How Do You Define the Horror Genre?

Mary Shelly created the modern monster character, Frankenstein.

Mary Shelly created the modern monster character, Frankenstein.

 

I’ve been “bear baiting” a bit in my last posts on horror. Yes, I have tried to be evocative, but I want to alter the tone for this blog. There are people that actually enjoy horror and probably don’t know it. Recognizing and defining horror fiction has become difficult in the new millennium, and not because it’s really hard. The true reality of horror as a genre has been eclipsed by the successful marketing of  the modern horror slasher and spatter films. Talk about horror as a genre and no one brings up Universal Studios “B” monster movies anymore. What everyone thinks of are films that are wall-to-wall blood and gore. Movies and movie franchises like the Saw films, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead, and others have done a lot to obscure modern horror stories of the 18th and 19th, and 20th centuries. Maybe that’s because we have a hard time defining what “horror” as a literary or film genre is.

How should we define the horror genre? One of my favorite working definitions of horror comes from Dr. Donna Casella, instructor\scholar of film theory, film studies, and early American Literature at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Casella states that horror is an, “An atmospheric genre — populated by creatures of dread – that plays on human and cultural fears.” Give a story a creepy atmosphere (whatever that is) to give it legs, while making sure the themes play against cultural fears and throw in creatures of dread (monsters, but monsters that can be human, or natural creatures, as well as supernatural).frankenstein-cartoon-character_zJJoosvu

The first recognized modern horror genre is known as Victorian Gothic horror. Reading those books says a lot about what got under the skin of the people of that time, especially women. During the Victorian era, significant amount of horror was written by women for women. That’s pretty progressive, considering society of that time didn’t allow women to vote, hold property, or even have checking accounts. I fell in love with Gothic horror when taking a graduate course on women authors. As tough as the stories from that era could be to read, many that were preserved had rich payoffs and were completely worth the effort.

If you accept Dr. Casella’s definition as a primary definition, and I do until someone comes up with a better one, horror as a genre can be about every day things, as well as the paranormal. Remember Stephen King’s Cujo? An adorable St. Bernard becomes one of the scariest monsters in twentieth century literature.

Horror can also contain the fantastic or mundane, but to be sure, horror isn’t always about ghosts, vampires, zombies, blood and gore, or flesh-eating monsters. Creatures of dread can be rats (Willard 1971), sharks (Jaws 1975), bears (Night of the Grizzly 1966), rabbits (Night of the Lepus 1972), relatives (Uncle Silas by Le Fanu), and even ordinary people turned murderous for one night every year (The Purge 2013).

Best selling author from the late 18th century. Her mysteries of Udolpho was ground breaking.

Best selling author from the late 18th century. Her mysteries of Udolpho was ground breaking.

One of my favorite all-time horror movies is Jack the Bear with Danny Devito. Devito’s character is a host for late night horror movies on television. There was no blood or gore, but when a neo-fascist shows up to indoctrinate a vulnerable neighborhood kid in Hitler style Aryanism, the atmosphere amps up and propels the creature of dread theme forward.  And yes, I consider neo-facists creatures of dread. Remember, horror has to play against personal or cultural fears. That doesn’t mean horror is always intended to incite fear, sometimes it’s an incredible tool for evaluating fears.

Lest you think horror can’t be humorous, you should check out Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahme-Smith. I laughed a lot in spite of the “bone crunching” scenes. The novel can very tongue-in-cheek in parts, at least I thought so. See what I did there? I didn’t say whose tongue in whose cheek as this is a zombie novel, right? Let’s move on.

A very hilarious and clever book is a grammar textbook called The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Elizabeth Gordon. I have used this to successfully tutor college students in English grammar. Yes, infinitives, prepositional phrases, gerunds, passive voice, and everything else English can be truly terrifying, but Gordon successfully mimics the Gothic horror style and uses it to teach English. Pretty useful for a genre blacklisted in the minds of many .

