There's a soft spot within me for horror. I don't consider myself a genre buff, even though I can devour sci-fi, fantasy and especially comics with the best of them. But there's always something about horror that grabs me. I'm not one for this new breed of True Twilight Anita Blake Vampire Diaries that appears to be more of a trend than Tony Blair Porn. But having said that, I don't know what it is that grabs me about horror.
So, I'm going to delve into the screenplays, novels, short stories and graphic novels that really got into me, and try and work out why they were so successful (in my mind at least).
Charles Burns' terrific graphic novel Black Hole is best placed to start this off. In this coming of age body horror tale, a school in the American mid-west is consumed by a sexually transmitted disease that causes all manner of mutations on its victims. These stretch from tails, to blisters and perhaps the most horrible one, an extra mouth growing in your throat. The teens who are infected retreat to a nearby forest to form an odd commune. As Time magazine said at the time, "Fear of adulthood, fear of sex and fear of ostracization have never been more disturbingly explored in a serio-comic flashback to bellbottoms, big doobies and skinny-dipping in the woods." It's this common fear that all teenagers have, as well as the fairly horrific detail (someone's extra mouth talking to you whilst they sleep) that make this a truly frightening experience.
Is there a better, more effective short story than The Mist? The short answer, no. This simple tale of a group of survivors holed up in a supermarket during what can only be described as the apocalypse and the relgious segregation and ultimately puritan finale which result from this, is a brilliant story. Stephen King is sometimes (quite rightly) described as too wordy, and too concerned with writers in Maine being involved in car crashes, but with The Mist he succeeds in delivering a classic story, in just under 100 pages. What makes this work, is not so much the monsters (however briefly seen they are) but the people. In particular Mrs Carmody, who begins the story as a cranky religious nut, but by the end has risen to a much more papal position, ordering sacrifices to a vengeful God, as she puts it, "It's expiation gonna clear away this fog! Expiation gonna clear off these monsters and abominations! Expiation gonna drop the scales of mist from our eyes and let us see!" Almost more scary than this is the completely ambiguous ending, which won't be spoilt here. The film adaptation is likewise a true classic of the genre, with an arguably better ending.
I was a little disappointed with the original novel of Let the right one in, mostly because the film adaptation is so good, there was little to no chance that any other version would be unsuccessful. The film is an incredible piece of work, about the relationship between Oskar, a young Swedish boy and a vampire named Eli. Like Black Hole it examines the idea of coming of age. Unlike Black Hole and especially unlike The Mist, Let the right one in is an incredibly subtle piece of work. The vampiric element only constitutes about ten, or fifteen minutes of screentime, and if removed, you would still have a hell of a good film. Two moments really stand out for me, one of which is incredibly good writing, one of which is incredibly good filmmaking. The final scene in which Oskar and Eli are on a train, Eli hidden in a wooden box to protect her from the sun, Oskar tapping on it in morse code is a wonderfully written scene, bringing together the idea of this monster needing someone to protect her, and almost in a way, being the kind of monster that someone likes the idea of protecting. Earlier in the film, we see an older man who murders people and drains their blood to feed her, and by the end of the film we've no doubt in our minds that this is where Oskar is heading, with Eli forever young, Oskar will no doubt age and start killing people for her, until he outlives his usefullness. The other scene is also towards the end of the film, with the killing of three bullies by Eli. The whole scene is shot underwater, whilst Oskar is being drowned by one of the bullies. We see nothing but occasional splashes and the odd limb floating dream-like in front of Oskar and sinking to the bottom of the pool. You can watch this scene here
As an ongoing comic series, The Sandman was one of the best. When it finished it encompassed an incredible story, one long narrative with a very definate beginning, middle and end. However, there were times when it deviated into short stories, just on the fringes of the ongoing story. "24 Hours" is just such an issue. The main character of The Sandman is Dream, the embodiment of dreams and the dreaming (his reality). At this point in the story he has lost various items due to a period of time he spent imprisoned. One of these items is a ruby, stolen by a serial killer named John Dee (an old Justice League villain). He heads to a diner, and over the titular timeframe, wreaks havok with the customers. This is a fairly screwed up issue, filled with depravity and violence, all at the behest of a man with too much power in his hands. One of the Gaiman's captions puts it best when it says, "All Bette's stories have happy endings. That's because she knows when to stop. She's realized the real problem with stories -- if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death."
So what is it in horror that I like? To me, that metaphor that comes with most of those stories above, that the monsters, vampires and creatures aren't what you should be scared of, that humans, in their toughest challenges, are the most dangerous people to be faced with, I think that's scarier. When you look at other horror films that I love, Dawn of the Dead, Onibaba, or books that I like, The Wasp Factory, Lunar Park. There's an element of that human indecency in those.
I think I'll leave this with a quote from Laurens Van Der Post, who said “Human beings are perhaps never more frightening than when they are convinced beyond doubt that they are right.” I think he may have something there.