Sunday, September 09, 2012

Don't be scared of horror

I don't know what makes good horror fiction good, but understatement must play a big part.

Here how Roger Smith, writing as Max Wilde, opens the second chapter of his new Vile Blood: 
"When the beam of Chief Deputy Sheriff Gene Martindale’s flashlight traced the loop of large intestine dangling like strange fruit from the cottonwood, he understood that he was dealing with something altogether darker than the usual procession of drunken wife beaters, scofflaws and minor drug offenders that filled his days."
I'm pretty sure that any book with intestines dangling from trees is likely to be horror, but crime fans will be at home with that passage.

Another, later passage suggests a kinship with hard-boiled American crime writing of the 1950's and '60s:
 "Back in those days, the late nineties, Holly had been a big boned blonde with the ass of a cheerleader and the tits of a Playboy centerfold. She and Drum had pleasured one another regularly, Tincup too occupied with his harem to care."
So don't be scared of horror, crime fans. If Roger Smith and Jim Thompson* can write it, you can read it. But what about you, dear readers? Any thoughts on crime, horror, and the relationship between the two? Do you read horror as well as crime? How would you compare the appeal of the two genres?
***
Here's Roger Smith on why he wrote Vile Blood under a pseudonym.

* I challenge any crime fan to argue that the last section of The Getaway is not horror.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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31 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

As I've said many times to many people the ending of the Getaway is seriously weird.

I wonder when male crime writers are going to stop using the words "tits" for breasts? It's such an unattractive, vulgar little word. This isn't direct speech either is it? its an authorial voice.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had heard the ending of The Getaway was weird, but I wasn't prepared for just how weird it was. I don't know what it has to do with the rest of the novel, but it is a coherent and disquieting version of hell. And it's not just the ending, it's an entire final section of the book.

How far have you gone with this "Say no to tits" campaign, anyway?

September 10, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I think its one of those words which in the UK is now increasingly used only ironically in the authorial voice, but which is still pretty common as slang in America, S Africa, Oz etc. I just dislike the word as a word. Its hideous.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's interesting. Smith is from South Africa and this book is set in the U.S., so he gets a sociological pass on tits.

Listen to George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" if you want to laugh at the word instead of fume over it. He says it sounds like a snack: "Nabisco Cheese Tits."

September 10, 2012  
Anonymous Max Wilde said...

Adrian, before you get your breasts in a knot, the passage quoted is in free indirect speech, so not first person but still in the voice of the character who is a nasty piece of work.
Max & Roger

September 10, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Roger

Thanks for the explanation.

In free indirect speech of course you have to use it just as you have to use it in direct speech if you want to be authentic. Its part of the vernacular and is unavoidable.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

I heartily agree with Adrian re 'tits'. It's a dismissive, objectifying word, without euphony affection, or admiration, akin to 'cunt'. On the latter, that was in origin simply the Middle English word for female genitals, and not per se offensive. On your wanderings through Central London, Peter, you may well have passed along or by Grape Lane. That in the later Middle Ages was Cuntgrope Street, a centre of prostition. It became Grope Lane in the 18th. century, and so to Grape. I am not in favour at all of renaming old streets, but I should rather like that one to become Margaret Thatcher Boulevard, in honour both of its original soubriquet and of that dear woman herself.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger Jerry House said...

I like tits. Really don't care what you call them.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I've since read a bit more of the book. The character in quesiton is, indeed, a bad guy, coarse, callous, violent, manipulative, destructive -- just the sort of man who would say, "tits."

September 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip: ALong with a historical plaque listing the streer's former names, of course.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger verymessi said...

Dave Zeltserman who is one of my favorite noir writers certainly blurs the line between noir and horror. His latest book "Monster" is a retake on the Frankenstein story from the view of creature. From what I gather it is basically a revenge tale..I have not read it yet, but many are calling it Zeltsermans best book yet, including Roger Smith which is saying quite a lot.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I knew Zelterman and Smith were mutual fans, which speaks well for both authors.

Zeltserman is a pretty versatile guy. He writes noir, he writes horror, and he writes the oddest Rex Stout tributes you'll ever read.

September 10, 2012  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

"Oddest Rex Stout tributes . . ."

Got link?

September 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Look for Zeltserman’s Julius Katz stories.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You might like some of the other Bachianas Brasileiras. And if you like the guitar on that piece, you might enjoy the guitarist Baden Powell. (Yes, I believe he got his name because his father was a big shot in the Brazilian Boy Scouts.)

September 10, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Any thoughts on crime, horror, and the relationship between the two

Last Christmas, lacking a TV, I watched a lot of old horror movies on YouTube, most of which I had seen before.

The ones I disliked this time round had a supernatural element: Dracula and The Mummy.

The ones I liked, Frankenstein and its even better sequel The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man and the horror comedy The Old Dark House (all directed by James Whale) could be described as depictions of insanity. A good horror subject and something Jim Thompson is also famous for.

I enjoy Thompson's novels and his sense of humour, but I always get the feeling his notions of insanity came out of a textbook. He even (through Lou Ford) lists the authors of those textbooks in The Killer Inside Me:

I got up and walked along the bookcases, and endless files of psychiatric literature, the bulky volumes of morbid psychology… Krafft-Ebing, Jung, Freud, Bleuler, Adolf Meyer, Kretschmer, Kraepelin

If Robert Polito's bio of Thompson can be believed, Thompson's knowledge of psychology came at least in part from an Oklahoma friend, a phony psychologist called Otto C Lucy, who in 1941 used his psychological 'skill' to perform a fatal abortion on a woman called Mary Ellen Legge. Let out on bail Lucy used those same 'skills' on another woman, Goldie Crow. He killed her, too. Fortunately, for the women of Oklahoma, Lucy died in jail not long afterwards.

