Jones wrote songs. A boy told him, “I hear your songs coming out your window every day I go to school. They make me want to sing.”
Jones kept writing songs. No one else sang them. When he was old he realized he’d been creating songs his whole life for no one but this kid he met once for a few minutes.
Jones died and was supposed to be buried in potter’s field, but was mistakenly put in the grave of a woman who’d left eight children. They left flowers whenever they visited Jones’ grave, which was often.
I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson has been an influence on writers and filmmakers since it appeared in the fifties, most notably on George Romero, who has acknowledged it as an influence on NIGH OF THE LIVING DEAD. There have been three official adaptations, but no version has captured the book faithfully. The book’s ending is particularly problematic for movie makers (spoilers ahead).
The novel is about an atomic war that leads to the release of a disease that turns everyone into a vampire, with the one exception being Robert Neville. Living in Los Angeles, Neville spends his days staking vampires where he finds them and his nights barricaded in his house. Neville meets a woman who may be a vampire, but may be a survivor. In the potent ending we learn that our hero is seen by some as the boogeyman of a new generation–he’s a legend.
In the sixties, Matheson wrote a screenplay for a UK production which didn’t happen due to censorship issues. The script ended up with Robert Lippert, an American producer, and since it was written by an excellent writer with screenwriting experience based on his own book, it was, of course, completely rewritten (Matheson’s pen name “Logan Swanson” is credited). The result was THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, in which our regular American hero is played by Vincent Price in Italy. Taken on its own, it’s not bad: The imagery of the burning pit, for example, echoes the cover art of one IAL paperback cover, and the slow-moving zombies do resemble Romero’s.
Yes, I wrote “zombies.” LMOE has Price staking the vampires he finds, including some who sleep in direct sunlight, which should’ve tipped him off to the existence of other folks who aren’t vampires, but they behave the way zombies do. Why are these vampire people acting like zombies? I dunno. It’s also confusing when the non-vampires/non-Vincent Price folks show up, in uniforms and vehicles–you’d think Price would’ve become aware of them before now, since they’d be out and about in the daylight. The ending has these new people killing Price, but it makes little sense in context, since they don’t care about any of that “legend” stuff, they just kill anyone who isn’t on their team. There is some affection for this version, but if you’re not a huge Vincent Price fan it just looks like a terrible version of a great novel.
Next up was THE OMEGA MAN, which Matheson denounced for being nothing like his novel. This time there is no mention of vampirism. Instead we get biological warfare which wipes everyone out, except for Charlton Heston, who injects himself with the cure he invented, with those infected by the plague becoming albinos in black robes.
OM reveals the mindset of producers and screenwriters of the early seventies when dealing with genre books when we see what has been emphasized and what has been ignored. The idea of the man becoming the new legend, the new monster, is sort of dealt with early on. The albinos consider him the last remaining member of the Old Ways, and he must be burned in the cleansing fire. The albinos could blow him away easily except they have prohibited the use of automatic weapons and technology (catapults being naturally-occurring items, I guess). So night after night they show up at Neville’s doorstep. Setting fire to the whole block doesn’t seem to occur to these people who set fire to things as a matter of course. The albinos are a spin on Charles Manson’s “Family,” see, following their leader, a former T.V. news anchor. (I’m not going to make the leap to our current president, because that’d be moronic, and I’m sick of seeing his name in every article on every topic I read these days.) This is how moviemakers tried to be “relevant,” you see. The novel’s Ruth is now a militant black chick, well-played by Rosalind Cash like she stepped out of a Pam Grier flick. She protects a group of kids who haven’t been infected by the plague, and Neville sees an opportunity to save the world, using his blood. The Christian symbolism climaxes with Neville in a Christ-like pose. While this gets a lot of crap from people, methinks thou protests too much, for one simple reason: It’s appropriate. When you’ve got a story about the world being saved by a man’s blood, such a choice is legit in a junky scifi/action movie. This ending seems to annoy a lot of people, but it’s in keeping with science fiction movies using mythical and religious imagery.