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire:

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire:

 

Douglas Winter, horror author and critic once stated,“Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.” But if you think the only strong emotion allowed in horror is horror, terror, or dread, you’ve not read very much. Pathos is just as much a part of horror as the emotion of horror itself. Consider a truly iconic horror/monster movie of the twentieth century, King Kong (2005). Personally, I find a lot to dread in this scene as to what it says about humans.

One of the founders of the Horror Writers Association, Robert McCammon, once said, “Horror fiction upsets apple carts, burns old buildings, and stampedes the horses; it questions and yearns for answers, and it takes nothing for granted. It’s not safe….Horror fiction can be a guide through a nightmare world, entered freely and by the reader’s own will. And since horror can be many things and go in many, many, directions, that guided nightmare ride can shock, educate, illuminate, threaten, shriek, and whisper before it lets the readers loose.” (Twilight Zone Magazine, Oct 1986).

Once horror is allowed to grow beyond zombies, vampires, werewolves, and Amish vampires in space (author Kerry Nietz is my hero) in the minds of the audience. The genre of horror becomes a potent agent of confrontation and change. So let’s remember there’s more to horror as a genre than just wall-to-wall gore.

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The “Ahhh” at The End

You know it’s a good book when you reach the last page, close it, and smile.

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My fellow Scriblerian, T.J., insisted that I should read Holes by Louis Sachar. Since I write realistic fiction for middle grades, he said Sachar was great at realism mixed with humor. So I went to the library and read the blurb on the book jacket.

Why would I want to read a dreary story about cruel people who run a camp for juvenile delinquents? About the hot, Texas desert full of poisonous lizards? I hate depressing stories. And hot deserts. And poisonous lizards… and spiders… and snakes.

credit to alchemistclub.widespaces.com

credit to alchemistclub.widespaces.com

But I trust my writing buddy.

I checked out the book. And it was depressing.

But not so much that I wouldn’t stop reading it.

In fact, I couldn’t put it down! Sachar fed me regular doses of humor in every chapter. He allowed the main 13-year-old character to mature in all the right ways, transformed questionable characters into people you could love, and made sure the villains were so villainous you had to laugh.

Realistic fiction? I’m not sure. The series of coincidences between Stanley’s family history and his current circumstances were beyond my normal suspension of disbelief, so for me the book approaches the legendary qualities of Paul Bunyan. Still. Highly entertaining.

By the time I reached “The End,” every crazy coincidence had a logical explanation, every loose end left dangling had been tied in, and the main characters had hopeful futures.

And me, the Reader, had a smile on my face.

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Am I too much of an optimist? Do you prefer a story that leaves you with questions? Something unfinished? Or like me, do you want a sense of completion, an “ahhh…” as you close the book?

Pay No Attention to the Man, Woman, or Whatever Behind the Curtain- Part 2

My last post was a precursor to introducing one of the most important elements in storytelling, “narrative”. There were some good responses by the contributors, but no one mentioned the five hundred pound gorilla in the room: the excellent narration of events in this video. Let’s refresh our memories:

The fact that responders didn’t think to mention narration means the editors did a bang-up job on assembling this story for us. Good storytelling gives us the feel that a story is telling itself.

One of the things that I like about this video is that whether or not the story is true, and I’m sure it’s close enough to what really happened, the details are so specifically human and universal, they fascinate us. But if the details of what happened aren’t given to us in  specific ways, the human aspects become lost or uninteresting. How storytellers assemble the details of a story is called narration. What are some of the ways we judge a narration to be good or bad?

if the details of what happened aren’t given to us in  specific ways....we become lost or uninterested.

if the details of what happened aren’t given to us in specific ways….we become lost or uninterested.

There is of course in all stories the beginning, middle, and end/conclusion. That type linear reality in real life isn’t always so clear cut. But in a story, without a clear linear progression of time the narrative its hard for an audience to process. Really good storytellers lead an audience through the elements of time in any order. The stories we love the best present unique details in a specific context (time to name one) so we may provide the emotional ramifications as events unfold. What are some of those emotional ways we responded to the tenors?

