This amazing and weird little short film is definitely not short of odd, surreal imagery. I bet it’s just the thing to jiggle loose a pesky bout of writer’s block with its constantly evolving images of the bizarre and out of place. And if not, then at least it can give you a good dose of the strange and disconcerting.
I just finished Christopher Moore’s amazing book A Dirty Job and I got to thinking about the horror genre. One of the thoughts that ended up developing was how the book managed to both make me laugh and at times descend into horror territory. I won’t say that it’s a scary book. I can’t really think of any times where I was really feeling the glacial drift of ice slowly filling my veins. However, there were parts that could certainly be said to be uncomfortable. Still, the thing that got me was just how well the two seemingly opposed aspects fit together. This got me thinking about the 80’s again (though that isn’t all that hard to do.). What struck me was that many horror films in the 80’s managed to pull of being genuinely scary while being humorous. And I’m not talking about the camp-tastic Army of Darkness either. I’m talking about genuine frightfests like Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and to a lesser degree In the Mouth of Madness. These films, while certainly not comedies, brought forward material that managed to provide us with a giggle, even an uneasy one. But why mix such diametrically opposed tones into a single work? Could it be that maybe they are more alike than they seem and that they may even complement each other?
The obvious and I suppose you could say calculating reason to include humor in a horror story is to disarm your viewer or reader. Often horror is like an arms race. You bring out a scare. The next one has to be bigger, otherwise, the emotional impact will lessen and then stagnate then the reader or viewer will totally lose engagement. So the ante has to be constantly upped to keep the audience enthralled and frightened at what will come next. However, if you frighten the audience then disarm them, the next jolt will seem as powerful as the first since they won’t expect it. They will go from a low anxiety state immediately to a high anxiety state and the shift will be very jarring. This isn’t as easy as throwing in a joke or a clown in the middle of a scene though sometimes the characters can lampshade the events of the story and try to crack a wry remark. It’s risky but if done right it has the potential to give the audience a moment of levity before rubbing salt in the wounds again. So this tactic is used in conjunction with scares to keep the audience afraid. The risk of course is that the addition of humor in an otherwise straight-faced horror film can call attention to itself like a beacon and draw the audience out of the world of the story. But this is not the only reason horror and humor cooperate.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an absolutely terrifying film in my opinion. It’s a demented odyssey into realms of twisted human psychology. But it maintains a perverse sense of humor that is just as entertaining as the scares. So how and why? How do we not end up taken out of the film? The answer to that I think is that the humor and the horror grow organically from the situation. The humor is not forced into the situation but is a direct result of it. The main psychopaths are funny themselves. But they aren’t funny in the way that a genuine comic relief would be funny. Instead they are funny as a result of their absurdity. While they are undoubtedly insane and dangerous, their instability and exaggerated personalities allow for the very stuff that humor and horror are made of: exaggeration. And that is why I think that, when done well, humor and horror may actually be great partners.
“The divine is no less paradoxical than the vicious,” said Eric in The Crow and there is a lot of truth to that. Both humor and horror develop when the universe drinks too many whiskey sours and ends up flopping on its ass. Both take what is expected, what our lives have so far told us is possible and to be expected, and subverts it to the point where we can either react with mirth or terror. For example, the dead coming back to life can be played for laughs since the idea is so absurd as to be unthinkable or we can play it as horrifying since it takes something that shouldn’t happen then slaps you right in the face with it. It all depends on what aspect the creator wants to emphasize. But by recognizing that both horror and humor are both a result of roughly the same process, the creator opens up new avenues to explore the idea. How far can you push until the horrible becomes laughable or the humorous horrendous? What does that say about the subject or our reactions to it? How can it just switch emotional textures? We also have to consider that both laughter and horror can be used as defense mechanisms. Sometimes something can be so horrible that the only way to respond to it is with laughter. Like when people suddenly laugh at a funeral. The more accepted or predictable response to something frightening are the typical physiological reactions we usually associate with fright. But both are ways of reacting to uncomfortable stimuli therefore, playing with both reactions can be very powerful for the audience especially since it can potentially lead to cognitive dissonance where they are no longer sure what they should be feeling. This ties nicely into the feeling of being trapped in a dream or rather a nightmare. Without any rules or land marks, the audience is totally at the mercy of the story. This takes the horror and elevates it to the level of a subconscious assault where the audience may be uncomfortable and not even know why. And the unknown is always scarier than anything any author or director can com up with. Thus, using humor in horror is a way of snaking into the audience using a method they may not be aware of and thus have no defense against. As an audience, we no longer can say what is safe and what is dangerous. Is there any safe place at all? Can anything in this insane world of the story be trusted? The humor here only heightens our apprehensions so that the world of the story becomes one massive dangerous labyrinth.
