page from our brethren and sistren in the comics and graphic novel independent publishing industry… Just sayin’…

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http://www.kanhangadvartha.com/group/pacific-rim-wallpaper/

 Monstersize Me

So let’s take a closer look at what has caught our genre fancy. And just as in the best of Horror, we are going to Mammoth Books to learn about it… specifically to the introduction once again by Robert Hood:

Kaiju is “a Japanese term that has been little known in the West except among aficionados of a particular tradition of monster cinema” until rather recently…” The word means ‘monster” or ‘giant monster’(although more accurately it translates as ‘strange creature’) and the cinematic tradition such monsters spawned is called kaiju eiga (monster film)…”

Now whether you liked or despised films like Monster, Pacific Rim, Cloverfield, or The Happening… You have been witnessing a Second Migration of Kaiju from graphic novels and comics to the Big Screen. And as a Horror fan used to the disappointment of Hollywood’s “scariest ever” promises, you probably saw them.

But you may also have fallen under their spell. As Horror fans, we have also become conditioned to love concept… accepting without question that Horror often loses its scary both in plot and in acting. Horror fans have learned to be somewhat satisfied with the very idea as opposed to craft in the telling.

It’s why we as a genre have split into two camps – the Literary, often too-dull ones, and the Pulp ones, who are all about concept and attempted delivery of same.

This means we excuse the epic fails, and still love the monsters. Like the ones IN Monsters… an otherwise odd, schizophrenic war film with really awesome, totally wasted monsters…

It’s because we see the potential. We take the monster and let him (or her) run loose in the dark of our imaginations. It’s kind of the adult version of kid’s picture books like My Monster Mama Loves Me So, The Monster Under the Bed and Creepy Monsters, Sleepy Monsters… something graphic novel and comic book fans learned long ago. Monsters are all about concept… which Godzilla already taught most of us.

It just doesn’t matter that there is little Kaiju fiction out there…

As Jeremy Robinson says in the foreward of Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters, “Between 1999 and 2012, there wasn’t a single noteworthy Kaiju novel published…Kaiju as a genre, has been largely ignored by the publishing world. But thanks to technological advances in publishing, small presses and self-publishers now have the ability to tackle subgenres considered too risky by large publishers. Unfortunately the genre (as of writing this foreward), is still largely represented in popular fiction by [the Godzilla novels published in the 1990’s and] Project Nemesis and its sequel Project Maigo [by Robinson himself]…” (xii)

Yet the rise in independent presses and self-publishing and small presses has been exactly what has led to the “boom” in pop culture items such as graphic novels and comics. And while they may not be the Big Houses of New York, they are prospering. And bringing Kaiju right along with them.

The success of Kaiju is propelled by magnificent art, universal concepts, and the extreme flexibility in the universe of monsters. Quite simply, there are no creative limits.

Continues Hood, “Kaiju origins are as diverse as imagination allows, from traditional nuclear mutation, through outer space and interdimensional invasion” (7)… (sound familiar? ) “to the incarnation of emotional and metaphysical states via the imagination of unsuspecting humans, often children” (7)… (both major conventions utilized quite successfully by both Lovecraft and Stephen King, thank you)….

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http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/jul/10/midday-movies-what-kaiju/

In Kaiju, imagination is valued for its extremes. And that just equates to fun, and creative challenge. Kaiju easily represents the finger-painting of Horror subgenres. It is a fabulous and seductive starting point for any number of horrors…night terrors…bumps in the night. And it opens the door to Science Fiction elements that can enhance Horror and broaden our audience.

Here we see exactly why Horror fans are often Science Fiction fans. And we see how the which-is-the-real-subgenre argument got started.

Yet Kaiju also does something else: it provides a certain intimacy with the monster that we in Horror haven’t seen much of since Mary Shelleys’ Frankenstein, or Anne Rice’s hopelessly flawed and erotic vampires. Points out Hood, “They all have names” and histories, and a collectively human nemesis which “whatever the imagination can come up with is likely to be utilized at some point, whether or not it makes scientific, physical or economic sense.” (7)

As Horror fans, we are used to the inconsistencies. And we commonly excuse them to get to the Horror…It’s a kind of sacrifice we have come to accept that Hollywood expects us to make, and it may be why novice Horror writers are pre-programmed into bad habits in writing craft… then baffled as to why craft errors matter.

As Horror fans, we don’t care…as long as the monster itself is awesome, which is how we get back to the Japanese, Godzilla, and the uniquely imaginative beasts coming out of that country’s creative think tank. When our efforts fall short, when our story lines vacate the monster’s power, we return to Kaiju.