We are introduced to our protagonists and we understand from the beginning what’s at stake. There’s no guessing as to what’s going on here – these guys are on TV to follow their dreams. We are then introduced to the main obstacle and the conflict: they’ve never performed in front of an audience together. We also don’t know if these guys can sing or not? How are we feeling about this?

We are also helped to process all the specific uncertainties by being allowed to see the interviewer’s response to these singer’s surprise confession. All these uncertainties are continued to be reinforced by specific things like the interview with the three tenors and one of them doesn’t know Puerto Rico is a US territory.

we may provide the emotional ramifications as events unfold

we may provide the emotional ramifications as events unfold

In how these events are presented, we the audience are never told what to feel, or how we should process these events. We are given the freedom to experience a lot of emotions, and the more emotions the better. Narratives become manipulative when a teller demands you to respond a very specific way and not give the audience room to be themselves.

Look at our example, some people may want the tenors to fail and will take joy in this. Others may have compassion that these guys will humiliate themselves on national television. Some may want these guys to succeed and continue to live vicariously through the experience. There is room for all kinds of emotional responses, but the only common thread\plot is: will they fail or succeed and in what way should we care or not care?

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What are some of those emotional ways we responded to the tenors?

One of my favorite elements in this narrative is when the women in the audience says, “they look like a joke.”  This highlights why human beings love stories so much. Stories help us see into the lives and experiences of others. In real life, there is no way we could know the response of the woman in the audience. We don’t even know such auditions exist, this story lets us become the fly on the wall as three men follow their dreams.

Let’s look at a basic example of how narrative creates order. Start the link below, but before you play the video, mute the volume.

 

Now play the video again with the volume up, notice the difference? Without narration or narrative, everything appears random, incoherent, and uninteresting.

The stories that fascinate us always provide what we need to understand it- or provide for an audience the center of consciousness or perception. That’s just a fancy way of saying, “seeing an interesting story through the eyes of an interesting character, and never getting lost as events unfold.”

In The Art of the Novel Henry James states, “…there are…five million ways to tell a story, each of them justified if it provides a ‘center’ for the work….” James believed that a good story was always interesting and accomplished what it’s author intended it to. If it didn’t do that? The book was awful. For the record, James loved Treasure Island for the exact stated reason.

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Henry James liked Treasure Island.

So let’s go back to our tenors and their tryouts. What do you suppose this clip was intended to do (theme)? Did it accomplish what it was shooting for? Is the narrative successful? What emotions did you experience as you watched?

My next post will be about the “nuts and bolts” of building narrative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pay No Attention to the Man, Woman, or Whaterver Behind the Curtain.

What makes for a well-told story? I’m not asking what makes a story good or bad. It is true a well-told story can mean the difference between a story being liked or disliked, but that isn’t always the case.

The most interesting thing about bad storytelling is that it has never stopped an audience from enjoying a story they liked. The stories that interest us as human beings all share some basic elements whether the media\genre is a newspaper article, novel, short story, TV drama, radio drama, true story, current event, biography, memoir, or historical event . Let me give you an example.

I don’t like opera or light opera, but I love a good story. Here is a story I liked:

As a narratives go, there are definite things going on in this clip. There is so much more going on story-wise underneath and behind that is designed to be transparent to the audience. It is this transparency that often means the difference between getting people to view your work or ignore it. When a storyteller learns to master (just knowing them isn’t enough) these transparent elements, it won’t matter what genre or media you use, people will watch, listen, or read your narratives.

If you were in a face to face class with me, after having watched the video, I would ask, “How many of you found the clip interesting and would at least tune in for the next episode?” Of course there’s always some punk in a one hundred level course that thinks showing any interest in a class topic is uncool, but the bulk of students I have shown this clip do found it interesting.

Now comes the fun part,  Did you like this? What makes this something you would follow into the next week to find out what happens or not follow? Please post your answers as replies.

Of course I’m going to share these transparent things, but I want to give you dear audience the opportunity to weigh in. Why? Because learning is always best done together, and I may be the one sharing this, but I never pass up an opportunity to learn something new from others.

