By Matthew Cheney
27 April 2009
For a few years, I did not want to admit an attraction to horror stories. It's an odd thing to have done, since if any type of stories has consistently attracted me as a reader, they are horror stories, but nonetheless, when I started coming to terms with the fact that yes, my life as a reader had been and was going to continue to be the life of someone profoundly affected by and attracted to genre fiction, I didn't want to admit that the effect and the attraction included horror fiction.
Looking back now, the problem seems to have been that I encountered some particularly thoughtless and manipulative stories all at once, and something in my brain decided to deny years and years of reading and instead scream out, "No! You are not the type of person who reads this stuff!"
The stories that caused this response involved child abuse and assaults on women, and what annoyed and frustrated me about them was the way they were written to, it appeared to me, do little more than benefit from readers' disgust at such actions. In one case, the story seemed designed to exploit homophobia, as if the author were seeking to heighten the creep factor by making us squirm at the particularly awful thought that a man would sexually assault a boy. For fiction to treat its audience so cheaply still seems to me inexcusable, but my anger at these stories blinded me to what I already knew: horror fiction can provide profound reading experiences. Indeed, many of the most profound reading experiences I have had have been given by works with some quality or other that would qualify them for that imprecise and in many ways misleading label of "horror stories."
It was horror fiction, in fact, that made me a compulsive reader. My third grade teacher read our class some of Poe's short stories, simplifying the language a bit, but keeping the plots intact. "Hop-Frog" made a particular impression on me, its vivid, fiery conclusion raising a kind of ecstacy—I imagine I thought something along the lines of, "I didn't know you could do that with words!"
Poe in the original, unsimplified by our teacher, proved impossible for me to read, but my parents had given me an anthology called Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbinders in Suspense, and two stories within it provided the sort of pleasure I'd gotten from "Hop-Frog": Roald Dahl's "Man from the South" and Robert Bloch's "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper." I received a few more of the Hitchcock anthologies designed for young readers (Haunted Houseful and Monster Museum were particular favorites), and when we went grocery shopping, my mother would bribe me to behave myself by buying copies of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.
I had very little knowledge of Hitchcock as a filmmaker at this point; I thought he was a writer and editor, and it wasn't until much later that I realized he had simply licensed his name and let other people do the editing and writing. Thus, when I sneaked into the adult section of the town library on a school trip one day and saw a bunch of thick anthologies with Hitchcock's name on them, I spent a considerable amount of energy trying to figure out how I could get permission to borrow them.
I got frustrated with the Hitchcock anthologies and magazine, though, because for the most part they weren't very scary. I wanted more stories like "Hop-Frog" and "Man from the South" and "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper"—stories that packed a nasty shock.
"The scariest writer I've ever read," my third grade teacher told us, "is Stephen King."
Shortly after that, I saw one of the high schoolers on the school bus reading a library book with King's name on it: Pet Sematary.
Even with whatever special permission I had gained to be able to borrow the Hitchcock anthologies from the adult section, the librarians would not let me borrow a Stephen King novel. I tried every ploy I could imagine, but nothing worked. For some reason, they thought such books would scar me for life.
But now and then my father and I would go to the little bookstore in town and he would let me buy something. He didn't seem to care what it was, or if it came from the adult section. The bookstore didn't have a wide selection, but one of the nice things about Stephen King, I discovered, was that his books were everywhere. Thus, I got a mass market paperback of Pet Sematary, the first big novel I ever read. It scared me more than Poe, Dahl, and Bloch combined.
Over the next few years, I read nearly all of King's novels and short stories. Pet Sematary had, indeed, scarred me for life.
Eventually, I wanted more from literature than to be scared—indeed, what I as a child was able to identify as "being scared" is, I think now, something else, something I seek in most fiction, poetry, and drama, but which I don't have any single word for.
Which brings me to a play called Blasted and a writer named Sarah Kane. For a few years as an undergraduate, I studied playwriting, and it was during this time that Blasted premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London and caused immense outrage and horror in audiences and the press. One critic called the play "a disgusting feast of filth" and another said sitting through it was like "having your whole head held down in a bucket of offal." The play includes on-stage enactments of rape and torture, as well as a moment where a soldier eats a man's eyes out of his head, and that man then later eats the rotting corpse of a baby. I remember reading about the play when I was a student and thinking, "Sounds like my kind of theatre!"
It wasn't until a few years later that I got to read Blasted, though, and not until this past fall that I got to see it staged, when it had its U.S. premiere with a truly breathtaking production at SoHo Rep in Manhattan. Sarah Kane had died in 1999 at the age of twenty-eight, having written five extraordinary plays and one short film. Her estate had been very careful with the rights to Blasted, waiting for exactly the right company to premiere it in the U.S. Though the critical response to the play had changed significantly between its first and second productions in the U.K., it was still a play that could be ruined if produced for its shock value alone.
