Changing Haunts : Trends: Are vampires as scary as freeway shootings? Afraid of becoming irrelevant, horror writers are drawing from the darker sides of modern life. And L.A. is rife with inspiration.
When Clive Barker addressed the Horror Writers of America at their annual awards ceremony in Redondo Beach this summer, he sent chills down his colleagues’ spines.
“You guys just aren’t scary anymore,” declared Barker, formerly horror’s enfant terrible and a newcomer to Southern California.
Stories about vampires, demons, exorcisms and werewolves are no longer frightening--certainly not in Los Angeles, where freeway shootings, an AIDS epidemic, interminable gang warfare and unbreathable air abound.
Unless you people get real, warned Barker, you risk becoming silly, and ultimately irrelevant.
Barker’s call for a new age in horror was sounded here first for a reason. In recent years, the center of gravity for what is now called dark fantasy appears to have shifted away from the East Coast, where it has reigned during most of this century under the twin stars of H. P. Lovecraft and, more recently, Stephen King.
This year, the drift westward became a virtual stampede because of the recent softening of the book-buying market. Dozens of horror writers--some from as far afield as the United Kingdom and even the Far East--have settled in Southern California. Feeding off of a heady mix of local fears and universal human anxieties, they are contributing to the glimmers of a new kind of horror that can best be described not as dark fantasy, but, perhaps, as sunlit suspense. At the least, they have transformed the region into a New Jerusalem of fear.
Traditionally, these writers have come eager to work in film. And indeed, the film industry has affected their work--and behavior--in fundamental ways.
“People are very conscious of opportunities to adapt their books to scripts,” says Jessica Horsting, editor of an irreverent, Sherman Oaks-based literary journal, Midnight Graffiti.
She cites a recently published novel that has a 200-page chase scene she terms purposeless other than it would look good on film: “That happens a lot out here. I don’t think this town is always good for literature.”
But horror writers also genuinely enjoy basking in the psychic bleed-off of a region that wallows as much in terror as it does sunshine.
“There is a dysfunctional compression going on here,” says R.C. Matheson, son of horror grandmaster Richard Matheson and a television and film writer/producer who is consolidating a second career as a horror writer with his upcoming novel about the TV business, “Created By.”
“I no longer think about the physical climate as a factor in the writing. What I think of is the absolute moral deterioration. There are too many people in Southern California. Horror writers tend to be drawn to places of neurotic compression.”
It is not that Los Angeles is necessarily more frightening than anywhere else in this country, says David Schow, who named one of his collections “Lost Angels,” a reference to the macabre Hollywood street scenes he recreates in his stories. But the city does a spectacular job of condensing, within its ominously sprawling confines, most facets of the culture worth exploring.
Typical of Southern California’s primal attraction to horror writers is the story, currently unfolding, of John Skipp and Craig Spector. New Yorkers, they spent the last five years in a small Pennsylvania town researching a novel about illegal midnight dumpings of toxic substances. “The Bridge,” due out by Bantam in October, is an environmental horror story, Skipp says, about “what happens when a critical mass of toxicity is achieved, and our intemperate waste products wake up and bite off our butts.”
Although Skipp and Spector had associated themselves with a small group of thematically hard-core and graphically violent writers called “Splatterpunks,” these two splat-packers initially fled New York for Pennsylvania because they’d gone soft. Skipp, in particular, had become a father, and wanted a more wholesome place to raise his brood.
“But if we learned nothing else from writing ‘The Bridge,’ ” he says, “it’s that there is nowhere safe. Pennsylvania has incredible rates of rape and child-abuse and incest and inbred, ugly squalid stuff, and cracked-out idiots shooting stray pedestrians. The pathology is everywhere.”
Consequently, they’ve loaded up a pair of cars, fastened their kids into their car seats, and are now headed west on Interstate 40, hell-bent for the town that eats its young.
An even more daunting hurdle than breaking into show business, they will discover, is making their stories scary even in the full, smoggy light of day. Horror stories, like horror movies, have traditionally done best in the dark. In Los Angeles, however, night is sometimes only a state of mind.
“People are fooled into thinking that bad things can only happen in dark places,” says Schow. “They’re wrong.”
“I’ve always said if there is a thing to see, let’s see it,” concurs Barker. “The best lovemaking is not in a darkened room, the best fantasy does not occur in the mist. The best writers of the fantastique say: This is the mystery plainly, this is the way the mystery looks, this is its face, the number of eyes it’s got, the way it smells. Now that I’ve shown you this, be aware that the mystery is not the way it looks, but what the thing is.”
