The New Postmodern Novel

The fall semester has begun and I find myself with only a few months until I jet off to England.  In the meantime there are still classes and, of course, self-important reflections on the nature of fiction.

Today’s offering comes from the Wall Street Journal, in the form of an article by Lev Grossman.  In it he champions the return of plot to the novel and a general abandonment of the Modernist tropes that for so long have made “literary” fiction an object of scorn for us plebes, namely abstruse narration and typographical trickery becoming of a faulty printing press.  Go ahead and read the article, I’ll wait here.

So I find myself sympathetic to Grossman’s aims, more or less.  Plot has been, as far back as Aristotle, the key feature of drama; for Aristotle, in fact, the construction of the plot was enough to favorably or adversely affect the work’s sum worth, even over characters, setting, actions, etc.  It is the magical ability of plot, writes Aristotle, that ineffable spell cast by fictionalization and construction and progression, that allows us to see something that would in real life be abhorrent (for instance, a dude killing his dad and boning his mom before stabbing out his eyes) as art.  But Grossman seems, in the article, to give the impression that Modernists didn’t have plots, which is pretty much untrue; rather, Modernist plots were quotidian.  Aristotle also makes the point that the only worthy stories were those about certain larger than life individuals and their families; in essence, people who do great things.  Modernism rejected this idea, by and large, and so instead of a story about Achilles killing a hundred dudes we have a story about Leopold Bloom wandering around Dublin for a day doing some pretty gross things before coming home and having makeup sex with his wife.

But the rule still applies.  The construction (plotting!) of Ulysses or The Sound and the Fury take situations that (depending on the case) would either be abhorrent, boring as hell, or more often than not both, and it makes them fascinating.  And of course, the only way to make them fascinating is by way of experimentation with presentation, since a general “A happened then B happened” approach isn’t going to cut it, since these are not great things.  Grossman is spot-on in his assessment of why the Modernists did this, and also how this sort of thing got to be too much for the common reader.  But I think there are some problems.

He points out the drop in sales of adult fiction and claims that these older readers are instead jumping ship and stowing away on the Young Adult Fiction Party Boat, which is to some degree true; Harry Potter is huge and so, unfortunately, is Twilight.  In YA-lit there’s never been a Modernist movement (at least in the sense that there was in adult fiction) and you can read The Hunger Games without worrying about stream-of-consciousness or how to understand when a writer is applying the formula of a fugue to prose or whatever the hell.  Meanwhile, the serious writers who champion genre fiction, like Chabon, are gaining more popularity and credence with some critics, and by Grossman’s assessment we’re all heading straight for a big old fashioned revolution, what he calls the “true postmodern novel.”

But most of these adult readers are reading YA-lit.  He quotes the stats himself; grown-ups aren’t buying the noble attempts to meld genre with literature, the sense of wonder with dreary adult life.  These people are buying books meant for children.  This is not bad in and of itself, of course; people can and should read YA-lit to know how the next generation of readers is shaping up, and there are a few special works that manage to be just as important for kids to read as they are for adults.  The problem is that YA-lit is not only more “lax” in what it allows as far as plot and action go, the standards are just generally lower.  The Harry Potter series, for instance, is sprawling and quite often shoddily constructed, but the books’ main themes (the redemptive power of love, the dignity of the human animal) are noble in essence.  They’re sometimes dealt with rather awkwardly, and there are other YA books that have dealt with the same problems with greater heft and more succinctly, but the thought is there.

On the flip side of the coin is Twilight, which has a handful of good themes (chastity and monogamy) but loses itself under themes of obsession, abuse, misogyny, and childish selfishness.  In fact the greatest irony about Grossman including Twilight with his examples of a “return to plot” is that the series, for most of its run, skillfully evades having a plot at all.  The first book is literally nothing but Bella thinking about and angsting over Edward, a romance plot without all the witty social interaction that writers like Jane Austen offer; the only real element of drama are some rogue vampires that show up near the end, but they are easily dispatched (after Bella passes out, saving her the trouble of actually describing something happening).  Likewise, the final book, Breaking Dawn, builds up expectations of an epic battle, but in the end a magical baby shows up and it is so beautiful that people forget to have conflict.  Seriously.  This is not just bad YA-lit, it is bad lit in general, but things like this can pass as an effort at fiction when they are geared toward a young audience without much reading experience.  Or, perhaps, an audience who wants nothing more than a series of events that promise some sort of danger, but never actually deliver — instead opting to make you feel good and self-assured.  Incidentally, Grossman wrote an article on Twilight comparing it to the HP craze, and he more or less ignores all of the points that I and many other critics have raised about the series.  Whether or not this is due to his (over)enthusiasm for genre or YA-lit or because he was simply writing an expository piece, I cannot tell.