Blasted begins with two characters in a hotel room: an older man and a younger woman. Their relationship is complex—sometimes affectionate, sometimes abusive. The man, Ian, is clearly stronger and sharper than the woman, Cate, who seems vaguely mentally challenged. Ian is paranoid and macho, manipulative, brutal, and blisteringly racist. And then, about halfway into the play, Cate seems to disappear, a soldier comes into the room, and a few minutes later, everything explodes. From here to the end, the play grows more and more surreal and more graphically violent. The soldier rapes Ian, chews out his eyes, then kills himself. Cate returns from wherever she was, carrying a baby in her arms. It dies. She buries it under the floorboards. Ian wants Cate to shoot him and put him out of his misery. She empties a revolver of its ammunition and hands it to him. He fires the empty gun at himself again and again and again. Cate goes away. Starving, Ian digs up the baby and eats it. He climbs under the floorboards himself, leaving only his bloody, eyeless head above ground. He waits to die. Rain falls through a hole in the roof onto his face. Cate returns, gives him a bit of food and gin. He says thank you. The play ends.
In an interview quoted in "Love Me or Kill Me": Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes by Graham Saunders, Kane said,
I knew that I wanted to write a play about a man and a woman in a hotel room, and that there was a complete power imbalance which resulted in a rape. I'd been doing it for a few days and I switched on the news one night while I was having a break from writing, and there was a very old woman's face in Srebrenica just weeping and looking into the camera and saying—"please, please, somebody help us, because we need the UN to come here and help us." I thought this is absolutely terrible and I'm writing this ridiculous play about two people in a room. What's the point of carrying on? So this is what I wanted to write about, yet somehow this story about the man and the woman is still attracting me. So I thought what could possibly be the connection between a common rape in a Leeds hotel room and what's happening in Bosnia? And suddenly the penny dropped and I thought of course it's obvious, one is the seed and the other is the tree. I do think that the seeds of full-scale war can always be found in peace-time civilization.
I recently used Blasted in a college course I teach, "Murder, Madness, Mayhem"—a course that begins with David Hartwell's magnificent anthology of horror fiction, The Dark Descent. We read Blasted after reading S.: A Novel about the Balkans by Slavenka Drakulic, a harrowing study of a woman repeatedly raped by soldiers during the Bosnian War. The students this term generally found S. to be powerful and compelling, but Blasted perplexed them until we were able to talk about its examination of power, its use of imagery, and the effect of live theatre on a live, if stunned, audience.
And then I asked, "So how is this play different from a splatter movie?"
I hadn't even realized I was going to ask the question. Suddenly I knew that it was the crucial question for me. I had, planning the class, come to grips with how much I like horror fiction, and how much more such fiction can offer than the crass manipulations that had briefly turned me away from it, but I hadn't yet begun to be able to express what the best of horror fiction did to make me feel it was more than just the use of violence and terror for the sake of entertainment, the kind of thrill I'd gotten as a kid.
I am not leading here to any sort of grand insight. The best we were able to do in class was decide that a work like Blasted—and some of the best stories in The Dark Descent—brings us to an imagined place of horror and forces us to consider something about the reality that inspired the imagining.
I like some splatter movies. They can be fun in the way roller coasters can be fun. They are cheap and dirty escapism. I don't think about society and humanity when I watch splatter movies; I think about the quality of the special effects and the cleverness of the situations leading to the use of special effects. The emotions are simple, atavistic, though sometimes powerful—like the pleasure sparked when I was in third grade and first encountered "Hop-Frog."
Blasted is something else. Though what Ian does to Cate is repulsive, Sarah Kane was not primarily interested in representing those actions simply to cause repulsion. The repulsion is a given. She wanted, instead, to convey some of what she had felt at that moment when she turned on the TV and saw the old woman in Srebenica, the complexity of that emotion: a mix of anger, frustration, horror, sadness, helplessness, and feelings that words can't quite grasp. To create a space in which to think about power. To create imagery that speaks beyond language, evoking emotions that may be disconcerting enough to linger and spark thought. Not to shock, but to use shock.
Shock can come in many forms, of course, and representations of violence are not always shocking in a way that inspires reflection. I recently became addicted to the short stories of Robert Aickman, a writer who is, at his best, as shocking and provocative as Sarah Kane, but is entirely the opposite of her in his approach, which is quiet, indirect, and inconclusive. What Aickman's work does, though, is unsettle our sense of the world. A shock of metaphysics—which is, at heart, one of the effects I most value in all fiction, horror or not. It is what attracts me to writers as different as Philip K. Dick and Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett, Dambudzo Marechera and Paul Bowles. And others—including Sarah Kane. The techniques are different, but the result is similar, an unsettling of reality that provides a new or more vivid understanding of perception, language, power, and humanity. By journeying into imagination, we are given ways to see what was already there.