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Burnt Offerings

Burnt Toast#13, 1993

Horror comes in many guises, and if you are concerned with definitions you are likely to run into some problems. I myself am so concerned, and at one point reduced the term 'Gothic' to a four-word definition I still stand by: 'the love of darkness' which, when you move 'love' and 'darkness' through all possible interpretations seems to cover the genre nicely. It may not help much, but there you are.

Horror is more than that. Stephen King has claimed that horror is 'as conservative as a Democrat in a pin-striped suit', and the modern movie 'monsters' typified by Freddy Krueger fit the bill nicely -- their actions hold no guilt or repercussion for the audience. And surely groups of teenagers watching ranks of their peers being slaughtered in improbable ways is nothing less than a celebration of their own ability to continue movement, a comfortable rebellion against restrictive sensibilities. And speaking of King, one source I've read claims that by far his biggest audience is the middle-aged housewife, bored with her lot and delighting in the violent fantasies of semi-rural Maine.

But horror can confront its audience, make them squirm. The principle reason behind the power of The Silence of the Lambs is that it presents us with two monsters. Hannibal Lector is perfect in his monstrosity, and by this perfection he is as remote from us as Freddy himself. But you cannot embrace Lector without also embracing Jame Gumb, a man who is repulsive and pathetic -- and ultimately human.

Horror is not violence. Silence is not a violent movie (seven people die during the movie, only one on screen, all middle-age males. Compare this to most action/thrillers, even Doctor Who). But this protest is somewhat meaningless -- Silence is filled with the threat of violence, a palpable air of savagery. And thus a book like John Fraser's Violence in the Arts has much of relevance for horror fans (and though I don't think a PhD is any excuse not to have to write clearly, it was still an intermittantly fascinating read -- and Kate has already said that it should have been called Pain in the Arts). Without going into detail, his chapter titles form a neat summary: Ambivalences. Revolt. Victims. Violators. Thought. Responsibilities. And I would like to add another word: Consequences. The horror fan is concerned, I believe, not only in an act of violence but the consequences of that act, what it does to the victim and what it says about the violator, the audience and, yes, even the writer.

Alan Moore's V For Vendetta provides a nice negative example. The hero V performs an act of violence against the heroine Evey and the consequences for her are then explored. But V himself sidesteps responsibility for his action because the author seems to assume we will automatically believe he is the good guy. The act is deeply reprehensible, and as the story unfolds I felt annoyance, not at V but at Moore himself. During Alien3 we are supposed to feel sorrow for the death of Newt, but again we can only feel annoyance at the writer for killing her for the sake of a convenient storyline.

Stephen Donaldson knows all about this. The Thomas Covenant Chronicles opens with an act of rape in our 'hero's' bewilderment about his newly revitalised self. The consequences of that act will follow him unmercifully, culminating in the placement of the power to save all that Covenant is sworn to protect in the hands of the one man who despises him above all others.

Such extremity is not needed (but is by no means untypical of Donaldson). In a remarkably similar event Lestat's first night as a human in Anne Rice's Tale of the Body Thief leads again to an act of rape. This time it is Lestat's own capacity of remorse that convinces him his choice of humanity was a dreadful mistake, and it is then up to Gretchen to try to convince him we're not all that bad. (While I'm here talking about books you probably haven't even read, I should mention the similar ST:TNG ep where Q becomes human that I saw a bit of again last night. It seemed to typify what's wrong with the program: neatly contrived moral dilemmas with no real pain, and no possibility for dangerous or unsavoury insights. In short: boredom, on my part at least. OK, I'll stop being bitchy now.)

Back to Donaldson, and he obviously wasn't content with just the observations of his earlier work. His new Gap series is a powerful character study and, once you get used to the SF setting, its author's unmistakable style screams from every page. It is a study of rape and consequence, and is both very unpleasant to read and, I'll say it, difficult to put down. But the most shocking revelation of the first book is not its scenario, but the admittance by Donaldson in his afterword that the author surrogate in this story was the rapist himself, Angus Thermopyle. This, which I truly see as an act of bravery, allows an uncommon bond between writer and reader, and we squirm in repulsion together.

That is horror, one of its faces.

But what about, say, Romper Stomper?

A violent movie, yes -- laden with ambivalence and consequence, a probing look at victim and violator. But I saw it last month (admittedly my second viewing), and its effect was simple: it cheered me immensely. The sheer excellence of its production distracted me from its theme of alienation and the blindness of the skinheads to their own degradation.

That isn't necessarily horror, but it made for a entertaining afternoon at the movies.


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