Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Madness of Art or How to Get Gratuitous Violence in your Art and get Praised for it

Joyce carol Oates provided the article/essay to “On Writing Horror” entitled “The Madness of Art” and engages in the discussion of genre and literary differences in stories.

Oates writes: “Perhaps, to transcend categories others have invented for us, we have to be both dead – long dead – and “classics.”” She continues: “In literature, the canonization of “classics” has resulted in the relative demotion of other writers and other kinds of writing; the elevation of “mainstream” and predominantly “realistic” writing has created a false topology in which numerous genres are perceived as inferior to, or at least significantly different from, the mainstream. If Edgar Allan Poe were alive and writing today, he would very likely not be accorded the acclaim given the putative “serious literary writer,” but would be taxonomized as a “horror writer.” Yet talent, not excluding genius, may flourish in any genre, provided it is not stigmatized by that deadly label “genre.””

I could not agree more with what Oates is saying here. Too long have writers been held prisoner by some unseen and constantly changing literary police who determine (pass judgment) what is acceptable for the masses to read and be proud of doing so and what is pulp. And pulp is a polite way to say trash or filth.

The hypocrisy is evident in films. Attach an “accepted” name like Scorsese or Spielberg to a movie and make it about gangsters or soldiers or businessmen and any amount of violence and gore is accepted. It’s artistic, it helps tell the story. Consider some of the scenes in “Goodfellas” or “Scarface” or “Saving Private Ryan.”

But put that violence in a “horror” movie like “The Thing” or “Day of the Dead” and critics, pundits and “experts” will laud the fare as “exploitative” or “grotesque.” Removing a face with a chainsaw is okay in a normal gangster movie, but doing the exact same thing and setting your movie in a backwoods Texas rural house and suddenly the rules change. Suddenly it becomes over the top. Why?

Fear. Fear that these folks who are the “in” or accepted crowd will be found out to not be geniuses, but simply story tellers of tales in the real world. The difference between what is real or accepted and what is surreal or supernatural seems to be one of the sticking points. Again from Oates: “Speaking as a writer predisposed to reading and frequently to writing what I call “Gothic” work, I should say that this so-called genre fascinates me because it is so powerful a vehicle of truth-telling, and because there is no wilder region for the exercise of the pure imagination.”

Again, Oates and I are in agreement. What is fiction? Good fiction I mean? It is truly counterintuitive: it is seeking truth by exercising the imagination and creating fantasy. Truth is not only found in the domain of the canon, the literary, or the celebrated. Truth can be found everywhere.

My definition of literary removes all the pretense and bombastic garbage usually associated with the word. Literary works are genre works that found a popular following and remained relevant for more than a generation. That's it, that's all. With every definition there are exceptions, but most of the “literary” fiction out there is just a fancy way to try and remove the stink of its genre roots.

Don’t believe me? “Romeo and Juliet” is a romance. So is “Dracula” and all that Jane Eyre stuff. Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol,” maybe the most often used story framework in history, is a ghost story that horror can claim as its own. Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is a tale of horror. “Gulliver’s Travels” is a fantasy story. I could go on, but you see my point.

Only today do we have novels being published that garner no public following yet get credited as being “literary.” The modern canon makers are digging in to make a last stand to protect some higher calling, some literary bend to stories “they” like and accept.

But the modern reader is not cooperating. Good writing, good storytelling is universal. The subject matter is secondary. If a story captures the imagination, whether it’s about class warfare in Victorian England or trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, then it should be considered literary.

Once more from Oates: “Gothic fiction is the freedom of the imagination, the triumph of the unconscious. Its radical premise is that, out of utterly plausible and psychologically realistic situations, profound and intransigent truths will emerge. And it is entertaining; it is unashamed to be entertaining.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Must have been a great Flash on Pickman's Camera

Taking photos of monstrosities from the bowels of the earth would take a fair amount of skill to achieve without getting eaten yourself. Or did Pickman pay his models a sitting fee?

H. P. Lovecraft is one of the masters of, as he defined it, “stories of the weird.” These are stories that study the outer limits of what man understands of his existence. Lovecraft gave his readers aliens, monsters from other dimensions and in “Pickman’s Model” monsters from the bowels of the earth.

“Pickman’s Model” illustrates Lovecraft’s most outstanding attribute as a writer: tone and setting. Lovecraft was a master at setting a tone and providing a backdrop that was both ordinary and eerie to the reader. In "Pickman's Model" the narrator shares Pickman's description of the underground in the vicinity of his studio: "Look here, do you know the whole North End once had a set of tunnels that kept certain people in touch with each other's houses, and the burying ground, and the sea? Let them prosecute and persecute above ground - things went on every day that they couldn't reach, and voices laughed at night that they couldn't place."

