Friday, July 24, 2009

The Basics: Horror

As we continue our week-long effort to provide in-depth posts on different fandoms, so far, we are both still employed. So, there's that. Yes, we missed Monday. And yes, we'll now have to post on Sunday, but hey. We're trying here.

Anytransition, today I'd like to talk about horror, and my affection for the medium. Um...genre. Whatever. If you follow this blog regularly, you can tell that much of my comics reading tends to lean towards the horror side of the spectrum. Sure, I read a bunch (read: way too much) of other stuff as well, but just about every week I am on the lookout for another horror title to add to my pile.

When it comes to literature, I'm very much the same way. I read just about everything. As a matter of fact, I just finished a sci-fi title called The Somnambulist and I'm currently reading a book called No Man's Lands, which is written by a guy who travels to each location in Homer's Odyssey. I'm also making my way through Giuseppe Di Lampedusa's The Leopard, about Sicily in the 1860s.

So my reading is pretty much all over the map, and I am always on the hunt for new writers and titles. But the one constant in my reading pile has always been horror fiction, from old school Stephen King to post modern noir horror such as Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt novels. I don't know what it is about horror that keeps me coming back, but I guess I'll be exploring that over the course of this post.

I'd like to start off by saying that, no matter what some people say, horror fiction is most definitely a genre of literature. And, more importantly, it's a legitimate genre of literature. And today I'd like to mention some of my favorite horror works, be them in prose or in comics, movies or television, and talk a bit about how and why I got into such things.

Before I go any further, though, I should say that I don't like being scared.

What I mean is, I know there are some folks who go to every horror movie that's playing just because they need that rush of adrenaline, that visceral reaction that horror hounds crave. I am definitely not that person. I put the importance on watching a good movie before watching a scary movie.

For example, The Exorcist is, in my opinion at least, the most frightening movie ever made.

The Exorcist posterBut more important to me is the overall quality of the flick, from the script to the acting to the cinematography. And in all of those fields, The Exorcist shines. Don't get me wrong, it's not a movie I watch more than once every few years if it's on television, but still, it's a quality film with powerful themes and great performances by the cast.

And my take is that Exorcist , while being incredibly disturbing and most certainly rooted in horror (and therefore out to make the audience scream), is still a great film. It's pretty much the oldest story ever told--good versus evil for the sake of the children.

You know, all that.

And what we get from this movie--a film that received as much negative press from religious groups as any up to its release--is something altogether uplifting. Now, hang on. Let me finish.

[And, even though it was released over 30 years ago...Spoiler Alert for anyone who hasn't seen the film.]




The Priest dies at the end. Both Priests, actually.

But the little girl, Regan, lives, and she does so because of the selfless actions of Father Damien Karras and Father Lenkester Merrin, who both sacrifice their lives for hers. That's pure, simple good overcoming pure, simple evil. The real debate about the movie is the final scene in the bedroom, as Karras invites the demonic entity that plagued Regan into his own body.

He is overtaken by the demon, and his eyes turn black. But, for a brief moment, we see very clearly that Karras' eyes return to normal. The very next action is his jumping out of Regan's window, down several flights of stairs to his death.

Some argue that the demon won, as it gained possession of Karras and caused his death. Others, me included, argue that Karras was, in that briefest of moments, in complete control of his actions. He knew the only way to kill the demon was to go out that window and down those stairs.

Father Karras won. Case closed. And in doing so, he managed to save a young girl's life.

And that's how I like my horror, with some sort of redemptive quality to it. When, in the end, we see that all the monsters can actually be beaten and humanity can triumph. I suppose that's why I don't much like the splatter flicks of the 1980s, and the killing machine bad guy who can't be stopped. And, in fact, continues to not be stopped through sequel after sequel.

That's just not my bag, though. There's enough true horror in the world today, there are enough dead bodies on the news every night. I don't need to see gallons of red corn syrup and chainsaws, thanks.

I like horror that makes you think. Horror that makes you, as the reader or the viewer, come up with your own images of the thing that lurks in the shadows. I like horror that has a point, a deeper meaning.

Here are some of my favorite horror stories, movies, and whatever else. Hopefully it's a diverse list, and hopefully you can take something away that you'll enjoy. Anyway, here goes:

It Starts With Poe

Edgar Allan, that is. I'm sure there's no need to introduce Poe to anyone today, but his contemporaries didn't think much of him. Poe died penniless and alone (not to mention drunken) on the streets of Baltimore, known more as a critic than as an author is his own right.

But he was the master of the macabre, and anyone who hasn't read The Fall of the House of Usher, or The Raven, or The Tell Tale Heart really is missing some of the most cerebral, frightening writing of the past two centuries.

