A Scenic Harvest From The Kingdom Of Pain
If you’re serious about writing modern, cutting-edge horror, you’re going to have to learn to like hurting people’s feelings.
This was never a problem for me, as I’ve always possessed a gift for it. But as I’ve worked to build a façade of convincing maturity, I’ve tried to find new ways to articulate the passionate reaction real-world horror inspires in me. I’ve tried to be less exploitative of real pain and distress, because despite what many may misapprehend about our genre, the end goal should be to control fear, not to try to create it.
I’m not talking about advocating
a controversial political point of view. If you have some ideological kidney stone you need to pass so badly that alienating at least half your potential readership is of no concern, then no sane advice is going to dissuade you. You can’t do any kind of horror without taking on the real universal states of pain and death, while fears of madness, deformity, disease and torture are very real because they happen to someone else, everyday.
If you’re just trying to tell a story that deals in real pain, and brings confusing but stirring issues into sharper relief, some care should be taken so that the message of your story hits home, without making readers dismiss you as a flaming demagogue, or a callow ghoul.
They say that tragedy plus time equals comedy, but the raw, rough ore of confrontational writing is most authentic when emotions still run hot, and should be put down as soon as the feelings can be reduced to words. But then the author should step back and take a long look at the work and ask themselves not if it’s going to hurt someone’s feelings. Take that for granted, but ask yourself, with that assumption made, do you really mean to? Do you need to?
In the wake of 9/11, our media culture did a brief about-face on depictions of violence, and many works which seemed hardcore and neat on September 10, suddenly seemed trite and insensitive. Collateral Damage, Schwarzenegger’s 2001 terrorist revenge porno, was set adrift to sink by an embarrassed studio. Shows that satirized current events retreated into hiatus or reruns, and many pundits declared the death of irony. But clearly, these clowns never looked it up in the dictionary, because the biting latitude between intended and actual meaning bubbled up like radon in the media’s attempts to smooth over the traumatized collective unconscious.
The best examples were on radio, where a bunch of songs spiked with glibly violent imagery suddenly seemed uncomfortable, like inviting a miscarriage mom to a baby shower. Clear Channel dropped a long list of verboten tunes, from Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner” to Van Halen’s “Jump,” and anything from Rage Against The Machine. British post-grunge band Bush really put their foot in it with their single “Speed Kills,” which featured the lyric, “at my best when I’m terrorist inside.” This harmless bit of faux-radical nonsense only hoped to cop a little of the edgy menace associated with terrorism. Gavin Rossdale was only trying to terrorize our musical sensibilities, but after 9/11 drove home for all Americans the real pain and misery that terrorists cause, “Speed Kills” was yanked, then re-released as “The People That We Love.” The offending lyric was redubbed, “at my best when I’m maverick inside.” And America’s long national nightmare was finally over.
Many other bands, when faced with the ugly dilemma of eating their work or self-censoring, opted for the latter. Fallout Boy prototypes Sugarcult changed the chorus of “Stuck In America” from “Everybody’s talking about blowing up the neighborhood,” to “…waking up the neighborhood,” while Jimmy Eats World retitled their album “Bleed,” instead of “Bleed American,” though the song had nothing to do with violence or terrorism, at all.
All of which has nothing and everything to do with writing horror fiction. Only one or two controversial mass-market books percolate up into mass-media consciousness at a time, because the media makes little time for books they haven’t written themselves. After the Oklahoma City bombing, the reprehensible race war fantasy The Turner Diaries gained fame as McVeigh’s half-assed tactical manual. But most books written after and about real tragic events get a pass, because even if they genuinely intend to set off a bomb, they are isolated terrorist events, explosions going off only between the reader’s ears.
But I was faced with a very similar dilemma with my second novel, Ravenous Dusk, and when faced with the choice of braving it out with something potentially exploitative and insensitive or changing my work, I chose the latter as well. Even though nobody would have pilloried me on The Today Show for exploiting or mocking the tragedy of 9/11––or the suffering and despair of terminal cancer patients, or the heartbreak of psoriasis––I decided that it only takes one genuinely disgusted writer to make you, objectively, a douchebag.
Without giving too much away, a scene late in Ravenous Dusk has the hero in a fight on a passenger jet en route to Hawaii. For a lot of reasons that seemed important at the time, I wanted to crash the plane, so the hero could walk out of the wreckage, which seemed more intense than just saying repeatedly that he could probably kick your ass.
But 9/11 changed everything.
Sadly, I am stricken with a distressing shortage of natural respect for the dead. It’s about as much reverence as I typically feel for people getting off the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland while I’m getting on. It happens to everyone, yet we drive ourselves crazy trying to game the situation.
While I wasn’t worried about 9/11 widows or Oprah knocking down my door, I was suddenly concerned with the weight of a planeload of fictional people on my conscience. I asked myself what every good terrorist, or mediocre rock singer, should ask themselves before committing an act: does this do or say, what I want it to? Is the extremity of it worth the pain it will cause the people I just made up and did it to?
In all too much horror fiction, these questions clearly don’t get asked often enough. When a single coed is skewered by a slasher or devoured by zombies, it scares us based on our sense that it could happen to us, or someone we love. The skillful writer puts us in the scene, but if the carnage is contrived without an insight into real fear and pain, it rings hollow, whether the menace is ripped from today’s headlines or the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. The effect gets magnified a thousandfold when writers try to wipe out a whole world full of such weakly realized effigies. War Of The Worlds and Cloverfield got basted by some sensitive critics for exploiting the images and conditioned responses from 9/11, but they got mixed results out of trying to show one man’s view of an apocalypse. The specter of real tragedy should be like a tool in the workshed that you only use when you’re seriously going to harm something. Measure twice before cutting, but if you’re shy about picking it up, maybe you shouldn’t, or seek other work.
Don’t tell readers what to think or how to react; tell them what to think about by showing them the unforgettable and the unacceptable. Raise questions, by what you write, and answer them, if you can. Put yourself in the victim’s shoes; ask yourself how you would feel, reading the story in question, if the subject matter hit home.
A final example of this where I do possess a nerve that occasionally transmits disturbing sensations of empathy. In the end of Frank Darabont’s The Mist, the script takes a detour that many feel is an outrageous squandering of the film’s goodwill, and a cheap shot at the original work. While I usually err on the side of the literary purists, I loudly applauded what Darabont did, because someone in my childhood took their own life, and I was, frankly, a little sick of seeing it romanticized as a final solution.
It seemed like the solemn decision to end it all, rather than face a worse fate, had been abused by too many horror stories to grab an intensity they otherwise hadn’t earned. In the end, while I hold the sanctity of human life and of that growing between my teeth in equally high esteem (sincerely), I think routine use of suicide trivializes a mortally heavy issue, and wanders away from the theme most of these stories seem to be setting out, from the beginning. At what point is life not worth living? For an author to place that weight in a character’s hands is no big deal, he can do it a thousand times before breakfast, but each death cheapens the others a little, even when they’re made up.
When Darabont repudiated what Drayton did, he seemed well aware of the gravity of the situation, and eloquently raised the question of whether Drayton’s duty to his son, to all humankind, was to stay alive and die defending his son against any sliver of hope for survival. That’s what animals do, and it’s the reason why there are still animals, despite our best efforts. Your opinion of The Mist was probably a little different… but speaking as someone whose reality-roughened feelings were enervated by what I saw on the screen, I was also rewarded with a rich debate, rather than a sense that someone had taken a cheap stab at my pain in a cheesy movie.