Guernica, Pablo Picasso (1937)
Or what happened to all the pretty things?
Or, maybe I should say, why write at all?
Let’s start with the last question first – why the hell should I waste my time writing anything at all when I could be sitting watching the latest whatever on Netflix (or cable TV, if you still have it).
I write, in short, because I have to. It keeps me sane. And man, if you saw the crap I deal with on a day to day basis, you’d be writing too. Or drinking. Or something.
But seriously, most people find writing therapeutic, it’s a way to let it all hang out, and maybe explore ideas from an angle they’d never considered. So that’s good, right? For journals and blog posts and stuff.
And fiction, is just really a big messed up journal of sorts, where you pretend to be somebody else and work through thoughts and feelings you never knew you had. And ultimately, fiction is all about escape. You hide out in somebody else’s reality for a while.
Readers get this, and movie goers and TV watchers get this too. And writers live this.
So it’s all good right? Reading and writing is about escape, right?
This explains big action films where there world nearly gets blown up and we love every minute of it and most commercial fiction geared for women (think good ol’ chick lit and romance stuff). We lose ourselves in someone else’s (or our own) fantasy.
Now, I like a good love story like the rest of you, but –
And there’s always a but –
I don’t like pretty ones.
So spare me your stories of designer handbags and millionaires (excuse me while I puke) and bring on some seriously twisted dark love stories – maybe Dracula or Jane Eyre or one of my all-time favorites, Wuthering Heights. And I know I’ve talked about this before (and my deep love for Gone with the Wind ‘cuz Rhett and Scarlett are simply well dressed sociopaths who don’t even play nice. And we love them for it. But I digress.)
Give me ugly characters that I fall in love with over and over again; they are the stuff of classic literature that only now are we rediscovering. “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were.” Unattractive heroine – Jane Eyre with her too thin features and dark hair was the epitome of plain. Heroes were no better – Mr. Heathcliff was renowned for his unattractive looks and foul nature; and Mr. Rochester was his equal.
And honestly, I never liked Mr. Darcy. (But Mr. Rochester on the other hand…)
So why do I talk about the classics and what’s held these stories together for so many years?
They share a truth about character, about people, and life.
And that is where great fiction lends itself – it shows us the truth, or a version of it, and lets us escape into another world so that we might better understand that single truth.
So if I like love stories about ugly people, what’s with the dark stories about bad (or not-so-good) people?
It’s more honesty. It’s another way of being real.
Think about writers and artists of the 1920s. What was going on then?
In the arts we had a movement toward surrealism, cubism, and the beginnings of abstraction; each movement building itself on the one before it (think painterly waterlilies a la Monet moving toward industrial life and increasing abstraction.)
We had writers like Aldous Huxley (yep, that dude) who pushed the limits of the doors of perception and all kinds of sci fi and fantasy writers like H.P. Lovecraft went along for the ride.
What was going on then? Escape, well, sure; but also a hard stare at ourselves.
Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), Salvador Dali (1936)
Jump a head a few years (think depression and ‘dirty thirties’) and the artists Picasso and Dali painted about the Spanish Civil war. Guernica, one of Picasso’s most famous pieces, is nothing but about war. By twisting reality we see ourselves more clearly – Dali’s surrealism was not just about the unconscious mind and severed limbs. It was a juxtaposition that spoke the truth that could not clearly be said about the horrors of war and human nature.
Through art we start to look at ourselves more closely through a highly distorted lens, and that, my friends is what good horror brings – escape, yes; thrills, of course; but a good hard look at ourselves. (Although we might not always see it at the time.)
Twighlight Zone-esque morality aside, stepping outside of reality is a way of commenting on it. Think of good ol’ 1984 and all those memes floating around saying George Orwell never imagined we’d be buying the cameras ourselves.
George saw it. And now we’re doing it. Woe to the poor sap who fails to post social media updates regularly, or gets a scarce handful of ‘likes’ on a pic. We’re so in love with ourselves and the sudden, heady, flush of pseudo-celebrity, that we’ll do anything to attain it.
Cute cat videos, pictures of meals – you name it, it’s out there because we’re dying to see, but more importantly, we want to be seen. Won’t anybody recognize how special we are? And yet, we often fail to see ourselves through the lenses artists hold up.
In horror, sci-fi and fantasy we’re seeing ourselves through not just a cluster of Instagram #selfies, but a lens darkly.
And maybe that’s what’s truly scary right now – not the vampire/high school boyfriend floating around, but seeing ourselves spattered across the page in full blow technicolour.
Why are post-apocalyptic dystopian fantasies so popular right now? Duh, have you seen who’s running for president? Or what’s going around on a global scale? It makes a place of scorch and burn and A-bombs seem almost cheery. I love them because they are often the most fantastic and honest stories you’ll encounter; all kinds of truth about society and human nature embedded within them.
Shapeshifters? Sure, they’re kind of sexy, but what are they really about? A dissatisfaction with the self, and an opportunity to let loose some (socially inappropriate) urges. Think good ol’ Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the duality of man. I think we’re just tired of being good all the time, and following the rules, that we want somebody – anybody to break them.
And what’s with the zombies? Who invited them in?
Have you been to a local shopping mall lately? Or a major big box store? The zombies aren’t on TV, my friends, they’re standing right next to you in the checkout lane with the plus size package of toilet paper.
They’re us, in a much poorly dressed form, no H&M or Abercrombie and Finch for those folks. Mindless consumption is where it’s at, and where we are too.
There’s a reason behind horror, a rationale that might not be readily apparent to the creator. Yes, we want to be taken outside of our comfort zones and spooked a little, it is entertainment, after all.
But, like the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, horror always speaks the truth.
We might just not want to hear it.
The Face of War, Salvador Dali (1940)
If you’ve somehow missed out on the classics of horror Project Gutenberg (an amazing site) has copyright-free versions available for FREE download. Check out Dracula and Frankenstein (among many others) for FREE.
And this annotated version of ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde’ is really good – all the original language is preserved, with tons of explanatory notes.