For a much-mocked SF action flick starring Charlton Heston, scourge of all that is good in the eyes of the left, OMEGA MAN is enjoyable on its own terms (here we go again–why can’t they just make a plain GOOD movie from this book?). The opening shots of a deserted L.A., the attempts to add a little spice with The Family and race relations, Ron Grainer’s theme, Cash’s performance, and the sheer arrogance Heston projects as the last Real Man in the world add up to an enjoyable flick.
But it sure ain’t the book.
The pre-Star Wars 70’s was not a time of appreciation for the history of horror and SF, even fairly recent history. So much of the book is ignored, starting with vampirism. Neville uses a machine gun, not wooden stakes, and blood is used as a carrier for the plague, not a source of food for the albinos, and as the source for the climactic symbolism. The ending is completely jettisoned, and with it the meaning of the title.
The same holds for the Will Smith version. I won’t rehash the plot again, but will just point out that this is actually one of Smith’s best performances. He is the only person on the screen for almost an hour, minus flashbacks. Living in New York, he and his dog don’t go around staking vampires, because they’re post-28 Days Later “infected,” people with makeup who were later given a layer of CGI frosting. They look it.
This version of the book is problematic in terms of following the book, but its great potential is kneecapped by several decisions. The use of CGI turns the darkwalkers or whatever they’re called here into cartoons, completely fake. Everyone loves doggies but Smith talks to the dog throughout the first hour, which de-emphasizes the crushing loneliness the character is experiencing. While the first encounter with the infected is suspenseful, the poor effects work lets so much tension dissipate. As soon as Neville is truly alone (if you didn’t predict that the dog was a goner, turn in your Movie Viewer-Basic Level card), he is quickly outfitted with a woman and The Kid, and the movie gets real dull as the adults bicker about God and a secret base where survivors are. See, Neville isn’t the only person still around. The ending is a big mess–WHY would he choose to off himself when he could survive? A look at a photo of his dead wife and kid tell us he just wants to go where they are and be united in whatever. For all the crap Omega Man gets for the self-sacrifice at its climax, it’s more interesting than another example of a movie needing to wrap it up with an emotional climax and going with suicide as the heroic way out. But Smith’s suicide is pointless–he’s not being shoved off a large piece of floating wood that could comfortably fit two, he’s just offing himself now that there’s someone who can get his cure to someone who can mass-produce it.
I AM LEGEND has endured three official film versions and no doubt will see more until someone decides a truly original approach: Making a version that reflects a love for the book and a desire to bring it to movie audiences in a somewhat accurate form.
What follows are some thoughts about handling that situation where you’re working on a specific story and are stuck as to how to proceed. It is meant for writers who want to cure their case of writer’s block. It is not meant for those who wish they were writers a.k.a. phonies. No hand-holding here; this is for those who want to get back to work.
Writer’s Block is a fancy name for a situation (not a condition) with several possible causes. You can’t proceed with a specific writing project because the ideas won’t flow. Why? You aren’t inspired. The project bores you. You’re lazy.
How to get back to writing?
Copy the file, put the original in a safe place. Now continue on with the knowledge that whatever you do, you won’t ‘screw up.’ Your precious baby is safe. Go ahead and write.
Write something else. Forbid yourself from working on your story for the rest of the day. Choose any other subject, the more boring the better, and write one thousand words about it. If you’re working on a literary short story about a boy who is trying to handle the death of his goldfish, write a thousand words about a chair in an otherwise empty room, or the Rosetta space expedition. Hey, look–you’re writing again!
Gene Wolfe’s Writer’s Block Cure: No writing, no reading, no movies, no music, no T.V., movies and of course, no Internet. (I’d recommend you stay offline while blocked.) You can do manual labor, but you can’t have the radio on. Do the wash, garden, ANYTHING but no artistic expression of any kind until you’re back to writing.
Anne Lamott’s Shitty First Draft. You already know that one.
