Splat Goes the Hero: Visceral Horror
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I wrote a book a while back called The Girl Next Door which opened with the line, "You think you know about pain?" Personally I'm no expert so far--knock on wood--though as a kid I had my share of broken bones and various other less than delightful body-surprises over the years: a cortisone shot into an inflamed tendon, my upper jaw peeled and scraped -- did you know that pain can be a sound? -- and a fall, stark naked, through the branches of a tree that left me looking like something out of 100 Days of Sodom. (Curious about that one? Too bad. You'll have to wait for the story.)
But the point is that if you're writing about violence, you're writing about pain. Somebody's pain. Maybe not yours but somebody's. And my preference is to face it squarely. As honestly as possible and very much up close and personal.
I've noted this elsewhere but it bears repeating here: the great director Akira Kurosawa once said that the role of the artist is to not look away.
That pretty much defines what I try to do. There are plenty of ways to look away and bad writers at some point have found all of them. We'll get to some of the more disastrous ways later but right now let's just stick to violence.
Remember those old Hays-Office-era cowboy movies where everything is completely bloodless, where people get shot with a rifle that would stop a bear for god's sake and fall down and die as neatly as Baryshnikov executes a tour j'ete? Then along came Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch and blew all that away forever. A little later, horror movies kicked some dirt over the grave.
The first tentative steps in that direction had come earlier from Hitchcock with Psycho's shower scene, black-and-white blood swirling down the drain, with Tippi Hedrin pecked nearly to death and the bloody, empty eye-socket in The Birds, from Hammer Studios in England and that master of gore and total boredom, Herschel Gordon Lewis. Then suddenly things exploded with items like Night of the Living Dead, The Last House on the Left, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the early Cronenberg films.
I just couldn't believe 'em.
I expected none of them.
They each dropped me like a steer and, collectively, changed the way I looked at death-as-popular-entertainment forever. People didn't just die in these movies, they got gnawed on right in front of you, before and after death and by god, you saw it! They wanted you to see! People got hung on meathooks, got raped and murdered and hacked and chewed in detail so graphic you almost wanted to look away.
Almost. But not quite.
I remember seeing each of them sprawled in my seat, feet spread across a popcorn-crusted, Coke-and-god-knows-what-else-sticky floor, smoking Winstons with complete impunity, at all those old 42nd Street grind-houses in Manhattan. There was never much advertising so you never knew what you were buying with your ticket money. If you were a fan, who cared. You'd wade gladly through half a dozen bad double bills for that one gem. Something bold and new, filled with low-budget daring. And at some point I realized I wanted to carry this new sensibility I was seeing into writing -- drag it popcorn, Winstons, graphic-sex-and-violence and all, screaming into a novel.
At the time I was a magazine writer. Everything from Parade to Creem to Penthouse, from The Miniature Collector to Dude, Genesis and Nugget. The men's mags in particular were a terrific place to work in those days because there were very few parameters. You didn't have to do hardcore stuff back then, every magazine wanted to be the next Playboy, so you could do anything as long as it had some sort of sex angle. You could write real fiction and real articles, learn your craft and then stretch it. And for this they paid you. Paid you pretty well in fact. The rock magazines were the same. When I first went to work for Creem I asked Billy Altman, the reviews editor, what kind of thing he was looking for. His response was to smile at me and shrug and say, "write lively." Sage advice, Billy. I've never forgotten it.
But I'd been doing this magazine thing for three years and I could see I was close to burnout. Searching the trades, magazines and newspapers for feature ideas, poring over record after record to find one I wanted to review, going to bed every night trying to dream up some new article or story -- it was starting to get to me. Came a year I wrote and published twenty-five pieces. That's just over two a month, one every two weeks. I was tired. The thrill was gone and I wanted out.
What I wanted was, say, six months' continuity to life. That's all I was asking for. Six lousy months without constantly scouring the newspapers. A book would do the trick.
Then along came this idea. I went to work, using the magazines to support time on the book. A year later I had it. There were instances where what I was imagining made me cringe from my keyboard but I had it.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead were my main models. They had obvious things in common. Both existed in a universe of simulated real time, for one thing. They begin in the afternoon, run howling and screeching through the night, and end at dawn. Years ago as a boy I'd read a book by Jim Bishop called The Day Christ Died, which was similar in that its time-frame was a single day. The actual times of day made up the chapter headings. It gave you a blow-by-blow description of what was happening to each of the characters moment by moment. Years later I read Jack Olsen's terrific Night of the Grizzly which did the same thing, generating tremendous suspense around a separate pair of true-life bear-maulings on a single night at Yellowstone National Park.
If you were going to get at violence in an extremely intimate up-close way as I planned to, what better format than doing it by the clock?