To wrap up before I go on for too long again, humor and horror, seemingly of the good twin evil twin dichotomy may not be so at odds as they seem. Both play with what we expect and subvert our expectations. Because of this, both can be deployed in the service of creating more tension and unease in the audience. When done well, the audience is stripped of a sense of knowing what will or what ought to play out. This thus a fantastic way of keeping the audience of balance and constantly wondering where you’ll take them.
I didn’t want this blog to go political but sometimes you have to talk about these things. Sometimes these issues sink into the ground like radioactive isotopes and threaten to poison the very ground you stake your home and livelihood on. The SOPA bill (Stop Online Piracty Act) is just one of those occasions where we have to look beyond the niche topics we cover and see the quagmire of under-the-table corruption, cronyism, and insidious fascism that continually assault us. These are mad times we live in boys and girls. Mad times plucked by the atrophied, gnarled fingers of old ideologues who can’t begin to envision a world where their rules are considered quaint and hokey yet utterly irrelevant. Of course I’m referring to Lamar Smith and his buddies. Our good friend Lamar is Republican House Judiciary Committee Chair from Texas. He’s the quisling who sold out rights out to the movie and record execs with the introduction of the SOPA bill. There has been a lot of talk about SOPA and a bit less on its deformed cousin PIPA recently. You might have heard about it. Or you might have noticed that your favorite websites are looking a little different today. Wikipedia has taken itself down for 24 hours as protest to the bills that would take an acetylene torch to everything good about the internet. The internet really is one of the last places we have that is truly free. With the Patriot Act and wire tapping that might have even made that naked mole rat Nixon retch, this republic is collapsing into itself like a geriatric who’s been clocked in the diaphragm. But never mind our national nightmare and let’s concentrate on this most recent affront to our dignity as members of the so-called free world. SOPA will create a firewall around the US pretty much. Sites based in foreign servers can be blacklisted and made inaccessible if there is any indication of copyright infringement. So you better pray your web content providers are paranoid bastards who only use public domain photos and pictures of their own kittens (which will have a watermark under the fur of course). And if you should be so daft as to upload a movie clip to youtube or facebook, you can expect Uncle Sam to bust down your door with a machete in one hand and a strap on in the other. You can look forward to luxuriating in Club F*ck Your Rights for up to five years. Yeah. That’s right. If an exec wakes up one morning and decides he wants a gold plated speed boat that can fly across the surface of the sun and he doesn’t quite have the cash for it, he’d going to send his good squad’s greasy little tentacles through the web, find some poor granny who thought it would be cute to put a clip of 101 Dalmations on facebook, and send her senile ass to prison for half a decade. Because her and her verminous criminal ilk deprived him of the money he needed for his solar boating expedition! Yes! I know this sounds a bit crazy. I seem to have gone off the rails a while back. If you’re still unsure of what all this is about, check this video. I am feeling more than a bit frigging crazy with this thing but we can do something about it. This is the important part so listen closely.
