The Importance of Theme in Horror… and Zombies… and Dogshit

 

“…it’s what happens in the United States when a truly radical ideology takes over.”

This is George Romero’s answer to the question of what his film Night of the Living Dead is about.  To me, this is a most thoughtful and complete assessment, and perhaps what explains the movie’s enduring success.  Of course, on the surface the movie is about the dead coming back to life, and a layer underneath that survivalism, and another layer below that the complexity (and necessity) of social alliances.  However, the foundation on top of where everything is built is the pathology and consequence of socio-political ideology.

zombie1I won’t lie and say that after watching Night of the Living Dead when I was sixteen (or when I re-watched it years later for that matter) that I had any inkling that this was its ultimate theme.  I only knew the movie was about something, its mood too earnest to be about nothing.  The overriding theme with which Romero directed all the action around is what elevates it above a mindless zombie flick, an unquantifiable hook in which the viewer can identify despite the fantastic plot elements.

Horror (as well as its cousins Sci-fi and Fantasy) especially depend on theme in this way. After all, horror stories are not ones that from which there are any useful applications to real life. There will never be a zombie uprising, nor will there be some needy devil granting us a wish, and never we will find ourselves inexplicably locked in a haunted hotel room with our own corpse hanging in the bathroom.  These situations will never occur in our lives, and so there is no value in preparing for them.  Okay sure, while serial killers do exist, let’s face it, is any one of us interesting enough to attract their specialized gaze?  Is anyone so deluded to think if there were a Hannibal Lector out there that he would be so impressed with their intellect that he would be compelled to devise some elaborate, personalized death ritual just for them?

It’s not in the plot that horror illuminates, teaches, or scares us.  It’s in the metaphor.

Fortunately, inserting meaning into horror has little cost.  Whether the horror is literary, comic, bizarre, or an extreme gore-fest, the room to interject theme is equally afforded and fairly easy.

Take the example of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  I have never read this book, never will, and I think there’s a movie too which I have no interest in watching, but it helps explain a point. Jane Austen’s version (which I haven’t read either) is classic literature dealing with the themes of love, social reputations, and3edit02 class.  None of these topics need to be sacrificed by the infusion of zombies.  The rewriting author can simply inject the presence of the undead into the background and plot.  In theory, the book can have the same characters, the same dialogue, the prose can be the stylistically the same, etc.  In the parts of the book when the characters travel, they would simply have to do so while avoiding/killing some zombies.  Or, a little more cleverly, the discussions over the undead threat between those occupying different socio-economic strati could have been used to further the subject matter of class and social identity.  No theme needs to be sacrificed in a change to a z-horror style.

So can serious themes be incorporated into most any conceived plot or technique.  Even The Walking Dead need not to sacrifice theme in order to entertain (and maximize) its wide PG-13 audience.  While George Romero hates the show for its soap-opera aesthetic, TWD does have its moments of depth.  In the previous season (6th?), there was a compelling story arc where Morgan (‘I Clear’) meets up with pacifist and former prison psychologist Eastman (played by the character actor John Carroll Lynch).  The Eastman character recounts a pre-apocalypse moral dilemma about his wife being killed by one of his unredeemable patients, which leads to discussions of man’s capacity for evil and the psychology of vengeance.  I was glad they delved into this Crime and Punishment-esque narrative in detail over several episodes.  Okay, the part about Morgan being kept prisoner in a cell which wasn’t locked the entire time was overly trite symbolism, but generally everything worked and was philosophically fulfilling.  Way better than spending an entire segment watching Glen and Maggie moon over each other again (we get it… they’re in love, yawn).

We’ve all read or watched horror that doesn’t work past the point where it is not only boring, but depressing.  Some attribute this failure on the subject matter being too violent (first half of season 7 of TWD), or the author punching down on helpless characters, or nihilism—horror without a point.  However, while horror’s sub-genres aren’t for everyone, they all have their legitimate place, appeal, and audience.  It’s in the lack of meaningfulness that these stories most often fail.  A torture scene when done in a context that makes sense in advancing a storyline or character arc reads profoundly differently than one where there is little point besides the documenting of an inhumane act.

marquisIn the Marquis de Sade biopic Quills, there is a scene where the imprisoned Sade argues his writings are grand literature of high truths to which the prison’s priest rebuts, “It’s not even a proper novel.  It’s nothing but an encyclopedia of perversions…”  For anyone who has read 120 Days of Sodom, the priest is technically correct; however, there is such eagerness and enthusiasm in Sade’s listings of sexual deviancy that that in itself gives the work some context in which both Freud and Jung would have feasted.  Indeed, Sade’s writings have persisted,  been studied, referenced, and even spawned an academic treatise from twentieth century feminist and existentialist Simone de Beauvior.