Harold Bloom often speaks of the “dumbing down” of American culture.  I like Harold Bloom, but I disagree with him pretty broadly on a lot of points.  In general I disagree with him here, but when more adults are reading children’s literature than actual adult fiction, I begin to wonder.  I like plots, I really do, and I hope Grossman is right when he says that the true postmodern novel will be just that — one that has moved past the Modernist anxieties over action and the type of characters that should be portrayed.  (An aside — the question of why this should happen [or is happening] is worthy of some serious thought.) I also agree that if this resurgence comes, it will be from genre fiction, which has been patiently waiting in the wings this whole time.  But an over-reliance on plot can be terrible; it is possible to have a story where nothing but exciting stuff happens, but there is no real insight given for the human condition.  There are plenty of SF writers who have a million solid gold starships exploding in the heart of the Galaxy while entropy reverses or whatever.  But these people just might be writing fantasies to entertain, like Twilight, and there is no thought to them beyond that.  A return to clearer plots can be good for reading, but it may pose problems for the type of fiction that is produced.

Entertainment, I should clarify, is not bad in and of itself.  The best fiction, I think, is that which is entertaining, but also manages to deal in some significant way with what Faulkner called the “eternal verities.”  The Modernists, I would say, were entertaining; they just made you work for it.  They didn’t want to hold your hand during the journey, but instead of shrugging it away they went the extra mile and locked themselves in a room on the other side of the continent while you did your best to track them down.  It’s not necessarily the best way to endear yourself to your readers, but it can be rewarding for them.  Hand-holding (though not necessarily good) has a place in YA-lit, when kids are learning to read and understand, but it does not belong in a book read (for serious intellectual stimulation!) by an adult.

I’ll cut myself off here, but point out one final thing.  Grossman makes it sound like this divide between high and low, genre and literature, began almost entirely with the Modernists.  He’s wrong.  There has been “vulgar” literature — sensation fiction in the Victorian era, for instance, from which all or most of our modern notions of genre come — that was looked down upon by the establishment.  As evidence I link here GK Chesterton’s excellent 1901 defense of Penny Dreadfuls.  Note that Chesterton lauds the Dreadfuls for their clear moral universes and experimentations, and he accuses the literary establishment of being biased against simplicity.  This was before either World Wars — the general beginnings associated with the Modernist movement — and yet the argument is remarkably similar to what Grossman offers.

Pamebella, or Sparkles Rewarded

Holy crap, guys, here are some words tl;dr I am so sorry:

I have been brooding on something for a while now — more than half a year, off and on, really — and it seems like now might be as good a time as any to throw it out here.  It is not secret that I have some enmity for the Twilight books, as my Esme persona demonstrates.  It is especially infuriating to me when Twilight fans insist that we detractors are against the books because we simply miss the point, it’s supposed to be escapist fun and we’re just thinking about it too hard.  Well, it’s said that books are supposed to make you think but, ironically, trash literature like Twilight has existed from the very beginning. Twilight is insanely popular, of course, and there are fervent fans who can be almost frightening in their devotion; there are also vehement detractors.

This has happened before. Specifically, in England, in the mid-1700s. Yes, there was a Twilight phenomenon in 1740 — except it had nothing to do with sparkling vampires. Everything centered around a little book called Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by a printer named Samuel Richardson. While reading Pamela and doing research on it for a class around eight or nine months ago, I was struck by how the reception of Richardson’s novel mimics that of Twilight.

First of all, people either loved or hated it. The whole middle class of readers literally split into factions — the so-called Pamelists and Anti-Pamelists. The Pamelists argued that the novel was a heartwarming morality tale that showcased the redemptive power of love and Christian marriage; one prominent proponent of the book (and I am searching my notes like a madman and can’t find his goddamned NAME but I know he did this) said that if there were two works in the English language that should be saved in the event of the destruction of all literature, they should be the King James Bible… and Pamela. The Anti-Pamelists, conversely, condemned the novel, because it was seen as morally despicable and dangerous.

Is this all sounding familiar? Okay, let’s get down to some details.

Pamela is the story of, unsurprisingly, Pamela. It is an epistolary novel, presented as Pamela’s letters (and eventually her diary) to her poverty-stricken agrarian parents from her relative luxury as a servant girl living in the house of one Squire B., caring for the Squire’s sick mother. Unfortunately, Madame B. kicks the bucket, and Pamela assumes she will be sent home. This is not the case, however, as Squire B. offers to let her stay on for a while and offers up gifts of expensive clothes and perfumes and so on. I am sure we all know where this is going, but as Pamela insists in her letters to her parents, B.’s intentions are noble.

Of course, they’re not. The Squire soon makes himself apparent by attempting to seduce Pamela, who is intensely pious and rebukes him. This results in him half-heartedly attempting to rape her. Like, a dozen times, in various situations. I am not joking. Pamela doesn’t enjoy this and eventually the Squire gives into Pamela’s demands that she be allowed to return home. But en route the carriage takes a strange turn and, much to Pamela’s surprise, she finds herself at Squire B.’s country home. She is soon imprisoned there, and more attempts at rape are made and her life is generally quite miserable. The Squire wants her to be his mistress, no wedding bands involved, and she repeatedly refuses; after a few months of imprisonment he finally (!) lets her go for real.

