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Monday, August 2, 2010

Horror Comics

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Not only Stephen King, but also Joss Whedon and many other writers of horror fiction cite horror comic books as inspirational to their own work, especially during such writers’ earlier years.

As a youngster, I must confess that I, too, enjoyed these tawdry, garish periodicals. Sold alongside comics devoted to “funny animals,” superheroes, crime detection, Western heroes, romance, and even classic literature, horror comics were the bad boys of juvenilia, the ones that even kids knew weren’t all that respectable and tended to keep separate from their collections of DC and Marvel.

Horror comics were popular, though, no doubt about it, and with millions of others besides King and Whedon. What made them so were blood and gore and monsters, depicted in all their ghastly glory, of course, and the bizarre and macabre stories they told, but, more than anything else, it was the reader’s own imagination that chilled and thrilled him or her (mostly him; girls seemed to prefer romance and comedy titles).

The titles suggested the appeal of these comics: Adventures into Weird Worlds, Astonishing Tales of the Night, Baffling Mysteries, Terror Tales, Weird Monsters Unleashed, Monster Hunters, Tales of Terror, Chamber of Chills, The Haunt of Fear, Stories to Hold You Spellbound, Startling Terror, Weird Chills, Worlds of Fear: these narratives, told as much, maybe more, in pictures than in words, promised to transport the reader into new “worlds” that were “weird,” “astonishing,” “baffling,” and full of horror, suspense, and fear. Gone would be the mundane world of school, chores, church, sibling nuisances and rivals, bullies, and parents telling one what to do, to be replaced with wonder, mystery, adventure, chills, and thrills.

Like many others, horror writers have developed rationales for why people enjoy being scared out of their wits, probably in response to challenges from literary critics and others, demanding a justification for such fare beyond the “art for art’s sake” line. King offers an Aristotelian argument, contending that horror fiction exorcises the demons within the reader by letting him or her (mostly him) play the role of the monster or, at least, seeing the effects of the monstrosity that he himself often feels within, when it is permitted to go unrestrained. They are pleasant, perhaps, all that blood and all those guts, but they are cathartic as well. There is some truth, perhaps, in this Aristotelian explanation.

Whedon also offers a justification for his work, which, more often than not, is steeped in horror. His rationale for horror is along the lines of the argument that Bruno Bettelheim advances in The Uses of Enchantment:

I think there’s a lot of people. . . who say we must not have horror in any form, we must not say scary things to children because it will make them evil and disturbed. . . . . That offends me deeply because the world is a scary and terrifying place, and everyone is going to get old and die, if they’re that lucky. To set children up to think that everything is sunshine and roses is doing them a great disservice. Children need horror because there are things they don’t understand. It helps them to codify it if it is mythologized, if it’s put into the context of a story, whether the story has a happy ending or not. If it scares them and shows them a bit of the dark side of the world that is there and always will be, it’s helping them out when they have to face it as adults (The Monster Book, viii).
There is some truth, too, perhaps, in this explanation.

In previous posts, I have offered my own ideas concerning the reasons for the appeal of horror fiction, so I won’t repeat them here. For those who may be interested, these essays are available in Chillers and Thrillers' massive, ever-growing archives.

Back to the topic at hand, though: horror comics.

As anyone who has ever seen a tyke cowering behind the leg of his or her mother knows, for children, strangers are threatening. This is interesting, I think, because the same toddler who shrinks from a stranger will pick up a snake without the qualms that many an adult shows in handling serpents. As boys, my brothers and I frequently carried box turtles, garter snakes, and frogs with us in our pockets and sought to snare salamanders near a neighbor’s creek, although strangers were regarded as likely demons in human guise. Although, in more recent times, xenophobia has become increasingly politically incorrect, the fear of strangers seems innate, or inborn. Can nature or God be wrong?

Certainly not from the viewpoint of the cowering toddler--or of horror comics. The monster, especially when it is reptilian, insect (the word is both a noun and an adjective, for those who haven’t studied entomology or, for that matter, etymology), or alien (as in extraterrestrial), frequently represents the other who is not only “other” but who is also foreign and, therefore, unknown. Those about whom we have little, if any, knowledge are regarded as threats (it’s better to be safe than sorry) until we learn their intentions and their hearts. This may be a politically incorrect stance, but it’s helped us to survive for millennia and isn’t likely to go away any time soon. Besides, whether the monster in horror comics is equipped with tentacles, a seaweed mustache and beard, bony plates, horns, claws, insect parts, wings, or all of the above or is more human, but repulsive (an animated skeleton, for example, or a rotting, but somehow still living, corpse), it’s apt to be just as terrifying, unpredictable, and dangerous as the children within us have imagined strangers may be.

