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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

 

Scary vs Sexy round 2

The excellent Naomi posed the following interesting question in reply to yesterday's post:

I'm interested to know if people think the trend towards "safer" monsters is just a trend, or if eventually that pendulum will swing back towards horror again.

What do we think? I can see arguments either way.

As it stands, I have the suspicion that the horror element of, say, vampires is pretty played out for the moment. Once you've seen something parodied ad naseaum, or fluffied up, then it's kind of hard to get scared of it. It loses its shock value. Fear of the unknown is a staple of fiction, and if you know everything about the vampiric monster right down to its dress sense, that's not exactly uncanny.

Then again, things can be revived. Emily Bronte's Heathcliffe is a pretty scary guy. Romance has tended to smooth that kind of character into the misunderstood hero who can be redeemed by the love of a good woman, which is a long call from aggressive, wife-beating, miserly Heathcliffe. But Alice Hoffman's Here On Earth is an overt re-telling of the story, and her Heathcliffe character is still disturbing.

I think, fundamentally, it depends on individual writers rather than genre traditions. Single writers can always make exceptions to rules; any writer who's good will be in some way original, because there are infinite ways of writing well. But freshness in storytelling has a lot to do with it. If you're busy thinking about the entire tradition, then there's a lot of fuzz in your head. At cooking school I was told that a few flavours makes a tasty dish, but too many makes it bland, and there's a similar element going on when a genre gets too self-referential: everyone is imitating everyone, and the result is entropy.

I may just be arguing my own interests here: when I started writing Bareback, I'd read pretty much no urban horror or werewolf stuff, and I personally think that was useful: I could start with my own ideas and not worry too much about other people's. As time went on, I did read and watch as much werewolf fiction as possible, but it was the historical research that I was really interested in; other fictional renderings tended to be more like a weather-eye on the horizon, making sure nobody had done something similar enough to cause overlap. A lot of Internet chatters mention Laurell K. Hamilton when they talk about werewolf books, but I never heard of her until after the book sold and people started asking if my book was like hers (gap in my research there, never mind); I checked out Kelley Armstrong's first book when I heard of it, but only after I was well into Bareback and, seeing that it didn't overlap much, put it on the shelf and forgot about it; I enjoyed Terry Pratchett's renditions of werewolves because, well, Pratchett is pretty hard not to enjoy, but again, I didn't make much of a connection... The work I ended up thinking about the most was A True Discourse Declaring the Damnable Life of One Stubbe Peeter, and that was written in 1590.

So to my mind, the main issue was to avoid re-inventing the wheel, and after that, think about writing the story the way it should be written rather than wasting thought on how anybody else might have written it. The general point is that, possibly, if you want a scary take on a traditional story, someone up to their eyebrows in the tradition may not be your best bet.

Tangentially, I think one reason why people have tended to fluffy monsters is that some authors seem to feel the desire to rehabilitate villains; to present them as misunderstood, or glamorous, or sympathetic. The assumption appears to be that, by portraying a character as bad, the original author is being somehow unfair to them.

It's not an impulse I particularly share; you shouldn't go around wantonly accusing real people of evil, but fictional characters aren't real. An author giving a hateful portrait of, say, a miserly scholar may be displaying unfairness, but the unfairness that matters is the unfairness of their attitude towards real scholars that this portrait displays. The fictional scholar doesn't care. If you think that say, Bram Stoker was being unfair, then the people who deserve your sympathy are foreigners and the sexually unconventional rather than vampires: vampires don't exist enough to care what you say about them.

As well, while heavy-handed moralism is tiresome in fiction, moral judgements can be made. People make moral judgements every day; they influence every major decision we ever make. And it's hardly unfair to take a base-line morality like, say, 'It's bad to kill people.' Two-dimensional villains may be implausible, because real people aren't usually that simple, but that's an issue of competence rather than fairness.

Anyway, to get back to the point, I don't think every writer shares my attitude, though; some seem to feel an instinctive desire to champion the underdog, even when the underdog is at the bottom of the pack for biting the other puppies. But that instinct may have a lot to do with the fluffy-monster swing of the pendulum.

