The Measure for Measure research project has begun and continues apace. It’s shaping up to be interesting. In my readings I’ve learned some interesting facts, like that outside of the great tragedies, M4M is Harold Bloom’s favorite Shakespeare play. What.
I suppose I can afford to link a few things I’ve found that I think are cool or noteworthy. First, Neil Gaiman has a wonderful piece on Ray Bradbury in the Times Online, one with which I agree wholeheartedly. I tend to think of myself pretty strongly as a Midwestern writer — so in a more canonical sense my lineage would consist of people like Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson and their stories of small-town grotesqueries. And while I’ve read those writers and they’re indeed good, none of them has affected me more than Bradbury — also their literary child, but in addition to petty rural politics, he also wrote about monsters and spaceships.
And with that, my second link. Jeffrey Anderson, a blogger over at Cinematical, asks if sci-fi as a genre has surpassed horror. Of particular interest is this bit:
At its best, horror is capable of — and even expert at — taking the temperature of a time and mood in very subtle ways. But, like comedies and erotic films, it will always be an embarrassment, something one enjoys inwardly but does not celebrate outwardly (at awards ceremonies). But there’s also no denying that science fiction has struck a chord with audiences.
Now, this is a film site talking about films and blah blah blah. You know what I’m going to say: he’s wrong, at least partly. Yes, horror does its best during times of social and economic duress (the sf/horror boom in the 50s, the satanic horror boom in the 70s leading to the general horror explosion in the 80s, the post 9-11 J-horror boom, and so on). But to say that a piece of horror fiction is always going to be an embarrassment because it is the product of a certain time — well, absolutely not.
I’ll hedge my bets to begin with. Let’s look at Dracula: now, this book absolutely takes “the temperature” of Victorian Britain. Vampires operate entirely by means of metaphors for (repressed) sexual activity. Quite titillating! And is it dated? Yes. Do people seem to care? Not particularly — the architecture Stoker established for his vampires is still in use today. I mean, Twilight, goddamn.
I could also talk about a film that’s both sf and horror — Alien. It’s a bit harder to make this one relate to its time-period — perhaps you could say it relates to fears of increasing corporate control of society at the end of the 70s. Anderson seems to assume that a film cannot be tense and foreboding (horror) but also quiet and thoughtful (sf). Well, Alien is both, and it’s damn good.
Now for straight horror fiction, I could talk about The Shining — the book and the movie. The book is probably one of the best things King has written, and the film is Kubrick, so you know it’s good. Unless you want to tie both of them to a particular social event (eg, an increasing number of divorces in the 70s) then they’re both very thoughtful (in their respective ways) and also very tense and frightening. King’s novel is a meditation on fatherhood, family, abuse, and self-determination; Kubrick’s film is… well, take your pick.
But Anderson does raise a valid point in that horror is simply not as popular as sf (or even fantasy) these days. Part of this is Peter Jackson’s LotR films being so damn good — fantasy is suddenly respectable, and sf is closer aesthetically to fantasy and therefore easier to digest. Not to mention sf has a cultural pedigree already in Star Wars and similar things. Horror’s cultural icons — the old Universal monsters, which aren’t so scary anymore, or Kubrick’s The Shining — are plenty respectable, too, but, as Anderson points out, the ‘modern classics’ of Shaun of the Dead and Let the Right One In haven’t had as great an impact on the culture as either of those.
Well, I guess two reasons as to why, the first being that those films weren’t American. Before you call me xenophobic, understand: I loved them both. But that’s because I’m a horror fan and I’m willing to search for good horror. I’m willing to read the subtitles for LtROI. The American films Anderson cites (Drag Me to Hell and The House of the Devil) are, mutually, absolutely goddamn terrible and uninteresting. The second reason is that horror isn’t attuned to zeitgeist at the moment — we’re looking for feel-good escapism, which is what something like Avatar offers, and horror (usually at its best and even sometimes at its worst) is noble for not allowing that. Horror can have a happy ending, but it exists only to remind us of the dangers and uncertainties of existence, and at the moment, we’d rather fawn over sparkling non-horrific vampires or pretend to be peaceful blue catpeople living on a planet with a ridiculously impractical and unbelievable ecosystem. I’ll leave it to someone smarter than me to figure out why that is.
In other news: I might have exciting news about something or I might not. It depends on when I get confirmation of details. Watch this here space.