But on her way home, Pamela has a startling realization: She is in love with Squire B. She makes a U-turn, heads back to the country home, and she and the Squire confess their undying love for one another, get married, and a few other problems arise (the Squire’s past lechery has some consequences, which is to say illegitimate children, that threaten the marriage), but suffice it to say that they all live happily ever after.

The Pamelists lauded the novel because it demonstrates how a pious young woman was able to help a sinful man find redemption. The Anti-Pamelists savaged it for its portrayal of a gold-digging young woman who successfully leads on her weak-willed, wealthy employer until finally conning him into marrying her. Now, class issues aside, we can comb through this mess to pick out some important bits.

First of all, a first-person female protagonist who, depending on which camp you fall into, is either “pure” and psychologically real or a hollow, somewhat disgusting, selfish excuse for a human being. Then we have the rich, dangerous male love interest with a dark secret; he is horrifically controlling and manipulative and — despite this — still an object of affection for the female protagonist. It may seem like I glossed over too much of the story in my summary for Pamela’s love epiphany, but that is literally how it happens in the story: she simply has a startling realization she loves him, and has loved him the entire time, and that’s why she was so adamant that he not sleep with her out of wedlock. Outside of the text we have the diametrically opposing factions of the readership — the ardent fans and vehement critics. (Since these were the days people played things fast and loose with copyright, there are a few rather hilarious contemporary parodies of Pamela, including the piquantly titled Shamela.)

Some of the similarities here are nothing special. Richardson, in writing Pamela, essentially created the romance novel (or, in some arguments, the English novel in general, the first bestseller) — but Austen and the Brontës took the tropes he established and did things much, much better. Pamela, in case I have not been clear, is a stupendously terrible book, but it is the raw material from which the later works were refined (Jane Eyre, for instance, has a great scene with Rochester disguised as a gypsy that plays as a sendup of a similar scene in Pamela).

But despite this popularity, Pamela is largely forgotten today — the Austen and Brontë books it begot are remembered far more often and far more fondly. The only people who seem to be reading Pamela are students of literature like myself. It really is fascinating for various reasons, mostly cultural: it is the first clear picture of a middle class marriage and the emergence of an autonomous “nuclear” family, it deals with anxieties in England at the time over the perceived surplus of bachelors (what was called the Marriage Crisis), and marks a turning point in the depiction of women as lascivious seductresses (think Eve) toward women as virtuous, almost nonsexual beings pitted against the lecheries of men (paving the way for the Victorian paradigm that is to some degree still in effect today).

So trashy books can still be of some use, at least in an historical context. But this leads me to wonder what could possibly be gained from Twilight, if we think about it in terms of Pamela. Its level of popularity and infamy seems to be roughly equivalent, but what does Twilight “show” us that hasn’t been shown before? What does it tell us about the time in which we live? In 300 years, I suspect it will be largely forgotten, like Pamela. But will students of literature be reading it for the sheer social interest? Will Twilight bring up a a new crop of Brontës to actually do something interesting with the basic subject?

Perhaps we can find something in the way the text differentiates itself from Pamela. For instance, in Twilight it is Bella who is portrayed as the more sexually willing and marriage-jaded partner in the relationship, reversing the “virtuous woman” turn I remarked upon above; it is not a pious woman who redeems a man, but rather a magic virtuous sparkly manpire that teaches a cynical young woman that there is such a thing as true love. It’s a break — or a reversion — of convention. Is this a one-off thing or a signal of another shift in cultural perceptions? Are the implications good or bad?

Other than this, I can think of no way in which Twilight revolutionizes social or literary conventions in the way Pamela did. So, in short, what does Twilight’s popularity mean? Anything or nothing at all? A big question, and one that probably won’t be answered well until we’re a few decades down the road and can see exactly how history is moving.

I must acknowledge here a debt to Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, which was an invaluable resource for helping me place Pamela in a cultural context and drawing my attention to the ways in which its rise and fall mirror Twilight’s own. Anyone interested in early Englightenment literature or the novel form should probably check that book out, it rocks.

Hey, congratulations, you made it to the end of this ramble! Have a Crazy Author Fact. We all know SMeyer is Mormon, and her religion has some weird effects on her writing. Well, Samuel Richardson was kind of a nutcase, too! You see, he apparently hated physical contact with people and often wore gloves to keep his hands from touching icky people germs; I also mentioned he was a printer. Well, he was also a complete hardass and thought his employees would swindle him every chance they got. To make sure his employees worked when he was out of the room, he had a tiny, secret office installed with a peephole, so he could do his own work and keep tabs on the people in the printing room. This is the man, ladies and gentlemen, who invented the romance novel.

It turns out that you, the reader, are a secret Targaryen!