Get the Hell off the Internet. It’s too much fun. You’re failing to do your job, you don’t get to have fun. Do surgeons, truckers or women in labor get blocked? Sure they do, and people end up dead, so they don’t make a habit of it.
Ernest Hemingway’s Gas in the Tank Method: I made up that title for Hemingway’s habit of ending his writing for the day when he knew what was coming next. It gave the mind something to chew over until tomorrow. This is a method of preventing a block from happening.
Take a yellow pad, number the lines from 1 to 25. On each line write what could happen next in your story, and be as wild or as serious as you like. “The boy buries his goldfish, then he meets a girl who has a goldfish she wants to get rid of, offering him a dollar if he’ll perform the hit on the goldfish.” “Overcome with existential dread, the boy sits at the kitchen table, eating ice cream, then his mom gets home.” “The Goldfish God takes pity on the boy and transforms him into a goldfish.” This is my method of choice, and I have never gotten as far as twenty possibilities before going back to work on the story.
Go to Pinterest and search a phrase or word, like “evil.” Look at each picture and imagine your characters in it. If that doesn’t work, just try another word.
Put on a CD. Put on your headphones. Now write along to the music for the entire length of the CD. Don’t force yourself, just keep your fingers writing. If it’s one long sentence, that’s fine, this is an exercise, not a final draft. Even if you’re writing “OK, can’t think of anything have to damn I forgot butter ok now she walked down the street and sees a blue door…” This works especially well with movie scores.
As you probably can tell, there are two types of block I’m talking about. One is the block on a specific project, one is the inability to write anything. Both are about fear, laziness or tiredness.
Here’s an unexpectedly good cure: Take a walk for an hour. Don’t take your ipod, or, if you do, listen to instrumental music. Just walk for one hour.
Before you go to bed, sit on the bed and think about the story. Think about the imagery or theme that makes you want to write about it, a boy looking at his goldfish bowl, the floating little friend. What time of day is it in the story? What does the room the goldfish bowl is in look like?
Samuel R. Delany talks about describing one item in a setting so vividly that it does the job of creating the whole setting. In his example, he describes a brass door knob, rubbed shiny by decades of use. Pick out one item in the setting and describe it.
Change your point of view character. Instead of the brave hero or intelligent heroine, tell the story from the point of view of the villain, or a bystander.
I’m most partial to the Gene Wolfe idea. Depriving yourself of reading, books, etc. forces your imagination to work harder.
I think coming up with new ideas isn’t just an end in itself, but a way to break the writing logjam. You may be trying to solve your problem with one story, but coming up with more ideas might show you aren’t really that into the story you’re working on. Maybe you just need to write something else. Pick a day–Tuesday–and don’t touch your story until then. You still have to write every day (which you should be doing anyway).
Open a short story collection, or look in the bibliography or Suggested Reading list. Make up a summary for every title–if you know the story’s plot already, come up with a completely different one.
Open an art or photography book to any page with an image on it. Write about that.
Sit in a public place and watch people. Imagine where they’re coming from and where they’re going. Can you incorporate any of these people’s stories into yours?
Give up. That’s an option.
Do this right now: Get a pen and paper. Now describe the following in your own words: A person (describe him or her) walks down an empty street (describe the street and the buildings) and walks through a door (describe the door and what you can glimpse inside in the seconds it’s open). After a few minutes, a light goes on behind a window. Congratulations, you’re not blocked.
Sam Weller’s THE RAY BRADBURY CHRONICLES is a very enjoyable book. I’ve read it twice, and I will read it again. That big but you hear coming isn’t in any way a criticism of Weller or his book.
THE RAY BRADBURY CHRONICLES was written with the cooperation of Bradbury, and was aimed at general readers. It is an overview, one that is especially good for someone who knows Bradbury’s classic works but wants to learn a little more about the man. Even with all the detail, there is not enough for the Bradbury fanatic who wants to know more about him and his work.
For those who are really interested in Bradbury and his work, I’d suggest they look at the books of Jonathan R. Eller, particularly his two-volume look at some of the crucial working years of Bradbury’s life.
