Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Blog: Finding Horror (Again)

Time for an introspection interlude, I suppose. I've recently been taken by themes of horror. Most specifically, I got swept up in the folklore specific to New Jersey, which unravelled in a fairly complete and well arranged manner. I want to say the local myths were complete images, even if in minimalist forms, but really, it's my imagination that's filling in very obvious gaps and stitching it all together. I think that's probably a combination of a lifetime of serial comic books and a genetic cocktail of just the right balance between art and science. In any event, horror is on my mind.

Ordinarily the occupation of a genre -- horror, or otherwise -- wouldn't be worthy of special note, but it occurs to me that I've never been much of a horror guy. Through circumstance and choice, I held a certain fascination for popcorn slasher icons, but never spent any time with them. Jason still remains a character I find very appealing, but a character I've never taken the time to sit down and watch a great deal. There have been horror films and comics that have come through my life, but I guess that ol' predilection meant the stayers were Morbius The Living Vampire and Ghost Rider, and other costumed monsters-as-superhero.

Continuing the themes, I have to think back to the mid-2000s, when I was invited to participate in a horror comic anthology for a micro press collective (I don't remember the title). [An important side note: Once upon a time I had designs for a grandiose career as a comics writer. Truth be told, I still do, working on scripts almost daily for the past decade.]

The nature of the anthology was to produce a chain effect where the conclusion of one chapter would invite the beginning of the next - each chapter created by a different writer/penciller team. Someone had dropped out late into production and my invitation was predicated on the need to insert a chapter between two completed stories. Given my penchant for connecting pieces into a larger whole, this struck me as a potentially interesting fit. Truth be told, I imagine it was desperation that led to the invitation rather than any observation of skill or talent, but the failings of the situation go much farther than that, and I'm not in the mood to slag anybody off (right now, at least).

For me, the challenge was a little less about connecting to the bookending stories, and more about the necessity to write a worthwhile horror piece. As best I can remember, the surrounding three or so stories were all fairly conventional American horrors. As I recall, the two I had to connect with were [unrelated] variations of a slasher/serial killer nature. To my mind, this was liberating, as the overall make-up of the issue could be complimented by a different type of story, or, if I really wished, could be thematically unified by another likeminded tale.

I decided, in trying to do the best possible job, I needed to think of something scary.
I can't say I thought the surrounding tales were particularly brilliant, exacerbated by the simple fact that it can be very difficult to scare someone in a comic book. You don't have the visual dexterity and control over the image a film has, but you also don't have the fear of the readers total imagination that novels have. The eye wanders. Even cheap scares -- tried and true shockers -- are limited to the turn of a comic book page. Then you're at the mercy of the quality of the visual art, as well. Much like PG-13 movies, slashers have a tough time scaring, and can easily become the anti-heroic comic book figures that Jason ultimately is. If I was going to write a horror story, I realized I needed to root it in concept.

My conceptual realization, it should be said, wasn't quite as succinct as a single phrase. I was much younger at the time and much less structured in my approach. Again, I didn't feel I had a natural inclination toward horror, either. My strongest references at the time were probably the Scream films and occasional flirtations with Resident Evil games. I'm downplaying my references, somewhat. There were certainly plenty of other horror encounters along the way, but they weren't references I kept at my younger fingertips. I suppose fear was limiting my thought process, as well. Fear of not living up to the expectations of a reader who expected a horror story! I felt the best course was to just write about something that scared me. If nothing else, it would give me the confidence to justify the story. If I were challenged, I would have an answer.

Putting it in terms of a need to have an explanation is actually quite apropos.
I decided that one of the most frustrating and terrifying scenarios in life is an inability to understand something. I'm certainly not the first person to reach this conclusion. There's a great deal of horror rooted in the nature of mystery and contradiction. To paraphrase Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight, nobody's too fussed if there's a pre-established understanding. People begin to get upset when things behave in ways that aren't clearly apparent or established. When there is an agenda behind it -- one you don't understand -- I'm inclined to think that might be even scarier. A parent attacking you without cause is awful. A parent attacking you for a reason they believe - even more chilling.

Again, I was relatively young at the time. Not long out of high school. In high school, the entirety of your fate is predicated on a need to understand. If you do not understand, your world begins to twist and deform like tectonic plates beneath a surface crust. Curriculum rolls on, building on one piece of understanding after the next. If you miss something, eventually the surface will rip itself open and you'll be swallowed by the hole in your understanding. Imagery I'm sure I could use in any number of stories, but did not fit the goals I had set myself in this particular story.

The horror of not understanding would go on to inform the tone and atmosphere of the piece, which was shaped into my version of a Japanese horror story. The protagonist was a young Japanese woman who found herself surrounded by grim, inexplicable events after she witnessed the aftermath of a decapitation. The aforementioned killing was the part of the previous story I was building on. I believe it was set in New Orleans and at some point in the story had a couple of killers ferrying a decapitated body across a river or lake. I had supposed Japanese tourists were in the area and my protagonist had wandered away, witnessing the severed head from afar. Though never explicitly explained, the implication was that a social anxiety prevented the girl reporting what she had seen, and she was suffering the consequences of her guilt upon returning to Japan (almost immediately after witnessing the horror).

The story was never drawn. I believe I've published the script on the web before, but don't have it handy. Otherwise, it exists in no other published form. If I come across it, I may share it here for reference. It's a story I'm still fond of, at least from memory. I had later intended to appropriate it into the make-up of another comic I worked on before and after, The Kirby Martin Inquest. Though not a horror, it was a high concept vehicle that would have been well serviced by the 'monster' of the horror story, whose origins were much more developed than the story revealed. He was called Nanatsu and appeared frequently throughout the story, delivering coded messages via phone texts, computer messages, and toilet paper handed from one stall to the next.

If I'm examining my path to horror concepts, it should probably be mentioned that I absolutely did write a scene set in a public toilet. It was an intrusion into the main character's space. We were in the stall with her with just enough left to the imagination. She was out of toilet paper -- another attempt to find horror to relate to. As her character was rooted in social anxiety, I felt this was an experience that the reader could very much inflect their own horror into. When she musters up the courage to request toilet paper from the stall next to her -- only to realize it is her mystery tormentor (Nanatsu) -- it was all about vulnerability. The toilet ("bathroom") is a vulnerable place. Maybe you laugh now, but see how you react next time there's an all mighty bang against the closed door. You'll be in the right place, I'm sure.

In any event, I have returned to the world of horror and am again pondering what it takes to make a story scary. Having found very little in the way of what I've imagined of these New Jersey myths, I am considering it fertile ground for a new tale. I can see a few different tones. Some genuinely scary, others a bit less so. An impressive catalogue of failures has taught me not to talk about these things to any great length, but it's been nice to unpack those old ideas, which are a little less vulnerable to the pitfalls of sharing. I've been bouncing around between a lot of ideas lately, in a turbo-charged stupor of trickled enthusiasm, inspiration and hardcore allergies. Now that I know where I've been, maybe I'll know where I'm going. Probably not. Maybe sometime in the future I'll talk about the lost love of these stories and whatever form they take.

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