Columns > Published on July 3rd, 2012

LURID: Beach Blanket Boogeymen

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

I don't like the summertime, 'cause everyone goes to the beach. I don't understand the beach... What's the fucking deal with the beach? I don't get it. It's where dirt meets water, alright?...Maybe I'm just jealous? Everyone at the beach is perfect, you know: tan, white teeth. I got white skin, tan teeth. Not my environment. " — Bill Hicks

As far as urban (and suburban and rural) fantasies go, the perfect beach is up there.  White sands fringed with palm trees, hammocks swinging in a gentle breeze, the empty blue horizon washed by virescent seas, and an attractive bartender of your gender preference depositing an ice cold beverage within easy reach.  Heaven on earth.  And, as creeping thermometers, failing air-conditioning, and percolating malaise define our globally-warmed summertime, the months without an ‘r’ find us all dreaming of a little piece of that heaven:  A few days spent somewhere dirt meets water, where we can forget all responsibilities and just be.  I need a vacation.  You need a vacation.  Let’s fight for our right to vacate.

We forget that beneath the golden dream, there’s darkness.  By their very nature, vacations take us far away from civilization, from structure, from social order.  They take us to the edges of things, the boundaries between cultures.  When you cross borders, you put yourself beyond the reach of your usual protections.  Without realizing it, you’re at the front line.  And, unless you keep your wits about you – almost impossible under the heat, the bright light, the Mai Tais, and the smiles of your good-looking new friends - you may very well cross that line into a truly alien place.  Vacation presents the best opportunities for transgression we will ever know; there are all kinds of boogeymen lying in wait.  You play, you pay.

The basic ingredients for catastrophe come free with every package deal.  Unusual and risky modes of transportation? Check. Inexperienced young people in a strange and potentially hostile environment? Check.  Quick profits prioritized over safety? Absolutely.  Language barriers? Toxic foodstuffs? Tropical diseases? Poisonous insects? Resentful and displaced locals?  Flashpoints of cultural misunderstanding?  Freak weather?  Check ‘em all off your list.  Add drugs, alcohol, and sunburn and you have a perfect recipe for disaster, or a rollicking horror yarn.

At a resort, when there are ordinarily a lot of people in the bar by lunchtime wearing nothing but a bathing suit, nutters take a little longer to stand out from the crowd.

It’s a recipe numerous authors have riffed on, over the years.  Horror stories and travelogues have been mashed together since Homer wrote The Odyssey.  Sometimes it’s easier to believe in weird shit if it’s not happening on your doorstep and takes place instead on a mostly-blank area of the map labeled “Here Be Dragons”. The democratization of travel in the twentieth century generated a different kind of horror. Everybody loves a tourist… It took pickpockets, prostitutes and phonies intent on separating naïve out-of-towners from their wallets full of confusing currency no time at all to figure out that strangers in a strange land are easy prey.  There’s no state more vulnerable than lost, alone, wearing inappropriate clothing, unable to speak the language and carrying an annual salary’s worth of camera equipment.  There’s very little more terrifying than realizing you’re it.

There’s a greater threat to holidaymakers than unscrupulous locals, nonetheless: other tourists.  Fellow travelers are like family – you can’t pick them, or get rid of them without a great deal of expense.  Back home, there’s a communal sense of who has the neon ‘STAY AWAY!’ sign flashing above their head.  At a resort, when there are ordinarily a lot of people in the bar by lunchtime wearing nothing but a bathing suit, nutters take a little longer to stand out from the crowd.  By the time you identify their true nature, you’re sharing a hotel room/long distance taxi/kayak and are shackled to their thrill-seeking schemes.  Even the sanest, most law-abiding and responsible citizens (including those you considered friends, pre-departure) can break out their inner savage once they’re a long way from home. 

Trouble in vacation paradise presents some uniquely lurid story opportunities.  Sweaty, fish-out-of-water protagonists forced to confront strange local customs and their inability to read a map.  Bikini babes.  Speedo studs.  Exotic locations.  Ancient, pissed off gods.  Characters who’ve abandoned logical thinking along with their day jobs.  Lifelong friendships falling apart.  Things that wouldn’t make any kind of sense in the real world.  So, instead of bitching about your lack of vacation days this summer, indulge in some schadenfreude with this quartet of novels.  You’ll be glad you stuck with your nice, safe couch.

