Posts Tagged ‘extreme fiction’

I like many types of fiction.  SciFi, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, even Horror.

          A couple members of the Stonehenge Writer’s Group write some excellent horror.  That’s a genre that’s incredibly difficult to pull off without being cheesy or letting down your readers at the end of the story.  Kudos to those who do it well!

          I believe horror can be roughly divided into two main groups.  The first: Grab the reader’s attention by drowning them in blood and gore.  The second: Rub the reader’s nerves raw, slowly, agonizingly, with an ever increasing application of tension — knowing something bad is about to happen, perhaps when you turn the very next page…

          Okay, reading that back I guess it’s obvious which type of horror I prefer.  Not that I mind well done blood and gore.  I just prefer to have it as a climax to a great story, not the only reason for the story.  That’s just my preference.  I know there are many who will vehemently disagree.  So for this post, let’s agree to disagree.  For me, the best is incredibly creepy OMG-is-it-going-to-get-me-NOW horror.

          So, what do you find horrifyingly creepy?  Something realistic?  Ghostly?  Monsterous?  Something tangible, like a phone call with no one there?  Or the intangible, like the glimpse of a shadow where it doesn’t belong?

          Is it worse to be with a group of people and know one of them can’t be trusted?    

          Or is being completely and utterly alone what makes it truly creepy? 

          How about finding your things moved, cleaned up and put away, when no one but you has a key to your home?  Would you tell yourself you must have done it and forgotten about it?

          Or the sounds of whispered conversations in your house that stop when you enter the room, even when you’re the only one there?  Would you tell yourself you’re just imagining things?

          Maybe it’s receiving a ‘love’ note from someone anonymous, who claims to have been watching you for weeks and thinks it’s nearly time for you to meet.   Would you report it to the police?  What if they said there’s nothing they can do?

          Perhaps it’s a sudden explosive shattering of glass from somewhere downstairs?  Would you go down, alone, to check it out?

          Is it worse if you’re woken from a dead sleep, barely dressed, half awake?  Would you call someone else?  Wake them up?  When it’s probably nothing…

          What if you glimpse, out of the corner of your eye, a shadow move past your dark bedroom doorway?  Would you tell yourself that was nothing?

          Or hear unexplained footsteps in the hall, right outside your door?  Would you pull the covers over your head and pray it goes away? 

          How about a ‘scritching’ sound, like fingernails would make, coming from the window that you can’t see behind closed curtains?  Would you get up to open those curtains?  To see what’s out there?

          I’d be interested in hearing if any of these push your creepy button.  Or do you have others?

          What is it about a horror story that makes you say, “That was awesome!”

Like many a horror junkie, I went through a serial killer obsession stage.  Okay, not just like many horror junkies, but like many people period.  We, as a culture, have become fascinated by the monsters among us.  For most people, I expect the attraction is related to the same sensationalism that feeds the “what bleeds, leads” mentality of the mainstream news.  For others, I’m guessing there is a subconscious anti-hero worship where people identify with the taking of a desired object, even in the face of resistance.  Maybe because of resistance.  And finally, there are those who are intrigued by the different demons that possess these human beings and turn them into living nightmares.  What exactly drives someone to serial strangulation, necrophilia, cannibalism, or deadly sadism?  What is such a person’s motivation?

What’s fascinating is that serial killer motivations are our motivations.  Many of us feel the need to be in control in all situations.  Most of us accept that it isn’t possible, particularly in relationships.  A very few of us, Ted Bundy for example, decide to exert control in their romantic relationships by making corpses to have sex with.  We all know or have heard of the person with the domineering mother that makes a hell of low self-esteem for her children.  Most of us deal with this sort of thing through therapy or a bottle of Jim Beam (and sometimes both).  Edmund Kemper dealt with it by dismembering women as mommy proxies.  He’s especially interesting in that when he finally killed his real mother and stuffed her esophagus in the garbage disposal, he turned himself in.  Serial killers never turn themselves in.  John Wayne Gacy?  He hated that he was attracted to men. Once again, most of us would go the counselor or drug abuse route.  Not Gacy.  He killed what he desired and what he hated to try and reconcile his self.

You’re probably wondering by now what any of this has to do with writing stories, or if I’m just getting off on exposing you to the world’s ick.  It’s pretty simple really.  Characters in stories, including nasty little horror stories, need motivations believably enacted to be part of a good tale. Even stories about extreme events need simple motivations for readers to buy into them.  Serial killers may be the single best example of base motivations leading to extreme stories, and those stories are inherently believable because they happened.

Jeffery Dahmer is my personal favorite when it comes to thinking about basic motivations and extreme outcomes.  The primary motivation for his crimes is so familiar and so human that he becomes, for me, a monster that I can almost feel sorry for.  How, I can hear your outraged question, can you feel sympathy for a man that drilled holes in people’s skulls and poured acid on their brain in an attempt to create living zombies?  How can you be anything but repulsed by a person that ate pieces of other people?  The answer is easy.  I understand what was behind it.  You, on some level, understand it too.  Dahmer was buried at the bottom of a pit of loneliness he couldn’t escape and his attempt at solution was unspeakable.  Why did he try to make zombie love slaves?  So that his lovers wouldn’t leave.  Why did he eat people?  Because if he did, those people would be with him forever.  Now I’m not gonna make lobotozombies or eat people, but I do understand what it’s like to be desperately lonely.  Because of that I can connect to the horrific tragedy of Jeffrey Dahmer.  Believable motivation.  Extreme adaptation.  Real life horror story.

