Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 2: Read Minds, Make Time Stop, Cook Pasta That’s Exactly Right Every Time

by Andrew Leon Hudson

Frightened monkeys look like they’re laughing. If you don’t believe me, scare one and see.

The same goes for chimps and, for all I know, orang-utans too. I suspect that if anyone ever encounters a terrified gorilla, however briefly, the image they take away with them will include a widely-drawn mouth with a few teeth showing (where they take it away to, in this world or the next, would be another matter). What’s odd though, maybe, is that amused apes look and sound like they’re screaming. If you want to know whether noisy primates are enjoying themselves or not, you really have to pay close attention to what’s happening to whom and who’s watching it all go down from a nice safe distance.

All this is building to the revolutionary observation that humans are smelly, hairy bipedal former-tree-dwellers who jumped right off the very same branch as the rest of them, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that there are vague similarities in the shapes and sounds we make with our faces when we’re terrorised or amused. The fact that our brains have developed to be able to enjoy experiencing both things in close proximity could either be our saving grace or a sign that things are badly on the slide.

The nervous laughs that often follow a good movie scare are part of the environment in straight horror films, but there is a pretty rich vein deliberately mixing comedy and horror in cinema, with the emphasis depending on where you dig. On the humorous side of things there are more examples than you can shake a torn-off limb at, and though the numbers look increasingly epidemic in the last thirty-plus years you’d have to go back decades further looking for a patient zero (it might be Abbott or Costello, it might well not). Yet all these are playing with the trappings of horror to have a bit of fun, so much as I might enjoy the likes of your Shaun of the Deads or your Zombielands or your Scream franchises (less so) I’d not call them horror movies, not really, though even the worst wear a proud love of the genre on their sleeve. Apart from the Scary Movies, which can go to hell.

Rarer, and precious for it, are those films in which the humour is crafted so as to support the horror, not just make jokes about it. In An American Werewolf in London, in Evil Dead II (and, partly to bring things closer to the present day, let’s tentatively flank those with Pontypool and Bubba-Ho-Tep as examples of passingly and broadly humorous horror flicks respectively), we see touches of the absurd that also characterise real life, which go towards making the worlds of the stories a little less po-faced about the awful things we all know don’t really exist and so, perhaps, make them a little more believable. We laugh in the face of danger, after all.

However, when you go searching for literary examples of comedic horror, things abruptly go a bit quiet (Pontypool Changes Everything, interestingly, bares only a sideways resemblance to the movie made of it--something which I tend to like--and isn’t particularly funny at all). Admiring fingers are pointed towards Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, presumably for the benefit of squinting eyes given that it was published in 1820, and hands are waved at the black comedy genre... but then the conversation tends to move on, leaving little in the way of concrete examples. Well, that’s not good enough! I want more than a two-hundred year-old short story, and dark comedies with a bit of grue is not what I seek. Horror so bad that it’s funny--knowingly made a comedy sub-genre all of its own and gleefully jumped upon by Garth Marenghi to very good effect--definitely isn’t, although there’s seemingly enough of that shit to fill a swimming pool and unhappily drown in. What I imagine I want doesn’t seem to have much track record, at least in print.

Enter David Wong (as his friend John Cheese might suggest you do).

John stepped up, pushed open the front door and ducked aside. I dug in my pocket and pulled out one of the pink chunks. They were steak-shaped dog treats, complete with little brown grill lines. I realised at that moment that no dog would know what those grill lines were and that they were purely for my benefit.

“Molly!”

I shook the treat in front of her and then tossed it through the door. The dog ran in after it.
We waited for the sound of, say, dog flesh splattering across a wall, but heard only the padding of Molly’s paws. Eventually she came back to the door, grinning stupidly. We decided it was safe to go in.

John Dies at the End opens with a laugh-out-loud piece of existential zombie philosophy and ends on a rather downbeat observation about how crappily clone-like most mainstream adventure movies are. The above quote isn’t the funniest thing that happens between those points by a long shot, but it might be representative of the novel’s general frame of mind. As is the following, coming shortly after, as the author and his eponymous sidekick are fleeing the very same house and encounter another troubling door.

