Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 6 - You Always Said You Wanted a Baby

So, who here knows the name Mick Garris? For those of you who don't, his name pops up most often these days as the creator of Showtime's horror anthology series Masters of Horror, as well as its NBC counterpart Fear Itself. I've seen enough episodes of both shows to know that, while I think it's nice that shows like these are on the air, I wish they were a little more ambitious than the straight-to-DVD horror films that I don't even bother renting, but instead watch for free via Fearnet, on Cox Cable's Freezone. I have also discovered that my definition of a "master of horror" differs wildly from Showtime's.

Before those shows hit the air, Garris was, for some completely baffling reason, the director hand-picked by Stephen King to bring his novels to TV (Garris also directed Sleepwalkers, an awful movie that King wrote, which was released theatrically). Garris directed the miniseries version of King's The Stand, as well as the remake of The Shining (the less said about that second one, and King's reasons for wanting to do it, the better). I have no idea what King sees in Garris as a director. Everything he directs has this ugly 1980s sheen to it, even though it's all shot on cheap video. He also likes ridiculously bright colors, which may be Garris's way of saying that horror needn't be filmed in the shadows anymore. Which on its own is fine, but I don't think you achieve the desired effect by making your sets look like they were colored with green highlighters.

But I didn't come to bury Garris, the filmmaker. I came to bury Garris, the short story writer. For a long time, despite my dislike of Garris's film and TV work, I've been curious about a book of short horror fiction he wrote called A Life in the Cinema. The word has always been that this book, published in limited edition back in the 1990s, is a collection of sharp, nasty fiction, and it's your loss if you can't or won't shell out the $40 a new copy would set you back. I never have plunked down that $40, but I have here beside me an anthology of movie-themed horror fiction, edited by David J. Schow, called Silver Scream. I did not have to pay $40 for it, and it contains the title story from Garris's collection.

Briefly, the story is about a young, up-and-coming film director who, straight out of film school, makes a horror film which gets chopped up by the studio due to poor test screenings. Struggling to get another project going, and considering a move into TV work (which he's been resisting), he moves to a heavily Latino part of L. A. One day, he runs across an old Mexican woman, nursing her baby. The baby is incredibly bizarre, all dark and shiny, and just weird. The director immediately thinks, hey, I can make a movie like Mask or The Elephant Man using this baby, and then I'll be famous. Because of course that's what he thinks. Fortunately for him, the old woman takes off, leaving him with the baby, and he takes it home, pitches his movie idea, flashes the baby at people when he thinks the circumstances call for it, and goes about making this movie. Oh, but there are terrible and shocking consequences, and so on.

The tone of the story is "sardonic", according to Tobe Hooper's introduction to Silver Scream, which is just a fancy way of calling the story what it is: sarcastic. And if you were to pin Garris down, I imagine he'd claim that the point of his story is that Hollywood sometimes exploits people for profit, a fact I was stunned to learn. But the truth is that the point of the story is to "shock" the reader, by which I mean, the point of the story is to be gross. The baby, you see, sucks anything it can get close to. It wasn't sucking the old woman's breast for milk, in other words. And the baby sucks things it shouldn't, and it's gross, and so the fuck what?? I get it, Mick Garris, you don't play by anyone's rules, you're going to rattle the cage of modern horror and knock people's brains out of their asses with your unblinking look at society and sex and violence. Also, Hollywood is mean.

I wouldn't go so far as to say this story represents the dregs of the genre, because the truth is that I've read far, far worse. But the fact that the fiction collection to which this story gives its title costs $40, and is whispered about as a book that horror aficionados need to read, as the kind of collection you need to read if you want to know where the genre is going today, says a lot of things about horror as a genre, and none of them are good.

Elsewhere in Silver Scream is a story called "More Sinned Against", by Karl Edward Wagner. Not that this should or will matter to anybody reading this, but my feeble attempts to form some sort of pattern or schedule with these posts has basically been a failure, due in large part to the fact that I'm bad at such things, which in turn is a result of the fact that I'm lazy. One of the things I wanted to do with this project is read at least a small chunk of Wagner's fiction, because I never have before, and he's considered one of the modern greats. Wagner went to medical school, where he trained as a psychiatrist, but he threw all that over to ride motorcycles, write horror and fantasy fiction, and call upon his peers to do the best work they were capable of doing. He was the original editor of the Year's Best Horror anthologies (which are now overseen by Stephen Jones), and died at the age of 39 of illnesses made worse by years of alcohol abuse.