So how does understanding real horror apply to fiction writing?  In simple terms, reverse storytelling.  Dahmer has been very productive for me in this regard.  Especially because he allowed me to link loneliness and cannibalism.

Oh, yeah. Side note. Do not tell the sexy grad student who studies abnormal psychology that you have a thing for cannibalism and loneliness.  Definitely don’t tell her that on a first date.  There won’t be a second if you do.  Jussayin’.

Back to reverse storytelling.  Dahmer’s story led me to connect a basic motivation, loneliness, to an extreme response, cannibalism.  From there I simply disregarded the source material.  After all, Dahmer’s story is (quite unfortunately for everyone involved) already told.  Instead, I began to ask questions.  What would it look like if a mega-rich person came up with the same solution for his loneliness?  Would this sort of cannibal be different as a female?  What if the population of a small town decided to keep their favorite visitors around forever?  Could someone be so lonely they’d want to be eaten in order to be with someone forever?  All of these questions can lead to stories.  For me, a couple of them already have.

So pay attention to the world around you.  Motivation and its outcomes are everywhere.  They don’t even have to be horrific.  And all you need to do is take them and spin them back on themselves.  Happy writing!

“What the hell are you talking about?” you ask, incredulous at the ridiculous and counter-intuitive title you just clicked.  Horror, especially the graphic sort, is a public menace that desensitizes us to negativity.  In the war between good and evil, positive and negative, light and dark, extreme fiction pulls us out of balance in a direction we should not tread.

This, my friends, is horse manure.

Like any other symbolic product, art that draws on the dark, the nasty, the gruesome, and the violent is received by different audience members in a variety of ways.  I know this because I have experienced horrific art in ways different than others assumed that I would. The idea that because I like something you see as negative means I glorify or support negativity is false.  Personally, I feel like I’ve taken positive lessons from extreme art.

By way of example, let me take you back to my teen years.  Yes, the dreaded 1980s.  Big hair, parachute pants, actual arcades.  The decade was awash in all kinds of subcultural sounds, from pre-Goth, depressing New Wave stuff to dudes in make-up party rock.  Me, I dug on thrash.  Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and of course, Slayer.  You would be correct to assume, with names of that sort, that these bands didn’t exactly sing happy songs.  And as part of the subculture that worshiped these bands, I had many a devil and skull on my bedroom walls.  The thing was, I never took it as bad because I was never a bad person.

So imagine my surprise when one day, based on the Slayer tee I wore, I was accused of being a Nazi.  Turns out, a lot of people thought that the band glorified the Third Reich and supported their ideology.  And maybe they did.  There was certainly some Nazi imagery in the artwork the band chose.  The biggest reason people thought that, however, was because of one of the bands most popular songs, Angel of Death.  The song is about Josef Mengele, and approaches the notorious doctor by singing graphically about his gruesome medical experiments during the Holocaust.  The lyrics pull no punches. They are graphic and nasty. And they are likely in the realm of truth in depicting what this monster actually did.

Now, I freely admit that I did (and still do) really like this song.  The music is fast and the subject matter appeals to my sense of the macabre.  But, I never liked it because it glorified Mengele and the Nazis.  In fact, as gruesome as some of the lyrics were, they are actually presented in a value neutral sort of way.  They come off more as a list of facts.  When I heard the song, I never thought the band was holding Mengele up to be emulated.  I actually took the song to be on the side of the victims.  I took it as an illustration of horror and terror brought down on innocent people, and I tended to empathize with them.

The song sensitized me to the horrific.  The opposite of what many believe horror does.

That influence carries over into what I write today.  I choose, at times, to rub my readers faces in nastiness because I want them to feel it in a visceral way.  No doubt, sexual violence makes frequent appearances in what I write.  But I don’t write it for the purpose of titillation, though I’m aware a small percentage of readers will be titillated.  And I don’t write it just to shock.  I write it because it’s a prominent part of our culture and I want people to engage with it, understand it, and work to integrate the impulses that cause it.  I want to sensitize the reader to the horror a victim experiences so that they will empathize with them.  Hopefully that empathy becomes part of the way they approach the world.  And, I want to sensitize the reader to the darkness that might lead someone to victimize someone in that way.  I want people to empathize with the perpetrator because he is us and he won’t go away by ignoring him. Perhaps that sensitivity will lead to solutions.

Does graphic horror desensitize?  In a world where drone strikes are discussed as body counts and dead innocents are referred to as collateral damage, I think maybe we’d be more sensitive if our noses were rubbed in the smell of burned fleshed and the gore of shattered bodies a little more often.  Go watch graphic scenes of torture in films like Hostel or Martyrs and see if you can still stomach the idea of “enhanced interrogation” or still think it’s okay to farm out information gathering to nations with less restrictive rules.  Irreversible does not make me want to victimize women.  It makes me, by engaging my primal emotions, want to resist their victimization.

So go on out there and fight desensitization.  Get elbow deep in the gutter.  Imagine the out of control.  Empathize with the light by entering the darkness.  Write some extreme fiction.  It can be a public service.