Saturday, May 2, 2009

On My Morbid Streak.

For those of you who don't know me in person (and I suspect there are very few of you), let me describe myself as short, blond, curly-haired, and plump. In short, I look exactly like a character named Mary would in a 1950s-era picture book. I'm afraid that I even look good in pale pink.

That being said, it's a bit of a disappointment that I'm not tall, pale, and raven-haired, because, man, do I have a morbid streak.

Last night I had a dream that I was shot in the back of the head, while I was kneeling--execution style. Actually it was a good thing, because I believe the dream-reality other option was hanging from the neck until dead and dream-me figured the head-shot would be painless. It wasn't. But I stood up and haunted my executioner for the remainder of the dream. A pretty disturbing narrative to wake up from for the ward intramural soccer game. And a pretty awesome one.

My junior high cartoon alter-ego was Suzy Slaughterhouse. I've read every single Edgar Allen Poe story. And Ray Bradbury. And Ambrose Bierce. I tell a doozy of a ghost story; my roommates couldn't get to sleep for hours when I told them the story of Nail-backed Riley. My sister still gets nightmares about the ending of The Living Dead, which involves a baseball bat to the forehead in a suburban basement. When I write, suspenseful horror is kind of my default.

You know that old saw about not wanting to be a part of any club that would let you in? That's how I feel about horror. You may have noticed that my taste in horror is 70-175 years old. I hate slasher flicks. Even some of the contemporary "masters" are so widely hit and miss (eg: Stephen King's Carrie--genius. Stephen King's remake of Kingdom Hospital--honestly, a giant anteater? and who would beleive the conceit of an artist actually making millions? pshw...) that I wonder what their driving philosophy of horror could be. And what kind of person admits to loving horror? Visions of Columbine dance in our heads. I always have to be so guarded when I tell people what I like to read, what I write. "It's like...old school horror, like in sci-fi, old school know, a lot of lead up, very deep, ever see Stalker? Read any Guy de Maupassant..?" At that point, I've already embarrassed myself.

My style is still inchoate, of course, but here are some of my general philosophical principles of how I write horror:

1. People really matter. Respect them.

Don't kill people indiscriminately, and don't make them look stupid when they die. I hate this in horror movies perhaps more than anything else. It's like it's a joke on the side of the writers: "Oh, dudes, what if this next guy dies by swallowing an eel that eats him from inside? Yeah! Eel-guy!" Goodness, have some respect for the fictional guy's fictional family. Even if someone dies in an unusual way, the horror shouldn't come from the novetly of the act, but rather the discomfort we feel in our own mortal skins. Horror should make people feel awe for the fraility of our own existence, not disgust and humor of the icks and bits of the body. It's best to think judgiciously about every death, realizing that this is a person that's dying here. A story with a single death, well contemplated, can be more useful than a pile of corpses and some girl crying "everyone's dying!" This is the horror equivilent of the ranchy sex comedy.

2. Death is scary.

It's true. Even people with the most certain perspectives on the afterlife understand what a leap death is. It's like the virgin's wedding night, full of trepidation and sense of everything changing. It's arguably the biggest life change a person can experience. The indiscriminy of death, the irrationality, the universality of it is haunting enough. Give us time to reflect on this. Let us mourn a little. Or let us sit in anticipatory horror a little. There are plenty of experiences in each person's life that have caused personal, real-life trepidation and horror--connect into that, and you have plenty to give thrills.

3. Human nature is scary, too.

Jonestown. Kosovo. Darfur. "Man's inhumanity to man" yeilds a wide and fertile feild of fear. Even less genecidal examples give us plenty of pause in real life--the account of a Puritan woman who reported threw her infant down a well so that she would know for certain that she was damned has haunted ever since I came across it in a survey of literary history course. The best literary horrors remind us of how close these horrors are to our own lives. The very best make us pause and wonder: am I capable, too, of even that? (Correlary: vicarious experience can be very useful for everyone, but this must be done respectfully, not in the thrill-slasher way that makes bad people prepared to do worse. It's important to remember point #1 in acheiving this.)

I'll have to think long and hard about my general principles. A lot of it, though, has to do with remembering that you audience has plenty to be scared of, already.


Makayla said...

This was a fascinating post. I'm not huge into horror (okay, I'll admit it, I'm a first rate wimp when it comes to such things), but I thought your guiding principles were great, and it made me wonder if you've ever read Outer Dark, Child of God, or Blood Meridian (all McCarthy novels). They certainly aren't your typical horror stories, but your comments about fear of death and humanity brought them to mind. And I "liked" all of them. :)

Dave and Margaret said...

What a neat list of guiding writing principles for tasteful "horror"!

Speaking of which, did I tell you recently read Dracula? I think it exemplifies your 3 principles really well.

mlh said...

Man, Dracula is pretty awesome. Most of the original horror books are...there's a short story that was on Classic Tales awhile ago that was a precursor to Dracula. I wish I could remember the name of it. The vampire man is originally just considered a selfish prig who "ruins" girls. Very sociological stuff.

xister said...

Remember when we watched "The Ring" because each of us thought that the other one wanted to see it. And that there were pipes going through the wall behind us. Yep. I remember that.

Christian said...

The strange thing is that horror isn't really working/surviving terribly well as a genre unto itself, at least not as much in written fiction. From what I hear, at least, a lot of it is getting sucked up into "urban fantasy" where you have plots with vampires and I think a lot of it takes the mystery out of it, making it a new fantasy world with nasty supernatural things in it rather than a truly scary possibility of this world. I'd be interested to hear what you think about that? Would you ever write urban fantasy style, or would you want to couch yourself more firmly in the possible?

Emily Lyman said...

Mary I still have nightmares about your short story of exicution. AAAAAGGG. I think you have an amazing gift for this sort of thing. I think you do because of your rules. We care more about your people because you care about them. This is why your stuff is so scary.