And writers who want to potray frightening things, in the face of fluffification, may decide to move on rather than de-habilitate. If you want something scary, rather than saying, 'No, Rice was wrong and Stoker was right,' which has an element of tick-tock to it, you might just decide to invent something else that's frightening. The scariest film I've seen for years is Ring, (Japanese version, thank you), and while there are fairy-tale elements to the story, the monster is definitely an independent creation. And that film scared me so badly I had to sleep with the radio on for two nights.

It does seem to be possible to make scary monsters scary again, but you need to make them unfamiliar. There's a theory, for instance, that the Alien movies are basically dragon stories: the poisonous, unkillable reptile that ravages the people with fearsome strength. They even have an element of the knight myth: both Scott and Cameron have Ripley don something like a suit of armour towards the end. But nobody had really tried to make dragons scary for a long time, and Scott didn't call the monster a dragon. As a result, it was pretty bloody scary.

Things need to feel somehow real in order to be frightening. They can either be good portraits of real things - Heathcliffe is fictional, but abusive men exist - or they can be imaginary creations so convincingly portrayed that we believe they're real. The more a monster is re-invented and played around with, the more we become aware of their fictionality.

At which point, there are two things to do: either come up with something new, or put the monster back into the box until we've all forgotten about it and will jump again when it pops out. And, of course, the third way, which is just write something really, really good. I'm always in favour of that.

I think scary monsters will always be with us, but vampires may need a bit of a rest before we're ready to be scared by them again. The pendulum may need to come to a standstill, then wait until some clever writer gives it a push.

What do y'all think?

Comments:
One of the better handling of vampires I enjoyed was The Historian. It evoked enough of a sense of realism, and a grounding in the world that it brought the mythological parts of it subtly into the real world along with it. I too think that vampires are going to become a burnt out cliche soon enough (with a few spurts of originality along the way), especially with this latest glut of paranormal romance type books, with vampires and werewolves falling in love with each other. But those books that were anchored in something I could grab hold of, and then subtly introduced the horror side of it in glimpse and bits from the shadows...that chills me more than any roar-in-my-face drooling beasty.
 
I had to sleep with a blanket over my TV the first time I watch "Ring."

I think you make a good point about Heathcliffe - he was entirely human but completely monstrous, a fact that tends to be glossed over nowadays. A friend pointed out to me that she doesn't see the need for the heroes/romantic interests in vampire novels to actually be vampires. Essentially, the qualities and characteristics they display could be portrayed just as well by a regular human.

So I guess we're softening up certain monsters to make them more acceptable as romantic heroes. I can't imagine any woman wanting to take Jean Grenier or Peter Stubbe to bed.
 
Mm, it would be more like one of those is-my-husband-a-serial-killer? thrillers.

Oh, here's a thought. From what I could see reading the historical sources, werewolf legends used to be stories about what we'd call serial killers; the Peeter Stubbe thing is basically a short true-crime novel. Now they seem to be stories about virility. (Or occasionally about female sexual assertiveness, for which there are no good words, blast our sexist history). Both things that it's wise to be aware of in culture.

I was going to speculate that the werewolf can stand in for different phenomena according the fashion of the age - Hannibal Lecter seems to have replaced Grenier, Garnier, Stubbe et al as the the ultimate murderer story - but considering that the fluffy monster is generally a romantic troubled hero descended from Heathcliffe, I wonder whether all of them are, in their way, just stories about dangerous men. And some people find the idea of dangerous men scary and want to warn you, some find it a turn-on and want to see the up-side. Perhaps.

Of course, the thing about the serial killer werewolf is that he fits the 'nobody would have thought it of him' narrative that real serial killers often do. Peter Sutcliffe's wife had no idea. So if we're looking at a killer who transforms, we're looking at the kind of man who can hide his dangerous side. You remember you talked in your article about vampires and werewolves worrying about getting their soulmates to accept their dark side? The modern dark side is clearly more acceptable; it's as if the fluffy monster can, effectively, come out.

Both variants of sadism, maybe, but there's a difference between topping someone in a bedroom and gutting them in an alley. Yes, that might be it: consensual sexual violence rather than sexual assault.