I Have a Secret: My Marbles are Old.

bag-of-marbles-1013tm-pic-802

One of my best kept secrets? I collect antique toys. My collection isn’t extensive at this point, nor is it all that valuable. Then again, I don’t collect to get rich. The things I collect make me smile or laugh. One of my most favorite items in my collection are 19th century marbles. They belonged to my great-grandfather, a notorious snake-oil salesman and confidence artist. The picture above show modern marbles, but the photo below are of a few that come from my collection.

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The marbles in this second picture are ceramic marbles, common to children living on the US prairie. They may also be called muddles and were made of ceramic material. They would have been fired in a kiln or dried in the sun. Notice that none of the old marbles are perfect spheres?

Technically, my grandfather  was adopted by a notorious flim-flam man as free farm labor. Though I never knew my great-grandfather, I don’t think he was all bad. He at least gave my grandfather toys (I have more of these old marbles, but they’re not pictured). He also kept my grandfather from being shipped to Colorado to work the tin mines. A common practice by Midwestern orphanages for children when they became twelve years-old.

Some types of early marbles were made from glass, but those came from Europe. I don’t think many glass marbles made it west, but I’ve seen pictures of collections from the U.S. eastern seaboard. Prairie children probably knew about glass marbles, but wouldn’t have owned many. The marbles in the picture below are double-glazed, unlike the three single-glazed in the picture above. The double-glazed are heavier and harder, probably used more as a shooter (a taw) than anything else.

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Here a few more marble terms from Connerpraire.org:

Bosted – thrown

Getting fat – losing all of your marbles so that you are out of the game.

Offing – the line from which marbles are shot.

Pound – circle or ring where marbles are placed.

Span – the length between a person’s thumb and smallest finber when the hand is spread apart.

Snop – hit an oppnents’ marble with one of your own.

Taw – shooter marble.

It seems that most children’s games today involve touching nothing more than a computer keyboard, smart phone, or game console. Once upon time, children used board games, sticks, and many other simple things.

Anyone of you have a favorite “non-electronic” game or toy?

Orwell’s Wall: Moving Beyond The Simple Love or Hate of a Novel by T.J. Akers.

Student Reading Book Shows Research

The first post in my series  started with taking opportunities to express your opinion on the Internet. Specifically, your opinion about novels you think are good or bad. If you’re going to express your views, why not make it an opinion worth reading.

George Orwell said, “…The first thing we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp.” So I mention Orwell’s wall as a way of structuring how we think about works of fiction. This approach can go by other names such as Reader Response or Ethical Criticism, but Orwell’s wall is the best metaphor I’ve found to explain critiquing books. Allow me to explain further.

Wall Demolition Shows Impact And Destruction

You read novel “X” and hate it. You log onto Good Reads, Amazon, or whatever platform to express your opinion to “save” some unsuspecting victim from spending good money on a bad story. Enraged that you wasted your time on a dumb novel, you click one star and set yourself to type a blistering response. All of sudden, the only thing you can think to write is “I hated this.” You may say you hated the plot, you might say you hated the characters, but many reading your response would be unimpressed by a simplistic opinion without offering a reason. If you want to be taken seriously, it helps to form well thought out critical opinions as opposed to full on “rants” or an all out “gush”. Hence, we can use a familiar form of criticism and Orwell’s wall to construct something more interesting than a rant or a gush.

Purdue University’s online writers resource, The Purdue Owl, defines Reader Response as the view that, “… considers readers’ reactions to literature as vital to interpreting the meaning of the text…(Reader Response) can take a number of different approaches…[but maintains]…that a text cannot be separated from what it does [for the reader]…”(Owl). Reader Response, sometimes called Ethical criticism, is used in public schools to teach literature. Students read an assigned book, discussion follows where students vocalize their responses to help them process their opinions to  “think out loud” and then organize their thoughts to express their take on the book. If you said that sounds a lot like “I love it or hate it” you would be close, but not quite there because teachers also want to know why a student thinks the way they do about a book.