Given that last fact, "More Sinned Against" seems more personal than "A Life in the Cinema" possibly could be. It's about Candace Thornton, a young Southern woman who dreams of becoming a serious actress. Unfortunately, she is very good looking, instead of "beautiful" in the Hollywood sense, and not very talented. She falls into nude modeling, and meets a man named Richards Justin, who gets her into drugs, soft-core films, eventually porn, and worse.

If this all sounds by-the-numbers, that's because it kind of is. One of the things that stands out about this story, however, is Wagner's style. Here's how he describes one of Candy's lowest points:

Candace still had a few contacts to fall back on, and she was back before the cameras before the bruises had disappeared. These weren't the films that made the adult theater circuits. These were the fifteen-minute-or-so single-takes shot in motel rooms for the 8-mm. home projector/porno peepshow audiences. Her contacts were pleased to get a semi-name porno queen, however semi and however shop-worn, even if the films seldom bothered to list credits or titles. It was easier to work with a pro than some drugged-out runaway or amateur hooker, who might ruin a take if the action got rough or she had a phobia about Dobermans.

As you can no doubt tell, this story, like "A Life in the Cinema" is also "about" exploitation. The difference is that this story actually is about exploitation, and doesn't use the idea of it as a vehicle for cheap shocks. And that quote is about as graphic as the story gets, because Wagner knew what he was doing. I don't think this kind of restrained, declarative (and sometimes blackly humorous) style is effective only because it forces the reader to use his or her imagination. That's part of it, but there's something else going on. This is just off the top of my head, but I think that some of the power of this kind of writing comes from the fact that, while we know that what Candace goes through happens all the time, we're able to more or less ignore it. We may find it sad, even horrible, but we're able to look at it from above and only empathize in theory. By writing in a prose style that is also above it all, Wagner is somehow able to reverse the effect, and the distanced feel of the writing brings the reader closer. I don't know if that makes any sense, but, regardless, it's a strong effect.

Anyway, I thought I knew where this story was going. I thought, in fact, that this was another story that, like Campbell's The Face That Must Die, wasn't quite "horror" as I defined the term, that it was part of the reality-is-horror school, but in the last pages I was proven wrong about everything. You may have already made the connection between "More Sinned Against" and the film Star 80. Well, if you've ever read Robert Bloch's short story "Sweets to the Sweet", you should imagine that story mashed up with Star 80, and you'll have some idea of where "More Sinned Against" ends up. And it doesn't quite work. The Bloch story is very short, so there was no need for Bloch to worry too much about introducing his supernatural element too suddenly. Wagner's story, while not all that long, is still about twice as long as Bloch's, and the ending is completely out of the blue, and doesn't make much sense. It's hard to suspend disbelief when we've had no hint of the otherworldly until the last two pages.

Still, it's an interesting story, and well-written. Even if I don't get back to Wagner this month (and I still may), I will certainly read him again.


L. Rob Hubb said...

Enjoying your project - a nice change from the listing of movies (usually the same ones mentioned year after year.)

Also very heartened to see mention of SILVER SCREAM, one of the best anthologies that snuck out in the late 80's.

One more mention - if Mick Garris really wanted to be a "Master of Horror" (which he is in much the same way that Richard Simmons is a "Master of Love"), he could've earned the title by picking some of the stories in the collection for adaptation on the Showtime series - Joe Lansdale's "The Night They Missed The Horror Show" was a missed opportunity to adapt.

bill r. said...

"Night They Missed the Horror Show" is a good one, and it's a shame I've already read it, because it would be a good way to talk about explicit violence being used well, since up to this point I feel like I'm coming across as an anti-violence crusader. I'm not, really, it's just that most of the time I think it's used badly, and dishonestly, and lazily.

Another good Lansdale story -- better even, I think, than "Night They Missed the Horror Show" -- is "Drive-In Date". That one really disturbed me, and was kind of brilliant.

Will Errickson said...

I'm glad to see some hate for "Masters of Horror" because I was so disappointed in the handful that I saw. Trying to explain to some horror fan acquaintances of mine that most of these guys were hacks back in the day, or that the stories were kinda-sorta rehashes of the splatterpunk movement, just got me met with blank stares. Ah well. I did like Argento's hilariously sexy/creepy adaptation of the old Wrightson comic "Jenifer" not because it was really any good, but it at least was fun. "Cigarette Burns" too was decent; can't go wrong with Udo Kier (although compare that one to Silver Scream's "The Answer Tree" by Steven Boyett).

I also just picked up a collection by Wagner and so far so good; "Neither Brute Nor Human" is a genre writer's treat.