As the temperature skyrockets and thunderstorms rage (except for where there are wildfires raging and rain would be nice), and people in Florida continue to bite each other, I wonder why the hell any adult would look forward to summer. I’m hot and I’m bored because, in addition to everything else that’s shitty about summer, we don’t get new episodes of The Walking Dead until fall.
Last night, I got an unexpected gift from my television set. The Mist was showing on the Syfy channel. I watched it years ago with my brother and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t remember details. I remembered prehistoric bugs and a supermarket and one of the most depressing endings in the history of depressing movie endings. I wasn’t watching the movie, this time. I just had it on as background noise (I obviously don’t mind a lot of screaming as background noise), when my ear picked out a familiar voice. It was Andrea (Laurie Holden) from The Walking Dead! I thought it was cool to see Andrea and went about my movie-ignoring business until I heard yet ANOTHER familiar voice. This time, it was Dale (Jeffrey McDunn). Carol (Melissa McBride), is in there, too. Frank Darabont, who has directed episodes of The Walking Dead and is also an executive producer, directed The Mist. It’s an adaptation of a Stephen King story, and it’s an entertaining movie, in an apocalyptic way.
So, to get a little taste of fall, check out The Mist!
If you need zombies before fall, check out my ebook book, Zombies Take Manhattan!
My friend, Marie Loughin, writer and fellow member of TESSpecFic* asked on her blog, “What is horror?” More specifically, what’s the difference between horror and dark fantasy?:
This possibility led to the question, “Just what is horror, anyway?”
In answer, I came up with this checklist of elements that I’ve found in my favorite horror and assessed whether I at least attempted to include them in my book. (The degree of my success is left to the reader to decide.)
1) Creepy atmosphere. (Check)
2) Suspenseful. (Check)
3) Victims experience psychological trauma (i.e. they are aware and helpless). (Check)
4) Inspires fear and/or dread in reader. (Check, check)
(Notice that violence and gore are not essential elements for me, though they are sometimes present in my favorite works of horror and are included in a couple of scenes of my book.)
(Just so you know, I read Marie’s Valknut: The Binding, and consider it fantasy.)
It’s a good question. I think the answer lies in what happens after the reader finishes the story. If the reader is left with the question, “My God, how can anyone live with that?” The story is horror. Horror fiction peels away protective coverings and releases dark things. Once released, they can’t be put back. They can’t be forgotten. They cannot be ignored. They cannot be vanquished. Even killing the monster does no good because the reader is left with the realization that the monster is inside us and never going away.
Take for example, the Master of Modern Horror, Stephen King. He writes horror and dark fantasy and thrillers and science fiction and works that are uniquely King, impossible to define or emulate.
Two novels, The Stand and The Shining, are the perfect examples of dark fantasy and horror.
The Stand, for those who’ve never read it, is an end of the world fantasy. A superflu is released killing almost everybody and the survivors have to rebuild civilization. Forces of good and evil gather to face the ultimate showdown. Despite truly horrific scenes, supernatural elements, and large doses of B-movie schlock, the novel is dark fantasy. The question for readers going in is, “Will good triumph over evil?” The story answers, “Of course.” That particular evil has been vanquished (In the original version anyway. In the author’s uncut version, Randall Flagg washes up on an island, presumably to wait for another opportunity to get his ass spectacularly kicked.). The survivors can now resume rebuilding their lives.
The Shining, on the other hand, is pure horror. Jack, Wendy and Danny are the winter caretakers for a haunted hotel. In order to reach Danny, a child, the ghosts manipulate Jack, the father, driving him insane. In the end, the hotel is destroyed, Jack dies, and Wendy and Danny escape. Sounds a lot like good triumphing over evil, doesn’t it? Nuh uh. Because at the end, the reader knows the real monster is inside Danny. The “shining” is both gift and curse. It’s power. Where there is power, there are those who crave it, who will not stop until they get it. The Overlook Hotel might have been destroyed, but young Danny is going to encounter many ghosts, many entities, many seekers of power. It will not end until he dies. Not only do Danny and Wendy have to deal with their guilt and sorrow, they also have to deal with knowing this isn’t over. What happened at the Overlook is going to happen again, and again, and again. It will never be over. My God, how does anyone live with that?
That’s my answer. To see what others think, check out Marie’s post and watch the blogosphere as other TESSpecFic members chime in.
* The Emissaries of Strange: A Speculative Fiction Writer’s Collective is a group of writers whose fiction fits under the speculative fiction umbrella.
My first exposure to Stephen King was in the late 1970s. I was living in Germany and a friend shoved The Stand in my hands and exclaimed, “You have got to read this! Read it ASAP! Hurry. Don’t do anything else until you read this book.”