Those that ascribe to Reader Response bring to their reading experience the complete subtexts of their life experiences or lack thereof, reading ability, world view, and morality to analyze the merit of a story. This subtext forms a lens in which to judge a work.Keep in mind that those opinions can be shaped by reading and a reader’s comprehension.

Upset Unhappy 3d Character Shows Disagreement Between Couple

Of course, everyone’s life experience can be unique and varied, so much so that a story may garner a variety of opinions. Is an opinion biased? Yes, of course it is, but Reader Response is most useful when you collect a lot of opinions from a good cross section of people of different backgrounds. When you see a lot of readers giving a book four out of five stars, you can count on one of two things: 1) Either a lot of people with the same life biases liked the book, 2) The book managed to catch the favor of a large cross section of different people and would be worth paying attention to. Either way, such ratings become more valuable by the increased number of opinions referenced. The fewer the opinions, the least trustworthy, unless you know the reading habits of the few people expressing that favorable or unfavorable view. This is how professional critics work.

Using Orwell’s mirror you can structure an opinion to make it more useful. You start out with the basic novel construction (is the wall a good wall?). “Does the novel have a beginning, middle, and end. Do the elements of “story” (plot, conflict, setting, theme, character, tone, mood, symbolism, point of view, style) come together in pleasing or meaningful ways? Do you comprehend what you read, or were you tripping over poor writing. Sometimes a poor reading experience is blamed on the author, when it could be the reader’s poor comprehension.

The second half of Orwell’s wall is the trickiest part and embraces the basic idea of Ethical criticism, “…even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp.” Did the novel take you any place worth while? Did you go their willingly, or were you kicking and screaming in misery much the way a bystander is sometimes captivated by a train wreck? Is that place somewhere other readers would like to go, or should they even want to go?”

This is where world view plays into Reader Response, Ethical Criticism, and Orwell’s wall. Many readers want the literature they read to be a mirror of who they perceive themselves to be, or want they aspire to. They want their personal beliefs reflected in their stories. Some readers like to have their self-views challenged, but many don’t, at least not on a regular basis.

Aggressive corporate worker with axe and case

Allow me a personal example. I hate Romance as a literary genre. My writing associates know this and accept this, but don’t share that opinion. I will almost never pick up a romance novel to read no matter how enticing the book cover is. To me, it is usually “stupid trash.” Those of you who do like romance might be saying, “Well who does that guy think he is?” Are you mad yet?

Is my view fair to all romance novels? No. There is nothing fair about my view because I am judging a whole set of unread books by some invisible perception or misperception buried in my psyche. This is the problem with Reader Response and Ethical Criticism. The perception of a book’s quality is dependent on what a reader brings to a story.

There have been some stories I’ve read and liked at certain times in my life, only to reread them later, and ask myself, “What was I thinking when I read this? This is awful.” In other words, the novel didn’t change, I did.

The true value of Reader Response comes from being around like minded readers and finding things that perpetuate personal preferences. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but if you want to grow as a person and a reader, it helps to read things other than just your preferences.

Believe it or not, I read a romance novel every once in a while. In addition, I have specifically read four romance manuscripts over the last several years and I found should these projects ever get published, I would buy them. The authors absolutely defeated my personal biases and silenced my inner credit. I think that’s pretty amazing, and very rare.

So to move to more meaningful opinions start by using Orwell’s wall. When you approach a novel, does it have a beginning, middle, and end. Do the elements of “story” (plot, conflict, setting, theme, character, tone, mood, symbolism, point of view, style) come together in pleasing or meaningful ways? When you, the reader, finish the story; do you understand where the author has taken you and why?

Child Improving His Education By Reading A Book

Next, is what the novel embraces good, bad, or indifferent? Did the novel take you any place at all? Did you go their willingly, or were you kicking and screaming in misery much the way a bystander is sometimes captivated by morbid curiosity when watching a train wreck? Did the novel take to a place you wanted to go as a reader? Did it take you someplace you’ve never been before? Is that place somewhere you and other readers should like to go, or even want to go?” Then write your opinion down and share it.