Like most subjects, horror fiction is divisible into stories about persons places, and things.

If the monster is the person, the setting is the place, and unfamiliar places are regarded with the same wary mistrust as strangers. Who knows what may lie waiting to ambush us in the dark recesses of an underground cave; among the thick, tall trees of an ancient forest; at the bottom of the murky sea; on far-flung, alien planets; or in any of the other fantastic and mysterious worlds promised in the titles of many horror comics and suggested in the artwork that adorns these periodicals’ covers and the pages within?

Things (or artifacts) also appear in horror comics. As anyone who’s watched the hit Syfy TV series Warehouse 13 knows, such artifacts are everywhere, and many are dangerous in the extreme--and Secret Service agents Myka Bering and Peter Lattimer haven’t located and stored them all for safekeeping yet. There are more, maybe many more, out there, waiting, as it were, to injure and maybe even kill the unsuspecting and the uniformed.

The themes of horror comics are often as simple and straightforward as the tales themselves that these publications tell: bad things happen to those who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, a little beauty of the feminine kind can be a dangerous thing (it tends to attract actual monsters as well as human wolves), a little beauty of the feminine kind can be a dangerous thing (it can get a guy killed), beauty (feminine or otherwise) can be seductive in a bad way, curiosity can kill more than just the cat, there’s no age restriction on potential victims as far as homicidal maniacs are concerned, a trusted and seemingly harmless friend (such as a toy) can turn on one, isolating oneself from the rest of the group is dangerous unless one is a lone wolf, religious faith (often in the shape of a cross) can deliver a believer from evil (and otherwise certain death), there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy” (dear Horatio), and creatures of the night are often in need of dental care and a good manicure. Horror comics tell cautionary tales, and there are quite a few to be told. Both King and Whedon admit that just about everything scared or scares them; the same is true of children (and many adults), as horror comic writers and illustrators were fully aware.

A few covers surprise the reader with visual allusions to the occult or classic literature (or, at least, classics of horror). Doorway to Nightmare 2, for example, includes the tarot deck’s Devil card, which features an image of a demon that looks suspiciously like Baphomet, and Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula., and even Cthulhu are frequent guest stars in horror comics.

As mentioned, boys more than girls, read horror comics, and the creators of these publications were aware of the demographics of their readers, which explains not only the sexism of the femme fatale and the seductive siren characters that frequent the pages of horror comics’ storylines but also the scantily clad beauties who grace their covers (usually in the company of a menacing monster). Even when climate or weather or atmospheric conditions do not warrant her doing so, the damsel in distress is likely to be clad in nothing more than a short, clinging dress with a low, low, low-cut neckline; a bikini; or, in some cases, only her birthday suit. Monsters had good taste in (and a hearty appetite for) women, and the imperiled ladies, no doubt, aroused the chivalry (among other things) in the boys who read such fare.

Moreover, the covers seem to issue a challenge to their adolescent male readers: Here is a lady in distress; are you man enough to rescue her? By introducing just a hint of sexuality, horror comics also seemed to prepare boys for a role that they would play as men that has nothing to do with slaying monsters, except that, for boys, women are monsters, an alien species with cooties that may be glamorous and alluring but one that is also something strange and unknown and, therefore, to be feared, until, that is, the humanity beneath the imagined scales and behind the make-believe glowing eyes and razor fangs can be rescued, accepted, known, and, finally, cherished, not only as human but as, indeed, one’s better half.


lazlo azavaar said...

My favorite rationale for horror comes from horror director Dario Argento, who, when asked why people went to movies to get scared, said something to the effect that "People go to the movies to feel emotion, whether it's laughter or sadness. Fear is a human emotion, and it must be expressed."

Gary L. Pullman said...

Argento's rationale seems to be similar to the "art for art's sake" justification for art, except that it's "emotion for emotion's sake." Many literary critics would agree that such a justification (which is, in a sense, a non-justification, which suggests that no justification is needed, whether for art or emotion) is an acceptable one, as I do myself, although I also believe that both art and emotion are justifiable on other, more rational, grounds as well. (In a way, the "art for art's sake" view has a parallel in theology’s fideistic justification for faith: like the "art for art's sake" justification for art, the fideistic one for faith may be acceptable, or even true, but rational arguments are, by some, preferred.)

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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