Boycott the fiend intelligences who are mainlining money into the stenosed veins of congressmen to support this bill. Groups like Sony, Viacom, and Marvel. Also, write to your representative in congress and tell them that this is unacceptable. Do not let these twisted people carve up the internet. It isn’t perfect but they are going to use a scorched earth policy then sow salt in their wake so nothing can grow. The internet has irrevocably change everything. It is a dreamscape where innovation and ideas can lead to amazing things. It’s a small wonder these people are so fervently trying to kill it. It’s like watching elk in rutting season bellowing and scrapping the ground with their antlers. They need to perpetuate the comfortable way of life they have been accustomed to, just blindly following the cycles. They may only be able to articulate these lizard brain needs through belches and grunts but you don’t want to get in their way because like the dumb beasts they are, they have only one setting. The internet has gotten in the way. It is unprecedented in human history and so those who have depended on locking information down are feeling a distinct chill march up their spines.
Now, stop reading this and write to your congressperson. Don’t let them erode our rights any more than they already have. And don’t let them carve up the vast, amazing dreamscape of the internet.
Have you ever had a dream that, the second you wake up, you want to write it down? “This would make a wicked story!” you think to yourself, imagining the potential plot. Especially if you write horror, dreams can be a wonderful source of inspiration. The feeling of being trapped in a nightmare, with something horrible chasing you, or something just wrong with the world of the dream and you can’t pinpoint it but you know it’s horrible. If you could translate these feelings into words, surely you’d be able to terrify readers. I sometimes turn to my dream for inspiration but there’s something I learned from repeated attempts at transcribing my dreams too closely.
A while ago, I had a dream that deeply disturbed me. I dreamed I was being pulled through a department store. I felt like something evil was growing inside me. I didn’t know what it was but I could feel it growing, taking over more and more of me. I struggled against whoever was tugging me. People stared in horrified disbelief at what they saw. We passed a mirror and I felt the horrible urge to look and see what was happening to me but I was too afraid. I kept closing my eyes and jerking away but somehow my eyes kept fluttering open. Each time they opened, I caught a glimpse of something monstrous squirming in the mirror. Finally, the terror reached a fever pitch and I woke up. Needless to say, I woke up frightened but inspired. I saw the potential for this story. In fact, I was sure that the story would write itself. This was December of 2010.
By May, I was still nowhere near completing the story. The story I had decided on was still based on the dream but incorporated heavy elements of Chinese mythology and the history of Unit 731. I suggest reading about it because it is one of the finest examples of how the atrocities of human beings will somehow always outdo the things we writers can imagine. The story was about a college student living in London whose family had somehow escaped the atrocities of the infamous unit. On the night of a particular festival that her family observes she goes to a concert instead of observing the ritual and begins to have horrible hallucinations and comes face to face with the thing the ritual was supposed to keep at bay. Now that I think of it, and with the distance of time separating me from the story, I can see where I went wrong and how to make the story work but, during those frustrated months, nothing I did seemed to be enough to get the story moving.
Since then, I’ve actually derived a short story I completed and a novel that is being developed from the raw materials of this one unassailable short story. In the process, I figured something very important out that has since helped me not just in turning my dreams into stories but with writing in general. My ideas went all over the place when writing that story. I was hell-bent on capturing the effect the dream had on me. I wanted the reader to feel terrified and confused. After two initial attempts, I had the confused part down. But with that version, there was a serious disconnect with the character and what was happening to her. She felt like a cipher. I didn’t feel connected to her and I didn’t know what she was doing or why. I also couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all just a bit too much to expect my readers to suspend their disbelief this far. The story was breaking down and I didn’t know why. The harder I tried to put it together, the worse it was coming. I came to the conclusion that I needed to change the setting. I changed the setting and powered through the story. I came to the end and I still wasn’t totally satisfied. What was wrong?
Now that I look back, it is obvious. I could have kept the original setting. I could have kept the original characters and the original story problem. What was wrong was much less tangible than the setting. The story lacked a skeleton. It wasn’t plotless but it lacked cohesion. It felt strained, like it was trying to be more than it was. I had crammed too much in, had too much backstory, too much of everything but a central narrative pillar. There is probably no story so crazy that it can’t be turned into a working story. What I had done was mixed the lines up between what works in a dream and works on paper. A dream works according to a unique, internally derived logic. By sticking too closely to the dream, I was trying to have both a nightmarish, dream-like experience while adhering to a story in which the rules of the real world mostly apply. If I had gone with a totally surreal set-up, that would have worked without nearly as much as the hassle but instead I mixed both together and kept tearing itself apart as quickly as I tried to stitch it back together. The root of the problem I think came not from even a lack of focus but too much focus on creating a certain emotional effect without enough thought to the story that would carry it. Sure it might be creepy at parts and I might get the result I’m aiming at, but without a narrative and characters to carry it forward that might as well be a description of a napkin blowing down the sidewalk. Sure it can be poetic but it’s still not a story. Because I was so single-mindedly pursuing my goal, I forgot one of the most important things about writing which is to tell a story with memorable characters.
