The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Posts Tagged ‘nightmares’

A Little Halloween Reading…

Posted by BigWords on October 28, 2010

The best part of Halloween, for me, is rediscovering the tales I remember reading from dusty old collections and cheap paperbacks (mostly the Pan Horror collections, but the more recent Peter Haining books could count here as well), and it is one of the benefits of the digital age that most have been preserved online. There are still the odd gap here and there, and a few of the more obscure and hysterical tomes are still missing, but having the mainstays of the horror genre accounted for is enough for now. It’s not unsurprising that the effect of those Pan books especially, replete with skulls glaring out from the covers, have had a lasting impression. When I sat down to do my Halloween post (which will be the report of a week spent immersed in modern horror) I needed to pay some respect to the more traditional and – in my opinion – more lasting horror. The horror neither immediately visceral nor blatant.

I chose fourteen tales, which – by some coincidence not intended – is a fine enough number for a paperback like those I read as a child. These may represent very different styles of horror, but they are connected through a tradition of campfire and torchlit oral tradition… These are the storytellers whose work crawls into your brain, and whose ideas go beyond the mundane and everyday terrors to elicit something grander. You may argue on the inclusion of one or two of my choices (Campbell seems to be a contentious inclusion, though I have my reasons), but you cannot deny the overall strength of the horror story in short form. This is, beyond the excitement of the new, where the restless and uneasy dreams are forged.

Reading through the lists of works now committed to the grand digital libraries is like being a kid again, wide eyed and overjoyed at the way mere words on paper (or, in this case, on the screen) can hold such power. There’s really nothing like a scary story, told in the dark of night, to keep you wondering about the shadows which fall as flickering light fades away and we are left with the ghost of the day.

An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street by Sheridan Le Fanu
The Altar of the Dead by Henry James
The Call Of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft
The Gulf Between by Tom Godwin
The Judge’s House by Bram Stoker
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce
‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad’ by Montague Rhodes James
The Picture Of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde
The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford
There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury
Transformation by Mary Shelley
Who Goes There? by John W Campbell
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Further reading:

Baen Free Library
Buzzle.com
Horrormasters
The Literary Gothic

“Sleep, those little slices of death, how I loathe them.” Edgar Allen Poe

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Who Is The Villain Of The Story Anyway?

Posted by BigWords on July 14, 2009

The AW Blog Chain is about writing this month, so I’m playing along. The topic I have been handed by DniC (I swear I didn’t set this up) is

To BigWords (he’s got the whole special effects thing with his words too…big budget people…), here’s my question:

“What makes your favorite villain memorable?”

It’s an old trick, focusing on the darker side of the moral landscape, but writing about the villain is deeper than merely window-dressing. When I consider the great villains I come back to three characters above all else; three villains who have shaped my understanding of what can be achieved when a writer sets out to demonstrate the lengths an individual will go to when they are desperate. Remember when I said I didn’t play well with others? That’s why I get to cheat, and that is why I’m picking three characters.

Frankenstein.

If you haven’t read Frankenstein, you would be forgiven for thinking that I refer to The Monster. No. Quite the opposite in fact. I’m referring to Victor Frankenstein, whose creation of the creature is the cause of all his problems. My reading of the narrative may jar with your own experiences of the story, but I stand by the fact that Victor is the villain of the book. Not only is he the villain, but he is also arguably the first character I read who was to be completely overwhelmed by his own actions rather than by outside forces. He is the cause of his own destruction, and ignorant to the end.

I always get a kick re-reading the book, knowing that everyone else focuses so much attention on the Monster, and the subtle anarchy present in Victor’s character goes unnoticed. He has a full back-story given over to the ways in which he is set apart from the rest of society around him: He reads banned texts, performs diabolical experiments, engages in the life of a common grave-robber… And yet he is seen to be the victim. That is a bloody good trick. The way in which he has been presented in other media continues the ‘Oh, woe is me’ portrait of a man out of his depth. Not so.

There have been other, and arguably better, villains who have managed to gain the sympathy of readers, but I set Frankenstein apart for two reasons. One: He’s so blinkered to the outcome of any action that his work is paramount. That particular mindset, expanded to the degree of “the insane scientist” has been explored endlessly, and we have Mary Shelley to thank for the trope. It is a character touchstone that lives on in science fiction to this day. Secondly, there is the book’s ending. Nobody from the main story gets away untouched by the hand of death. Try selling that to sequel-conscious publisher today…

There is nothing better than a villain who believes himself to be hard done by. Frankenstein is the beginning of the deluded antagonist trope, and his place in the Halls of Evil is guaranteed by one act. One single moment of horror and vile madness. When he agrees to create a bride for the original, and tragically intelligent, Monster, he signs over his soul as surely as if he were Faustus. It is a pact that will bring the world around him crashing down. That is his defining moment, and the reason I am giving him the top spot here.

