Sex and Violence, Mostly Violence

Sex and Violence, Mostly Violence

First of all, here’s this.

Second of all, I spoil the grossest thing in The Road.

Whether you like it or not, violence is a part of our daily media intake. It’s always been controversial, from Quentin Tarantino to Marilyn Manson, Doom and Grand Theft Auto, but now, I feel, we’ve reached a saturation point where portrayed violence inhibits every corner of our entertainment– how many award winning television series are there on Netflix that don’t shed a drop of blood? Okay, a couple, sure, but those have tits in spades, releasing our other primal reflexes.

I think it’s worth examining the language of violence in media, because violence itself, is a language. In narrative, it’s a cathartic language. Similar to humor and sex, portrayed violence carries out modern anxieties out to a sublimated pasture of fantasy where it can die peacefully: instead of the primal urge to kill getting on top of you and you wake up next to the head of your neighbor because he wouldn’t stop blasting J Beib’s latest single, you watch an episode of Fargo and go to bed understanding the complexities of murder without actually committing any.

In America, portrayals of violence are more common than portrayals of sex. Bruce Campbell has a legendary quote about Hollywood: “You can cut off a breast, you just can’t kiss it.”  A huge part of that is the sex-negative mentality of the USA, but it almost stands at odds with the hyper-sexualization of women in media. Sex sells, after all. Which is true, but when you look at how sex is generally portrayed in Television and Film it’s almost always associated with a point of conflict, trauma, or the highest goal of a sustained relationship instead of something that just happens naturally. Anyway you cut it, sex is the end of something in media. It’s a punctuation.

Whereas violence exists as a means to an end. It’s a driving force that threads the hero along. You think of Obi Wan slicing off that guys arm in the cantina and your inner cave-dweller goes “FUCK YEAH.” And the scene progresses because of it. Our action narratives thrive on the promise of fucking somebody up. No one really cares when John McClain reunites with his wife, that was a given from the start, but serves mostly as a happy bonus– the money shot of the movie is the cruel schadenfreude of watching Hans fall to his death.

But everyone knows that books are more fucked up than films when it comes to violence, or really, anything. We all know that American Psycho was a much more depraved novel than its silver screen counterpart, but why is that? Is dropping a chainsaw on a woman objectively less terrifying than turning a woman into a human rat-maze? Perhaps. Perhaps the written violence disturbs us deeper because of the more explicit sexual component the novel adds to its morbidity. But I think, at least in a large part, it’s something else entirely:

You’re forced to imagine it yourself. You become culpable for the detestable creation in your mind. You, as the reader, are now a co-conspirator in this depravity and are now, in some capacity, responsible.

But what about the writer’s responsibility in portraying violence? In the forward for A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess bemoans that the original US release (and Kubrick’s film adaptation) refused to see the main protagonist as anything other than a violent delinquent, both having excised the final chapter of suggested redemption via free will. Yet, Burgess admits the following:

It seems priggish or pollyanniaish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers. My own healthy inheritance of original sin comes out in the book and I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy. It is the writer’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself.

That second bit I’ll take issue with, as I don’t believe the people who write fucked up stuff are necessarily fucked up people (some, surely) so much as I believe that they are using a certain language to cathartically expunge a host of emotions in singular gestures. To Burgess’s point, I will say that there’s a lot of dark psychology that is also expunged from the writer’s mind when writing horrific flourishes– I’m of the school of thought that believes Horror and Dark Fantasy writers are probably the happiest people on earth– which happens to resonate, cathartically, with the reader who will inevitably share a similar shade of a dark mind. In that way, the creative yoke of violence is shared between author and reader such that everyone benefits.

The first part of that quote is about the glee one feels having written something truly disturbing. While drafting The Least of 99 Evils, I wrote perhaps the most gruesome scene in my entire writing career. I immediately went downstairs and told my roommate what I’d just done, laughter spilling out of my mouth. He was disgusted which only elevated my elation higher. You can’t deny that pushing the boundaries of discomfort is a satisfying experience. I call it the discomfort zone.

But let’s talk about how violence gets telegraphed in written narratives, shall we? The overarching principle of writing violence is a gentle touch, followed by a perusal of the aftermath. Everything else is all style.