Routinely, I have dreams and nightmares that I think would make good short stories or could be worked into a novel. However, I now realize that the important thing is not to transcribe the dream image for image or feeling for feeling onto the page but to think about what the dream was about. Sure one can incorporate those images and feelings but to concentrate solely on those aspects will probably lead to frustration. The trick is to analyze the dream and figure out what it was really about. The most affecting part of these dream experiences are how they reveal deeply ingrained, almost hard-wired fears and vulnerabilities. By looking at one’s dreams and learning to read them and thus learn why it was so deeply affecting, one can create a story that will haunt readers by digging into those liminal areas of their consciousness that they keep hidden.
So go beyond the image, dig past the outward horror to find what it is about the experience that is truly traumatic. That is where your story lies. I’d suggest keeping a dream journal where you record your night’s dreams. It will help you identify and zero in on the aspects of the dream that will work and that will create a great story.
One of the great things about living in this technological age is that we have access to pretty much anything at any time. Go on Amazon or Google and type some random keywords and you’ll come across many different products or articles and webpages. It truly is quite incredible. In fact, there is a game in which you try to think of two words to search in Google that will only get one result. I’ve been successful once but then again, I don’t spend my days doing that. No sir, I’m a productive member of society. But never mind that. Literature is similar in that there are too many genres and subgenres to count and there are always more coming along. What I’m interested here is talking about an incredible new genre I’ve discovered recently and that I’m quite excited about. For those of you with children or still developing clones, you may want to have them leave the room because we’re talking about. BIZARRO FICTION!
So what is bizarro fiction? There are a few sites you can look at that will answer that. To get some answers right from the source, I’d suggest reading a great interview with Rose O’keefe who is head of Eraserhead Publishing, one of the main publishers of this evolving genre. Another description of it and its many conventions can be found at the always insightful tvtropes. But here is what I have picked up about the genre so far and why I think it’s an exciting genre to keep an eye on.
A story that deals with giant monster penises, impregnating Satan’s daughter, or a living suit of cockroaches can’t possibly be considered good fiction, right? It’s just puerile, crass humor, right? Well, how about if instead I described three books as a look at how one’s insecurities can lead to terrible consequences, how love and and feelings of responsibility can bridge the gap between families, cultures, or creatures of different planes of existence, and finally how important companionship is and how it can be found in the oddest of places? They sound a bit better though both descriptions pertain to the same books. Yeah. The books are The Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere, I Knocked-Up Satan’s Daughter, and Angel Dust Apocalypse. It is partially this disconnect between theme and execution that attracts me so much to this genre.
Many in the genre have described bizarro fiction as first and foremost being a genre dedicated to entertaining the reader. With stories like those, I can see that writing philosophy in action. It is also described as being the written equivalent of the cult movie section of the video store. Again, no argument there. Another prominent aspect of this genre is how its style or MO are very punk-like. One can’t read one of these books and not think of the avant-garde nature of punk and its energetic refutation of everything established. This alacrity is wonderfully refreshing as is its willingness to dive into the ultra-violence of a Saturday morning cartoon or the crazy sex antics of a- come to think of it I can’t even begin to equate the sex antics of anything of this world. Nevertheless, everything is on display for entertainment and if you get offended, it’s probably more of a personal malfunction than mean-spiritedness on the part of the writer. After all, if the story didn’t push some, or all of the limits, then it wouldn’t be a bizarro story! Enter at your own risk and buyer beware.
I’ll be sure to keep posting about this genre and maybe get some reviews up in the future of books in this genre.