BECOMING RAY BRADBURY covers his early years, and his beginnings as a writer, but it focuses on his interests–what turned his mind toward certain ideas and values–and especially on his efforts to create a style of his own. Now that may sound generic–don’t all books about writers do this?–but Eller REALLY looks into the life of Bradbury’s mind during the years of his first publications and successes. Eller’s books are not recommended for the casual reader, but for budding writers and Bradbury fanatics. For example, he traces the evolution of “The Illinois Novel,” which isn’t DANDELION WINE, but something DW was part of…sort of. See, Bradbury mastered the short story, and kept trying things with it–it’s hard to grasp today, but while he was coming up, it was startling and strange to see stories about skeletons in Mexico and “black folks” on Mars. If you read some of his stories from the forties, you find an unapologetic Progressive writing about the issues that mattered to him with little self-censoring in a time when that was pretty common.
One of the things I like best about the two Eller volumes is the depth he goes into about unrealized projects that still impacted Bradbury’s career. These projects remind me of the many unfinished works left by Orson Welles, unseen by fans but very important to their creator’s development.
I’m being intentionally vague because I sunk into these books over a couple of weeks, seeing how Bradbury’s mind worked over certain projects he would not let go. He spent a lot of time trying to become a film writer, and ended up scripting MOBY DICK and not much else. (He seems to have done a lot more of the script of IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE than his co-screenwriter let on.) There’s also a lot of room spent discussing Bradbury’s plays, which never really hit Broadway but were local successes in Los Angeles.
These two books are for those who want to see Bradbury’s development, how he worked with his passions. Most of the focus is on his work from the forties into the sixties; his later years are barely touched on. But in the eighties Bradbury wrote a novel that is actually a fine companion to these biographical works, a mystery novel that doesn’t seem to get much respect, but which is a good companion.
DEATH IS A LONELY BUSINESS is a mystery novel about a young nameless writer who is Ray Bradbury. It is a tour of his stories from the inside; the whole story could be about Bradbury seeking a killer inside his own brain. With a little repackaging, it could be considered a post-modern look at a writer of pulp fictions whose own creations haunt him on rainy nights, and what the writer has to do to silence the voices in his head. It’s also about death, morbid but also fascinating to a young writer who still loves his childish things–comics, rockets and dinosaurs.
Read after the other three books, DEATH IS A LONELY BUSINESS is another look at the subject the biographers could not give, one from inside.
Zardoz is a movie (thus ends the list of everything about this movie that I’m sure of) that divides reviewers into two camps: Those who think it’s a laughably stupid, nearly-incomprehensible movie that features Sean Connery in a red diaper, and Those Others who think it’s a laughably stupid, nearly incomprehensibly movie that features a giant flying head made of stone. I’m using the Top Ten List format for this to keep my own thoughts organized; Zardoz inspires messy thinking.
To get the story out of the way, Zardoz is about Zed, a hunter/rapist in a post-modern world divided into Brutals like Zed and everyone else. Zed and his pals ride on horses and rape people and kill them for a flying stone head they know as Zardoz. One say after the giant stone head vomits up more guns and ammo, Zed hides inside the head, which takes him beyond the invisible force field around a commune inhabited by The Immortals. The matriarchal Immortals capture and examine Zed. Most of the movie depicts Zed’s learning about this society and how it works. The Immortals see their situation as cursed. Their community is actually a storehouse for books and art, all the good stuff left over from the end of the rest of the world, but they are dead inside, lacking in good times. The Vortex is your average American college, filled with young-looking educated people who are anti-fun, anti-sex and definitely anti-Sean Connery, who dresses funky and is all man; speech codes are strictly enforced, and when one of the “students” talks out of turn, everyone points at him and shames him into unconsciousness. I’m serious, all of this happens in a movie released in 1974.
I just changed my mind: John Boorman’s Zardoz is one of the genius works of science fiction, a far-seeing work of art that has been mocked and laughed at by the pea-brains who cannot recognize its greatness.