So while “Strictly speaking then, the term Kaiju refers to monsters [in a particular] Japanese tradition,” and one that is “characterized by a high level of absurdity…[wherein] monsters are much bigger than is physically viable [and] taken literally, the creatures are indeed impossible fantasies, despite the frequent science fiction trappings given them” (6), we easily translate them to contemporary world crises, to Western cities, to our own fears…

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We have commandeered them for our own uses…Even as we continue to grow our appreciation and affection for the Japanese originals. So we keep going back to the oh-so-deep Japanese well; Kaiju is the DNA imprint for all monsters than came after Godzilla… it must be part of defining the future of all strange monsters.

“They come in all shapes and sizes” (6)… they traverse all manner of mental-emotional landscapes the way that Lovecraft’s monsters still do. The plot is only a vehicle for the monster… and we swoon as the Horror begins.

We cannot help ourselves. We come to adore our monsters the way we adore Tyrannosaurus Rex – completely checking out of the empathetic box for those who would be eaten. We see instead a reflection of ourselves… of justice come for those who have wronged us all…

That is the infrastructure that is the entire Horror genre: the contentious balance between good and evil, justice and revenge, morality and immorality. Perhaps as humans we long for that battle, for the resolution of judgment… for that parent to come home and administer the promised punishment to just get it over with. So we cheer on the monster. The monster is both us and our judge. Watching him stride across the wrecked landscape, stomping on skyscrapers is watching Dad pull into the driveway, Mom’s word’s echoing in our heads: “Just wait til your father comes home…”

It’s not like we in the Horror genre are unfamiliar…

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But there is just something about Kaiju that continues to bring us back, to reel us in, to invade our subconscious like an interdimensional being asleep under the ocean, subtly manipulating our thoughts like Cthulhu…

Maybe it is Cthulhu…

After all, Kaiju has remained on the fringes of pop culture… Not quite fully let into genre fiction… Lost in its own kind of subconsciousness.

But I think this is changing. It has to. Genre fiction has hit a wall… Editors seeking to improve Literary standing have turned a blind eye to pulp, where the best in genre is incubated. New ideas are not as welcome as publishers claim, if only because everyone is perched too precariously on the edge of print extinction…

But that has left a lot of us out in the cold… And that in turn has weeded out our ranks into those who will “do or write anything to get published” and those who have decided that prostitution of the soul is not worth a few moments of fame.

It is the second group that is bathing in Kaiju, marinating imagination, exploring the importance of good concept and toying with more Literary execution…NOT because some editor somewhere wants to see it, but because WE as writers want the challenge of DOING it…

Monsters are pure drugs that shoot through us intravenously… lodging in that primal place where the best Horror comes from.

Embrace Kaiju as a Horror subgenre? How could we not?

It’s already living there, stomping on the skyscrapers of all things standing between hope and humanity. What is not to love?

What is not to learn? Welcome to the Horror genre, Kaiju masters…

 

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ありがとうございましたArigatōgozaimashita…

For all that is yet to come!

 

References

Hood, Robert. Introduction. The Mammoth Books of Kaiju. Sean Wallace, ed. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2016.

Robinson, Jeremy. Foreward. Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters. Tim Marquitz and N.X. Sharps, Eds. Crestview Hills, KY: Ragnarok Publications, c2014.

The Witch: What a Bookless Film Teaches Us About Writing in Our Own Genre


You might not have noticed, but one of the more critically acclaimed Horror movies that you didn’t hear much of not long ago hit DVD/Bluray release. The Witch, a 2016 debut from Robert Eggers, came at us from the Sundance Film Festival. And it came bookless – without fanfare, and without the promise of a sequel.

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Yet in theaters and in DVD stores, the film has failed to ignite, the sales not so stellar.

Why do Critics and some fans give this film the highest of marks, when it does not resemble what we have come to expect from “successful” Horror films? And specifically, if you have watched it and did not feel affected, why not?

The answer would be because this film is not conventional Horror: it is about Horror – it is how Literary Horror looks when filmmakers understand the importance of punctuating their plots with something deeper than splashy effects. This is an important lesson for writers of Horror to understand…Because even if you choose to write in-genre and somewhat pulpy fiction, you need to grasp just how to utilize words, setting, symbols, and psychological effects and then be able to deftly select from a smorgasbord of actual history, folklore, superstition, and disease (social and literal) to better enhance your Horror – to layer it in the intent of getting under the skin like a parasite. It’s why films like Insidious (the first one) worked where the plot and acting was less dimensional – there it is the imagery and the suggestions it makes to our subconscious that delivers the shivers. But it is also why so much 1980’s Horror worked – why Classic Horror still works…

When these ingredients are properly combined, films like The Witch, The Exorcist and The Birds result. The reliance on jump scares may still be present, but they are to a much lesser degree – relying instead on the direct connection to the personal fears of human beings – whether it is the reality of the Devil and his army of demons, or a preternatural and unsettling unification of nature against humanity.