Lucy's exploits were not fiction. But they were far more horrific than anything Thompson tried to imagine in The Getaway's finale in the kingdom of El Rey.

Truth is not just stranger than fiction, it's much nastier than fiction. In contrast to this reality, the ending of The Getaway is merely dimestore horror.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, well, I'll take my truth at a goodly distance when it comes to horror. But Thompson is pretty damn good at leaving readers unsettled.

Your remarks about Whale, insanity, and Thompson get right at the heart of what I was getting at with this post: that good horror has much in common with the more unsettling side of crime writing. You'll notice that did not mention the supernatural.

Jim Thompson may have been amateurish in his integration of psychology into some of his work, but he cannot have been as wince-makingly obtrusive was Ross MacDonald's in The Galton Case.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I'm really interested in what makes for good horror. It's one of those things that either works or doesn't work for you. I find I can get creeped out very easily by film and a lot less easily by text. I think Bram Stoker's Dracula is a lot creepier than Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for instance, although I like both books a lot.

I have written a story for a horror anthology that really isn't very creepy at all, and written one that ended up in a literary journal that turned out to be fairly twisted. My own feeling from these two experiences is that a haunted castle does not a horror story make, and that sometimes the horror resides in just how far you are willing to go. If you are willing to step over a boundary that your reader might not, then it may very well work.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Have you read The Getaway? If you do -- and it would not take you much time; it's short -- its ending will give you a clear idea of what I mean by horror. Its creepiness snuck up on me, whereas that in his Savage Night was there from a lot closer to the beginning.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I've read some Thompson, but I don't think I've read The Getaway. I'll see what I can do.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What have you read of his? "Savage Night" is the only book of his I'd read previously, and it creeped me out, but I read it in one sitting -- late at night.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I'm not entirely sure what I did read, because my memory is mixing it up with a few films that came up all at the same time. I remember seeing The Grifters and and I think I may actually have seen The Getaway as a film. I remember starting This Killer Inside Me, but I think this was after I had already read something. It's all a bit of a blur at this point. But I'll try to refresh my sense of his actual writing soon.

September 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I started reading "The Grifters" not long ago and was bothered by some clunky prose.

I saw the movie version of "The Getaway" some time ago, and I think I wondered whether its odd, happy ending may have been a whim of the movie's star, Steve McQyeen. I suspect after reading the book that such indeed may have been the case. The movie does not so much alter the book's ending as it amputates it. In an odd way, this works because viewers who have read the novel may regard the movie's conclusion as hauntingly open-ended.

September 11, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I actually must have seen the the later Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger version. It kept the happy ending as well. Not that I remember this all that well.

September 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If you read the book, we can more fully discuss the relationship between its ending and those of the movies. It's not is if the movie, at least the earlier one, took a straightforwardly downbeat ending and changed it into a straightforwardly happy one.

September 11, 2012  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Peter, I've been keeping an eye on comments on this, for it struck me that no one had mentioned H.P. Lovecraft, Montague James, Ambrose Bierce, or Algernon Blackwood. They were the early practioners of the psychological horror story, the sort that I find the most chilling of all. Poe was a forebear in that regard, though not as purely psychological. But those four authors, Lovecraft above all, must have a place in any discussion of horror stories. Lovecraft and Blackwood's tales have been enormously influential. Moving closer in time, I should also think of Ramsey Campbell, Richard Matheson and, of course, Stephen King. But, as one not a great fan of the genre, it's to Lovecraft et al. that I would turn for a truly disturbing time, yet with no monsters or 'black holes' in old houses to be sucked into, with Hell awaiting at the other side.

September 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I asked less about horror than about horror's relationship to and affinity with crime fiction. Maybe that's why the writers you mentioned did not com eup.

September 12, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

I started reading "The Grifters" not long ago and was bothered by some clunky prose

I hate clunky prose, myself. May I ask what the clunky prose that offended you was?

One thing about The Grifters that bothered me was the lurid, sensationalist use of an Auschwitz survivor as one of the the characters. Westlake's screenplay sensibly left that out.

The Grifters is also poor on plot. Just when you think it's finally about to get going, it comes to an end.

September 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember no examples off-hand, possibly because I never finished reading the book.

I'm not shocked to hear your assessment that "The Grifters" was weak on plot. As much as I liked the long concluding section of "The Getaway," I can't figure out what it has to do with the rest of the book.

September 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I also remember wondering what he was going to do with that Holocaust-survivor character, and noting the fleeting, almost teasing way in which the book would allude to her experiences. I didn't read enough to be able to call the depiction lurid, but any such depiction runs the risk of opportunism at the least.

September 12, 2012  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

My apologies, Peter, for an unstated assumption in my last comment. It's too late to expand on this, but my thought was that Lovecraft had been influenced by Poe, and Lovecraft himself influenced just about everyone. There is a leap then to the appearance of psychological crime fiction in the late 1940's with John Franklin Bardin, and then to some of Highsmith, Rendell, et al. The essence of the influence is that Lovecraft, as Poe, attibuted horrific crimes to psychological factors, and these often rooted in ancestry. Lovecraft was, in fact, a racist and eugenicist, and these led him to his own tales of tainted blood. And we find similar themes of crimes rooted in family history, rather than individual will or psychopathy, in later psychological crime writers. That's it in a nutshell. Poe notably is customarily named as one of the first crime writers, but few of his tales are not also horror stories.

September 13, 2012  

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