And that was the second thing that Chainsaw and Night had in common. Intimate violence. They seemed to shrink from nothing. From no atrocity. Not even from the very bleakest of endings. That was the innovation I had in mind. I'd never seen it done before, and I'd been reading in the genre. Stephen King got pretty gruesome, god knows, but there were things Steve wouldn't show you. He'd use a cutaway. I loved what he and others were doing in the field but it wasn't what I was after.
I was going to show you everything. Hopefully, make you feel everything. Every last nasty detail. The knife sinking into your very own flesh while you watched and listened and struggled not to die.
Off Season was an updating of the Sawney Beane story, a true story about a family of 17th Century highwaymen-turned-cannibal along the rugged cliffs of Scotland. A big family, from kids to ancient crones. I was taking the notion into modern times and posited an equally repulsive familia ferox hidden for years off the coast of Northern Maine, forced suddenly onto the mainland to wreak bloody havoc upon a group of vacationing Manhattanites on one gruesome roller-coaster of a night.
The roller-coaster being the third thing Chainsaw and Night had in common.
I researched the hell out of it. To do this kind of thing you've got to. If you're going in for the really tight close-up you've got to get it right. I talked to doctors, asking basically the same questions all the time. If I do this and this and this to him, can he still survive? And then what if I do this? That one's going to kill him? Oh, I see. How much will he bleed? Are we talking drops of blood here or gouts of blood or what? Un-huh.
Recipes. I studied recipes. I went to the library and read everything I could find about cannibalism. Some of the early shipwreck accounts like Mrs. Frazier on the Fatal Shore included delightful hints on humans-as-cuisine. Others details I extrapolated from books like How to Survive in the Wilderness and Vardis Fisher's Mountain Man, made into the movie Jeremiah Johnson. I figured that except for the fat-to-muscle quotient there's not much difference between jerking deer meat and jerking Newt Gingrich.
It should go without saying that realism's the key here, just as it is with a lot of other aspects of fiction. You don't want to jar a reader who may just know about something top-to-bottom, inside out, while you haven't quite done all your homework. You'll block his flow, kill his suspension of disbelief. Every writer makes mistakes but it's important to catch as many as possible.
An example: at the end of Off Season I have a character riding in an ambulance. She's been through a hundred and eight forms of hell by now and she's practically delirious. She looks up at the figure riding with her and wonders briefly if he's a paramedic or a doctor and hopes that he's a doctor because she knows she's hurt bad. After the book was published I got a letter from a guy who said he loved it -- though he had one wee bitty problem with the end, because he was a paramedic and in a situation like this one a paramedic's better trained to save her butt than doctors are. I'd got it wrong. I blew it for the guy. I wrote back and apologized and promised that if I ever had a chance to correct the thing in reprint, I would. When the book came out in England, I did.
You've also got to know your setting inside out. If an attack is coming through a window, you'd better not have said previously that in this space we have a large oak door. You've got to know your instruments of mayhem. What sort of entrance wound with this kind of gun? What sort of exit wound? Where would I probably have to shoot somebody and how many times in order to stop him? That sort of thing. If you've got a character shooting a .357 magnum without ear protection, especially if he's shooting indoors, he'd better be deaf for a few pages. Maybe a few chapters. A .22 rifle? No problem.
These are mechanical things but they count. Anything short is just laziness and a form of looking away.
It's also important -- and this goes to realism too -- to engage all the senses. Not just sight and sound. Those are the easy ones. But smell, taste, touch. Remember we're dealing with somebody's pain here, with engaging the reader in somebody's experience of pain. And you can't do pain without touch. The reader has to feel what the character feels when the blade touches the body, presses into the body, invades the body and then finally roots around in there. In this kind of writing it's every inch of the way or nothing at all.
The question is of course, why the hell do this stuff in the first place?
I have to go back to my first question.
You think you know about pain?
There is nothing I can think of that is ennobling about pain. Emotional or physical. Suffering breaks us down in both body and spirit, isolates us in our misery, cuts us off from one another. It's also something we'll all experience someday in one form or another, whether in a hospital bed or on a dark city street in the wrong part of town. Pain partakes of something primal in us, something all sentient creatures know, not just humans. And we'd damn sure better have a look at it. At what it does to us, how it changes us, at why and how it grows.
Someone once theorized that horror films and horror writing allow us to rehearse for death. I don't know about that but I do know they rehearse us for worlds of grief and agony. They reflect those worlds, our worlds, through someone else's. The characters in a novel.
There are few things I find hard to watch in movies but inevitably they're the most familiar, the least removed from my experience. There's a scene in Marathon Man which roars instantly to mind. You know the one. Larry Olivier going at Dustin Hoffman's teeth with his goddamn power-drill. The damn thing makes me cringe. And as far as I'm concerned the hardest thing to watch in Chainsaw is granddaddy trying over and over again to coldcock Marilyn Burns with his hammer. Ever go to a sloppy dentist? Ever miss that nail and plant one on your finger?
