Posts Tagged ‘splatterpunk’

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.

I’m a nice guy. I like fuzzy critters, love my wife, and get all squishy when I think of my first child who is on the way. I can watch a Disney flick and feel uplifted or a comedy and laugh. Friends are awesome, and I live for a good hug.

But I have a dark side.

Despite my sweet disposition, I’ve always been pulled toward the shadowy, lurid, and nasty in literature. Don’t ask me where my fascination with the horrific comes from because I can’t tell you. I do know it’s been there as long as I can remember. My favorite book as a child, the one that now haunts me in implication, was an obscure Dr. Seuss with a melodramatic black and red cover. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins is a simple story really. A poor boy in a long ago kingdom must remove his hat in respect for the king. Unfortunately, every time he takes his hat off another appears on his head. Well, there’s a serious downside for young Bartholomew. People who don’t remove their hats for the king get their heads chopped off. Green Eggs and Ham it ain’t. Why was I drawn to such a dark tale? I don’t know. My attraction just is.

Now, the biggest problem with loving horror is that most people don’t. They wonder why you want to feel bad when you read. Or they think you perverse as they imagine you entertained by death and gore in the same way they are entertained by American Idol.  Being a horror junkie is right next to porn perv on many people’s list of, “What the heck is wrong with you?” It can really get a gorehound down.

With reading, it’s not a huge problem. Reading is private. Reading is safe. When I’m asked about the nature of the book in my hand, a simple, “It’s horror,” is enough to send the majority of folks on their way with just a vague feeling of unease. And if they stay? Well then, they’re probably my people. They’ll get why I keep a list of the best, most awful books I’ve ever read (Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door tops it, by the way). The point is, when reading there’s only minor risk of judgment.

Writing is a whole different animal.

Your writing marks you in a way that reading does not. The words on the page are yours. They are fed by your experience, cobbled together in your mind, depend on your fingers for their existence. Yours. And when people judge it, they point a finger squarely at you. When I present images of torn panties and severed heads, strangled pets and devoured infants, incestuous mothers and child beating babysitters, well, I’m forced to own them. And there is risk in that. People conflate artist and art. Sick art means a sick mind, and illness makes many close the door. When I present my work I tend to wonder, “What must they think of me?”

But here’s the thing. Not everyone sees the art as sick, twisted, and wrong. I’ve had the same depiction of sexual assault derided as disgusting fantasy and praised as aggressively feminist, and I’ve had the same gore soaked scene called excessive and tame.

And therein lies safety.

Art only belongs to the artist until the moment it’s released to the world. From that point on, it belongs to the audience. It doesn’t matter if I intended a tale of bloody infanticide to create rumination on the nature of evil or just to shock the hell out of people. Once the audience has it, the rumination is theirs, the shock is theirs, the judgment is theirs. If they think your work is brilliant it’s because it appeals to something in their head, their heart. Alternatively, it’s their sense of perversity that makes your story excessive, not your excess as an artist. People may be angry at your story and furious at you for writing it, but that affront is their responsibility. The writer generates. Interpretation belongs to the audience.

So, here’s my advice on the choice to write extreme fiction. Be a channel for the stories that choose you as parent and stay secure in your own sense of who you are and what you intend. If you think you’re the next Richard Laymon, go for it. Forget about judgment. It’s out of your hands.