In Southern California, the “thing” takes on genuinely bizarre countenances. Instead of demon-infested castles, we have film studios populated by . . . shudder . . . producers and agents. Our all-night convenience stores, according to writer Dennis Etchison, are staffed by the undead.
In “Less Than Zombie,” a pastiche of the ennui -filled bestseller “Less Than Zero,” by Bret Easton Ellis, the spoiled scions of Beverly Hills have become drug- and flesh-abusing zombies--and no one notices anything different in their behavior.
L.A. horror is to the city and its psyche what Consumer Digest is to VCRs and Volvos. Beware the Hollywood Hills, warns R.C. Matheson, who shows in one story how becoming lost in them can be like falling into the Dark Abyss. In another, yuppies who run their lives like the L.A. Marathon risk being run into the ground--literally and painfully--by their renegade Reeboks.
Despite the different images they employ, most horror writers agree as to what they think the genre is all about.
“Horror is always about fear,” says Midnight Graffiti editor Horsting. “The stuff people are writing today is not substantially different from what’s been going on for the past 100 years. Horror may have moved from the small towns to the suburbs and, most recently, into an urban environment. But the things people are afraid of, the horrors we inflict on each other, remain unchanged.”
“The human animal,” explains William Nolan, author of a recently published Writer’s Digest guide to horror writing, “has so many primal fears--of death, of isolation, or desertion. I call horror an emotional escape hatch, a way for us to transcend our mortality. I call horror mass therapy.”
It has also, many old-time writers bemoan, become shock therapy. The things that scared previous generations barely titillate their more jaded progeny.
The old horror, dating back to the Gothics, used the shadows to good effect. The true face of horror was often oblique. We all knew what Dracula was really doing to his women, so why spell it out?
H. P. Lovecraft, who worked a revolution in supernatural fiction from his Rhode Island home during the ‘20s--his stories provided the basis for the two “Reanimator” movies filmed during the last decade--always left his monsters and demons barely mentionable. Succeeding generations of writers, from Ray Bradbury to Robert Bloch, chose subtlety and whimsy to graphic violence and gore.
Stephen King, who emerged in the mid-'70s with the novel “Carrie,” brought horror into the full light of day. A decade later, Clive Barker threw a spotlight onto it with his outrageously visceral “Books of Blood.”
Barker began his career writing about luminous cancers that took on a life of their own in foul basements, and people whose bodies were torn to pieces by a cloud of fish-hooks within the depths of hell. Within five years of his emergence, however, others would regard him as too restrained.
In Splatterpunk, wrote Horsting in 1989, one found graphic depictions “of violence--disembowelments, cannibalism, mother-eating fetuses, self-mutilation, bestiality, incest, rape.”
“Very little,” she declared, “is left to the imagination.”
“What is being confused with horror nowadays,” says Bloch, author of the novel “Psycho” and a longtime resident of the Hollywood Hills, “is violence. When ingenuity fails, bloodletting prevails.”
It is becoming increasingly evident, however, that the Splatterpunk aesthetic has failed to maintain reader interest, particularly among women--an important component of the horror readership.
“A sizeable chunk of the mass audience, mostly female, has no stomach for the blood and guts that the gore hounds eat up,” declared a recent Cinefantastique review of Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of Thomas Harris’s cult smash, “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Matheson concurs heartily. “More and more what is intriguing to me,” he says, “is the psychology of it all. That’s what made ‘Silence of the Lambs’ so fascinating. The rest of the stuff isn’t horror--it’s like Hulk Hogan.”
He thinks there is a new horror on the way, and that it will sport a California tan when it arrives.
Etchison too detects the shifting of the tectonic plates underfoot--and not only within the confines of dark fantasy: “Something is coming, and it has to do with the end of the millennium. Socially and historically, something is coming to an end, and something new is about to reveal itself.”
Barker doesn’t see it--not yet. But there is cause for hope.
“I don’t yet have a sense of a new horror. I wish there were,” he says. “But if one existed, it would take a millennialist view, one that would show we are changing as a species.
“We are writing a fiction about fear, what it does to us, how we are shaped by it or improved or weakened or lessened by it. Unfortunately, in modern horror, these issues are being addressed in diminishing amounts. . . . It becomes the equivalent of putting toads down a girl’s knickers. But it can be so much more than that.”