Saturday, June 16, 2007

Genre: Horror Or Horrible?

People are usually surprised to learn that much of my writing crosses over into the horror genre. They figure someone with a predeliction for V-neck collars, dry-clean-only slacks, French-press coffee and Reformation-era theology wouldn't have much tuck with ghosts and werewolves or Shelley and Barker. I wrote about the supposed conflct in the cover letter to my first published story, Picker:

I’ve experienced it more times than I like to admit. I’m talking with a new acquaintance and the topic of literature comes up. “Oh, you write!” the hapless fellow exclaims. “I read everything. What do you like to write?” I cautiously reply, “Horror.”

The conversation quickly heads south from here.

The reason for these reactions, I’ve come to believe, is that many think of horror stories strictly as “genre gems,” tales dripping with grue and gore, tales populated solely by vampires, ghouls and tentacled, gelatinous beasties that go squish in the night. But to my way of thinking, horror is an expansive field that enthralls and instructs us like any other, the main difference being that it points us to the dark corners of our souls we would prefer to neglect.
Stephen King incisively observed in Danse Mabre that horror is an inherently conservative genre. It appeals to moral absolutes, to an innate sense of good and evil, by teaching us what we should fear. One doesn't stop to page through Rorty's Objectivity, Relativism and Truth while being pursued by a large chap with a dull axe. One runs.

When Joe Suburbanite considers horror, though, I don't think he's pondering Ray Bradbury's
"The Lake" or Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" or Scott Smith's A Simple Plan, horrifically moving works that deal with childhood loss and revenge and avarice, respectively. No, he's thinking about crasser works that ask you not to fear the ravenous, slavering creature, but to indentify with (and enjoy) it and its grisly deeds. He's thinking of Hostel and Freddy vs. Jason and he's revolted.

A prime example of this is the upcoming videogame
Manhunt 2. The original garnered lots of criticism for being a snuff-film simulator of sorts, putting players in the shoes of a death-row inmate forced to execute even-worse types with cleavers, bats, shards of glass, plastic bags, et cetera. The sequel makes more of an attempt at a plot: A scientist assigned to create a perfect pharmalogical weapon wakes in an insane asylum with a needle in his arm and no memory and must fight his way out. One could turn this any number of satisfying ways, toward a warning against playing God or toward the fear of an overbearing government or toward the more basic terror of insanity. But anyone who'd like draw something thematically worthwhile from the title will have to deal with how it asks players to participate in virtual butchery.

Simulated murder has proved a problem with video games for years, but Manhunt 2 ups the interactivity via the Nintendo Wii's wireless remote. Instead of clicking a button and seeing an animation of the main character emasculate an adversary with pliers, players ape the movement with the remote,
according to Intend to dispatch an enemy with that hacksaw? Get ready to make like a lumberjack yourself as you watch your on-screen counterpart saw his way up through the bad guy's crotch and buttocks. Same for dispatches with axes, pens, sledgehammers, telephone cords and toilets; for it to happen in the game, it has to happen in your living room. Some critics are calling it the control scheme "engaging" and "satisfying."

Does such a title fall into the category of horror? I'd argue not, simply because its ultimate goal isn't to terrify by showing the evil of such acts. Rather, the game aims to acclimate you to brutality, to make snapping necks and gouging eyes into a fun weekend diversion.

Horror, no. Horrible? Most certainly.

(Picture: CC 2006 by Kazze)


C. N. Nevets said...

Pssst. I love French press coffee and Reformation theology. hahahaha

No joke.

Loren Eaton said...

That is TEH AWESOME!!!1!

Oh. Wait. I should keep my voice down.