There are many other examples of stories or movies that despite their apparent nihilism or base crudeness are able to achieve cult or even mainstream success.  Pink Flamingos put director John Waters on the map.  It’s cinematically terrible (even according to Mr. Waters) and doesn’t really have any particular high concept or metaphor.  It’s a gross out film featuring as many perversities as could be jammed into an hour.  To wit, in the final scene famed drag queen actor Divine eats dog shit.  Literally.  Really.  For the benefit of any millennial readers unfamiliar with the film, this isn’t Will Farrell licking some FX plasticized prop in Step Brothers, but real dog shit, no camera tricks.  Really. Pic 3 Dog

Despite its filth, Pink Flamingos still maintains an enthusiastic fan base and begrudging critical respect.  Water’s admits it wasn’t much more than a pothead movie with a motive to gross out his friends.  But that in itself is its meaning: to be transgressive for transgressive sake, Waters wallowing in the perverse and profane spaces where he finds his own brand of spirituality.

Whether exploring political ideologies, existential philosophy, or attempting to repulse and offend, there should be meaning in fiction more than to sell a book or pander to an editor to get a story published.  Without offering some perception of humanity, writing is only an exercise in craft, toiling over an encyclopedia entry for ‘coprophagia’.  It should be obvious, but the author should know why they are writing and what the story is about.  The audience will always sense when they have no answer to this question.

Stories are written to connect a reader with their own reality.  Share something as a writer and it can make a world of difference.  Who knows, maybe you can be the next George Romero.

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Downward God – Flash Fiction, Week of Horror Winner

My latest flash fiction story, DOWNWARD GOD, has been published on the Deadman’s Tome Online Magazine.  I wrote this Lovecraftian tale as an entry in the Deadman’s Tome Month of Horror October weekly flash fiction contest, which it won.

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The story was inspired by my preferred characters of the obsessed, the addicted, and the hopelessly compulsive, exploring the psychology that can override choice, morality, and even survival instinct. There is a school of thought stating that the horror story is taking ordinary, everyday characters and throwing them into extraordinary, horrific situations.  Perhaps this is a function my weird fiction preference that I have generally rejected that idea preferring instead to create extraordinary, fringe characters that warp the ordinary, their merciless singularity melting reality to expose the madness of dead things underneath the routine of convention.  For Downward God, the fertile ground I chose are those beloved hardcore yoga enthusiasts who gush about pressure points and third eyes and transcendental consciousness and chakra vortices…

Please feel free to ‘like’ and to comment; as a relatively new writer all feedback is important to me.  Thanks to everyone who has (or will) read—as a writer that is the ultimate compliment.

Namaste.

 

Thanks to the Deadman’s Tome for both publishing my story and sponsoring this flash fiction contest.  For the uninitiated, the Deadman’s Tome is a growing horror and speculative fiction site that publishes a ton of material by many new, aspiring authors.  Recently, I have pledged my monetary support through the site’s Patreon page.  The cost of running a site and paying authors are realities.  Platforms like this one which are free to read and encourages community interaction only can do so with actual support.  Please visit and consider the pledging if you are in a position to do so.  All we indie authors appreciate it.

Swan Song -Horror Flash Fiction Contest Entry, Grey Matter Press

My latest flash fiction story, Swan Song (available to view now, click for link), has been posted to the Grey Matter Press’s “I Can Taste the Blood” contest page.  Running through October 22, this contest revolves around the prompt of a piece of graffiti scrawled on a bathroom wall reading: I Can Taste the Blood.  Three winners selected will receive prizes and most importantly, to have their flash fiction stories published in the E-Book version.  The readers of the entries can vote for their favorite (use the Reply button immediately after the story).  These reader votes will factor into the eventual choice of the winners.  So for those who do read and like, please consider casting a vote!

The obvious angles to this prompt are cannibals, vampires, or some soylent green-ism.  My compulsion to always do something different- those are right out…  So this being a blood and guts/visceral horror collection, of course I settled on the motif of… a crossword puzzle.  Pretty smart way to ingratiate myself with the extreme horror crowd, huh?  Well, we’ll see…

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The anthology itself is comprised of five novellas inspired by the title.  Those featured are rising horror authors Josh Malerman, John F.D. Taft, Eric T Johnson, J. Daniel Stone, and Joe Schwartz.  The printed version has been out for for a while and has some very good reviews.  See Amazon link here.  Grey Matter Press puts out a lot of quality releases and no doubt this is up to their high standard.