The End of Innocence

Lord of The Flies sets the tone very stylishly.  William Golding’s elegant 1954 novel about a group of English schoolboys stranded on an idyllic tropical island has earned its place as a classic.  After their plane crashes somewhere in the Pacific, possibly post-nuclear holocaust, the boys’ first reaction is “Wizard!” They’re delighted that there are “no grownups” and that they are free to rip off their school uniforms, swim in the lagoon, laze in the sand, chase butterflies, feast on fruit, hunt wild pigs and generally live out their R. M. Ballantyne/R.L. Stevenson inspired fantasies: “until the grownups come to fetch us we’ll have fun.”  But nightmares start to peek through their paradise immediately.  Rumors begin about serpents in the trees.  Their signal fire results in a conflagration.  Some of the smallest boys, ‘littluns’, vanish without trace.  The biggest danger, however, comes from each other.  From the beginning, there’s a rift in the group.  On one side, led by Ralph and the ever-pragmatic Piggy, the boys retain awareness of the island as a temporary location, of the need to keep the signal fire going to attract potential rescuers, and to take care of one another by building shelters and keeping track of the littluns’ numbers and whereabouts.  Jack and his crew construct an alternative reality where they abandon civilization and default to wild men of the woods, wearing masks, camouflaging their skin, mounting raids on Ralph’s gang, and enacting elaborate sacrifice rituals to keep the Beast (in reality the corpse of a parachutist hanging in a tree) satisfied.  It doesn’t take very long before savagery gets the upper hand.  Goodbye, sunbathing by the lagoon, hello fleeing from warriors ululating for blood.

Violent, chilling, richly allegorical, Lord Of The Flies has had many imitators (The Butterfly Revolution by William Butler, John Dollar by Marianne Wiggins to name but two), and also provided a useful set of paradigms for other writers seeking some holidaymaker horror.

Life’s A Beach

Alex Garland’s The Beach is a prime example of Lord of The Flies redux.  His idyllic Thai island also has a fish-filled lagoon and a sparkling white beach inhabited by Westerners playing out their fantasies.  It ends in a similar eruption of savagery after a series of disasters befall the camp, the beach-dwellers split into groups, and then turn on one another.  Garland’s castaways are much older than Golding’s, and they’re all present on the island through choice, but they display a corresponding naivety and lack of inner resources to Ralph, Jack, Piggy and co.

Garland drew heavily on his own experiences backpacking across Asia in the early 1990s.  His narrator, Richard, is self-indulgent, smug and, in places, downright obnoxious.  He epitomizes every backpacker who has ever tried to explain why they’re a traveler, not a tourist.  In Richard’s world-view, he has the perfect right to go where he pleases, even into a marine park that is legally protected against tourism for environmental reasons.  Garland had witnessed first hand the Lonely Planet phenomenon – travelers visit a place, write about it, more travelers come, and suddenly ‘off-the-beaten-track’ has become a six lane highway, with the attendant noise, pollution, crime and destruction of what made the destination appealing in the first place – and the pages of The Beach contain a bitter lament for the inevitability of paradise lost.

When Richard’s given a map to a semi-mythical beach where a small group of travelers are living the dream he never questions his right to go there.  Ever the latent colonialist, he sees Thailand as his playground, his right to beachbum pleasure trumping any moral considerations.  Local laws don’t apply to him.  He’s the quintessential idiot abroad.  He doesn’t realize the nature of any of his transgressions until too late.  He doesn’t consider the need for secrecy until long after he’s shared the map with a couple of random Americans.  When he arrives at the fabled island, along with French traveling companions Etienne and Françoise, he doesn’t realize he’s in the middle of a cultivated marijuana field until he’s face-to-face with armed guards.  He doesn’t realize his ‘In Country’ Vietnam fantasies reflect reality until the bodies start piling up.  He doesn’t realize that he’s Jack, not Ralph or Piggy, until he has blood on his hands. 

Garland (who would go on to write the screenplay for 28 Days Later) shares Golding’s awareness of the horror lurking in shrunken horizons.  Once on the Beach, Richard and all his companions forget the outside world, including their families, and focus only on day-to-day life.  They lose the power to think long-term, or objectively, and leave important decision-making to Sal, the group’s de facto leader.  Like the littluns in Lord of The Flies, by the afternoon they’ve forgotten the morning. Their lotus-eating lifestyle means they’re ill-equipped to deal with death, or the disposal of corpses, or any other consequences of sticking their group head in the sand.  Ultimately, they disintegrate.  Richard, who lives to tell the tale, admits that he is very lucky to survive, albeit with “a lot of scars.”