I was quite frankly, blown away. I became a King fan. I think he was my very first Must-Buy author. I didn’t bother waiting for his books to come out in paperback. I had to have the hardcovers the minute they hit the bookstore. He grossed me out, he scared me, he made me laugh, he gave me a romping good story. Some of his short stories gave me nightmares. I met a lot of King fans and the books gave us plenty of opportunity for discussion and argument with everyone defending their choice of favorite (My faves: The Shining and The Dead Zone, and a special fondness for Firestarter for reasons I’ve never been able to adequately define) I turned a lot of people on to King, especially boys. The first grown-up novel I induced my son to read was Christine. It got him hooked on books.
I felt less than enthusiastic about Cujo and Pet Sematary and The Tommyknockers. All of which struck me as merely so-so books. The books felt tired somehow. Grim. They left a bad aftertaste. After reading, Misery, my first thought after I finished the book was, “Wow, he really doesn’t like his fans, does he?”
King kind of fell off my radar after that. If I found his work in the library or in a used book store, I’d pick it up just to see if the old magic was back. I discovered the Bachman books, which were full of that maniacal glee that marked his early works. I hoped he would write more, but he didn’t. I tried the Dark Tower books, but they weren’t to my taste. I kept reading him, I suppose because I hoped to recapture the old magic, but even the brilliant Dolores Claiborne didn’t charge me up enough to discuss it with friends on anything other than an academic level. It reached the point where his books kept ending up on the DNF (did not finish) pile, and I gave up on King altogether.
But hey, no biggie, right? Tastes change. People change. I can’t imagine King gives a shit whether I’m a fan or not. I’m probably one of the fans he so despised when he wrote Misery.
This week I noticed his collection of novellas, Full Dark, No Stars, at the library. I don’t know, maybe it’s that sweet spot of hope you always feel about first loves. The one that nudges: Hey, maybe this time it will work out. I checked out the book. I read it. I won’t say they are bad stories. Because they are not. Craftwise, they’re brilliant. Story-wise, though, they’re bleak. They’re about bad people doing bad things and good people doing bad things. There are no heroes, there is no love or sacrifice, or even a showdown between good and evil. There is no humor, no bright spots or hope.
In the afterword, King explains that he writes about Truth. Yeah, well, it’s the truth of the bitter and disappointed. I guess it’s all the more disturbing because I honestly don’t know what King has to be disappointed about or why he comes off as such a mean, ungracious bastard. From where I sit, he’s been blessed. He has an amazing talent, and the guts and gumption to develop a work ethic that makes a beehive look like it’s filled with slackers. His legacy is a body of work that has earned him critical acclaim and popular success. Even non-readers know who Stephen King is.
The picture I used to hold in my head of King was of him sitting at his typewriter, grinning, occasionally laughing like a loon, saying, “Oh yeah, baby, this is going to make them wet their panties!” I imagined a joyful man who loved leading readers down twisted paths, telling them jokes, setting them up, scaring the piss out of them and then afterward, shaking hands, saying, “Oh, yeah, that was a hell of a ride, wasn’t it?”
In the afterword to Full Dark, No Stars, he writes:
“But Steve, you say, you’ve made a great many pennies during your career, and as for truth… that’s variable, isn’t it? Yes, I’ve made a good amount of money writing my stories, but the money was a side effect, never the goal. Writing fiction for money is a mug’s game. And sure, truth is in the eye of beholder. But when it comes to fiction, the writer’s only responsibility is to look for the truth inside his own heart. It won’t always be the reader’s truth, or the critic’s truth, but as long as it is the writer’s truth– as long as he or she doesn’t truckle, or hold out his or her hat to Fashion– all is well.”
My image of King these days is much different. I see a bitter, angry man, hunched in semi-darkness, punching out stories full of TRUTH, terrified nobody is going to get the TRUTH, hating all the knuckleheads, barbarians and Philistines too damned stupid to get the TRUTH.
I’m going to disagree with King about writing for money. How else can a reader show appreciation for a writer’s efforts except with money? If readers don’t buy, publishers have no reason to publish, and then what’s the point? I don’t believe King anyway. He doesn’t give his work away for free. He never has. Or maybe that’s what he really wants, to be alone, unread, disconnected and yet somehow secure that he serves some Higher Cause. If the only TRUTH he cares about is his own, then he’s talking to himself and who cares about the rest of us?
But enough of that. I’m not going to presume to know what King thinks or even speculate further on his attitude. It’s just my impression. What I can state with full assurance is that for me, Stephen King is no longer fun to read. While I admire his craft, his care with language, the images he creates, his stories leave me uneasy, but not in a good way. If this is the TRUTH in King’s heart, it’s so sour, bitter, bleak and depressing, I want no part of it. It’s as if he’s forgotten fiction is a two-way street, that the reader’s impression completes the circuit. Instead of enticing me into his story world, he’s telling me to sit down and shut up because he knows better than me.
I can imagine college professors forcing students to read these stories for the craft and because sure truth so dark and grim must be important (Read for fun? Only the idiotic unwashed masses read for fun!) What I can’t imagine is anybody, wide-eyed and excited, shoving these into a friend’s hands and saying, “Oh my God! You have got to read this right now!”