After mentioning George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire a few weeks back, I’ll report here that I have finished (caught up?) with the series as it currently stands.  While the level of quality is pretty consistent, A Feast for Crows did have its issues, all of which have been pointed out before, and so I won’t waste my time discussing them here.  If you poke around on fan communities you will likely find that my opinions are the ones most generally held; hooray for the law of averages.  That said, considering that each book up until this point has been pretty much 1000 pages, and A Dance with Dragons looks like it might end up being that long or perhaps some sort of quantum novel that exists in a perpetual state of unending, my fears about the series as a whole still stand.  I very much doubt that GRRM can or will bring a satisfactory conclusion to such a substantial amount of reading — and we’ve still go two more theoretical books of buildup, people.

In other news, my own time observing the ASoIaF fan community has been amusing, apart from confusion at the sheer spiteful indignation of fans that the author is perceived to be withholding A Dance with Dragons from them.  Anyway, while reading the books I was pleased to note instances of rather elliptical storytelling that strike me as being indebted to Gene Wolfe’s fantastic Book of the New Sun.  Now, admittedly, GRRM isn’t at all as elliptical as Wolfe, but hilariously, the fan response is much the same.  If you’ve read New Sun and any of the appropriate compendiums or mailing lists, you’ll know discussion of the book’s infuriatingly opaque narrative results in some pretty crazy interpretations, none of which I will go over in any detail, but suffice it to say they are there and most of them deal with particularly unorthodox genealogies.  The Wacky Theory faction of the ASoIaF fandom concerns itself likewise with who is and is not secretly part of the formerly royal Targaryen bloodline, or as the shorthand goes, a “secret Targ.”  One of the leading theories seems very reasonable to me, but there are others that fly to all sorts of crazy places.  It reminds me of the widespread belief in some parts prior to Rowling’s Deathly Hallows that Dumbledore was in fact a time-traveling Ron Weasley.

Older than I’ve ever been, and now I’m even older, and now I’m older still

By way of John C. Wright‘s LJ I’ve discovered this wonderful piece by John Scalzi detailing the nearly glacial movement of fiction publishing.  In it, Scalzi explains how novel writing is a rather time-consuming business.  I have no qualms with that statement — I know it’s true.  But he echoes certain common wisdom that pervades the industry that makes me somewhat unsettled, namely, the idea that you simply need to be older to write a novel.  To say this is always the case is of course untrue — we have enough Jonathan Safran Foers and Brett Easton Ellises to demonstrate that — but as a young person, it definitely makes me feel cagier.  I sure as hell am not a Foer or Ellis.

I’ve written three good-sized novels, and one shorter novel that I mentioned a few entries ago.  I am 21 years old.  My first novel — if you want to call it that — was about 100,000 words long, and it was a rambling, disgusting mess.  Essentially everything that Scalzi says first novels are was true of this thing; it shames me to look at it, but I keep the file in my archives just so I don’t forget how far I’ve come.  I wrote this novel when I was 14.  My second novel, 90,000 words written at 16, was better in many respects, but still a pretty sorry thing; a good friend of mine who read it was kind enough to point out its good points, the things he enjoyed, and the things he thought didn’t make sense.  There were a lot of those, and I was glad he pointed them out to me.  But overall it was more directed, had a solid plot, and greater depth of character, as far as that went.  (Incidentally, no one has read my first novel except me, and I plan to keep it that way.)

My third novel, Brutal, is 88,000 words long.  I began writing it when I was 19, a few weeks before my twentieth birthday, finished my first draft in the dorms that fall, and have gone over it a few times since then.  I hope it doesn’t sound too presumptious for me to say that I think Brutal is a pretty good story.  I tell you this after admitting that the previous two books I wrote were utter crap — I say that comparatively this book is haute arte.  On its own I think it’s pretty fun; a handful of people have read Brutal and the response has been positive, something that definitely would not have happened for my prior two exercises.  The book has been rejected once, of course, but only (I think) because I simply sent it to the only slushpile house I could find — I don’t want to try for an agent until I have a few short pieces published — and the house didn’t really specialize in horror.

But there’s also another possibility: that I’m simply not old enough to have written a competent novel.  Scalzi’s ruminations touch on this; the novel, according to Ian Watt, is vested almost entirely in the importance of individual experience.  Can I write well about individual experience when my own is so limited compared to these people who are writing with 30 and 40 and 50 years of life behind them?  This is definitely an anxiety of mine.  Am I simply too juvenile, at the moment, to be a writer?  The fact that I’ve written three novels (or at least one novel and two things that look uncomfortably like novels) in the past seven years only intensifies my self-doubt.  To have written so much while so young may be the mark of a productive but sloppy author, a lifestyle that turns up a few glittering jewels in what is otherwise a sea of crap.

But there’s another issue here: Brutal is a novel about high school.  In some ways it’s a novel about leaving high school behind and finding yourself in a much larger world.  I felt I had to write it last summer because my experience of leaving high school was growing ever more distant, more blunted; I needed to commit those emotions to the page before I lost them entirely.  This could go two ways: I could have ended up with something startlingly genuine or something embarrassingly incoherent.  Salinger proved that you don’t have to write just after leaving high school to nail the teenage mindset, but I am not Salinger.  The people who have read Brutal have not raised issues with my portrayal of the Teen Experience, so I it is possible I lucked out in that department.