Not once does Lovecraft come out and say "things aren't right" or "this is scary." But describing his setting by using "tunnels," "burying ground," and "voices laughed at night that they couldn't place" puts the reader on edge.

Nothing is ever exactly right in a Lovecraft tale, and the reader knows this from the surroundings described. Lovecraft could write a nursery rhyme and not change a single plot point and the story would still feel creepy and moody because of the way he would describe his setting.

“Pickman’s Model” also predates the modern era for the subject matter. People have always believed in good and evil, and depicted evil in many ways. Lovecraft was one of the early fiction writers to put these evils into a story via supernatural elements and have characters interact with them. Lovecraft was way ahead of his time in this regard. While everyone else seemed to be writing stories of class warfare and impossible love he was pushing the envelope of what was acceptable and delving strictly in dark things that should not be.

However, “Pickman’s Model” also suffers from the shortcomings of Lovecraft’s writing. The story is told in past tense, in first person, by a narrator that is recounting the terrible tale. This is fairly common for Lovecraft, and for a lot of work of his era. This narrator telling the story to a companion and the reader simultaneously deflates a great deal of the conflict. We know the narrator has made it though the peril. He or She is recounting past events. Much of the story’s immediacy and tension is lost due to this point of view choice.

Also, Lovecraft tended to recount dialogue from that same singular point of view. Modern readers are used to reading dialogue as it is spoken by the characters. Lovecraft’s dialogue generally is spoken by the narrator and He or She recounts all the character’s words in a stilted and abridged way. This doesn’t allow for tension to build, nor does it give the reader the present-tense experience that things are unfolding “live” or in “real time” for them. Again, this removes a lot of the tension the story might have had.

As a casual reader “Pickman’s Model” is effective. A reader may notice all the clues are there to know the ending. The word “Model” in the title of the story ends up being a pretty big clue. Anyone from, or aware of Boston will recognize that Lovecraft uses landmarks, neighborhoods and streets to great effect. This goes back to his outstanding ability to evoke reader response to setting and tone.

A critical reading of “Pickman’s Model” probably leads a person to conclude this isn’t Lovecraft’s best story. His strong points are there, but the story itself is pretty straightforward. The “twist” at the end is less surprising than it should be.

Overall “Pickman’s Model” is a solid example of an H. P. Lovecraft story. He is one of the pillars of the horror genre for showing readers that tales of the weird were acceptable and that the supernatural and horror are excellent breeding grounds for stories.

The Art of Fear

Define love. Pretty hard, right? Something the poets and the romantics have been trying to do for generations now. Most of the time people get vague: “you’ll know it when you feel it” or “you’ll just know.” Gee, thanks for the help.

But fear? Fear can be defined in concrete red and black reality. People might not be willing to share with you what it is they fear, but they know. Oh, they know.

Most people have a crazy irrational fear like needles or rats or heights. Mine personally is giant spiders. I know, or more accurately I hope, they don’t exist. But the idea still freezes my thoughts and prickles my skin.

The older we get most of us also have a very mundane fear. Mine is being a bad parent. It is something that is very real, and something we have to be aware of and work on every single day.

The key point is, more than love, fear is real. It is one of the core primitive feelings that bind us all together, and it is present in everything from driving to work, to raising children to writing all kinds of stories, not just horror.

The art of fear is in every story. Some genres call it tension, or conflict, or some other more acceptable term. But deep down, it’s all fear, it’s all horror.

Pick up any novel, especially a good one. Any one will do. Does every story have a romantic story arc? Nope. Does every story have a mystery that has to be unraveled? Nope.

Does every story put their characters in some degree of peril? Oh yes. In these times of peril, whether it is as simple as the hero missing the last carriage to tell the girl he loves her or it’s jamming a broken piece of pallet in the mutated shark’s mouth to keep it from gnawing your face off the feeling evoked is fear.

Whether its fear of failure, or fear of horrible bloody painful death fear is a constant in good story telling. It is the beating heart of conflict. Stories that delve specifically into fear, horror stories, are often times derided as “genre fiction” or considered lesser. Why? Facing that fear, making it the central pillar of a story is more honest and worthy. Readers and writers of such stories know the stakes are higher, the peril is greater, and that heightens the experience.

When fear is utilized well it truly is art. Everyone can recognize that moment, that sick feeling of fear as it pours acid into our stomachs, dries our mouths, seizes our limbs and chills our bones. Oh, we know fear, and we embrace it.