Category Archives: Horror

Living in a Post-Monstrous Age

I had a blast at FogCon, as I usually do. The panels I attended were all fascinating, the people were great, &c. I was a little miffed that the bio I wrote for myself on the website didn’t manage to make it into the printed program, but I’ve learned to live with small disappointments like that. I also enjoyed hanging out with other writers and talking craft and projects with them. That’s always worthwhile.

The panel I was on, “Cuddly Horrors from Outer Space”, went in a direction that I wasn’t expecting, and as a result I felt a bit out of my depth at times. I was far more prepared to discuss cosmic horrors and Lovecraftian critters and how making them cute is, in a sense, defying the nihilistic culture we live in, so when we veered into social commentary about Dracula and similar creatures of imagination, I was a bit surprised. And although I felt I didn’t have much to contribute to that particular part of the conversation, I enjoyed it.

The more I think about it, the more I think we live in a culture with more “defanged” monsters than actual scary ones: monsters which are cute and cuddly, rather than horrific and scary. It’s far easier to buy a plush Cthulhu than a monstrous statue of him, for example; and cartoon images of vampires and werewolves abound, to the point where they show up on Sesame Street as the Count and Stephanie Myers writes about glittering vampires playing baseball in the sun.

The “Disneyfication” of horrifying cultural tropes came up as well. Many of the folk and fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm were cautionary tales for children (and some were meant for adults), and some were just plain scary for the sake of being scary, but Disney transformed the original Snow White into Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As a result, the original horrific element of that story is lost in a whirlwind of singing birdies. Of course, as time has gone on we’ve seen reimaginings of, say, the “Princess” trope, where the definition of a Disney princess has gone from the meek and helpless Snow White to the nearly (but not quite) feminist characters found in Frozen. I think more work needs to be done with these tropes, but I am heartened by what we’ve seen so far (yes, there are feminist retellings of these fairy tales but on the whole they’re meant for adults and not for children).

We also talked about humanizing monsters, making them sympathetic, and about exploring the human side of them. We see this in works such as Frankenstein, where in the novel the creature is meant to be sympathized with and Frankenstein himself is the weak and pathetic character who runs screaming from what he’s created and refusing to take responsibility for it. Seeing our own reflections in these monsters helps us, I think, reflect on our own humanity.

Of course, we also have shows such as Hannibal and Dexter, which invite the audience to see serial killers as sympathetic creatures in spite of their terrible crimes. This brought the conversation, in a roundabout way, to a discussion of our current political climate, in which we “normalize” monstrous people such as Nazis and fascists and find coverage of them in The New York Times, while the forces of good, such as the antifa movement and Black Lives Matter are rendered monstrous.

We talked also a wee bit about “humanizing” zombies, though I am pretty sure we agreed that the point of a zombie is that it is a creature that has lost all dredges of humanity entirely; and thus the moment you start to humanize them, make them sympathetic, then by definition they cease to be zombies. I can’t think of any exceptions to this off the top of my head. Even novels like Scott G. Browne’s Breathers, which is told from the point of view of the zombie, doesn’t really have any zombies in it.

I don’t know for sure. Am I moving the goalposts here, redefining what it means to be a zombie as I discuss the concept? There are plenty of iterations of the vampire motif, so why not so with zombies?

On the whole, then, I think we live in a post-monstrous age, where the supernatural creatures are no longer scary and the monstrous within isn’t examined anymore. While zombies might represent the faceless evils of racism and consumer culture, it’s still pretty easy to find plush zombies in the stores and online through ThinkGeek. Even Sadako and Samara, the yurei that feature so terrifyingly in The Grudge and The Ring so supernaturally, were recently pitted against each other in a more comedic film (in much the same vein as Freddy Vs. Jason).

Are there monstrous beings anymore? Can we be frightened by vampires and werewolves and Cthulhu anymore? Is it even possible? Or can we still find horror within, reflected by media overgeneralizations of cultural forces?

I’m going to have to think about this some more.

 

Ia! Ftaghn! Cosmic Nihilism and the Cuteification of Cthulhu

Cthulhu

Time was, Cthulhu, the monstrous entity pictured to the left, was the most frightening thing imaginable. Not only was he a giant creature at least a mile in height, who lay dead yet somehow still dreaming in his sunken city of R’yleh, somewhere in the Atlantic… Not only could his dreams affect people in the waking world and control cults and sects throughout millennia… Not only could he rise up at any time and scour the Earth and lay it to waste… No, he’s just a harbinger of even worse things to come! He’s a priest of the old gods, entities that make Cthulhu himself look like a child’s plaything.

