Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sam Spade or Samhain?

By Jay Stringer

Yeah, okay, so I’m ignoring that big banner above that says “crime fiction.” So sue me. Actually, please don’t, I can’t afford it.

This time of year has always been my favourite. It always felt special when I was young, caught between the myths and stories of Hallows eve and the smell of bonfires that would continue through to the 5th of November.

It’s also a time of year that I link strongly to my development as a storyteller. I come from a family of verbal storytellers, both my mother and grandfather would sit me on their lap, and then t their feet as I got bigger, and tell me tall tales. For most of the year it would be fantasy, magic and adventure. A mix of fantasy books that I was too young to have read mixed in with family traditions and spur of the moment creations. But come this time of year, I’d get the real fun stuff. Bonfires, witches, goblins, gypsy curses and pagan magic.

I never really developed the family skill of oral storytelling, I turned into a writer instead, but I’m sure the foundations of what I became were laid down as I sat and listened to those stories.

I’ve been thinking about Horror lately. In terms of prose, I haven’t really read or written anything that you would label ‘horror’ in a very long time, though my taste for socially driven fiction often strays into topics that could be called horrific. I think fantasy and horror were probably the first few things I wrote when I changed from making comic books to using sentences. Veering between the derivative and the just plan bad; one of the worst tings you can do to a serious adult writer is to show the things he wrote as a teenager.

I do remember the beginnings of finding my own voice, or at least my own view, was a short story I wrote about a boy who found a severed head by the side of the road. He took it home and planted it in a pot, and the head grew roots and started talking. This was probably just before my life was tipped upside down by Keyser Soze, James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard. It was probably at a time when I still wore all black, and would have listed Tim Burton as my favourite director.

We grow, y’know?

I learned the importance of the phrases groovy and hail to the king, baby. German expressionism had a huge part in my collection, and I did the usual crash course in King, Layman and Carpenter. Werewolves fascinated me, Zombies terrified me, and Vampires bored me. Well, okay, not always. I’m a child of the right age to worship things like THE LOST BOYS and NEAR DARK, and was sucked in by the clever writing of BUFFY (and a shout out to the underrated novel Vampire$ by John Steakley). But overall, they did nothing for me. All that intense, pent up neediness, the repressed sexuality. You know what? As a teenage boy at a mixed-sex state school, and with cable TV in my bedroom, the underpinnings of the vampire myth didn’t really hold me.

Well, maybe Vampirella.

Werewolves? Shit, now that was interesting. Locking away the beast within, struggling to keep control, wondering whether you can trust yourself? HELLO, TEENAGE BOY ALERT. And then getting older, seeing people deal with alcohol and drug issues, that particular myth never lost its relevance.

Zombies, they have become a sign that my version of horror is not always in step with the world at large. They run now, apparently. Which is not scary. Not to me, anyway. If they run, they become just another immediate threat, a shock, a jolt, and a moment of explosive surprise. And that works for people, I get that. But it just doesn’t reach into the part of my brain that holds fear. The shuffling, almost comical zombie? The stuff of nightmares. They’re unrelenting, they’re inevitable. True enough, you could evade them all night in a crowded restaurant by moving from table to table, but that’s sort of the point. The best scary beasties are things that reveal something about ourselves. And the shuffling zombie is only a threat because we are human, we are lazy and shallow and greedy; at some point we will fuck it up and they will get us. That’s terrifying.

And it’s something in the way they move that gets us deep down. Maybe the same place that makes people scared of bugs for no reason. If a zombie runs, well, so what? Lots of things run. But when it shuffles along in some broken gait, there’s a part of us that doesn’t know how to process that. The hidden genius behind the original RINGU films was that making a woman walk in an unnatural way is deeply unsettling.

But enough of all that. Monsters? Piffle. Who cares about monsters. True gut wrenching horror lies in the human, not the inhuman. It lies in the true evil we can act out on each other. And I’ve always found that the things that get me the most are when horrible things happen to normal people for no reason. The Japanese have got this down pat. Something is going to happen to you, for little or no reason, and you can’t stop it. Mainstream horror to often shies away from this, and loses all meaning. The SCREAM films said it all; there is a list of rules and if you play by them you survive. That’s not horror. That’s not scary.

Now at this point I could tie it back into crime fiction. Bad things happening to normal people? Being trapped in circumstances beyond your control? There’s a very thin line between noir and horror.

But no, I’m having too much fun sticking to horror. What else do I find scary? We’ve covered unnatural beasties and silly walks. Something else that is just deeply wrong and unsettling? Normality (or normalcy, as apparently some of you have it, which is also wrong and unsettling.) The mundane routine of every day life is a scary thing. John Carpenter once realised this and made HALOWEEN. There were no spooky castles, no houses on the hill or men with Hungarian accents. There was suburbia, and a few hapless teenagers lost and alone on the most ordinary looking of housing estates. Oh, and a man with a knife and a slightly unnatural walk.

Simple moments like the children counting the gap between the lighting and the thunder in POLTERGEIST. And then twisting that real, believable moment into something truly horrific; the mother on the beach in JAWS who realises that her boy has gone beyond anything she can do to help. The moment in SHAUN OF THE DEAD when the laughs stop long enough for Shaun to shoot his mother.

All of this current horror? The torture porn, the elaborate SAW traps, the gimmickry, the remakes…..If these storytellers want to make me jump? Sure, they probably can. All you need to do to make someone jump is burst a balloon, and all you need to do to make someone cry is shoot a puppy. But to really scare them? To make them wake up several weeks later in a cold sweat? To do that you need to pull back the curtain and show us something we might not want to see. You need to tell a story that flicks switches in our brains, that prods at the things we hold normal and safe. And it seems like so many storytellers have lost that knack.

Unless you take a look at crime fiction.

Where we see generations of children lost to a coldness that can rise up inside of them, where we see married men and women contemplate horrific acts to keep their families together and where poverty means that a kid’s best ambition is to live fast and die young.

So what scares you guys?