You have writers who use short, and blunt language to drive home the punches of the scene. James Ellroy excels at this. The most heartbreaking death scene in LA Confidential is a sentence that can’t be longer than half a tweet. You’re left with the sudden realization that this character is dead and you don’t have time to follow up on any details because the rest of the action is moving way too fast. It puts you in the perspective of the other characters and is retrospectively very realistic. Real-world events happen fast. You fill in the details while you color in your memory.

Using medical terminology distances the reader from the grisly details. At first. The realization of the cruelty bestowed becomes clear as the reader translates the terms in their mind and finds (or feels) that spot on their own body. It’s an outside-in strategy that works like a grenade: it takes a couple of seconds, but once it sinks in it’s a repulsion-explosion.

Likewise, you can use metaphor in a similar way. “He held his heart like a rotten apple,” is effective because it forces the reader to imagine holding an apple, bringing the violence (abhorrent behavior) closer to home by suggesting a common, shared experience. And then the wave crashes back when the reader realizes they know what it’s like to hold a human heart.

These two are examples of implicative violence. The reader has to fill in the blank to fully flesh out the scene. In comic writing, implicative violence is frowned upon because it lacks a dynamic image to carry the scene through. Panel one will have a character about to punch another. Panel two is a sunburst that says “POW.” Panel three is the other character with a dent in their forehead. It doesn’t work visually… but in written narrative you have the readership doing your dirt for you and a sequence that portrays a before and after moment can capitalize on the reader’s repulsion reflex in a powerful way. Take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example. In the most grotesque chapter you have a scene that portrays some travelers progressing through the wasteland and one of them is a pregnant woman. The protagonists hole in for the night, wary of these people. In the morning they inspect the travelers’ fire pit and find [UGH]. All of the abhorrent behavior is out of sight, but the resounding image of the aftermath haunts you long after you put the book down.

Which I suppose brings us to explicative violence. I’ve already talked about American Psycho. I’ve already talked about the gleeful plunge into unthinkable acts. It’s fun. Who doesn’t love a zombie’s head exploding with the thunderous clap of a Desert Eagle? But explicative violence can get lost in its own purpose and circularly justifiable in its own narrative presence that I feel the stories that go whole-hog generally read a little flat. An exception is (because I’m on something of a kick) Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian which ups the ante further and further in it’s depravity with every chapter. There’s a lot to be said about that book, but the portrayal of violence never ceased to, quite frankly, amaze me with how low the characters go and how absent their conscience is throughout. McCarthy uses a conglomeration of techniques to get this across. He utilizes metaphor quite a bunch, but isn’t afraid to tell you exactly what’s occurring. He doesn’t use medical terminology so much as he does archaic phrases (in and of themselves in modernity, a metaphorical language). To wit: when a significant player in this madness finally meets his end, his death with an axe is described as “split […] to the thrapple.” It’s obscure, but you know exactly what it means.

Which lands us in a place where we have to merge the two. How can you be explicative and implicit at the same time? Noir authors know. Harkening back to the cold, surgical language above, a body that has sustained terrible damage until death (and usually some more afterwards) is a device that is used to at once remove and include the reader to the shock. And there are interesting ways the author can format this. James Ellroy (again) puts the body front and center in the beginning of the novel and includes details that nearly made me barf. Raymond Chandler uses a body, in shocking, ironic terms to the casual breeze of Marlowe’s verbiage, as a way of connecting the story to real-life stakes: grisly death.

But it’s Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 that capitalized on this technique to an effect that still haunts me. He wrote all of the implicative violence it in police reports which, by nature, tend to be cold and surgically accurate. Around 200 pages of police reports about the serial femicide are written in stoic fashion. Just one after the other. It centers around the fictional city of Santa Teresa, recalling a calamity of real, unfortunate events that actually happened in Ciudad Juárez. Knowing that only makes the book harder to digest.

For knowing all that I know about the world, and having read a pile of fucked up books, I’ll say this: we’re just animals who learned how to write…

Animals with a good appreciation for not actually killing each other. The reality of which stings in our nostrils.

And so we write fucked up shit sometimes.