Gone To Seed

Scott Smith’s brutal 2008 novel, The Ruins, has much in common with The Beach.  It begins in Cancún, as self-indulgent a spot for young tourists as Chaweng.  The central quintet of characters spend their days sunning on the sand and

“sweating beside one another on their brightly colored towels.  They swam and snorkeled; they got burned and began to peel.  They rode horses, paddled around in kayaks, played miniature golf.  One afternoon, Eric convinced them all to rent a sailboat, but it turned out he wasn’t as adept at sailing as he’d claimed, and they had to be towed back to the dock.  It was embarrassing, and expensive.  At night, they ate seafood and drank too much beer.”

Good times.  But this version of paradise doesn’t quite cut it for the ennui-laden members of Generation Whine.  They need to take it up a notch.  The German, Matthias, hasn’t seen his brother in a while, and persuades the others to go on an excursion to find him.  Matthias has a map showing the location of an archeological dig, his brother’s last known location.  As in The Beach, the map gets copied and passed on to other vacationers before Matthias knows where it leads.  Big mistake.

Nursing varying degrees of hangover, the intrepid day-trippers head off into the unknown, confident they can wander at will through the picturesque ruins of their fantasies.  They assume that basic language proficiency, possession of a guidebook, and ample pesos will get them where they want to go.  What they don’t plan, however, is how to get back.  Which is how they find themselves stranded on an inland island, a small hill surrounded by a muddy field and a ring of Mayans with guns and rifles aimed straight at their heads.

Smith doesn’t bother with a honeymoon period for his travelers.  As soon as they reach their destination, the horror is upon them.  They soon discover that Matthias’ brother – and many others – died here, and the determined, circling Mayans will ensure that they suffer the same fate.  Although they're only eleven miles from the bus station, they may as well be on a remote island.  They have to develop the same survival skills as castaways, conserving food and water supplies, protecting themselves from the sun, as well as contending with the carrion-eating vines that can’t wait to strip flesh from their bones and watching their friend Pablo (who doesn’t speak English) die of a broken back.  Hell on earth.  If hell is, indeed, other people.  Once they realize there is no exit from the hill, the group disintegrates into one another’s nightmares, unable to provide each other with much in the way of succor or spiritual comfort as they face impending death.  Cynical, scary stuff.

Going Underground

Lord of The Flies, The Beach and The Ruins are unremittingly bleak in their view of the human condition.  Leave it to horrormeister Richard Laymon to put a more gleeful spin on the paradigms in Midnight’s Lair, his 1988 pulp novel about a group of tourists trapped in a giant cavern where dirt meets water - and a whole lot of other complications.

After an explosion above ground puts the elevators out of action, a tour party is stranded on a negative-image beach.  Instead of bright sun in a blue sky, there’s absolute darkness.  The water’s icy.  No bikinis – although breast-obsessed Laymon manages to introduce male and female nudity into the mix.  The familiar elements are here, however: the huddled group of ill-prepared strangers who were expecting nothing but a pleasure trip.  Everyone out of their comfort zone.  Dissent in the ranks.  A hostile environment that will kill them if they stay there too long.  The regression to primitive behavior that happens most quickly in a teenage boy.  The inevitable casualties when warring parties decide to tear each other apart. 

Although Laymon’s story unfolds over just a few hours, with the strandees awaiting rescue by the fire brigade rather than a passing ship, he manages to pack in plenty of lurid details.  The Mordock Cave has a dark history.  Old Ely Mordock and his family seem to be close cousins of the Delapores of Exham Priory, as described by H. P. Lovecraft in The Rats in the Walls.  The romantic story peddled to tourists about why one section of the cave is walled off turns out to be lies.  And, despite the cold, the absolute darkness, and the annoying guy in a Peterbilt hat, several of those trapped underground find their thoughts turning constantly to sex.  Laymon has fun with all these factors, but the message is clear: these people went seeking pleasure where people aren’t meant to go, so they had to pay the price.

Back in the day, people used to risk travel for career purposes only – commerce, crusade, conversion, colonization – and a lot of them never returned.  The smartest money stayed home and profited off the brave adventurers’ backs.  Those dangerous days are now behind us.  Tourism is a trillion dollar global industry, reaching into all corners of the planet.  Modern travelers expect that wherever they go, no matter how thoughtless their behavior, or lacking their sense of decency and responsibility, they’ll return home unscathed.  This quartet of novels suggests that we don’t have the inalienable right to go where we please.  Next time you’re enraptured by a glossy holiday brochure, take a moment to assess the possible consequences of your trip.

The next big tourist destination is, apparently, Space.  And that’s a whole other deal when it comes to traveler’s tales.

What are your favorite stories about good vacations gone bad?

Image via Hannhell

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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