Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Horror of horrors!

For my birthday, my Little Bro bought me a book that I had added to my Amazon Wish List ages ago, which I had almost completely forgotten about. It’s a horror novel called John Dies At The End (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it) and I promptly dove into it. This in turn prompted me, somewhat capriciously, to make a bold declaration on the GoodReads site as I added John Dies At The End to my Currently Reading bookshelf. I announced that, with Halloween approaching, October would be my own personal Spooktoberfest in terms of reading material, all horror (or dark fantasy) all month. Apparently I already miss the thematic structure of ninety-plus days of Beach Books on a Bus? At any rate, it should be good times.

I’ve been fairly-to-moderately interested in horror ever since I was about 10 years old, and of course in my world being fairly-to-moderately interested in something means that I foster an interest level which your average man on the street would peg as “cripplingly obsessive”, and I absolutely believe horror is a subculture-spawning genre which can totally be geeked out about … but I don’t consider myself a “horror geek” and I never have. At various times I’ve identified strongly as a band geek and a comic book geek and a D&D geek and a Star Wars geek and various other fandoms and preoccupations too numerous to name, but not horror, which when I step back and consider it seems conspicuously odd, but there it is.

I imagine my interest in horror started in much the same way as a lot of my cohorts’ might have, stumbling across it as something very easy and obvious to latch onto in that fifth-grade mindset where signposts of earliest adolescence like gender identity and superficial maturity point a lad toward proving he can withstand gross-out/freak-out assaults and not be unmanned by them. Having sleepover birthday parties and renting monster movies seemed like a perfectly appropriate rite of passage in the sanitized suburbs, and then of course premium cable meant that I could go from asking my parents to rent Dracula on their video store account to just staying up late without asking permission so I could watch Friday the 13th Part II on HBO. And while I devoured Nightmare on Elm Street and the Amityville Horror and the Exorcist, it was never exactly because I enjoyed those movies, or not that entirely – it was more to be able to talk about them at school with my friends, and sometimes watch them together and spend the rest of the night messing with the head of whoever seemed most affected.

Horror movies and I more or less peaked in middle school (when essentially everything, at least the way I remember it, revolved around my friends and I messing with each other’s heads every chance we got) but then in high school I discovered Stephen King and, since this was almost two decades after his prolific career had begun, I worked my voracious way through his back catalog with wild abandon, pretty much to the point where all I ever read was school assignments when I had to and King every other waking moment. I very nearly burnt myself out on King, as I caught up with his real-time output around when he published one of his most self-indulgent and least essential novels, Needful Things, which I started but couldn’t finish. I came back around on King later, though, and at this point I’ve read just about everything he’s ever written, except his nonfiction treatise Danse Macabre … and Needful Things, which drives the completist part of me insane. (So of course at some point this Spooktoberfest I will finally be crossing Needful Things off, and you can expect a post on that in coming weeks.)

I've never seen the movie of Needful Things, either.  And I freaking LOVE Max Von Sydow!
If the attraction of horror to a middle schooler is the opportunity to prove how tough you are, the attraction to a high schooler is probably to wallow in how deep you are, as measured by feelings of teen angst. Almost every first-world eventually hits a point where they wonder if life is actually meaningless, if everything is really horribly ugly just below the surface, if death might not actually be a relief, and lots of other distressingly cliché fodder for amateur poetry. Horror novels just literalize those feelings by putting protagonists through the grinder of meaningless suffering and unhappy endings and fates worse than death and so on, and you can likely tell I’m rolling my eyes as I type that but I do think it has a useful place as an outlet for those (hopefully transitory) feelings at that age. Not to mention I’m still a fan of the genre, so I can’t be too dismissive of it. It’s just that now when a character being chased by gibbering demons from the bowels of evil incarnate becomes a mouthpiece for some kind of cheaply nihilistic philosophy, I’m less inclined to say “Yeah, totally” in response and more likely to say “Ah, kids.”

(And not to harp on Everything Is Different Now once again but obviously if I truly embraced the idea that modern life was just the thin, fake veneer we put up between ourselves and bottomless madness and suffering, I probably wouldn’t have been inclined to bring two children of my own into this world.)

So I think that’s a big reason why I’ve never really thought of myself, especially my supposedly adult self, as a horror geek: because I can appreciate well-crafted horror despite the fact that my personal outlook is at odds with most of the viewpoints you’re likely to find in the genre. I think that for really hardcore horror geeks, it’s the existential underpinnings that resonate with them, and hey, fine, to each his own, but that’s not my thing. I also think that hardcore horror geeks tend to be so in tune with the overall aesthetic that it tends to be the only thing they’re into. There’s lots of both overlap and disconnect amongst sci-fi fans and comic book fans and you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be able to peg someone’s favorite band based solely on the fact that they play Magic the Gathering, for instance. But the guy who has a subscription to Fangoria and whose favorite band is a European death metal outfit – that’s one of those stereotypes-rooted-in-reality, I’ve found, more often than not. And again, I’m not really one to turn my nose up at all-consuming obsession for a corner of pop entertainment. I just prefer to spread my obsessions around a little more, and make horror a sometimes brain-food.

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