Tack vs. Taste

I have a beef with horror writers. I’m frequently reading them, because although I’m not a horror writer myself, I think you have to be a master at timing and imagination to pull a horror story off. In fact, when I do read horror stories, I’m usually disappointed. This isn’t because I’m so tough to scare, really, but because I find that many horror writers (or film makers) take the low road into disturbia. I dropped a book and a movie last week, because in the opening scenes, both protagonists have a pet dog. The book was The Tommyknockers (because I was in the mood for some junk food) and the movie was The Babdook (which is supposed to be really good). Bad things happen to both dogs. In horror stories, dogs never have it good. And they aren’t the only victims. In early April I sat through It Follows. It turns out that despite the hype, this is not a frightening film–in part because the girl-running/crying/screaming-in-underwear thing is so obtrusive. Yes, one can make a brilliant argument that this film is about surviving sexual assault, but the guy who wrote it denies that something so deep was one his mind. (Sex and death, he said. They just go together.) Right. That, and you’ll score a cheap shudder if you make our contemplation of both into a kind of voyeurism. 

More examples: The Hills Have Eyes (remake) is something I’ve never seen, because the writer decided to include an infant in his journey through irradiated hell. I will never touch more of the The Dark Tower, on account of the protagonist’s hateful scene involving a woman and a gun. China Mieville’s The Census Taker is so full of eloquent ugly that I can’t get through it. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, is wonderful, except for that little dalliance with (again) a dog. And from my reading desk, I can bring myself only to glance at Blood Meridian, which I must read, but fear. 

Dearies, I am not a literary prude. My library includes everything from a 13th-century grimoire on how to summon demons to a photo essay on the the obscenity of lynching. I have an actual Evil section of my collection. But if I ever have the chance to teach young writers for just a moment, I will start by telling them that although fiction is beautiful because anything goes, everything must go for a reason. Any insignificant detail is a waste; that’s God’s own truth. But a random, shocking detail is flat-out tawdry. At best it’s a fun house, and at worst it’s a kind of hostility toward one’s own subject matter. Norman Mailer wrote The Castle in the Forest—which is a novel about Satan and young Hitler—and it has such vulgarity to spare that I lost interest even in that story. That novel has a demon for a narrator. And Mailer might say that such a voice lets vulgarity come naturally. But that is the very heart of my point: You can’t degrade the world without being at least somewhat life-hating, self-serving and essentially demonic. If you involve the torture of animals, or children, or any other kind of innocent, you best earn that detail, both before and after. Otherwise, you’re just asking for attention—which means, essentially, that you’re selling out. And beyond that, you’re breaking the one rule that may be the cornerstone of all good writing. You have got to respect everything—every thing—that you put on the page.

(Originally posted May 11, 2017)