There might be a cultural up-side to that, of course; it's good to draw a line between BDSM and genuine sadism. Though personally I prefer stories that put the werewolves and vampires on the bad side of that line...
 
I wonder whether all of them are, in their way, just stories about dangerous men

Definitely something in that - the wolf in the original Little Red Riding Hood tale was an analogy for dangerous, predatory males. And the idea of "taming the bad boy" crops up again and again in fiction, on film, everywhere you look. From Grease to JR Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood, it's all about women taming sexually powerful men.

Does that make it more an issue of power? The idea that a woman can "master" a dark, animalistic man?
 
I think very probably. But I think it's also possible that many women don't see it as such. Women have just as much of a drive towards sexual power as men, but there are 'masculine' and 'feminine' ways of formulating it.

It's interesting, for instance, that in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan describes college girls as being more aggressive (her word) in pursuit of a mate than the boys. These girls she described were totally convinced by the man-is-the-head-of-the-house, women-are-fluffy-nurturers spiel, yet when it came to getting their man, their actual behaviour was anything but passive.

I wonder if part of the desire to possess the 'bad boy' is a desire to possess his wildness vicariously. Best of both worlds: you get to have the naughty thrills and the moral high ground. He's exciting, and you own him; how much more exciting does that make you? But you get to be the good girl as well. Catnip, to a certain way of thinking.

Which can lead to some downright bizarre behaviour. Have a look at this article about 'serial killer groupies' - women who have a fetish for serial murderers.

http://www.crimelibrary.com/criminal_mind/psychology/s_k_groupies/4.html

When it gets to that point, I think that it's not just sexual aggression but sentimentality that comes into the mix; the idea that someone who's committed horrible murders may be a sweet person really. Of course, ideally you should never give up on a human being's potential for goodness, but if we're talking multiple murderers, the solution has got to be more difficult than the love of a good woman. After all, if it were that easy, someone would have come along and cured the killer before he killed anyone. The world is full of good women; serial killers keep murdering them.

Not very complimentary to men, either. The article suggests that sexual violence is a kind of ultimate masculinity to some women; that really isn't a very nice definition of manhood. It's too bad, when so many men are decent and kind. I wonder if it might sometimes be a female equivalent of the bimbo - a sexual stereotype of one sex, formulated by people from the opposite sex who don't really like men/women, but being heterosexual are still attracted to them? It would be interesting to take a survey of women who like the monster-romance genre and see if they feel men in real life come up to the mark.

(Not that I'm trying to insult an entire genre's fans, just speculating in broad terms... I could be totally wrong.)
 
I would like to add your RSS feed to my RSS reader. Since you are using Blogger, could you please activate your feed. It is done through the profile somewhere. Contact me at en01@stardel.com if you need me to help you. Thanks.
 
This is a very interesting discussion, and both you and Ms. Clark have spelled out some ideas I've had in my head in a much more clear and articulate way than I had managed so far. So thanks for that.

I'm not an author, although I'd like someday to finally sit down and write enough to become one, but I do tell stories for my friends; either through roleplay or just spur-of-the-moment ideas. When it's come to monsters, of the supernatural sort, that is, I've always been worried that I would end up making them either too sympathetic or too horrific to make a compelling character. I believe that a vampire was once human, and has however many years (usually 23, right? Unless they're 17) of habit and society bearing down on him when he's changed that makes him want to act human, still. And I try in those younger creatures of the night to instill this sense of shame and self-horror in that they must kill to live but...well, better them than me, right? Because when it comes down to it, if all these self-pitying vampires were really so torn up about it, there'd be small explosions all over the world at every sunrise.

That, of course, is just of the more modern vampire-family-tree genre. Those creatures who earned their curse fair and square really have no reason to be complaining about it afterward. But in order to make them interesting enough to keep people's attention, there has to be something familiar in them, something to attract people long enough for them to find that the familiar is lost and alone in a sea of black horror and, oops, it's too late to turn back.

I guess the point of this rant is mostly that, while monsters are being regularly declawed, there's still a place for real villains. While there might be a lot of people still trying to get you to see that while, yes, he does go out and kill people every night, he's really just a big softy the rest of the time, there's still going to be the need for blame, and isn't that what villainy is about? If it weren't for people like them...and then you just make them into the monster.
 