Yes, Cthulhu was, at one time, the most frightening thing imaginable for certain groups of people.

On Sunday at WesterCon I attended a panel entitled “Cosmic Horror in the Mainstream Media”. It was an interesting panel which, as is pretty much always the case when the term “cosmic horror” comes up, focused primarily H. P. Lovecraft and his influence not just on the horror genre but on culture at large. There was some debate about what the term “cosmic horror” means, and the panel agreed that it had to do with giant monsters, sanity-blasting, ancient magics, hidden knowledge, and so on.

I disagree.

To me, “cosmic horror” means a genre of horror entertainment which emphasizes the fact that nothing benevolent exists out there. It’s about nihilism, about the nothingness in the universe that doesn’t care a single whit about human beings. Sure, Cthulhu might incite a few cultists with his dead/not-dead dream state, but, really, Cthulhu probably doesn’t give a damn about human beings at all, aside from how tasty we might be.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Cosmic horror, to me, also implies “deepness”: Lovecraft’s horrors (and Lovecraft is still, for all his flaws, the undisputed master of cosmic horror) exist in deep space, in deep time, and in deep consciousness. It’s the intentional seeking out of these entities and cosmic nothingness and universal indifference that drives the poor Lovecraftian characters mad. What happens when you see Hastur and Azathoth palling around with each other at the chaotic miasma which is at the center of the cosmos? You lose all your sanity, that’s what.

But I think this sort of horror goes beyond just the Lovecraftian. While one might be hard-pressed to find examples in popular, mainstream culture, it’s definitely out there. I offered up AMC’s The Walking Dead as an example of this sort of nihilistic horror; and while even I have to admit this is a bit of a stretch, the cosmic nothingness, the idea that nothing benevolent exists, is still part of that show’s milieu.

This cosmic nihilism, I think, has always been with us. Some of the Greek philosophers expounded on it, but I think the ball really got rolling with Nietzsche in the 19th century. It began to pick up speed during the First World War, picked up some more momentum with the Second, and, during the Cold War, it ran rampant all over everything. I grew up in the 80s, and I remember the existential horror of knowing that Reagan or Khruschev could at any moment decide that they’d had enough and would press that red button.

So what do you do when you’re faced with this kind of horror? You can embrace it and write more Lovecraftian-style horror, or even apply some of that nihilism to your own horror or science fiction (Alien is cosmic horror whether you like it or not). You can also ignore it.

But you can also “cuteify” it. Indeed, a whole industry has grown up around making plush Cthulhu toys, silly songs about the Mythos, and so on. This is aplushcthulhu way of coping with Cthulhu and the empty, uncaring cosmos that he represents.

I personally have nothing against a cute Cthulhu. Heck, we have a plush Cthluhu that we put atop our Christmas tree every year. Plush Cthulhu is fun, goofy, and a neat way of coming to terms with the nihilism existential horror that is our daily existence.

I do know, though, that the cuteification of Cthulhu causes some problems for some people. That’s fine and understandable. They don’t like their cosmic, nihilistic, existential horror messed with.

So, the takeaway here is that cuteifying a horror is one way of coping with it. In my own fiction, I often take a comedic approach to Hastur, Cthulhu, Azathoth, and others. Does this mean that I’m also participating in the cuteification of Cthulhu?

I’ll leave the answer to that as an exercise for the reader.

Christmas with Cthulhu

Warning: This post sort of… meanders. Someday I will go back to writing coherently, but not immediately.

Traditionally, at this time I year, I read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It is pretty much the gold standard of Christmas stories, after all: the Christmas story against which all other Christmas stories are measured. There have been dozens of adaptations of it, from stage to screen to an episode of Roseanne. Plus, it has ghosts, and I like ghost stories.

I also listen to a pair of albums that my little sister gave to me for Christmas a few years ago: A Very Scary Solstice and An Even Scarier Solstice, both by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society. These albums are basically parodies of traditional Christmas carols, taking as their subject matter the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft instead of more traditional holiday fare. Here’s one of their songs, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Fishmen” (to the tune of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”), which some clever person has done a video of:

(This is probably my favorite song of theirs.)

I’ve written some Christmas horror of my own: a short story called “The Littlest Christmas Tree“, and another one called “Night of the Frozen Elf”, which has been published here and in the collection The Undead that Saved Christmas.

So why the creepy stuff for Christmas? To be honest, I don’t know for sure. I’ve written before, somewhere around here, about my fondness of horror fiction and of humorous fiction. The fiction I write is generally comic horror, which usually combines horrific elements with the banal. Think Wolfman stuck in a dead-end telemarketing job.