Frankenstein is my tortured villain.

Jack The Ripper.

I’m using the real-life murderer here because of the numerous fictionalized accounts. It really doesn’t matter if it was one or more individuals, what matters is the creation of three threads which run through the core of modern fiction. Most fiction (novels, film, television…) rely almost as heavily on random and unpredictable incidents as they do on carefully staged ones. It would have been unthinkable for Hitchcock to kill off Marion Crane midway through Psycho if Jack had not carried out his senseless attacks in the 1880s. It speaks to a modern audience of more relevant concerns as well. Terrorism has replaced a knife-wielding butcher, but unpredictability remains a constant.

He was also the first acknowledged serial killer, which has proven a deep source of raw material for authors and filmmakers alike. Sawney Bean may have the precedent, but Jack had the press. I have been fascinated by the case for as long as I can remember and, the constant stream of books and television theories aside, he has remained as elusive as his Spring-Heeled namesake. I have the nagging feeling that without such a vicious and unpredictable killer to draw inspiration from, films such as Se7en and Silence Of The Lambs (moreso than the Thomas Harris novel of the same name) would not have fared so well.

The third reason I give for his inclusion on this list is the abrupt nature by which the killings ended. It has been the source of many conspiracy theories over the years, and ties in to a deep-seated distrust of the information parceled out by those-whose-words-we-must-trust. Conspiracy theories wouldn’t reach their golden age until Kennedy’s assassination, but it was in the back-streets of the East End of London where they were truly born.

Jack is still with us. He is still around, albeit in different guises. He is the Silent Killer who stalks pretty girls in Scream, whose measured pace permeates the  Halloween films, and whose name, when spoken five times into a mirror, still carries a dread disturbance. I like my villains to stand apart from the crowd. Fu Manchu could easily be any number of oriental criminal masterminds, Klingons are interchangeable, the alien menaces of the fifties had a sameness to them… Jack was a nightmare brought to life, whose craft was murder. He was the original psychopath.

Jack is my nightmare villain.

Lex Luthor.

Appearing in comic books, radio serials, television, film and novels, the Machiavellian antics of Lex Luthor are textbook villainy, though the rationale behind his actions is impeccable. He wants to keep Earth safe, so the alien intruder who has arrived in Metropolis must be stopped at all costs. It is a bit deeper than that, with a simmering resentment of the newcomer’s abilities, a desire for Lois Lane and a lust for power matched only by his temper. He is a personality that cries out for counseling.

I came to the character late, around the time the DC Comics universe was being reshuffled and reorganized into a singular entity. The pre-Crisis version of the character, who was very different, never appealed to me. I couldn’t get into the mindset where I completely believed in Gene Hackman’s performance in the first film either, and had serious questions about the stability of a person willing to kill millions for what was essentially a land swindle. It wasn’t the character I had been reading in the funny pages.

The Lex Luthor from the comics, whose whiter-than-Mark Twain’s-white suits and oversized Cuban cigars instantly set him apart from the garishly-dressed “supervillains”, is a character who I could imagine existing. He breathes through the pens of the writers and artists who have chronicled his journey. But his defining moment? The reason he is so memorable? It’s a purely character-driven moment from a back-up story which guarantees his place on my top three.

The basic plot had him stopping off in a diner and offering a waitress a job. He tells her he will wait for (I think) fifteen minutes, then goes and sits in his car. Of course, being the villain of the story, he gets his driver to take off after ten minutes, and the poor waitress realizes she has missed her big chance at getting a better life. I like the malice in his actions combined with such sincerity in all other aspects of his being. That is the mark of a great villain – someone who can achieve a degree of fascination in the reader while he is being a complete bastard.

He may have been killed off, mangled into a mock-Aussie for a while, written as a megalomaniac dictator and treated as if he were any other villain, but for one shining moment, for one brief short story, he was the most magnificent and thoroughly corrupt villain in comics.

Lex is my sophisticated villain.

