Monday, June 14, 2010

Calls from Inside the Zeppelin

Pseudopod's inimitable host Alasdair Stuart (whose name isn't really spelled the way you expect it to be spelled, is it) is fond of saying that one of his favorite moments in horror is when you realize that the calls are coming from inside the house. By this, (I am fairly certain) he means the moment that you see, undeniably, that things are really, truly, desperately wrong. It's also the moment that the child comes into the light and you see that the blood on her shirt isn't hers, the heartbeat after the lights turn on and you see that the furniture has changed position, when his hood comes down and you see that there is no face underneath, and - to borrow another classical example - when the beautiful hitchhiker's mother says "I'm sorry, but our daughter died ten years ago."

The latest Psuedopod, The Mother and the Worm by Tim W. Burke revels in the approach to this principle that I find most compelling: it's not the calls that are coming from inside the house, it's the bad ideas that are coming from inside you. It's not the world that's wrong, it's you that are wrong, and you are going to have to deal with the consequences of your choices. Forever. The horror I love is the moment that it really sinks in that the blood on your shirt isn't yours, when the lights go down and you know when they come up again either you or she will be dead, when the hood comes up to shadow your face for your last time, and when you look at your victim and say "I'm sorry" and realize that you don't really mean it, not anymore, and maybe you never did. I don't know if the main character of The Mother and the Worm has really had that moment yet - this is the second story in what looks like a series of shorts - but I'm watching, and I have seen how his choices have damned and entangled him , and it's brilliant.

There are other examples of this moment in creative content I'm consuming right now. In Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn II: The Well of Ascension (warning: spoiler), there's a moment where "God," the voice in Zane's head, tells him that he isn't crazy, the voice is a real thing, not a delusion, and all his bad choices and misery are his own fault. In the world of rolyeplaying, anyone who's ever read or played a White Wolf game - especially either of the vampires, but the same is true for any of the new line of games as well - can see that the entire system is bent around creating that moment for the characters and the players. I could beat myself up and think of more, but I think I've made my point.

To get a little broader and step beyond mere linkcraft I want to describe what it is about this moment that I find so sad, beautiful, and haunting.

Ultimately, what it's about is a sense of transaction, something I've written about before. There's a sense in which many great stories live in the gulf between what someone wants, the price he is willing to pay for it, and what it actually costs. The moment of "the bad ideas are coming from inside my brain" kind of horror is about looking back at the price you paid and seeing that it wasn't really worth it, but now there's nothing you can do. Or, it's about putting a character in a situation where he pays a price he can't bear without knowing what he's doing, and then forcing him to see and suffer the undeserved consequences. Or, finally, it's about portraying a character seeing the cost, and finding worthwhile, but portraying it in such a way that the audience can't help but be appalled. In the end, however, it's always about price.

Frankly, there's often something beautifully protagonizing about this moment, and that's also part of why I - a fan of protagonists - love it so.

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  • Where have you seen good examples of "the bad ideas are coming from you" in fiction?
  • What is the horror moment that most turns your metaphorical crank? Where does horror live for you?


Connor said...


A friend of mine directed me to this blog, and your article is fascinating.

So to answer your questions:
- Flann O'Briens "The Third Policeman" isn't a horror novel, but it does this in a bizarre and electrical way.
Weirdly enough, early versions of the "Red Riding Hood" tale also do this... they are quite thoroughly horror stories, and have to do with poor judgment and missed initiative.
Also, a favorite is the novel "Vathek" by William Beckford.

- It's been done to death, but executed deftly, the whole question of exaltation in crime is very effective with me. It taps into something universal... kind of an antitheses to the "mundanity of evil" argument; evil may in fact be mundane, but to the perpetrator it seems anything but. The novels of Derek Raymond are powerful examples of this theme.

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