Stoker. Bram Stoker.

I love vampire lore and fiction, and really, it all starts with Stoker’s turn of the century masterpiece. Another author who was known more for being something else (in Stoker’s case, assistant to Henry Irving, the big theater star of the day), Stoker’s Dracula was not well received.

At all.

Readers, and critics, of the day saw Dracula as a cute little something, easily forgotten, written by Irving’s assistant, the heavy set guy at all the big, social events of the time period.

Photo of Bram StokerStoker made very little money off the novel, and, despite his several, solid short horror stories before and after Dracula was published, and some other longer works, Stoker died before any of the dramatizations of his most famous novel were performed. His wife, seeing that her late husband’s work may actually be worth something after all, fought tooth and nail to retain the book’s copyright and even sued, and defeated, the filmmakers of the German expressionist classic silent film, Nosferatu over the naming rights.

Hence the film’s eventual title and name change for the Dracula character. Obviously, none of these things helped Stoker much since, unlike his most famous literary creation, Bram was very much dead...and staying that way.

Still, Dracula stood up to the test of time and the story and its characters have become ingrained into popular culture. Looking at the novel through post modern eyes, Dracula can be seen as a warning against the coming advances in technology at the turn of the century, a cautionary tale about foreigners “invading” London, and even a cry for help written by an author who was more than a little conflicted in his sexual orientation.

Dracula book coverBut, at its heart, Dracula is a gothic cornerstone, a horror classic that simply must be on any true horror fan’s bookshelf. It’s one of the very few longer works that I’ve read several times, and was able to find more enjoyable after each encounter (Moby Dick and Waiting for Godot are the two others that spring immediately to mind).

If you enjoy vampire fiction, or movies and television shows with vampire themes, and you haven’t yet read Dracula, then you are doing yourself a great disservice.

Forget Shakespeare, Kit Marlowe was the Bee’s Knees

There’s only one writer who has his own section in bookstores today, and that’s Will Shakespeare. (Granted, in most chain stores, Stephen King is pretty darn close!) But, during his time, Shakespeare was seen as inferior to one of his contemporaries, Christopher Marlowe.

Every time I pass by the Shakespeare aisle, I have to stop and wonder what Marlowe must be thinking, wherever he is. Probably something similar to how Henry Irving feels when blog readers go, who the heck is that? I mean, try finding Marlowe's The Complete Plays in a Borders. Usually, there’s one copy, and it’s ALWAYS after the last tome on or by old Will.

Anyway, Marlowe’s work is certainly more deserving of remembrance than Henry Irving’s, and personally, I’ll take Kit over Bill any day of the week. I took a class in college, taught by one of the leading Marlowe scholars (I know, he’s probably one of three), and I re-read all of his plays.

For this post, however, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is most pertinent, as it involves a deal with the devil and the horrors that follow such a pact.

The Tragical History of Doctor FaustusFaustus, similar in theme and characters to Goethe’s Faust, tells the ageless story of a man who craves immortality and the answers to questions he has no business ever knowing.

Faustus decides that it’s in his best interest to make a deal with the devil--buying him years of life and access to magic in the process. Of course, this goes poorly, and Marlowe explores the consequences in this epic play.

You probably encountered Faustus in school, but if you haven't revisited the work since, you should try it without those pesky deadlines and essays all of our teachers made us write.

The Grandfather of Modern Horror

Stephen King may be the most famous horror writer to come along in a century, and, love him or hate him, you have to acknowledge the breadth and creativity of his body of work. He is prolific in his writing and his stories are so engaging that every one of them gets snatched up to be made into a movie.

And when it comes to marketability and sheer public appeal, there’s really only a handful of other horror writers who can match King. In my opinion, one of those writers, Richard Matheson, stands above the rest.

Actually, Stephen king himself calls Matheson his biggest influence, and for good reason. Even if you don’t know the name, it’s likely you know the works. Ever see that Twilight Zone episode with Captain Kirk and the thing on the wing of the plane?

Sure you have.

Well, that story was written by Richard Matheson and collected in one of several volumes of short fiction. How about I Am Legend? Will Smith running around the heck he was dodging in that movie? Yep, it was adapted from Matheson’s original tale.

And, while in the Smith version, there are mutants and dogs and other people running around an otherwise barren New York City, the real Legend deals with vampires and one, single remaining human being. It’s a tale of survival that, after reading it, I immediately thought of movies like Dawn of the Dead and comics work like 30 Days of Night.

I Am Legend book coverI Am Legend is, simply put, the greatest vampire story ever written. A bold statement? Sure it is. But I’d fight you over it.