Not all of my fiction is comical, of course. I don’t think “The Littlest Christmas Tree” is funny (though you might have a different opinion), while “Night of the Frozen Elf” certainly is. Love in the Time of Cthulhu has its moments, but isn’t as funny as I’d intended it to be (and there isn’t nearly as much love as I’d intended there to be either, but that’s a different issue). But the fiction that is comical tends to be as I’ve described it above. In my Lovecraftian pastiches, I include the Old One (or Outer God, or Elder God, or whatever the cosmology is) Hastur, who, in the fiction of Chambers, Lovecraft, et. al., is an unspeakable deity who wreaks havoc and what-not. His full designation is “Hastur the Unspeakable”, and his name cannot be spoken lest you summon him or worse. In my stories, though, he’s kind of a loner who just wants things to stay the way they are and who watches football games on his television while drinking beer in his interdimensional apartment on Aldebaran.

See? The horrific meets the banal.

But what about Christmas? Is Christmas that banal? Yes? No? Sure, there are parts that I do find banal. Imagine a vampire getting worked up about the crowds on Black Friday, for example. Or how Cthulhu would deal with the office holiday party. That sort of thing.

So I guess there are elements of the holidays which certainly are banal, especially as the whole thing has become a consuming frenzy. And while I’m not a “put the Christ back in Christmas” kind of guy, I do think there is a spiritual component to Christmas that we miss when we become wrapped up in the consumption and the stress.

But I don’t know if this addresses the question of why I like my Christmases a little on the creepy side, why I prefer ghost stories to other holiday fare, or why I think “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Fishmen” is a better song than, say, “The Christmas Shoes”. Maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Or maybe it has something to do with a gut rejection of the consumerist aspects of a deeply spiritual holiday. Or maybe I’m just weird.

So I leave you with this image of Cthulhu dressed up as Santa Claus. Here’s hoping you get at least some level of enjoyment out of it. Happy holidays!

 

santathulhu3

Santa Cthulhu image ©2010 by Deviant Art user Mambolica.

False Memories of Bad Movies

Hellraiser 1Last night I got it into my head that I wanted to watch the Hellraiser movies again.  There are eight such movies out now, with varying degrees of suckitude (the rule of thumb with such film franchises is that the higher the number of the film, the lower the quality; Nightmare on Elm Street 5 was worse than Nightmare on Elm Street 4, which was worse than Nightmare on Elmstreet 3, and so on).  I’d seen the eighth film, Hellraiser: Hellworld on the Sci Fi Channel recently, so I knew what sort of depths the franchise descends to.  Not even the presence of Lance Henrickson in that film could make it enjoyable.  On the whole though, I remembered the films as being an interesting examination of pain, pleasure, morality, and so on.

So I watched Hellraiser, the original film.  It was tolerable.  The special effects were cheesy, as were the costumes and hairstyles, but it was made in 1987, so what the hell.  Some elements made me uncomfortable — not in a "Wow, this is disturbing imagery" sort of way, but more in a "Wow, I sure hope my neighbors don’t catch me watching this" sort of way.  Nothing really bad, you know, but I did just move into a new neighborhood and I’d rather wait awhile before my reputation as a freak has a chance to settle in.

But most of the time watching Hellraiser, I was thinking about Hellbound: Hellraiser 2.  I’d seen that film when it came out and a couple of times since, but it’s been easily ten years or more since I saw it last.  I just remembered that I had enjoyed the film, that I’d thought the imagery was more intense, the storyline better, and so on. I was, in short, remembering it as a pretty good film.

Hellbound: Hellraiser 2Man, I don’t know what I was thinking.

Hellbound, in case you don’t recall, starts off almost immediately after the events of the first Hellraiser film.  At some point after attempting to burn the puzzle box in a vacant lot, Kirsty Cotton was picked up by the police and dumped in the Channard Institute; her boyfriend, Steve, who only had a one film contract, was able to convince the police that even though he, too, had just come from a house full of mutilated bodies and was raving about demonic beings, he was perfectly sane and quite able to go home.

It turns out that the Channard Institute is run by an evil psychiatrist, who’s not above allowing incurably psychotic patients mutilate themselves if it helps him summon up demons that can take him to hell to experience pain or whatever (Channard’s motivations are never entirely clear).  He does this once, in fact, summoning up Kirsty’s demonic stepmother, Julia, who for some reason made a pact with Leviathan, God of the Underworld, to return to Earth (the motivations of both Julia and Leviathan are also left as an exercise for the viewer, apparently).  Channard then brings another patient from the Institute, a young woman who has a penchant for solving puzzles (we’re never told why she has this quirk, but she’s insane, so I guess that’s okay), and this woman, Tiffany, solves the puzzle box and opens the gate to Hell.  The Cenobites are summoned again, and instead of going after Tiffany, they go after Dr. Channard.  Pinhead intones, "It is not hands that summon us, but desire."  Of course that did nothing to stop them from going after Kirsty in the first film, or anyone else who might have found the puzzle box and opened it by accident.  It’s just that Channard was evil or something.