But the people who have read my novel are not publishers.

I know that since I’ve written one thing I’m fairly pleased with, nothing else will necessarily follow suit.  The short novel I wrote earlier this month was not something I hated entirely, but it still didn’t sit right with me.  I allowed a friend to read it, and he agreed: it was terrible.  Terrible, but perhaps salvageable.  All of the issues I suspected the manuscript had were indeed issues; having the second opinion was handy for focusing what kind of changes need to be made.

While on the subject, Scalzi also links to this fascinating article about working on a slushpile.  The idea of a website where writers post their rejection letters and rage about them perplexes me somewhat.  I mean, in one sense that’s what I’m doing here on this blog, except I’m not really raging, just keeping a running count.  I also don’t post copies of the letter and make petty swipes at the readers or editors — to do so seems, well, childish.  I don’t think I’ve ever been truly shattered over a rejection letter; I’ve mentioned one that really confused me, since it seemed like the reader was being unwarrantedly snide, but I didn’t bother pursuing the matter, I simply found another market.  I’ve had two letters that contained something like actual criticism, and while criticism is never easy to swallow, I felt like they were the most helpful.  The majority of my rejections fall in the category Teresa Hayden calls “Appropriate Disinterest” — “Thanks, but no thanks.”  As I’ve pointed out, I’m not sure what this says about me or my writing.  Am I submitting to the wrong publications, or what?  Hayden offers a handful of possibilities:

7.  Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless.

8.  It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels.

9.  Nobody but the author is ever going to care about this dull, flaccid, underperforming book.

10.  The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.

11.  Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.

12.  Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.

But I think most of these things might be pointed out in a rejection letter?  Except of course for the one about visiting a shrink. You don’t want the crazies to come after you.  The only thing that will give me answers to these questions is, I imagine, time.  More submissions, more rejections, more writing.

EDIT: Going back and reading my previous entry wherein I discuss rejections in-depth, I must say here that I am probably luckier than most.  As I admit there, many rejections I receive encourage me to submit again — assuming that’s not some commonly accepted form rejection.  My previous rant on this phenomenon mostly had to do with how absolutely goddamn bewildering it is to be told “thanks, no thanks, BUT PLEASE TRY AGAIN.”  I’m all for perserverance, but when you get rejected without any real criticism and an invitation to have a second round it’s kind of alarming.

Poetry???

I don’t like writing poetry.  I simply don’t — I feel as if prose is much more suited to the way I think.  This does not mean I dislike poetry, as I loves me some Milton and Yeats and Frost and and E.A. Robinson and E.L. Masters and Wendy Cope and so on and so forth.  I just don’t like writing the stuff — poetry rarely seems to afford me the opportunity to say what I need or want to say.

Given that, it is not impossible for me to write (really stupid) poetry.  Usually this ends up being part of a class assignment, and I do everything in my power to make the poem as obnoxious as possible for my professor.  For instance, I was just digging through my archives when I found the following beauty from my poetry class — we had to write a villanelle about any subject of our choosing, so naturally I decided to write mine about Batman and call it “Super-Villanelle.”

“Super-Villanelle”

There are few who venture to this height;
There are those who fall, or never rise.
Then there is me, and I am the night.

Now, without the luxury of light,
Those below can only fear surprise.
There are few who venture to this height.

It is in this darkness that I delight:
I slip through shadow, I hardly need my eyes.
And that is me, and I am the night.

I aid them, and they hate me still despite;
The papers print my name alongside lies.
There are few who venture to this height.

I feel the wind — for an instant I’m in flight,
Clouds like angels’ wings besmear the skies,
Then there is me, and I am the night.

To the meaning in your life hold tight;
It’s yours alone, and with you it dies.
There are few who venture to that height.
Then there is me, and I am the Knight.

Of course, if I wanted to be true to the pun of my title, I should have written it about the Joker.  If I you want to write about Batman or Superman you should use heroic couplets!

(Yes, I used that joke on my professor.  Yes, he almost threw a Norton Anthology of Poetry (Unabridged) at me for it.)

The Death of Horror

By way of Dread Central I’ve stumbled upon an article in the Newark Film Examiner by Mark Jones about seven reasons why the horror genre is dying.  While Mr. Jones offers some very good reasons, I feel like the article has a few details wrong, and who better to discuss this than someone with a grotesquely inflated sense of self-importance like me?  So here are Mr. Jones’s points in quotes, with my responses after.

7) Over Saturation
It would seem “quantity over quality” has become the horror adage. Each week more and more poorly produced, straight-to-video horror films hit the shelves and each week, the genre becomes a little more diluted. Horror is becoming the new porn, where anyone with a video camera and willing participants can shoot a film and get distribution. This lackadaisical approach to filmmaking turns a genre with little respect into a complete joke.

This.  This this this this this.  Is.  Exactly right.

But only in a certain sense!  For example, how many Saw films are we up to now?  How many more Halloweens will go by with another shoddily constructed offering in theaters?  I don’t know, because Saw stopped being relevant after the first installment.  It’s a cash cow, now, and an easy buck for the studios.  This same sequel-madness is what felled the great Slashers of the 80s, my friends — even Michael Myers in his resplendent glory was toast once magical druids were on the scene.

