Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Oh, The horror

By Jay Stringer

I've had horror on my brain all month. It's natural enough at this time of year. We all like to think a little darker, a little spookier. We like to cuddle up at the weekend and watch a few horror classics.

I've gone a little further than usual this year. My good friends over at Matinee Idles have had a horror season, with a series of podcasts examining some classics of the genre. To tie in with their shows, I've been doing two articles a week looking at some good (and very bad) examples of horror films. Not only have I been writing about two films a week, but in order to decide which films to write about, I've watched a ton of films. More than usual.

It's lead to some fun dreams, I can tell you.

In watching the films I've begun to realise a few things about what I look for in horror, and I've realised how closely it ties into what I look for in crime, and in fiction overall.

Now there's nothing new in noticing a link between horror and crime. A look on the shelves of your nearest book store (hey, remember them?) shows that the market is well ahead of us there. There are vampire detectives, wizard detectives, werewolf detectives and...hey I'm spotting a theme here. Over in comic books, John Constantine (that's the blond Brit, rhyming with time, not the vacant Californian guy who rhymes with spleen) is a hardboiled detective dropped into the middle of Lovecraft.

Al Guthrie has said "noir is non-supernatural horror." And he makes a fair point. It would be a blog in itself exploring that idea, showing the overlap between the two, but that's best left for the man himself or for a podcast further down the road.

I'm thinking that the draw for me is in a slightly different place.

It's interesting to note how people end up at crime fiction. It seems a lot of crime writers have moved across from other fields. Russel is on record at having come to crime via sci fi. I've had my stints as a sci fi fan, of course. And fantasy. What teenage male hasn't? I tended to be more Michael Moorcock than Issac Asimov, a strange hyrbid of sci fi, pulp and fantasy that probably says a lot about my tastes.

But as a writer I cut my teeth with horror and comic book scripts. Somewhere in my parents attic are sheets filled with short stories about vampires, werewolves, zombies, and strange men whistling nursery rhymes in dark streets. I remember getting in borderline trouble at school for writing a poem about a boy who found a severed head by the side of the road, took it home and planted it in a plant-pot, and nurtured it back to life.

(Yes, don't worry, the men in white coats have been called.)

And what I think I found in horror that I later came to find in crime was the social fiction. It's easy to get caught out generalising things like fiction, which can be all things to all people, but I think it's fair to say that for me (and a lot of this sites readers and contributors) good fiction is social fiction. I've written at length -and Russel, Dave, Steve, Gerald So and I have discussed in the podcasts- that we like crime fiction to hit us where it matters. On the streets, with real issues and real people.

What I have realised is that I want the same from horror, too. I want Halloween that holds a scary lens up to suburbia, that asks us, that guy down the road, was he staring at us? I want Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead to show some uncomfortable home truths about humanity. There are many famous quotes and images from those two films, but that one that sticks with me most is the scientist describing that the zombies can't be considered human, in part because they don't prey on each other. It's hitting us where it hurts to think about that. And the more obvious moments hold power too, of course. The mall mentality, the brainlessness, the inevitability of it all. The lynch mobs, the need for material goods and violence.

Sure, the classic movie monsters can be fun. And who doesn't like to see the occasional alien invasion? But real horror for me are the films that show that we are the problem. The films that show that our society is frail and broken, and that we let people slip through the cracks. It shows us the haves and the have nots, and shows how we will exploit and victimise each other.

It's in bringing horror down into the streets and houses with us -rather than in some spooky castle or forest- that I find stories and issues worth investing my time and fears into. And that's just the same as crime.

Once again it all comes down to social fiction. Funny that, eh?

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