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Thanks again to all who have or will vote for my story ( only if you like it of course, and I really appreciate those that take the time).  I can’t guarantee anything more than hopefully in casting this vote you will feel less regret than with the one in early November.

Click for link: I Can Taste the Blood Contest Entry – Swan Song

 

 

‘The Century Coven’ short horror story free Until 3/12/16

My short story ‘The Century Coven’ available exclusively on Amazon is free through Saturday 3/12/16. It is my take on the typical Witch story: cats, spells, Halloween, mild cannibalism, narcissistic talking pigs, existentialism etc…  I admit I haven’t read a Witch story in a long time so I had to feel my way through the tropes a little bit, but I think I got it right in the end.

(click below cover for link)

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Of Christmas Horror – Krampus

In my younger years, Christmas horror stories were always ones I avoided, no particular interest in them.  As an example, in reading a Thomas Ligotti anthology years ago, there was a story whose title suggested Christmas (I looked it up – The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise).  As is my habit with short story collections, I skip around, choosing the next story based on how interesting the titles sound, and I am sure I left this one for last.  However, it turned out to be a fulfilling, provocative read.  While Christmas was the setting and backdrop of Ligotti’s story, not the primary source of the particular horror, it did add a principal element in its oppressive atmosphere and motive of the characters.

This exception to the rule notwithstanding, and not taking a lesson learned, my bias can be best explained by the story-line most commonly associated with Christmas horror- Krampus.  In truth, I had never heard of this specific character until recently, unaware this specific folklore dedicated to a malevolent anti-Santa figure existed so widely- a product of my Christmas story indifference perhaps.  The Krampus construct fits my preconception of Yuletide inspired horror where the spirit of Christmas is threatened by a menacing presence which must be exorcised lest the holiday (and all we’good’ souls who celebrate it) suffer.  Now that I write it, I see it as the basic plot of the Grinch— a seasonal confection viewed enough times as a child to permanently fuse into my subconscious.

My lack of enthusiasm for this narrative comes from its absence of moral dilemma.  The good and evil characters are so pre-defined they are not bothered to be introduced, and to reduce even further, the definitions of good and evil are also negligently assumed.  Most simply stated, these story’s conflict can be explained as a status quo has been upturned and must be corrected back to the way it was… a reflexive presumption that any change should be resisted.  But why?  This most conservative of ideas, like an angry railing of some crotchety old man, is where the return to the good old days is both the ideal and the justification in of of itself…  an adolescent argument of just because…  Not the side of the philosophic side of the tracks I normally choose to reside.  It is much more rewarding to question why the status quo should be defended, or if, maybe with some benign neglect, there may be an elegant opportunity for something better to replace the old. What would it be for the sacred cow of Christmas to fall?  To my tastes, this is a more interesting and challenging imaginary universe.

Of course, Krampus is not all Christmas horror, and there is an place for Krampus in literature/entertainment, no accounting for my specific tastes.  However, in opposition to this trope I have written a few short stories where Christmas itself is the horror, rather than a damsel in distress.  Hopefully, my fiction blurs the line of morality and expectation, as well as confronts the possibility our Yuletide traditions (at least to some) may be stale and even vulgar.  Could Christmas be a Trojan Horse, a veneer of light and merriment, with sinister intent festering inside?  Or perhaps it is some Lovecraftian behemoth devoid of purpose, nobly ignorant to how it is mistakenly interpreted by we lesser, unimaginative creatures.

In this unfrozen Christmas ground, I plan on writing more of these short stories based more on questions than answers, eventually publishing together in a collection.  For now, one of my Christmas themed stories, SIX BEASTS A FLAYING, which can be found in the horror magazine Devolution Z (December 2015, Vol 5), is about a vindictive Yuletide spirit lashing out to protect its own tired, burnt out land that holds nothing worthy of defending.  Also, I have posted a free story NICHOLAS’ LIGHT (Smashwords, Barnes&Noble, Itunes, Amazon) which begs the question of Christmas’ ultimate destination in its disturbing progression of its celebrants—a wonder of children, then an obligation of adults, and finally a forlorn pining for the past of the elderly-a wholesome innocence never to be relived.

Please see below link for free download of my Christmas short story if anyone is interested.  Always remember, Christmas is other people.

Free download of Nicholas’ Light (a Christmas Short Horror Story)

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