A lot of people call Zardoz “pretentious,” a word used to describe many expensive science fiction films that try to be about more than just a wisecracking hero and his pals battling The Evil Galactic Rulers. The word “pretentious” is a critical switchblade, whipped out with the intention of a fast kill, often taken away by a more cunning opponent and turned on its user. Calling a work of art “pretentious” is meant to show the critic is one of us down-to-earth types who’s popping a rich movie director’s uppity ‘tude if he tries to rise above his station, like he thinks he’s smarter than the rest of us, and how dare he! The balloon popper likes something with a plot, cool dialogue, blah blah, while the director is trying to make something more than mere entertainment. What a jerk, huh? When I see “pretentious” in a review of a science fiction movie, I think “ambitious.” Often you do find such pretention in science fiction movies that have value but are ultimately crippled by the movie maker thinking he’s got something to say that no one before has tried to say in this way. Moon is a good example, a well-made movie that ultimately collapses under the weight of the effort to Say Something which amounts to “Corporations are evil.” Yeah, guy, we knew that, you got anything else?
More on ideas and pretentiousness: Boorman’s big idea here seems to be that the dream of immortality is a sham, that you should be glad you’re going to die someday because living forever would be a real bummer, man. Immortality is one of those ideas that seems appealing for about one sentence–Imagine living forever? Imagine if a robot wanted to be human? Imagine if a woman won the presidency in 2016?–that get boring almost immediately–Yeah, but you’d end up being a dullard. Yeah, he’d be a real pain whining about it all the time. Yeah, but the noble democrats would be calling for investigation into her Russian ties, including large sums of money paid to her, and then President Tim Kaine. And Chuck Schumer on the T.V. all the time. I kid the democrats, because they love having their beliefs challenged, not like republicans. Anyway… Immortality doesn’t seem to be a great subject for a movie. With the exception of the oh-my-GOD-how-pretentious The Fountain and Lost Horizon, no one has figured out a way to deal with immortality VISUALLY. Also, The Fountain isn’t a science fiction movie about immortality, it’s about a guy who finishes writing his wife’s book. But you knew that.
After a big hit, Hollywood has given many directors their chance to make their Big Personal Statement, with the results ranging from Apocalypse Now to Pearl Harbor to Avatar. This was 1973/74, so Boorman’s blue Gumbies were just skinny Brits wearing tie-dye. But so many directors who make piles of money feel the need to make these huge movies, and some just aren’t up for it intellectually, so the movies become visually bloated while the screenplays are “honest” in stating routine bromides like “You shouldn’t take stuff from the natives,” or, in this case, “Enjoy life, the faculty break room gets dull after a few hundred years.” Most directors don’t have anything to say, or they’d have been writers. Boorman made a hippie movie that attacks hippies, reaching a crescendo in that thought-shaming scene where everyone points and hums at someone for breaking the commune’s speech code. Didn’t someone see that in dailies and think, “Is it too late to pull the plug and put him on The Exorcist?” This might make for an interesting co-feature with A Clockwork Orange and The Man Who Fell To Earth: Hit Directors Tackle SF.
Boorman loves putting images on other images, such as back projection of scenes from earlier in the movie, and slides projected on a woman’s face. Zed ends up in a Lady from Shanghai-like hall of mirrors, and we look to see the many Connerys moving around. Simple ideas we can’t help but find kinda cool, like when we were kids. Also, cheap.
Big reveal coming: Zed was out doing his raping and murdering one day and he came upon a library, where he found a book called “The Wizard of Oz” and figured out that Zardoz was a play on that. He then decided he would see who was behind the curtain by bravely sneaking into his godhead and investigating what was behind all of this cool flying and gun-puking. At the very least this gives the audience a handle on the story; well-executed, it would make for a fascinating hook. Everyone knows The Wizard of Oz, and imagine that, an all-powerful god…who’s actually based on that book that inspired that movie we’ve all seen. The audience would be carried along on this Hero’s Journey! Except that’s not how this movie opens. One piece of writing advice is “Start the story as late as you can,” getting to the Inciting Incident A.S.A.P. Boorman doesn’t start the story with Zed rapin’ and killin’ and then lead to the Shocking Discovery: We learn the Inciting Incident about an hour in. Instead of journeying with him as he explores this agrarian funeral home and understanding that his life has been a lie, we’re just shuffling along with this dude we don’t know at all. It’s an experiment without a control or even a petri dish. Zardoz is about the raising of Zed’s consciousness, Zed climbing into his own head. Zardoz is about the power of books to awaken the mind. But Boorman’s pointlessly-garbled story just makes it into a big mess. It’s an example of the necessity of a solid structure.