I think this problem can be neatly contained in an exploration of a horror subgenre, namely, the zombie movie.  Jones points out that any starry-eyed wannabe film student feels like he can (or should) make a horror movie because it is the “easy” way to go.  Doubly so if it’s a zombie movie.  This is a staggeringly wrong assumption on both counts.  Horror is not (or should not) be the easy course of action, and a zombie movie should be considerably more complicated than most filmmakers (prospective or professional) seem to think they are.  Fear, despite being an arguably primitive emotion, is much more meaningful than we like to think it is.  The overarching problem, I think, is that the audience for a horror piece seems to refuse to have standards.  People will focus on one aspect of the thing: gore, the variety and ingenuity of kills, the makeup effects on a zombie.  If these things are good, then suddenly it doesn’t matter what the story is, what it is about, what it teaches us.  Who cares about that stuff when there’s enough blood and guts that the filmmakers must have raided the meat section at a Super Wal-Mart?

Let’s talk about zombie movies.  Romero has run the standard zombie invasions make us question who the monsters really are rigmarole in the ground and perfected it.  It’s pointless, I think, for any zombie story to take this exact same tack again because even Romero himself has seemingly devolved into self-parody.  Do not get me wrong; this is certainly an important part of the zombie formula, but it’s getting tired.  It needs to be expanded, played with, questioned.  It will take effort to reinvent this type of plot, to move beyond it, and to make the zombie genre exciting again.  But unfortunately, if people are not retreading Romero’s ground (which they rarely seem to do with any finesse), they’re instead making purely stylistic movies based on how “cool” or disgusting something would be — the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, for instance.  But because, in the stylistic or technical sense, all you need for a zombie movie is a working video camera, some friends, and some makeup, it appears to be the easy way to get something done, so all your independently produced DTV zombie movies are the DotD remake without the pleasing editing or absolutely stunning Johnny Cash opening sequence.

So the genre stagnates only because we allow it, only because we do not, for whatever reason, hold horror up to the rigorous rubric of quality we apply to other genres.

6) Big Budgets
It might appear shortsighted to say a bigger budget would have a negative effect on a film. The more money spent, the better the film will be, right? Not always. What made many of the older films so scary is how real they seemed, looking more like documentaries than feature films. Also, no one in the films looked like actors. Leatherface’s family in the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” looked like they were pulled from a local insane asylum, not a casting call. All in all, the films were so genuine that they scared audiences for days after leaving the theater. Today, horror films are so stylized and clean it would be like getting scared by a car commercial.

Debatable, I say.  While I agree that realism is a plus, low budgets are not always indicative of quality because a lower budget, as I pointed out in the zombie-movie syndrome, often forces a storyteller or filmmaker to follow the stylistic or technical approach to horror and neglect the deeper meanings and implications of the narrative.  The original TCM was somewhat boring, I would say, and I absolutely despise the first Evil Dead movie.  Now admittedly, in both of those examples the lower budgets and technical emphasis resulted in some pretty stunning special effects (mostly in the case of The Evil Dead), what’s the point if the narrative fails to engage me?  I suppose it’s preferable to the next insidious beast…

5) Computer Graphics
Has the price of corn syrup and red food coloring skyrocketed? Recent horror films have become so dependent on computer graphics that they look more like cartoons than live action movies. Think of how much better “I Am Legend” would have been if the monsters chasing Will Smith around dilapidated New York City weren’t those silly looking animated abominations. The thing with CG is it can be beneficial, but when it’s overused, the films tend to be less scary and more stupid.

Yes, I hate CGI.  Do you hate CGI?  You should, especially in horror films.  CGI almost unavoidably breaks my suspension of disbelief because it looks so unreal.  I cannot feel threatened by something that is obviously added in post hoc; it would be like being scared of a Photoshop filter, for crying out loud.  It really doesnt even have to be a CG monster; I would say that Let the Right One In is probably the best horror film of the last five years, yet it has one particularly heinous scene with CG cats that pulled me entirely out of the film.  Now this is something of a problem, of course, because I suspect that the scene would have been impossible (or illegal) to achieve with real cats, and may have even looked ridiculous with puppets or animatronics.  So I maintain that CG should always be a last resort — the recent film Splinter, while not as good as LtROI, is a fantastic example of the wonders we can do with makeup and puppets, with only minor help from computers.  (Still, there’s a cringe-worthy shot or two near the end, but like the heinous cat scene, it’s over quickly.)