We kicked through the slithering things and stomped up after the dog, just as the stairwell door banged shut on its own.

I reached for the knob. At the same moment it began to melt and transform, turning pink and finally taking the shape of a flaccid penis. It flopped softly against the door, like a man was cramming it through the knob hole from the other side.

I turned back to John and said, “That door cannot be opened.”

It is not the last penis to feature.

David Wong, narrator (and pseudonymous author) of John Dies at The End, is a fairly nondescript resident of an American town which goes unnamed for tourism reasons, because it apparently rests upon some sort of gateway to hell, et cetera and yadda... although nondescript in his case includes tendencies towards astral projection, telepathy and other-way dog whispering, plus regular encounters with demonic monstrosities, possessed people and objects, things that might be ghosts and his friend John, who is excessively proud of his genitals and alternates between being crass and irritating and obnoxious and generous in the way that more-charismatic-than-you friends sometimes do to get on your nerves.

“Are you on your way over?” [John, who's on the telephone]

“I, uh, got somethin’ going on here.” [David, who’s in deep shit]

“What’s your thing?”

“I’ve got a--”

I paused, made a decision.

“--batch of brownies in the oven. I don’t want them to burn, or else they’ll get gummy.”

“Yeah, they’ll stick, too. Did you grease the pan?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Good. Anyway, Amy is missing and the scene is weird as shit. The situation has a real Lovecraft feel to it. Though, you know, if you come over it’ll be more of an Anne Rice situation. If you know what I mean.”

“Who’s--”

“Because you’re gay.”

Like David, John also enjoys intermittent glimpses of the unspeakable denizens lurking beyond the veil, along with a kind of hyper-aware connectivity with what passes for normal reality that smacks of the guy from Rain Man after drinking too much absinthe. This occasionally saves them from a widely-distributed death and at other times clogs up answering machines with annoying messages. For a while they both work in a shitty video rental store, so like John says, if you were to contemplate a Lovecraftian version of Clerks you’d be on the right track. If you envisioned Kevin Smith directing The Call of Cthulhu, maybe less so.

These superficially envy-inducing powers come courtesy of soy sauce, a soy sauce-like substance that definitely didn’t originate in China, causing as it does the attention of an inconceivably alien awareness to focus upon anyone unfortunate (David) or cocky (John) enough to ingest it. However, the psycho-delic effects it initially has on them are by a considerable measure the most benign. Others in their circle of acquaintances are spectacularly and speedily less fortunate; but Wong’s straightforward writing style serves to grant equal degrees of authenticity to incidents of mild canine stupidity and incidents of bodily disintegration into a cloud of semi-sentient flying corkscrew worms, to the extent that the reader decides (in my case at least) to just go along with it and see what happens next.

And plenty does happen, take my word for it. In keeping with the impression that our heroes might just be tripping monkeyballs, the story takes us on a disjointed ride through the recent past and chaotic present, bounding from one crazed encounter to the next, taking in alternate realities, even Las Vegas. On top of all that, the pop-culture references fly almost (well, not really) as thick and fast as the worms. Not the usual sort, though. The culture being popped here ranges from first-person-shooter games (done for chuckles, mostly) and ICQ chat rooms (excellently unsettling) to meta-clichés of various stereotypes familiar to film and fiction. There’s a McDonalds moment that I guess their lawyers haven’t heard about, plus a couple of song references that... well, let’s just say I’ll never listen to Toto’s Africa the same way again.

But it’s not all funny, and though the horror often tends towards the bodily kind sometimes it is at its most effective in less flamboyant ways. We are riding in the head of an everyman, albeit one with a more entertaining than average stream-of-consciousness (plus we’re maybe not alone in there), and it’s his little observations that hint at how this world is off-kilter, usually setting us up for some grandstand proof.

What chilled me wasn’t the cop’s threats. It was the single, dark thought I could read pulsing through his head:

The dead are getting off lucky in this thing.

That didn’t seem like a normal cop thought to me.