If Zardoz was released today, John Boorman would have to move to a lakeside estate in Ireland to escape the rioting hordes looking to string him up. It’s a startlingly retro look at male-female relations for a movie studio to release in the radical seventies. Zed turns on the charm and BOOM! the woman who’s been demanding he be executed for the good of the commune suddenly just decides she’s into him. Disaster follows. Zed learns that society is a sham, and it needs a he-man like himself to get in there, show these feminist man-haters (they really hate men) that sex with a guy is fun and leads to our heroine–the drop-dead beautiful Charlotte Rampling–tossing aside her lifelong sistren and leading the charge against the administration building, destroying a bunch of old art in the process. I told you this script was bonkers. After being angry and having her hair in a bun, Rampling lets her hair down and rides a horse in pursuit of her man. Rampling often plays placid, intelligent people, and she’s good casting for her role. She’s the one person who comes out of this without shame. (She’d be on the pyre, too, for comments on the sex scene with Connery. She didn’t use the term ‘sex scene’.)
Everyone calls this “the movie with Sean Connery in a Red Diaper.” Putting aside Boorman’s staggeringly-destructive attack on Communism, I’m surprised this isn’t known as “the movie with Sean Connery in a Wedding Dress.” The red diaper is believable in context as the outfit for a futuristic misogynist, while the wedding dress is inexplicable. I still don’t know what Boorman was thinking; more disturbing is why big movie star Connery didn’t give him a look and say, “You put me in that and they’ll be finding pieces of you in a lake in Ireland for decades to come, ya daft bastard.”
The use of Beethoven over the shots of the scary stone floating head flying through the clouds makes this the most depressing opening credits scene in movie history. It’s also the movie’s best sequence. The few shots of the post-apocalyptic world are effective, but I kind of wish Boorman had phoned up the makers of The Bed-Sitting Room and asked for tips. TB-SR has many scenes of destroyed British scenery, and the director said they found most of it as-is. Zardoz really needs more time spent in the larger world; the movie is heavy with scenes of the farm. I like the examination room with its big screen T.V. and the dead bodies being regenerated on the walls. Boorman and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey) do a lot with a small budget, but there’s only so much they could do.
Zed holds the tiny computer and it tells him “You have me in the palm of your hand.” I hear several theaters were burned down in protest; luckily, the movie was a bomb so there were few patrons to riot. Zed enters the computer by having Connery do the “Whoah, I’m falling!” mime and ducking behind a prop. The low-budget imagery, including a ‘time reversal’ that’s just running the film backwards, makes you suspect Boorman just wants to goof off, those scifi freaks will lap it up.
I’ve written almost two thousand words about this and could probably write more. This disturbs me. Zardoz is a terrible movie on many levels, but I’ve been thinking about it for years. I think Boorman’s dedication and enthusiasm come through the mess he’s made. I also wish he’d do a remake; with better funding and CGI, he could make an even bigger messterpiece.
What’s the next horror trope to migrate to the mainstream? Zombies? Dead. Vampires? Left horror, joined Romance. Ghosts? Weightless in these terroristic times. The Alien? Ridley Scott thought it had been done to death, then reconsidered (maybe he shouldn’t have). The next monster craze will be the next shocking, horrific horror concept that’s been tamed, so un-horrific that it can be a top water-cooler show, so non-gross it can be binge-watched while stuffing your face with takeout Chinese.