In The Witch, there are pretty strong references to fear, terror and real Horror the way most of us imagine it. Yet a large chunk of our audience – the Horror audience – was unimpressed. Indeed, the reviews aren’t particularly stellar – especially among movie-goers and subsequently – Horror fans: according to film review site Rotten Tomatoes, only 55% of viewers liked it. But 91% of Critics did. Why the point spread? And what does this say about our genre?

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Tricks Are For Kids, Silly Rabbit

One of the first clues is the subtitle “A Folk Tale.” This film unabashedly shows its lineage to the viewer. For a murky, moody tale surrounding the Salem witch trials, it is not about the Salem witch trials – but the atmosphere created by the paranoia and dread such rampant fear invokes. Nested within rests the possibility, the suggestion that witchcraft and its consequences are real…the extension of which is the possibility that for the witch, perhaps not all is as it is promised.

We forget that the time period in question birthed the phrase “witch hunt” – a frenzied, irrational attack on anyone unfortunate enough to warrant a finger-point, whose differences or poor luck or gender was enough to justify their own persecution, torture, and death. But we also forget that tucked neatly away within our own religion are warnings about such fraternization with things unseen, with the dangers of envy, the vulnerability of being faithless.

We also forget that caught in the middle of such historical moments are real people, fearing that their own reactions or behaviors – however innocent –might be misinterpreted, costing whole families everything. We forget how easy it was to acquiesce to the momentum of the moment rather than take a risk, to see that the price of loyalty might well be one’s own life. We forget – especially today and in this country – what it is to fear the accusation of another that leads directly to death.

This is the importance of history, and of this specific time in our history. Because if we don’t see the mistakes that were made, we cannot prevent their cousins from rising as specters in the future.

And yet we have already managed to forget.

We make light of witches, even as our unpalatable history rests intact in Salem, Massachusetts. We amuse ourselves with the idea that our ancestors were simply superstitious, gullible, ignorant – not enlightened like ourselves.

We also make light of witchcraft, chiding ourselves into believing that if we play at it, we might be in charge of pre-selected consequences; we might dabble, be amazed, and then escape. Yet such is warned against in all religions; because in all religions are unwritten rules, forgotten wisdom, hidden Horrors. And the greatest Horror of all is not that one would be detected, persecuted and put to death… but that any such engagements might carry extenuating clauses in their contracts – ones that call for sacrifice of those loved other than the self.

But bad things, if they happen, happen to others. And we are all pretty certain sitting under our electric lights, that it is all superstition anyway.

Is that why we can sit disaffected by such a film as The Witch?

Indeed, much of our own religion today minimizes the possibility of the supernatural, the reality of a witch, or a ghost or a demon – all while handing us biblical verses mentioning those very possibilities. We have separated ourselves from those passages, determined to make them “symbolic” or “parables” or “metaphors.”

This film asks what if they are not? What if they are more – be it in the mind or the making?

Primitive humanity has always allowed for the unseen. And perhaps that is the problem: we seek to disavow our primal fears from our new, glossy, sciencey selves.

It’s why so many viewers might have missed the symbolism of the rabbit. To get it… to let ourselves be made very afraid we have to engage the folklore that might have its origins in very primitive truths.

While modern Horror fans are conditioned like Pavlov’s Dogs to quiver at vampire love and laugh at the startled scream after a scary face leaps from the dark of the theater, real terror – real fear – has more to do with things not-seen and things once seen that cannot be unseen…things that follow you because you saw them.

Tricks are for kids. The thing that wants your soul has something else in its toolbag. And it hides those things in the ordinary.

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The Devil In the Details

If you’ve ever had a bout of the Serious Superstitious, you know that once that roller coaster ride gets started, danger is everywhere. This means that whether you are writing Horror or watching it on the Big Screen, it is important to provide layer after layer of detail. Accurate detail. The imagination cannot be allowed to escape, to dismiss the entity come for you because the scroll saw marks are on the wood of the clapboards.

