Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Earlier today, I was watching a movie on the ScyFy Channel. I didn’t bother to watch more than a few minutes of it, and I didn’t make any attempt to identify its title. What was of interest to me was the setting of the particular scene I’d happened to tune in: a cemetery.
Readers and writers of horror fiction have--or should have--an affinity for graveyards. When it comes to these places, the older are the better, because modern cities of the dead look more like parks, complete with flowers, than they do burial places.
The cemetery in the ScyFy movie was an old one: the stones were weathered; the names and dates associated with the remains of the interred loved ones (long since forgotten, no doubt, in most cases) were obliterated by wind and rain, by sleet and snow, and by passage of slow time; the grounds were untended, home to ragged clusters of weeds and bordered by brush. Skeletal trees stirred among the dilapidated headstones, casting deep shadows across the rugged terrain. There were no mausoleums or other buildings of any kind. Most disturbing of all, there were neither fences nor walls.
The lack of such boundaries is the most disturbing feature of the burial place. The fact that there is no clear-cut perimeter means that there is no unambiguous distinction between the cemetery and the surrounding terrain, no specific division between the quick and the dead, no precise demarcation between the natural world and the supernatural realm.
When there are no clear-cut boundaries, borders blur. How far beyond the rough confines of the cemetery do its outer limits truly lie? If the burial ground is haunted, how far does its influence project? How distant can its tendrils of evil reach? How far does its decadence and malevolence go? If we were passersby or we were waiting at a bus stop for a bus to stop or we were passenger and driver in a car that stalled just outside the last line of wind-whittled, rain-ravaged headstones, would we be all right or would we be assaulted by zombies or ghosts or ghouls? Would things, once human, rise from their graves, clotted with gore or putrescent with decay, moldy and withered, to shamble forward, toward us, ravenous with hunger or hell bent upon some nameless and unspeakable mission of their own?
Without clear boundaries, there may be no limits at all.
Of course, these boundaries need not be of iron or stone. They need not be locked behind fences and walls. There need not be a gate across the entrance to the place wherein the dead play host to worms. In horror fiction, conventions are the sentinels who guard the boundary between this world and the next. If they fall, we are imperiled.
And, more and more, conventions do fall.
For example, for the longest time, a character who was well known, if not well loved, to readers was protected by such familiarity--which had taken the writer, after all, scores, if not hundreds, of pages to establish. Others might suffer and die--no, others would suffer and die, for the genre is horror, after all--and their deaths might be horrific and terrible, full of pain and torment, but this one or these few, whom we know well, in whom the writer had invested so much time and effort, whom we understand and might even like, respect, or love, are sacrosanct and, against them, not even the malevolence of the monster itself might prevail.
That was the convention, at any rate, before Stephen King overturned it in his fiction, killing off as many likeable and well-liked characters as he liked. The result was to increase readers’ anxiety and the suspense of his own work, for in toppling this convention, King also toppled readers’ certainty and easy confidence, opening new possibilities for fear and trepidation. One could no longer be sure which character would survive and which would die. Therefore, any character could suffer, and any character could die.
The boundaries expanded, blurred, bled. . . .