I can’t read horror fiction all the time or watch horror movies one right after another, or I’d burn out. I need space, contrast. Turn on an oldies station, read nonfiction, then in a few weeks put on one of the Universal Horrors discs. As with anything that isn’t pure comfort food, horror fiction that’s high octane (i.e. genuinely frightening) gets depressing if it’s the only thing on the menu. There’s that ‘life’ thing, too, that happens. Then, after awhile, I’m itching to get back to that volume of The Best Horror of the Year instead of dreading it. We can binge-watch True Blood and finish volume 9 of Furry Dragon Lover: The Wampyre Warz and pick up volume 10, because there are no sharp edges.
Horror stories are jazz: There’s the real stuff those hip to it know (Miles Davis, or to the REAL fans, live jazz) and there’s the stuff that sells out stadiums. Vampire Hunter Grrrl series books are Dinner Jazz–predictable, comfortable–while Thomas Ligotti (especially his horror-related non-fiction) is Miles. Both are called jazz. They are not the same thing.
Horror is a genre rooted in the unknown. How can you say you love horror fiction if you don’t like reading things that are actually scary? Horror that just sends the same actors onto the same stages in front of the same sets is parody, a comfortable night’s dinner theater. Fans of real horror want to read the story that promises to show them something they’ve never seen before, not a rerun. Folks who like recycled werewolves and safe vampire romances are folks who “love” reruns without having seen the originals.
Look, you can define horror as you like, I don’t care. This isn’t about me telling anyone how they can enjoy a genre. I’m just speaking for those of us who like to be scared by the words on a page or screen. We don’t want to pat the nice werewolf on the head, we want to be afraid the damned thing’ll tear our throats out. Most ‘horror fans’ seem so frightened of real fear that they squeal with joy that Lovecraft’s cosmic gods are now plush toys. I think that indicates the problem.
Wes Craven was once known as the creator of some sick, twisted horror flick that went way too far. Then he was known, for a short time, as the maker of another really disturbing horror movie, featuring a child molester who’d been burned. THEN he turned that character into a clown. Later still, he brought a self-awareness and humor to horror that is with us today. Horror and humor are in a freakish death-grip, with horror mocking itself, either for fear of going too far with the scares or fear of being laughed at by the audience, so the makers beat us to it and laugh first. If it’s not the jokes, it’s the self-awareness that has hurt horror film, even as, in Danielewski’s House of Leaves, self-awareness has been shown to add to the impact of written horror. The self-awareness has not been kind to the horror movie, if you want your filmed horror to be actually scary. It’s been pretty much tamed on T.V.
Are people afraid to be scared by a story? Many seem convinced that there has never been such a horrible time in human history, and they aren’t looking to add to their anxiety by seeking out something scary in their leisure time.
It’s a good time to be an unknown horror writer. You’ve got the run of the playroom. The competition has retreated to three-volume Sagas about a vampire huntress with great hair and hot sex with a wolfkind/dragon and post-apocalypse survival tales of rough men and the post-apocalyptic women who love them (the virus just means lots of shampoo on the shelves)…
Horror is thriving in the short form; it always has, so why shouldn’t it keep growing in the out-of-the way online magazines and print anthologies? There are many anthologies of great horror stories to dig through to find the good stuff, not just of today but of the past. I recently reread the 1011-page THE DARK DESCENT anthology, assembled about thirty years ago by the late David Hartwell. It includes “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Autopsy” by Michael Shea (which would make a great final episode of The X-Files, if Duchovny ever wants to make sure they never resurrect Mulder), “The Summer People” by Shirley Jackson… It’s a horror life raft I clambered upon while some pushy were-huntress kept telling me to get off, there wasn’t enough room for the both of us. I don’t go for that noble self-sacrifice stuff, and hung on to “Night-Side” by Joyce Carol Oates and “The Rats in the Walls” by Lovecraft. Now I’ve got a pile of story ideas baking.