Meanwhile, Kirsty goes through the same doorway back to Hell to rescue her father, who was murdered in the first film.  She doesn’t find her father, but her father’s murderer, the heinous Uncle Frank, who is being tormented for all his crimes.  And…

Well, it all kind of goes like that for awhile.

The special effects are better in this film, true, but the film is hampered by a cast of characters, human and demonic, who just sort of wander around doing things with no real motivation.  Oh, it also includes the most boring supernaturally charged fight scene in the history of horror filmmaking.  Channard, transformed into a monstrous Cenobite, shows up and encounters Pinhead and his crew.  "Oh, good," Channard says, "a fight."  Then Pinhead and his crew all stand silently and are killed one by one without even putting up a fight.  It annoyed me; if I was among a group of people who were being killed off one by one, I’m smart enough to at least run away, and I’m not even a demonic pain entity from beyond Hell.  Oh, and such entities can apparently be killed, which sort of takes the threat out of them.

It’s a bad movie.  I suspect it was always a bad movie.  So why did I remember it as a good movie, one of those rare instances when the sequel was superior to the original film?  I have no idea.

Has this ever happened to any of you?  Have you rented a movie that you remembered as being really awesome, only to be blown away by its sheer badness?  Share your experiences.

The Night School (by Michael Paine)

The Night SchoolThe Night School by Michael Paine
Publication: Berkeley (2006), Paperback, 336 pages
Date: 2006
ISBN:  0425209164 / 9780425209165
Buy it at Amazon.com
[rating:1]

I’m afraid that this is not a positive review.

Continue reading The Night School (by Michael Paine)

The New Lovecraft Circle (edited by Robert M. Price)

The New Lovecraft CircleThe New Lovecraft Circle
Editor: Robert M. Price
Publication: Del Rey (2004), Edition: Reprint, Paperback
Date: 1996
ISBN: 034544406X
Buy it at Amazon.com

H. P. Lovecraft’s name is virtually synonymous with American style horror fiction; his writing, particularly his so-called “Cthulhu Mythos”, has influenced fiction authors worldwide, and Lovecraftian elements can be seen in novels, movies, comic books, even cartoons. Batman’s nemesis “The Joker”, for example, is said to be incarcerated at Arkham Asylum; and Arkham was an invention of Lovecraft’s. Many modern horror writers — such as Stephen King, Bentley Little, Joe R. Lansdale, to name just a few — have cited Lovecraft as one of their primary influences.

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Horrors Beyond (edited by William Jones)

Horrors BeyondHorrors Beyond
Edited by William Jones
Elder Signs Press, Inc. (2005), Paperback
ISBN: 0975922920 / 9780975922927
Buy it at Amazon.com

I picked up this book at Dragon*Con 2006 and read it on the airplane. On the whole, the stories are of decent quality; the first few in particular were engaging and very well-written. I particularly enjoyed “One Way Conversation”; I was forced to stop reading this one halfway through because our plane landed in Denver, and I was rushing to our next gate just so I could pick it up again and finish it.

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Bloodsucking Fiends

Bloodsucking FiendsBloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore
Publication: Harper Paperbacks (2004), Paperback
Date: 1995
ISBN: 0060735414 / 9780060735418
Buy it at Amazon.com

Review updated February 27, 2007

Christopher Moore is regarded as one of the better American humorists writing today, and the popularity of his novels Lamb and Fluke seem to support that. Bloodsucking Fiends is the first book of his that I’ve read.

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Dispatch

DispatchDispatch by Bentley Little

Many of Bentley Little’s novels contain some element of high satire; in The Store, for example, he pokes fun at America’s obsession with more goods at continuously low prices, and at the willingness of various communities to sacrifice their character and local economies for the spurious good of a “Big Box Store”. In The Policy he takes a swipe at the pervasiveness of the insurance industry in our lives. And in Dispatch, his target is the person who cheats by continually writing letters of complaint and those whose sense of power outweighs their sense of right and wrong. In this book, the main character is a man whose correspondence not only gets him free French fries and passes to a local amusement park, but also influences global politics in good and bad ways.

Continue reading Dispatch