Those three characters, disturbing as my adoration may have been, are where I gain inspiration for my own villains. Without those essence-of-evil archetypes, whose influences are felt across the spectrum of media, I would be at a loss. The villains are as important – and in many cases more important– than the heroes. The square jaws and muscular physiques of the standard Hero fall short for me, seemingly poorly equipped to deal with true evil. Fiction dictates that we must have heroes – I say that we need villains. “Our enemies define us” is a common trope, and for very good reasons.

I’ve trudged through this at quite some length, more than the subject possibly deserved, but the question hit a nerve that jingled just right when it was nudged. I’ll let this subject sit for a while, maybe (perhaps) think further on about what villainy means…

…beffore setting out on my conquest to ensnare all of humanity under my tyrannical grip. Jeez, did I think that, or did I actually type it out?

Before I go any further with the villain-love, I ought to set a Q for Fokker.

Do you believe novels have the power to change the way we view the world, or is that the role of non-fiction?

Here are all the writers participating in this loop-the-loop of blogging. I strongly suggest that you take a look at their blogs…

DniC http://four-lettered-words.blogspot.com/

Fokker Aeroplanbau http://rightfarright.blogspot.com/

harri3tspy http://spynotes.wordpress.com

razibahmed http://www.blogging37.com/

Forbidden Snowflake http://www.alleslinks.com

bsolah http://www.benjaminsolah.com/blog/

jen.nifer http://www.liveimust.com/blog

Lady Cat http://www.randomwriterlythoughts.blogspot.com

Fame<.Infamy http://ambiguousvindication.wordpress.com/

rosemerry http://lyratorres.blogspot.com/

aimeelaine http://www.aimeelaine.com/

Proach http://desinfocenter.blogspot.com

Apelle http://blog.adinapelle.com/

lostwonderer5 http://www.lostwanderer5.blogspot.com/

upsidedowngirl http://upsidedowngrlwrites.wordpress.com/

JamieMT http://thevarietypages.blogspot.com

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Monsters

Posted by BigWords on July 12, 2009

The Creature looked down upon the village hungrily, eyes narrowed and shallow of breath, determining which foodstuff he could kill without struggle…

Monsters have played a large part of my life. When I was a li’l kid, I spent a lot of time watching the classic Universal monsters stalk and smash their way across the screen in television repeats of the legendary movies. As I grew older, and started to understand the other-ness of the stories, I became obsessed with Victor Frankenstein’s stitched-together creation and the shambling horrors of George A. Romero’s ghouls. They were primeval, instinctual nightmares dredged up from the subconscious and given life.

The foodstuffs were moving slowly, makings sounds at one another. They carried their gatherings like he did, but garbed themselves in strange materials to hide their true shape. The Creature knew they were breakable, and when broken they gave up their juices as any other foodstuff would.

Monsters speak to us in ways which romantic heroes or adventurous spacefarers cannot or will not. The essence of a true monster is simple and complex, and it is hard to explain just how important the EC Comics reprints forged an unbreakable connection in my mind between shadows and fears. My mother tells a story every so often about one night I stayed up to watch a Quatermass serial. I forget which one I saw, but the most likely culprit seems to be Quatermass And The Pit. I had gone to bed after watching the black and white images long enough for them to have made an impression, but woke in the middle of the night. A scream brought her running to my room.

The outline of my dressing gown hanging on the door had stirred images of a thing standing before the foot of my bed.

I bring this up in the hope of explaining how a physical reaction to the written (or filmed) word is still possible in an age when the better part of our world is mapped and charted. The nuances of the universe are being slowly unraveled, while scientists struggle to comprehend the ways in which new energy sources can be found… Is there room for the unknowable or the unseen? Have we destroyed the sense of fear which led our ancestors to write ‘here be dragons’ on maps?

I don’t think we’re even close to claiming superiority over the night. We’re still bound to the fears of the dark. Horror may have changed its’ clothes over the decades, but it’s still the same chap. The Bogeyman may not be an undead Count, or a tragic Cenobite, or a screaming Banshee, or the flesh-eating Wendigo, but he is still waiting to catch you unawares when the moon is high in the sky and there is no-one around to hear your screams. The Monster, as a character in and of itself, will remain in the world of writing as long as there are writers.

Carefully, steadily, the Creature made his way to the foot of the hill. His terrible aspect hidden in the outstretched fingers of the ancient trees.

There is no way I can let the tradition of classic monsters go. They are much a part of me as any other cultural influence.

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