Plenty of nightmare seeds can be found in the works of folks who may not be thought of as horror writers: Shirley Jackson, Tanith Lee, Kelly Link, Harlan Ellison…
Where’s the good stuff? In Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year and Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror collections; Stephen Jones’ Best New Horror, the Karl Edward Wagner Year’s Best collections… Whoah, whoah–paperback anthologies going back twenty years and more? Hell, yeah: These editors sought the best horror work in well-known and obscure publications. Trust me, you haven’t heard of most of this stuff, and you’ll find lots of new writers to love.
I’m hoping there is no ‘next monster,’ because it will mean another old horror figure has become an impotent cliché, suitable for mass consumption. I’m hoping to find something that isn’t a joke-cracking child molester or a suave serial killer (they’re not suave), but something that Showtime would never think of putting on the air: an actual monster.
I sampled an e-book that intrigued me for a few pages before I abandoned it. Here are some thoughts that reading inspired:
Are today’s fiction writers writing to be heard, or are they taking dictation from imaginary readers? “She liked 50 Shades, what could I write that she’ll want because it’s like that?” Fan fiction inspired by fan fiction is the result.
Writing fiction is a form of communication, but is it monologue or dialogue? Someone might look at the above example and think the writer is doing her job, creating a product the audience wants to pay for, and someone else might see her as a poor thing trying to hit last year’s target. The writer thinking that way seems to be tricking herself, since her conception of her potential audience is limited to her own ideas about what a fan of 50 Shades wants. What if she loves that book herself? Then she’s writing to fulfill her own desires about what she wants to read, and is actually writing from as legitimate a place as any writer ever has. What if she hates that book and looks down on those who do and just wants to get money out of them? If she writes something that satisfies those readers, what possibly difference does that make? Isn’t she a more noble creature than someone writing a book only meant to please herself?
I keep thinking about a beautifully-written book I started to read. I marveled at the writer’s ability to describe what the character was seeing. I continued reading, and while the prose was just as fine, there was nothing happening in the story. Our decadent good/bad main character–I think he was a vampire rock star–continued being a decadent piece of shit who was the hero of the book because he was hot and he engaged in hot sex with people he then killed, or something. The complete lack of even the simplest values is not interesting. The writer was getting off on his/her stand-in getting to fuck and kill who he pleased. That’s not a story, that’s masturbation fantasy for the writer and those who think like him; you could say that’s the perfect writing impulse, something that satisfies the writer, communicates what he’s trying to say, and satisfies a reader.
I didn’t get through ten pages of that detail-encrusted nothingness. All that means is it didn’t speak to me, but unlike some Kindle books I’ve read, I didn’t think it worked on the most basic level of good storytelling. Does that matter to anyone who liked it?
If you write something because you want to say something, you are attempting to communicate an idea, a point of view, a feeling, a thought. If I can’t be bothered to listen to what you say because you haven’t given me a reason to stick around by giving me pleasure (among all the varieties of pleasure, from intellectual stimulation to laughter), you’ve failed in your attempt to communicate–with me, at least. If you communicate something to me I don’t enjoy or don’t want to hear, you’ve succeeded in communicating–I’ve just rejected it, or stopped listening because of the content of your message. That’s still a successful communication; I’ve just decided not to listen. That’s a big difference from rejecting an attempted communication because of its form or your method.
One of the oldest defenses of commercial writing is that Shakespeare wrote for money. Yes, he did, but a writer’s goal–commercial reward or self-expression–is not what we’re reading, we’re reading the results of that writer’s efforts to either express something or make money, and the writer’s ability is going to make a difference; Shakespeare writing for money is not the same thing as Kindle Author Joe writing for money.
So much of what’s being written today seems to be written by writers who are trying to figure out what the reader wants to hear, and then trying to say it. It’s the difference between someone saying “I love you” because she is in love with you and someone saying “I love you” because you’re paying to hear someone say those specific words to you.
When you’re writing, are you trying to express yourself in an entertaining way so someone else will enjoy the results, or are you listening to what others want and trying to give it to them, even if that means you aren’t saying what you want to say? A mixture of both?
How can a writer write something he doesn’t believe?