Tuesday, October 31, 2006

BOOKS: The Horror. The Horror. Or Something.

"Silent Whispers" by Ray Caesar
I know, I know. It's Halloween, and by rights I should be writing about horror novels I've read and enjoyed. Except that we've covered this territory before, and you all know that, while I've had my flirtation with the genre, I've since became a delicate flower for whom horror novels are too, well, horrible for my delicate sensibilities.

But I can point you toward this article, which Rusty sent me:
Fans, and even a few brave academics, have argued that [Stephen] King's novels and stories, taken together, provide a composite portrait of late-20th-century American masculinity in crisis. They also point to his undeniable storytelling skills, his vast if somewhat lurid imagination and his gift for capturing American speech as proof of, if not literary greatness, then something more than mere hack work.

This question hit the media in a big way when King won the 2003 National Book Award for distinguished contribution to American letters. King's supporters, many of them such "literary" authors as Michael Chabon, said that it was about time that a writer of King's calibre was recognized by the literary establishment; many traditionalists saw the bestowing of the award on a mere horror writer as another example of the dumbing down of American culture.
Well. Lah-dee-dah. Can horror fiction be literature? Is Stephen King an important writer? I think I cared more about these questions a decade or so ago. I like King, and I love some of his earlier novels, particularly The Stand and The Talisman, but I honestly don't get this need to deem books "literature" or not. I like what I like. I don't like what I don't like. I really don't give a sweet rat's ass what category it falls into. And dude, if Stephen King's novels get people reading, I'm all for that. If it gets people digging up their dead cats and causing them to come back to life as evil doppelgangers? I do take an exception to that, yes.

So then I got thinking about the history of horror writing. I did a bit of digging around (thanks largely to this very informative site) and I learned some interesting stuff:

  • The 1580s seem to mark the first time horror stories found a public audience. "An incredible series of gruesome plays jostle each other on the stages of England," including Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Macbeth.
  • An episode of mass hysteria in the Austrian village of Medvegia prompted the government to commission a report on peasant customs. The report went into great detail about vampire activity in the area, and this information spread quickly, first throughout the scientific community and then through fashionable society. And vampires have been all the rage ever since.
  • The first Gothic novel is widely believed to be a book called The Castle of Otranto, written by one Horace Walpole. I've never even heard of this book! Just when you think you know everything.
  • If you've ever wondered how it is that the Japanese are so good at scaring the living crap out of us (don't believe me? You've clearly never watched the movie Audition. You do that and get back to me, okay?), it's because they've had a lot of practice. In 1776, a Japanese student of literature and critic named Uneda Akinari published a collection of "chilling and romantic" stories called Ugetsu Monogatari, or Tales of Moonlight and Rain. Some of the titles included are "The House Amidst the Thickets", "The Chrysanthemum Trust" and "The Carp That Swam in My Dreams", and if these stories are as innocuous as these titles suggest, then why the heck do I have goosebumps after typing them out?
  • In 1784, the Marquis de Sade wrote The 120 Days of Sodom, "the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began" whilst imprisoned in the Bastille. De Sade's writing saw him persecuted throughout life. I've read some of his work. I don't feel that badly about it.
  • Everybody knows the story about how Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Dr. John Polidori were all staying at a villa by Lake Geneva when they decided to each write a ghost story, but did you know that it's now widely speculated that they were under the influence of laudanum when they did it? Man, if I had a head full of laudanum, I sure wouldn't sit around writing scary stories. Whatever happened to baby oil and a Twister board?
  • In 1819, Dr. Polidori's The Vampyre was published, making it "the first vampire tale of any substance in the English language." The lead character was a caricature of Lord Byron, which is pretty funny, if you think about it.
  • Edgar Allen Poe published his first story in 1833. He once described himself as "insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity." Dude, I totally know how you feel.
  • The first issue of Weird Tales, the first all-fantasy magazine in the world, came off the presses in 1923. The magazine somehow survived thirty-two years without ever showing a profit. Weird Tales attracted a small, fanatical audience, as well as noteworthy authors such as H.P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury.
  • We all know that some of Stephen King's novels have lent themselves fairly well to being made into movies (The Shining, Carrie); others, not so well (um, pretty much all the rest). But the absolute worst flop had to be the 1988 stage musical of Carrie, which lost its producers eight million dollars. That's right. Stage musical. Stop and take a moment to picture it.
I'm all trivia-ed out. But I can say this. If Ray Bradbury can get published in Weird Tales and still be considered a serious writer, I don't see why people are stymied over Stephen King. And man. Carrie: The Musical? Hasn't the poor man suffered enough? Cut him some slack.


Anonymous said...

The Castle of Otranto is pretty hilarious in its melodrama, it's all death and incest and prophesy. I've read it for some "development of the novel" classes, and it's interesting in that light. Walpole uses that "old, important, found" manuscript trope, which for some reason makes it funnier to me. It's true because it's supposedly old.

And I'm sure you've read it, but Austen's Northanger Abbey is wicked in its "read, but don't let your books get the better of you" poking. I love Catherine for being one of Austen's simplest heroines and all the stories that don't get told in that novel but happen just under the surface.

Carrie Ann said...

I actually think there are a few more good Stephen King-based movies: Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, Dolores Claiborne, and Misery.

But man, those six are such a small drop in such a large bucket of shlock.

Anonymous said...

You know, I used to be one of those King supporters...right up until he started writing a regular column for Entertainment Weekly filled with all manner of smug, out-of-touch, deeply punch-in-the-face-able folksiness. I've now developed such an implacable hatred for "Uncle Stevie," as he terms himself (which, shut up, and also, "Uncle Stevie" sounds like a creepy relative that your parents won't let you be alone with) that I now find myself on the side of the people who are horrified at him being taken seriously in any venue.

Anonymous said...

The Shakespeare nerd in me would like to point out that neither Titus Andronicus or Macbeth were written in the 1580s.

Captain Pedantic, away!

JoanneMarie Faust said...

Great post! I'm pretty sure that Shelley, et al wouldn't have had baby oil and Twister available, but they certainly could have played a laudanum fueled game of spin the bottle, right?

I'm sort of surprised that Carrie: The Musical didn't make it. It was probably just before its time. I got an email the other day about tickets being available for a New York production of The Evil Dead: The musical.

Tammy said...

The Shakespeare nerd in me would like to point out that neither Titus Andronicus or Macbeth were written in the 1580s.

But you have to remember, Mike, that this is Europe, so we're using the metric system. Sure, Shakespeare didn't write in the imperial 1580s, but I think if you do the conversion, you'll find that he did write in the metric 1580s. (I only know all this because I'm Canadian.)

Is it too late for me to take the lazy way out and blame my sources? I've already fired my fact-checker.

David said...

People who write in certain genres are very touchy about the question of whether those genres should be considered literature because they're sick of seeing their work dismissed as inferior or unworthy or silly. That's why it continues to be an important issue to some.

Okay, that sounded rather touchy.

Anonymous said...

Re Ray Bradbury; I love him, but unfortunately, I think many people wouldn't consider him a "serious" author, precisely because he works in the FSF genre.

My vote for "Author Most Underrated Because He Works in a ‘Genre’", though, is John le CarrĂ©. I have a strong suspicion that in the future, he's going to be one of the authors that represent the 20th century, the way Dickens, Austen, & Twain do for the 19th.

Anonymous said...

Gak! Oh, why did you bring up Audition? *shudderflail* I was doing a long house-sitting stint in an unfamiliar house when I watched that, and I spent the next six months getting into the bed there by flinging myself over the footboard from several feet away, because I just knew that creepy Asami was lurking underneath waiting to GET ME!