You feel those scenes because you know them.
As Doug Winter's said, horror's not a genre, it's an emotion. Likewise pain is us. We've all had it, we'll all have it again. To shrink from pain in any form of art is to shrink from something fundamental about life, from part of the human, animal condition. Not that everybody has to tackle it, but that's not to say we should walk away from it either. It's dishonest.
There's a fine line, though, between honesty and exploitation. I've walked it many times.
Because pain is also fundamentally grotesque.
You don't go to that sloppy dentist every day, thank god. You don't whack yourself with a hammer either. Or get beaten in an alley or hit by a truck or a roller-blader or suffer bone cancer or lose a loved one or, I dare say, get munched by cannibals. The major part of most people's lives is lived without pain. Most days there's fair weather. Pain happens when the normal day breaks down, when something fails in the system, when things go haywire.
It's unusual. And like anything else unusual, as Madison Avenue would say, it's sexy.
Have a look at your basic daytime talk-show. One day they're interviewing teenagers with pierced tongues or women whose husbands have cheated on them with their own mothers and the next day they're doing a satellite broadcast from prison, and we're listening to Diane Downs try to convince us that she didn't really murder her kid because her boyfriend preferred her to be childless.
We are curious about anything unusual. Including agony. Including bloody murder.
We want to know what it feels like and I believe that we should know what it feels like. That's one thing writing's good for -- getting us into dangerous waters while keeping us safe and dry at home. But there's only one way to do that, folks, to get to the actual feeling, and a lot of the writing in the area doesn't try. Still another form of looking away.
You've got to make us give a damn.
About all this grief. About all this suffering. You've got to exercise the compassion muscle.
If we don't care it's just pierced tongues again.
The keys to making it more than that involve character, intent, and meaning -- intertwined. First, real people, the time and care you take to make them real, to submit to the truth of your characters, their histories, their hopes and fears, as much truth as you can muster. They'll reflect us only if you let them have their way as people. People can be zany and unpredictable sometimes but they pretty much go by the book. So you don't just waltz your second female lead into a darkened room in a spooky old house with a candle and no weapon saying, "Larry? Larry?" because you figure it's time to off her. You arm her to the teeth and she turns on every damn light in the joint.
Then, your intent that we care for these people one way or another, even if it's only to despise them. Often I contrast one evil with another and let you take your pick. Who's worse? Cannibal or scoff-law dad? Moral choices.
And finally the meaning of their suffering.
I'm not talking philosophy here. I suppose some would say suffering doesn't necessarily have any meaning at all but I don't agree -- it sure as hell has meaning for the the sufferer. Even if he can only arrive at the question, why me? But it seems to me that pain always involves the loss of something -- not necessarily the loss of life and limb but sometimes, of capability, innocence, personality, the capacity for joy. Loss eddies outward into other lives and it always has meaning for the loser. And the writer's job is to find it, know it -- then share it with the rest of us.
Here's an example from my own stuff:
At the beginning of my book Red I've got an old man fishing by a stream, his tackle-box and his old dog Red -- a long-ago birthday present from his now-dead wife -- lying beside him. Along come three boys, one with a shotgun. They ask for money. The old man doesn't have any so the kid shoots his dog. Not for any particular reason. Just out of meanness and because he can.
The line is, I think, appropriately nasty.
And there wasn't even a yelp or a cry because the top of the dog's head wasn't there anymore nor the quick brown eyes nor the cat-scarred nose, all of them blasted into the brush behind the dog like a sudden rain of familiar flesh, the very look of the dog a sudden memory.
So the dog goes splat. The boys just laugh and walk away. Leaving the old man to deal with it.
He got up and closed and locked his tackle box and set his rig, picked them up along with the cooler and walked back to where the dog lay. He tied the arms of his shirt around the dog's neck against the seep of blood and picked him up and tucked him under one arm with the rig and cooler and tackle box all gripped in his other hand and then he started up the path.
The dog grew very heavy.
He had to stop twice to rest but he would not let go of the dog, only sat by the side of the path and put down the cooler and fishing gear and shifted the weight of the dog so that it rested in his lap across his knees, holding him in his arms until he was rested, smelling the familiar scent of his fur and the new smell of his blood
The second time he stopped he cried at last for the loss of him and for their long fine past together and pounded with his fist at the hardscrabble earth that had brought them here.
And then he went on.
Could be I'm just tooting my own horn but I think I got it right that time. No goofs like with the ambulance.
At least I'm happy with it.
I didn't look away.
This essay was originally published in the 2006 book On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association by Mort Castle.
The header photograph was taken by Steve Thornton.
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