Monday, 25 July 2011

Houses of Horror

I've been a fan of horror fiction ever since Dracula scared me stupid when I was a kid. These days, with Cthulhu on every other t-shirt for sale on the internet, it's easy to get your fix. Back then, I had to read about Lovecraft in Stephen King's Danse Macabre and then order the only Mythos anthology available in the Rhymney Valley library system. And even then, the only story by Lovecraft in that was The Call of Cthulhu, the others being by Lovecraft's extended web of acquaintances.

I think that true horror lives in single moments of realisation. That's why the twist ending is so prevalent in horror works, second only to the surprise reveal in crime fiction. Even a cheap twist can horrify- Bruce Willis was dead all along! The Blair Witch has put her in the corner! The call is coming from inside the house!

At its best, horror fiction can conceal something quite profound in these moments. As with all the pulp fictions, horror is often dismissed as having no real merit, and it gets a far rougher ride than its brothers and sisters. Science fiction works are acceptable as long as the author insists they're not really science fiction, fantasy becomes magical realism, and crime fiction has long been a cinematic critical darling. Apart from the odd positive evaluation of Stephen King, horror rarely gets the credit it's due. And even King still gets some stick, with his non-horror work (such as Shawshank, or Stand by Me/The Body) receiving most of the praise.

Horror films often offer huge returns on low budgets. The problem is that any merits are then easily overlooked in the wash of gore and torture. Take Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. These are two of the finest British films ever made, but they're rarely acknowledged as such outside of cult movie circles, the latter in particular renowned for its twist ending. But the twist is anything but cheap, changing the way the whole of the story that precedes it is viewed. It's a rare example of a perfect climax, one that's both unexpected and yet inevitable. Well, it's unexpected if you've been living in a box all your life- imagine going to see the film when it first came out, and knowing nothing about it.

This moment of realisation doesn't have to be part of the climax, either. It doesn't even have to be the "scare" moment, when something unspeakable jumps out at the audience. I've only recently watched the BBC's Being Human (I know, I know, talk about late to the party), and I think it's one of the finest examples of true horror I've ever seen. One line of dialogue, in particular, from the pilot and then later repeated in the full series. Two of the main characters have died, and seen what happens on the other side before coming back. Annie, a ghost, is asked by the third character (George, a werewolf, and the only one of the three friends who isn't undead) about the afterlife, and she replies that it's fine.

But it isn't. She and the vampire Mitchell know that when you die, you're met by the men with sticks and rope.

That's all that's mentioned. Men with sticks and rope. That chilled my blood the first time I heard it. A true moment of visceral horror. It doesn't matter who they are, or what they do, as the unsaid suggestion is horrible enough. One of the worst things is the implication that it doesn't matter whether you're good or evil- the same terrible fate awaits all of us. Few things can tap into this part of our minds like horror fiction can.

Horror helps us confront unpleasant realities. Both Alien and Aliens deal with a hostile, unforgiving, deadly universe. Aliens in particular posits that not even advanced military supremacy can protect us, attacking one of the foundational assumptions of Western culture. It's actually a pretty subversive film in some ways. Can you imagine a major mainstream film these days showing a crack all-American special forces unit proving to be utterly ineffective in a combat setting?

I have a pet theory (not an original one) that all superheroes can be matched up with one of the pulpish genres. While Batman has spanned pretty much all of them over the decades, his main controlling genre is crime fiction. Superman and Iron Man are science fiction. Thor and Wonder Woman, to one extent or another, are epic fantasy. Few Golden or Silver Age heroes are horror. I'd argue that Robin is one of them.

Like a fairy tale, Robin is the child orphaned, lost in the night, surrounded by monsters. But unlike a fairy tale, Robin joins with and becomes one of the creatures of darkness. There is no redemption for him, no happily-ever-after; his parents are not coming back. Whatever incarnation, he will be fighting the monsters for the remainder of his existence. His home is a haunted house, his territory the dank caves beneath it and the Gothic spires of the city.

And it's not just Dick Grayson, the original Robin, who follows this pattern. Jason Todd shares an origin with Killer Croc, one of the most overtly horrific of Batman's A-list villains. Todd's most notable addition to the Batman story was being beaten to death by the Joker, only to return from the dead as a psychopathic murderer. Tim Drake's mother was murdered and his father crippled by a voodoo priest. Stephanie Brown was tortured and (apparently) killed by a black-skulled man with a drill. The latter, of course, has quite rightly been the source of controversy. The scene's sexually suggestive, exploitative, mysogynistic nature parallels the superficiality of post-Saw horror cinema. And let's not forget Damien Wayne, the vat-grown child assassin and most recent addition to the Bat-family. Even his name is deliberately suggestive of The Omen (or possibly Only Fools and Horses. I'm not joking. Grant Morrison's been known to reference stranger things.)

So what's the purpose of horror fiction? I tend to think of it as the flip side of the coin to fantasy fiction. G.K. Chesterton's famous quote is "…fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." Horror fiction tells us that sometimes no matter what we do, the dragon's going to do for us, and fuck us up while he/she/it goes about it. It's not a nice lesson, maybe, but it's undoubtably a true one.

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