Friday, February 1, 2013

Genre Savvy: Horror

The three Fantasy genres are about the things within them.  Histories, hidden magic, fancy technology.  They cover periods of time, past, present and future.  The over-genres care little for such things, they focus more on the stronger forces in life:  emotion.  Oh, but they are so powerful and over-arching that they can't just cover just ONE emotion, but two and it's because of this they stand over top even the very broad Fantasy genres, and sometimes on top of each other.

The first one I'll be talking about is the Horror genre because, um, I wrote it first.  Seriously.  But let's not dwell on that and instead focus on WHAT Horror is as a genre.  And as I said, at the beginning of this article, it is about a key emotion:  fear.

Making something scary is hard, nearly as hard as comedy.  Establishment of tension is key, the growing suspense of the shock, and the shock itself are necessary to make it work.  Thus it comes down that Horror generally requires a lot of atmosphere to make it work.  Without atmosphere, typically the suspense that leads to fear never really materializes.  Hitchcock had a famous story that yes, it is scary when there are two people sitting at a table and the table suddenly explodes, but it's even more terrifying if the audience sees the bomb and the two men continue on without knowing it's there.  The tension and suspense ramp up the initial shock of the bomb going off to a much greater height than the explosion alone can do.  Good Horror needs this build up to keep things going.

That said, Horror cannot live on that suspense alone.  There must be a moment of release, however brief.  That moment must be in proportion to the suspense before.  If the bomb, despite all the trappings of a larger explosive, is really nothing more than a firecracker, then the audience feels cheated.  If the explosive is a nuclear bomb, then the shock is out of proportion to the preceding scene.

Take Edgar Allan Poe's "A Tell Tale Heart" for example.  While not a story that scares the reader, the fear the narrator has is quite real, and built up very strongly.  Like Hitchcock's classic example, there's even a "bomb" under the floor in the final scene, but the narrator is aware of the ticking, and is so paranoid that he's convinced that the police officers in the room with him hear the ticking too.  That madness is the building tension and suspense, and the final reveal is the shock that finishes the story.

Ah, but Horror cannot JUST be about fear, because that starts to feel hollow after a while.  Suspense followed by a scare only works for so long before it no longer gives the same thrill.  Thus there must be something to balance the fear out, and that's courage.  Standing up to fear, rather than being consumed by it, is a powerful trait and gives the audience or reader someone to cheer for against the horrors of the tale.

Not that courage means the hero wins in the end.  Or comes out intact or stronger.  Take H.P. Lovecraft, for example.  His work inspired an entire aesthetic, Lovecraftian Horror, and most certainly features fear and the unknowable at it's core.  At the same time, it also features a lot of courage, as the various protagonists attempt to face down and possibly understand the horrors presented to them.  From the scientists traveling through the abandoned Antarctic city in At the Mountains of Madness, or the captain who rammed great Cthulhu with his ship, these are brave people.  However, bravery is but the lack of common sense, and by the time the story is over, these people are also batshit insane, or dead.  Dead likely would have been better in some cases.

Comic examples are pretty sparse I'm afraid.  Atmosphere wise, the long dead Flatwood probably fits the bill better than most.  It feels dark, and the use of gifs to surprise the reader keeps it going, but it suffers from the issue that the horror and fear never really breaks and the build is slow anyway.  It's there, of course, coming through despite the more cartoony character designs.  I certianly felt the chill back when it was updated, but since I haven't read it in a while, only the feeling remains, and that is a great accomplishment for a horror story.

On the more courage side of the horror sits Twilight Lady, which while not strictly a scare fest, it is about standing up to the things that would scare normal people.  Of course the protagonist here is almost unknown as well, making an odd story where the reader should be just as afraid of the heroine as they are of the monsters, but in a different way.

I'm not that big into Horror, honestly, outside of Poe and Lovecraft I'm not much for scaring myself.  So I really don't have a lot of scary comics on my lists, and those I do have are, well, not that scary, at least to me.  Next week, though, the genre one of the biggest genres ever:  Drama.  Until then kiddies.

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