This is how The Witch ensnares the wary, the skeptical, the Modern Human. The senses are so burdened by detail, by the weight of the period the viewer can almost smell the farm animals, the sweat, the decay of crops, the whiff of goat.

This is not the same dark forest of Hollywood, but the thick tangle of copse and ravine that cradle our folk and fairy lore – the ones that left their echoes outside our safe houses, in the skeletal, wet-black branch that claws at our windows in a storm, that still lives as a microcosm in our National Parks, and spills forth from children’s book illustrations. This is the dark wood our ancestors walked and succumbed to… a wood where death happens, and where a scream goes unheard and unanswered.

If you have never had the privilege of walking in a natural wood, you cannot imagine the depth of the darkness, the ease of disorientation, the uncanny sense of being watched… or stalked. Nor can you appreciate the stories of our folk heritage that came from such a place, the legitimacy that wilderness gives them.

Yet it is why we tore down the woods, killed the wolves and the bears, and planted our tame crops to feed our domesticated animals to ourselves. It’s how we beat The Witch… we tore down her temple.

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We hung our pictures of blond Jesus, and separated ourselves from all but the most sacred of miracles, we philosophized Hell, and electrocuted our ghosts.

Yet. What if? What if even some part of the parable were true?

This is how we build great prose. This is how the Horror classics still terrify. When we read classic Horror, we allow ourselves to identify with and in a sense become the character whose very times and place are darker and more indistinct than our own. We suspend our belief and accept that of the character.

Modern presentation of character and scene are not the same. The character goes into a house…a modern house, just like all the others. There is no depth of description because it has become a stage set upon which the all-important action will occur. Yet it is anticipation of action that equates to dread. Those moments of anticipation are laced with the observations made by the mind – the analysis of shadow, the assessment of danger, the awareness of the rise of adrenaline, the shakiness in the legs and hands. All of that is dependent on detail.

So much detail. Like the tangles of knots in Celtic design meant to entrap the curiousity of fairies, rendering them harmless…the writer or filmmaker must overload the senses for mistakes and miscalculations to be made. We have to be ensnared. For that, we have to be persuaded to believe.

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Bookless, She Came From the Woods to Terrify Us All

I find it wonderful that this film comes without a book or promise of sequel. It is a folktale – a warning, a tale of caution.

There is so much here for the writer to learn from another artist’s medium. This is storytelling. At no moment does the viewer not feel the connection being made to much older stories – actual accounts of such things being used by Eggers to fortify his imagery. In this film, the story is firmly rooted in Horror tradition, in folktale tradition, in fairytale tradition… yet it is no also-ran. It is an outgrowth, another link in the chain of evidence of such storytelling. It is a modern rendition of the folktale told using the harsh and vulnerable times of Colonial America to do so.

This is a lesson in how to build on tradition in the way the British have managed… This is what has been so lacking in contemporary American Horror.

If a writer is willing to really watch this film, there are important lessons here about story-telling and the best delivery method for Horror: the primal one already there, just under the skin, just under the surface – the one that creates surface tension like the skin on water.

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This is not your ordinary night at the campfire, but the slowly unfolding tale of all that goes unforgivably wrong in human interaction and hides somewhere between deceit and coincidence. It is about failure, and desperation, and need for answers. It is about the things that hear you in your darkest moments and most hopeless prayers. It is about choices and faith and the relentless stalk of the predator upon the alleged innocent.

It is also about how we look at misfortune, how we primitively expect good behavior to be rewarded with all manner of blessings: how we seek to lay blame and accusation to rationalize and rebalance…Life. And then it is about how far we will all go to restore the balance – to re-conjure our own illusions about ourselves. How quickly do we turn… Such is the makings of some of the world’s greatest Literature – the rationalizations for so many oppressions and genocides and wars, for exploiting children and locking up women, for labelling people criminals and fanatics and less equal, for silencing whole generations and rewriting history… for hunting, trying, and burning witches.

That which does not or cannot conform is a threat to our theory of how the world works. Therein resides the deepest of human Horrors pressed out of the fabric of our secret fears.

Sometimes you have to sneak up on an audience, dragging them deep into the imagery of their own making… to hold up mirrors. This is why The Witch works for some and not others: some are afraid to see what else is reflected in the glass, to allow it out…

Critics love this film because so many layers offer so many interpretations of what the film symbolizes: the role of the nonexistent apple tree and its connection to original sin, the questions about faith and afterlife and coming of age of our nation, the nod to the dark ages of superstition coiled in the body of a recurring rabbit.