Much of the pleasure is in the details that build up the world: the amateurish open-air rock concert where we meet Jenifer Lopez and which is the flash point of all that is to follow; the trailer park trailer with the impossible, horrible painting in it; the shopping mall that never was, filled with used condoms, broken needles and deer; or the confused restaurant called “They China Food!” with a Mexican bull-rider mural on the wall, owned by two brothers from the Czech Republic. This last is the location of the sort-of framing story, in which David tries to convince an intrepid reporter that he is neither insane nor taking the piss, with mixed success.

A word on the author. I didn’t know who David Wong was, didn’t even know the name was a pseudonym until I got to the back of the book. Then I did some digging and discovered that David Wong is, in fact, Jason Pargin, someone else I've never heard of.  More digging revealed that Jason Pargin is a senior editor at something called Cracked.com, so I checked out some funny lists of things they had there and then started reading another book.  All power to him, because when I finished reading JDaTE I was a well-satisfied, somewhat thought-provoked fella who will eventually read the sequel...but life's too short to open another potential online treasure trove.  America is something of a cultural volcano, one that makes the eruptions of Krakatoa, Mount St. Helens, Vesuvius and so on look a bit like farts in a bathtub.  I mean this more or less as a compliment.  Yes, it periodically spews vast quantities of material all over the place, blanketing distant lands and threatening to smother the blossoming of local creativity in its bed...but how fertile is the land left in its wake, eh? All the music, the books, the movies...

Oh yeah.  There's a movie of this book now, too (and probably a soundtrack album).

Honestly, I don’t remember if I first heard about JDaTE because of the film, which I haven’t seen. The man at the helm was Don Coscarelli, once most famous for the pulpy Phantasm series, now for Bubba Ho-Tep (partly hence the earlier mention). There is plenty of visceral horror on display in these pages, plenty of potential for visual gags, so from that point of view he’s probably a good choice; but it was the pervading bleakness that bubbled beneath everything that really made this book work for me, and I think that might be a big ask of a movie being sold off the back of a monster built from reanimated cold cuts. Some of it would transfer easily enough, as when David is asked why he believes in hell and replies “Because it’s the opposite of what I want to believe,” but unsurprisingly some of the most effecting passages--including the one that, in my opinion, sheds light on exactly why Wong picked that title--would demand a maudlin two hours of art house navel-gazing to convey on the silver screen. So let’s not do that. And while we’re on the subject of how not to fuck up perfectly good books when you want to make a movie out of them, why--

Welcome to freakdom, Dave. It’ll be time to start a website soon, where you’ll type out everything in one huge paragraph.

We try to laugh, but sometimes the truth hurts, doesn’t it? Now, if I don’t want to look like a freak, I’m going to have to sneak back up and break this bad boy into bite sized chunks.

Which is a bit like what happens to John, really.
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Andrew Leon Hudson is an Englishman living in Madrid, Spain. Before taking up writing with intent, he had previously worked in such diverse industries as education, prosthetics make-up, narcotics retail, journalism, butchery and “the services” (customer and military). He once started a company with his parents which employed a few friends until it all fell apart. His first novel, The Glass Sealing, should be in all good ebookshops for Christmas, and he’ll probably mention this article on his pseudonymous blog, andrewleonhudson.wordpress.com

1 comment:

John Magwitch said...

The best mingling of comedy and horror, I figure, is the kind that doesn't fall neatly on one side or the other. The funniest parts of Return of the Living Dead come to mind: the tall gawky monster in the basement, equal parts wide-eyed goofiness and shambling horror; Burt struggling to play it cool as he offloads the twitching zombie parts on his mortician pal, Ernie. The movie's best laughs are played straight, and eventually, by the end, become almost indistinguishable from the horror.

As for this book, I can't say, although the flippantly humorous tone apparent in these brief excerpts seems a little ominous to me. It seems to me that, even at the risk of being accused of po-facedness, a horror story does have to take itself seriously to a certain degree in order to succeed as one. The impression I get here is a story that plays more like a parody of itself. Then again I was never a big fan of Evil Dead II, and this seems like a clearcut case of The Kind of Thing You'll Like, If You Like That Kind of Thing.

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