4) PG-13 Ratings
Nothing makes horror fans gripe and groan more than seeing a PG-13 rating on a horror film. What this rating guarantees the audience is that there will be little language, no nudity, and toned down violence, while guaranteeing the producers of the film a better box office turnout.  The PG-13 rating plays to the teeny bopper crowd, who will scream in terror at every single cheap scare inserted throughout. It also robs potentially good films of any kind of legitimacy with unrealistic dialogue, little suspense, and moderate violence. Not to say violence in moderation isn’t sometimes a good thing, which brings us to…

Again, debatable.  You may ask me to think of a good PG-13 horror film and I would be at a loss, but I think if I did research I might find one. (EDIT – a friend of mine was kind enough to point out that the US remake of The Ring, which I hold as an example of cross-cultural-remake-done-right later in this essay, is also rated PG-13.  So hooray for that.) Horror is not — or should not — be proportional to the amount of tits and blood you can show.  In fact, in my personal philosophy, a horror story is especially successful when it manages to terrify you without these things.  The original 1963 version of The Haunting is a good example here; of course it was made before there was a ratings system for films, but it has no gore, no nudity, and little swearing, but I would say it is the best haunted house film yet made.  If there is anything in this movie that would warrant for it a higher rating than PG-13, especially in 1963,  it is probably the rather distinct currents of lesbianism the film (and its source material, Shirley Jackson’s immaculate novel) exude.

3) Torture and Rape
Many of today’s horror filmmakers are confusing what’s disgusting with what’s scary. In a genre where less can be more, over the top, bizarre violence has become a crutch. From the “Hostel” films to “Saw” one through one million, it’s obvious that these filmmakers are trying to get scares by repulsing their audience. What they need to realize is making someone vomit is far different than actually scaring them. Along with torture, rape scenes have become a way for filmmakers to push the envelope. Yes, some older horror films did contain both these aspects, but today it seems every horror film has a scene with someone tied to a chair getting god-knows-what shoved god-knows-where, while somewhere else a poor unsuspecting girl is about to be deflowered by some maniac. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself, is this really entertaining?

No real disagreement here.  The sooner we move beyond torture porn the better.  This ties in with my own opinions on horror, letting a lot go unspoken so your audience can fill in the blanks with whatever makes them the most uneasy.  But it’s also a matter of meaning I brought up back when talking about zombie movies; torture porn is porn because it lacks any merit beyond gore, pain, and suffering.  There is no lesson being learned, there is no reason for this pain!  Again we have a stylistic or technical emphasis over the narrative; torture porn is about what looks cool, with no greater message being coherently formed or stated.

A particularly strange strain of torture porn, I will briefly argue, is the Ju-On series, which is being consistently remade and sequelized in the states as The Grudge.  The characters encounter an evil female ghost who has at best a tangential connection to their lives; they remain mostly ignorant of this malevolence until they are too late, and then they are spirited away or whatever the hell it is the creaky throated ghost bitch does with them.  The series is significant because it does not fall into the bloody mess (heh heh) of other torture porn: there is little blood, really, and the gore is usually restrained enough.  Yet it still operates in the same way: characters, who are  pretty much completely innocent of the reason for the ghost’s vengeance, are murdered one by one and — this is the kicker — there is no way to stop it or save yourself.  Tell me, why in the hell would anyone want to watch this, because I don’t understand it.  What is the thrill in watching an unstoppable monster be literally unstoppable as it kills random people for no goddamn reason?

Compare the “classic” torture porn plot: some unstoppable and seemingly omnisicent antagonist (a collective of heartless, rich foreigners or something) for no evident reason other than perhaps their own evilness-for-evil’s-sake slowly murders a group of basically innocent protagonists who lack any possible form of recourse.  In the end one or two may escape, but there’s always the stinger ending where MAYBE THEY DIDN’T or, more likely, they get killed off in the first five minutes of the sequel.  This sort of thing could be a ripe criticism for the disconnect between upper classes and lower classes, let’s say, but you only have to watch one of the movies to see it’s not.  It’s about how badass people being hit by trains looks.

2) First Person Point of View
Why is it that every time someone runs in a film there are sequences of nauseating hand-held camerawork? Can the viewer not understand what the person on the screen is doing without seeing it through their eyes? If that’s not bad enough, there are the films in which the characters themselves are shooting the movie. Ever since “The Blair Witch Project” filmmakers have been making first person horror films and every time the characters use the same sparse reasoning of “I’m filming this because it’ll be important,” to justify their actions. Even horror legend George A. Romero took part in these shenanigans in his last film “Diary of the Dead.” There is nothing more unbelievable than a group of twenty-something idiots who think filming giant aliens or zombies or invisible witches is more important than their own safety.

I sort of agree here.  The shaky first-person-cam of Cloverfield of Blair Witch is annoying as hell.  Who cares about seeing a movie?  I’d rather watch blurs of movement while people scream at each other incoherently!  But the Blair Witch film, in particular, is interesting as a cultural artifact; if you will recall, many people were confused as to the movie’s veracity.  Was it really long-lost footage?  This is rather silly, of course, because it is about fucking witches and spirits and anyone with two brain cells should be able to tell you it’s fake as all get out, but the fact that the movie was shot realistically, with an every day video camera, somehow managed to blur the lines between reality and fantasy.  I am reminded of the Victorians and their delight at staging pictures of fairies and ghosts for photographs; among the populace there was a sizable portion of people who simply did not believe you could fake a photograph because a photo reproduced exactly what it saw — what was ostensibly “reality.”  Anything in a photograph simply had to be real.