But there is so much more for the Horror fan, should he or she be willing to admit that the contemporary explosion in jump-scare Horror and found footage is a phase. Sure, such films are great for grabbing your significant other or reasonable facsimile in the theater; they are a summertime blast.

But do you really want to be scared? Exorcist-scared?

Then you’ll have to let go of the bar. Because Horror is bigger than flashlights under the chin.

Horror is about the Big Questions that unsettle us all.

You have to be willing to ask yourself just how much of the real world is real, and how much is illusion. You might even have to wonder about life and death and what comes after, that if it is anything at all, there may be players in the game you cannot see and whose motivations you cannot sate or outmaneuver.

You might have to admit that we live at the mercy of others and the luck of fate, that we may have success or long life because we managed to avoid the notice of Others.

They say that most Horror writers do not believe in what they write about. Perhaps this is so. But I tend to think that at our very primal core, none of us is sure. We live according to our theories, and sometimes we think that the supernatural is a fun place in which to scare ourselves silly.

But if you really want to scare your audience or be scared with the audience, you have to be willing to surrender your talismans and amulets. You have to turn out the lights. You have to go naked into the forest, to wonder if you would have the courage to accept a terrifying death and be lost to the world, or whether you would be just curious enough – just innocent enough – to stray into the darkness and expect to outsmart what lies coiled there.

In the film, the protagonist is asked if she would like “to see the world, to live life deliciously”… What is most telling is how the audience wants her to say yes…even having glimpsed the hellish truth of the misery that drives the witch of the wood just to keep young and potent. Is the protagonist Eve, or ourselves?

We are never told what conditions await the signatory of such a contract with the devil. We are too busy imagining what the offer means, too busy justifying the needs and subsequent choices being made. And in the end we are left to wonder about our own roles and choices in the world.

We are left to wonder what this creature is, this Witch.

Is she us – bargaining away the lives and fortunes of others so that we might live the way we believe we are entitled to?

Have we mistaken desire for need for so long that we don’t want to know what happened to the baby, and we don’t see the tears behind the laughter as our protagonist is lifted in flight?

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Do we not care about the coworker we volunteered for lay-off, or the civilians caught in the crossfire of our wars? And isn’t that the Horror?

A lot has been said about The Witch as one of the genre’s best offerings in decades. A lot of Horror fans apparently don’t agree.

What I find unfortunate, is that this could mean we are not-seeing exactly what makes the Horror genre great: its ability to take the mundane, the everyday, the culture of contemporary society, and make it monstrous.

It could mean a percentage of Horror fans don’t want to think about why they might be afraid of something: they just want a good time.

Those are the Horror fans who will probably age out of the genre.

Because what stays with you in Horror is the stuff you can’t get out of your head…. And I’m not talking about old lady butts (of which I have one and it does indeed get scarier every day, but it is not Horror Mr. Shyamalan).

I am talking about the contracts we make every day with the devil… about that darker unknown that lurks in the woods of our minds, that fails us when we should have been better, and that eats our flesh and bargains our souls for a few more seconds of youth.

Horror is about the real world and the many things that crouch within it. It is about the long, patient stalk of a predator, and sometimes, about dying well. It is about what makes itself known when we are at our most vulnerable.

When it combines well with an audience educated in all of its nuances, such a story – whether on film or between two covers – is received like Hitchcock or Poe. But the catch is this: if we lose and continue to lose our connection to real life, then we are losing our Horror vocabularythe most valuable tool in our storytelling arsenal.

As writers we are unable to convey what raises the goosebumps on our own skins, to name the Horror – to conjure it behind the eyes of our audience. Nothing resonates because nothing is there. This is exactly how we have come to this place in Horror where nothing – and I mean nothing – is scary enough.

Without a shared vocabulary that includes an understanding of humanity and a willingness to be led virtually anywhere in our torrid and shameful human history, film goers and book readers will simply not get it… and Horror will continue to descend into less-scary, less meaningful works that currently mirror the two dimensions of what we have come to see as “normal” – and worseto consider as acceptable work in our genre.

If you want to write effective Horror, this means you will have to get your hands dirty. You need to crawl into that cave and summon spirits. You need accuracy and detail and the ability to overwhelm the needs of your audience. That means you need to understand where we come from – that very primal place where so many unlikeable things are possible, and happy endings do not come from stories with witches in them.

You need to story-tell. And that means first, you have to listen.

So pull up a bearskin. Study folklore and fairy tales. Tell ghost stories. Ponder those warnings in the Scriptures and other Holy Books. And watch The Witch… Let your mind slowly take in all in… And then watch it again.

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