So... Just taking this and running with it...

Based on the serial killer groupie article, are vampires, werewolves and the like becoming the ultimate protectors, rather than the ultimate monsters? If the capacity for extreme violence is deemed biologically attractive, does it follow that a creature with the strength, power and killing instincts of a vampire/werewolf would be the most attractive prospective mate? A mate capable of doing literally anything to protect you?

That would explain their popularity as romantic heroes and would also account for the "declawing" aspect. Whilst you might revel in having a lover who can tear your ex to pieces, you wouldn't want that kind of aggression turned on you.
 
Ah, now that's an interesting idea. Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard gets his fangs on. (Actually that's a strange and disturbing image, sorry.) It seems like a very plausible theory.

I also think, though, that there's an element of trophy-man about it. Some women find aggression a turn-on in itself. Have you seen American History X? (Great movie.) Watch Fairuza Balk's thrilled face every time her boyfriend picks a fight with someone - or, later, when people threaten her boyfriend. Rather pathetically, he thinks she loves him, but in retrospect all she really loved was that he was angry; violent conflict of any kind turns her on, and she drops him like a stone the minute he stops providing it.

Here another article I wrote which you might find tangentially connected - http://www.kitwhitfield.com/2006/09/mary-sue-gets-mean.html. Not exclusive to the werewolves-and-vampires genre, but that's one way of women possessing violent men. One can be, or try to be, emotionally dominant over a man one is sexually submissive to.


Hi boy. Small explosions? Tee hee. It would be like a dawn chorus.

Pfft! Pfft!

'Mmf? Honey, what's that?'

'Oh hell, I think we've got vampires in our garden again.'

'Bloody things. I've got to go to work in three hours!'

'Oh well, at least it's good for the compost.'

Actually, though, being self-pitying and a serial killer don't seem that incompatible; after all, you've got to be pretty self-absorbed for your sexual fetish to seem more important than other people's lives. Maybe there's room for a self-pitying vampire who nobody likes?

Makes me think of the wasp Crusty Bill in Don Marquis's archy and mehitabel poems. Archy the cockroach meets this shambling wreck of a wasp, who tells his sad tale: he was one innocent and happy hunting flies in the country, then he came to the city and got onto beer flies from saloons, then whisky flies, and now he's totally alcoholic and has gout in his stinger so bad he screams with pain every time he spears a fly, and while he even sank so far as to corrupt young wasps to help him, now they've left him and he's starving. I'm paraphrasing archy's reply a bit as I can't find my copy (anyone who hasn't just moved house and can find theirs is welcome to correct me), but it goes something like this:

i got into a safe place inside the typewriter and shouted out
my advice is suicide bill all the time he had been pitying himself
my sympathy had been with the flies
 
Hi Elaine, glad you like the blog!

I've had a go at this previously, see this discussion:

http://www.kitwhitfield.com/2007/01/rss-feed.html#comments

I'm under the impression that the feed is already turned on, and the address is:

http://www.kitwhitfield.com/atom.xml

Does that work for you? If not, let me know what you'd like me to do and I'll have a go at it. (You may have to explain slowly and clearly, as computers and I are not the world's best match!)
 
I'm a bit late for this, but anyway - it would be nice if somebody wrote vampires more like they used to be in folklore, pretty mindless critters who are just hungry for blood, and just able to project a temporary glamour on their victims sometimes. But I guess that part has been taken over by the zombies. Without the glamour part.

Hm. I wonder if anyone will at some point attempt to turn a zombie into a misunderstood hero? Or has it been done already?

Marja
 
Hm. It would be a tough one, I think, unless you wrote out the brain-dead element of it. Shaun of the Dead is the closest I've seen, which seems to suggest that zombies are basically the same people only thicker... There would also be rot issues to deal with. I can think of ways to do it, but they'd be pretty stomach-turning.

Have you read Poppy Z. Brite's short story 'Calcutta, Lord of Nerves' in her collection Swamp Foetus? That's a good zombie story.
 
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