It’s one man’s fight to survive in a world that has turned completely into vampires. And, while vampires are the most immediate threat, it’s the sense of loneliness that comes from the main character’s complete isolation from humanity that runs through the heart of this novel. Legend is thought provoking and scary in a cerebral sense. Anyone out there who loves zombie films, and despises Twilight, should check out Legend. It is well worth your time, and it comes with the Official Exfanding Stamp of Approval.

So you know it’s good.

And, for those of you who love a good haunted house story, Matheson’s Hell House is considered by many to be the finest example of that particular sub-genre ever penned. It moves at an incredible pace, and it is just flat out creepy. Another favorite of mine.

He Created Conan, Didn’t He?

Robert E. Howard is, as I’ve written in the past, one of the most underrated American authors. Working primarily for the pulp magazines of the 1920s, Howard churned out tale after tale of swords, sorcery, and the fantastic. He is the creator of legendary pulp heroes like Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja, but he also wrote some of the great, early 20th century American horror.

Along with his friend H.P. Lovecraft, Howard thrilled readers of pulp magazines like Weird Tales with bizarre and unsettling stories of the macabre. Howard's horror classics, like Pigeons From Hell and The Children of the Night, are known for their intensity in the buildup to the final reveal.

A lesser known creation, Howard's Solomon Kane is a Puritan who roams the earth to rid it of evil spirits. It's classic pulp-meets-horror, and I highly recommend that everyone checks out Hills of the Dead and The Castle of the Devil. Classic, classic stuff.

Solomon Kane book coverBefore I Go, a Post Modern Selection

If you read comics, you might know the name Charlie Huston. He's written Marvel characters Moon Knight and Wolverine in the recent past. But I discovered Huston's prose fiction about a year before his Marvel work started to ship, and man am I glad I did.

Huston's writing is frenetic and visceral, and his is a wholly unique voice in the neo-noir genre today. Huston's Joe Pitt Case Files are about the vampire underground of New York City, and it follows bruiser Joe Pitt around as he navigates the vampire infrastructure of clans and gangs. Huston released the third Joe Pitt novel at the tail end of last year.

Entitled Half the Blood of Brooklyn, Huston’s latest foray into the life and times of vampire enforcer Joe Pitt proves to be just as smash mouth as the previous two volumes, while going in some strange, new, and intriguing directions.

Huston’s trademark fast-as-lightning prose reads like a graphic novel should; kind of like an angry Frank Miller without the limitations of the Comics Code. Huston’s style is refreshing and unique, with no pauses to attribute quotations to characters.

The reader always knows exactly who’s talking, though, and Huston has the one-after-another cadence of real life speech down pat. Huston is so good at characterization through dialogue that one could randomly flip to any page, put a finger down on a quote and instantly recognize who is speaking. Interestingly, one could argue that Huston’s prose actually reads more like a graphic novel than his comics do.

In addition to the grittiness that's omnipresent in Huston's writing, Brooklyn provides a surprising amount of heart and soul. There are some moments that will take Pitt enthusiasts by surprise, as alliances change quicker than the characters speak.

But, if this is the type of thing you think you might be into, start with book one, Already Dead.

Speaking of being already dead, I'm just about tapped out with this post. There's way more I'd like to include, but at the very least I'd like to talk briefly about the affinity I have for John Carpenter's 1978 horror classic, Halloween.

Halloween movie posterAs I said way at the top of this post, I'm not a big fan of slasher films, which is a bit of a dichotomy, since Halloween is essentially responsible for the deluge of such movies in the 1980s. Halloween did to horror movies what Dark Knight Returns did to comics. It showed people something new, while using old tropes, and it was imitated endlessly. Usually not well.

Halloween's villain (or hero, if you're a crazy person) is of course Michael Myers, and he haunts the movie just as he hunts the onscreen characters. The killer is always on the fringes of the film, and while we see the approach to a murder, we don't see much of the murders themselves.

What John Carpenter knew was that the viewer would come up with way more frightening scenarios than the filmmakers ever could. So he turns the tables on the viewer, and leaves the gory stuff to our imagination.

Halloween is an almost entirely bloodless film, which makes you really stop and go, wait, then why did all the subsequent slasher flicks have so much of the red stuff? But that's what makes the original so great, and so scary. The viewer provides the horror.

I could go on, but as I said, I'm about beat, so here's how I'll wrap things up. As you can see from my recommendations, I like very classic, somewhat "tame" (at least in violence and gore) horror stories and writers.

Finally, there's obviously an incredible amount of stuff that I didn't get to mentioning, but that's where you guys come in. As you've been doing, please leave some comments with your thoughts on the genre. We appreciate it!

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