June 3rd, 2005

Oh the horror

This last weekend I did this odd little convention at UCLA, guesting on both a women writers panel and a horror panel. The latter turned out to be most interesting, as we had an attentive and thoughtful audience (none of that "hey, dude, that Dawn of the Dead remake rocked!" kind of nonsense), and the discussion turned to graphic, or "extreme", horror. This was serendipitous, since I'd had several discussions already that morning on this very subject, in regards to a story excerpt I'd read in which two teenage boys rape and beat a handicapped woman. In the panel I brought up my opinion that this kind of horror writing is not genuinely subversive, or boundary-pushing, or "anti-censorship" (the author of the above-mentioned excerpt used this in defense of his piece); it can be entertaining, it can even - in the hands of an author like Jack Ketchum - be superlative writing, but in and unto itself, it's not subversive. Why is more extreme violence edgy or "pushing the envelope"? For one thing, the splatterpunks of the 80s took that about as far as you could go.

Anyways, here was my response in the panel: The two boys raping the wheelchair bound woman isn't subversive; but switch the genders and then we'll talk. This tied into a question about the future of horror, to which my answer was: If it wants to be genuinely subversive (which at least some of it should be), then it needs to become sociopolitical. I'm not talking George Bush as vampire or anything equally unsubtle. The example I gave was this: A few years ago I heard that John Skipp was reading for a third volume in the Book of the Dead series, and I started thinking about what could be done with zombies that hadn't been done already in the first two volumes. It seemed that most of the authors of the stories in those books thought that zombie sex was the hot topic, so I knew I didn't want to do that, that I wanted to try something that fit my idea of sociopolitical horror that's genuinely subversive. Here's what I came up with: In a post-zombie-holocaust future, a group of human survivors have created a barricaded enclosure with limited resources, requiring severe population control. Our protagonist accidentally conceives, and as much as she wants the child she agrees to an abortion. The story climaxes when the aborted fetus does not return to life, proving it was never really alive at all. (And yes, Skipp took the story - look for "Sparks Fly Upward" in Mondo Zombie, coming some day from Cemetery Dance.)

I'm realizing now that this questioning of sociopolitical mores has been behind an awful lot of my stories (but not all of them - there's still room for just the well-told tale of terror). Here's a look at some of 'em:

  • A woman picks up a man at a party, finds out he's a serial killer - and reveals that she's even more psychotic and violent than he is ("Sane Reaction", from Dark Voices 6)
  • A woman finds that love for a pet can be as strong as love for another person ("Love Eats", from Dark Terrors)
  • A plague of suicide reveals that human beings are subject to the same forces that govern other animals ("A New Force of Nature", from White of the Moon)
  • A meeting between western businessman and eastern warrior woman ends with the east consuming the west ("Pound Rots in Fragrant Harbour", from The Museum of Horrors)
  • A young boy who idolizes a horror film is almost inspired to murder by it - but is finally inspired by the film to do something good instead ("Forces of Evil, Starring Robert Fields", from the forthcoming Midnight Premiere)

So why am I blathering on about this? Because I know almost everyone who'll read this, and you're all horror writers, and I'd like to know what you think. Can horror still be genuinely transgressive in any way? Is there (as someone asked in the panel) a real market for this? Or do readers want more scenes of helpless women being brutalized by rednecks?

Oh yeah, and the Stokers are going fine, too. Three weeks and counting...