A small aside, while we’re still on the subject of cinéma vérité: the Spanish film [REC] was well received among horror circles, touted as being frightening, got an American remake called Quarantine, and there is a sequel to both on the way.  I will tell you now, contrary to popular reports, this movie is terrible.  It has plot holes galore, has no cohesive horror-aesthetic sense, I could really go on and on.  But I will stop for now and bring it up again when I’m through with this list.  Speaking of which…

1) Remakes
It’s nothing new for filmmakers to rehash old ideas and characters, but the horror genre has become notorious for it. At this moment, there are over 60 horror films slated to be remade. Granted some of them are just talk, but it’s a staggering number even if only half of them come to fruition.

Yes.  This really needs no explanation.  How are remakes a good idea?  What is up with the current studio fascination regarding “reboots” for classic horror franchises?  Do we really need an Elm Street remake, no matter how dated the original is?  Just because this worked for Batman doesn’t mean it will work forever, guys.

I’ve already mentioned [REC] and how it got an American remake, and so I will take this moment to talk about importing horror.  Up until recently, most horror media were imported from Japan and other Asian countries — original movies, Americanized remakes, etc.  I like being able to take part in a sort of international culture of horror just as much as the next guy, you understand, but as per my comments above I don’t really like remakes.  It worked well for The Ring, and that’s pretty much it.

So as long as we’re importing the original films, then we’re good, right?  No, we’re not, because the original movies can be just as shitty as anything we crank out in America.  The amount of Japanese/Korean horror that has been imported is far too large and diverse to point fingers at every little thing, really, but I will say the original Dark Water is a good horror story while One Missed Call is not.  However, in the wake of Pan’s Labyrinth the American horror scene seems to have gravitated to the other big ocean and set its sights on Spain.  This is not a mistake in and of itself; after all, Guillermo del Toro is a wonderful filmmaker, a man after my own heart, and Pan’s Labyrinth is a great film.

But perhaps because of the astounding quality of Pan’s Labyrinth as both a piece of horror and a piece of cinema (genre does not exclude art, it turns out!) there is a marked tendency to call any Spanish horror film the next big thing.  The Orphanage, for example, was very highly regarded even by critics despite having plot holes you could drive a bus through.  Certainly it deals with Important Issues in the same way Pan’s Labyrinth did, but it’s wholly more clumsy and nonsensical.  It was a passable film, but not deserving of the praise it received.

[REC] is the flip side of the coin, a movie with little worth that (like The Orphanage) was undeservedly praised.  It is — again! — style over substance, sound and fury signifying nothing, and so on.  The plot holes in this baby are wide enough that we could slip a 747 through.  It’s torture porn, except the first-person perspective means you never have any clue what sort of torture is going on (unless it’s torture of you, the viewer, heh heh heh).  It is scary, but only in the way that a jack-in-the-box is scary to a child who has never seen one before.  You jump when the monster pops out, but beyond that there is no emotional engagement.

I feel I should draw this ramble to a close.  It’s something of a mess.

Horror is a crappy genre.

This is true.  It has been a crappy genre for a long time, because so much of it is bottom of the barrel, derivative and desperate scrapes at the feet of better works.  So much of it is style in place of substance, disgust in place of true horror.  This is the fault of fans like me and you, because we refuse to challenge this genre we love so very much.  We refuse to ask it to do great things, simply so we can watch it do cool things.  When the genre gives us something good — something that is art, or approximates it, or strains the conventions in even a wonderful little way — we stand back and let the sequels come, the remakes, the reimaginings, the next-big-things.  We refuse to think about what horror as an emotion means for us as a species, what it communicates.  We horror fans are content to sit here and simply amuse ourselves to death.

That’s pretty spooky, isn’t it.

Cthulolita

Cthulolita, loath of my life, fear of my lexicography. My syllables, my sanity. Kuh-thoo-lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a temerarious trip of five steps down the palate to tap, timidly, on the teeth. Kuh. Thoo. Lo. Lee. Ta.

It was Tulu, plain Tulu, to the Tcho-Tcho people, standing four feet ten in their squalid jungle. It was Q’thulu in Quechua. It was Kutulu in deep Y’ha-nthlei. It was Dread Cthulhu in the archives at Miskatonic. But in my darkest dreams it was always Cthulolita.

Did it have a precursor? It did, indeed it did. In point of fact, there might have been no Cthulolita at all had I not read, one summer, a certain incantation in a certain aged and worm-eaten manuscript. In a princedom on the shores of dim Carcosa, lost Carcosa. Oh when? About as many years before the blasphemous bubbles crawled out from beneath the thumbs of their five-lobed southern lords and loped on the shores in the shape of an ape. You can always count on a madman for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, again I say, I do not know what has become of Clare Quilty, though I think — almost hope — that he is in peaceful oblivion, if there be anywhere so blessed a thing. Look at this tangle of tentacles.