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Digging Into Horror – A study in HP Lovecraft

Digging Into Horror – A study in HP Lovecraft

I have a few highlighted passages in Starry Speculative Corpse: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 2 by Eugene Thacker with my annotation, “aaaaaaaaah!” written next to it. Here is the first:

…something exists, even though that something may not be known by us (and is therefor “nothing” for us human beings)… (p. 41)

Shortly thereafter, I have this highlighted:

Darkness is the limit of the human to comprehend that which lies beyond the human… knowing of this unknowing… the conciliatory ability to comprehend the incomprehensibility of what remains outside… (p. 41)

Next to which I have annotated, “we only know so little about how we only know so little.” I then highlighted the following:

…there is nothing outside, and that this nothing-outside is absolutely inaccessible. This leads not to a conciliatory knowing of unknowing, which is really a knowing of something that cannot be known. Instead, it is a negative knowing of nothing to know. There is nothing, and it cannot be known. (p. 42)

I have annotated, “we don’t even know what we don’t know,” followed by “aaaaaaah!” again.

Cosmic horror is more or less predicated on these principles–  that we are insignificant and blind to the order of the universe, allowing for the possibility to dream up monsters of the dark that are, by our nature, incomprehensible. The general conclusion of most stories that fall into this genre is that a character having been exposed to the unknowable will inevitably go insane.

All horror on some level follows this notion, whether intentionally or not– good horror allows our own minds to scare us instead of the monster on screen. Jaws famously buried its shots of the shark under several iterations of editing, John Carpenter’s The Thing never shows the true alien’s form (only the perversion of the host’s body it’s replicating), Jason Voorhees and Mike Meyer’s hide behind dehumanizing masks, and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead “zoomcam” follows from the perspective of the damned, but we only only see the evil manifested in the body of the possessed victim. The monster loses its potency once you see it in the light– once it’s realized, it can be killed.

So what sets the works of HP Lovecraft apart from the rest is how he’s able, in prose, to bury the horror so deep that it gradually creeps up on the reader. At first it seems like a magic trick. Until you see the cards.

The culmination of reading HP Lovecraft is unlike anything else I’ve read: for me, it was a joyful experience. I tried to pay attention to how Lovecraft crafts that lovely feeling.

First, he tells you the ending up front, usually in the first sentence of the story. From Dagon: “I am writing this under appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.” You know from the outset that the narrator is insane and will be dead soon, likely by suicide. It reminds me of the theory that spoilers only enhance the enjoyment of something, because you know what you’re looking forward to. It’s a clever device that answers a question and asks another– you know the ending, now don’t you want to find out how it got there? Eh? It also plants a seed of anxiety in the reader and puts them on edge– they know something’s going to happen, just not when.

You’re going to need that little push to get through a lot of his work, too, because HP apparently loved writing in arcane language. Most of his work came out in the 20s-30s, so it’s pretty dated by modern standards–and by the standards of the time. It’s dry and academic and I’m 90% certain that it’s written stiff on purpose. I kind of love this because its so antithetical to Lovecraft’s literary contemporaries– whereas Hemingway and EB White preached “brief and concise” to get the idea across effectively, Lovecraft prefers “vague and elevated” language to confuse the reader. Reading the geographic descriptions of a simple landscape often gets convoluted in its crags and valleys and deviations, such that the reader becomes lost. When describing “cyclopean” architecture and the horrific attributes of the ancient alien creatures, the high-brow, academic language remains indirect and it fails in its description. It’s supposed to, as what’s being described is unknowable.

A note about the academic tone worthy of mention is how seemingly tangential it is.  At The Mountains of Madness, for example, Lovecraft spends a frustrating amount of time establishing a consensus on the best arctic drills to use during expeditions; The Whisperer In The Dark, along with The Call of Cthulhu, lingers on the “reasonable” explanations behind the strange inquiries at hand. The Dunwich Horror begins so raptly obsessed with the town’s history, that while one knows that something bad will eventually happen there, it strikes a chord ironic that anything out of the ordinary could happen when described in such a dry tone. I think this discourages a lot of readers from following through. I know it made me reticent. But after reading through a lot of these stories, I think it’s a brilliant, if not stubborn, move. You need to start at a place of reason and scientific certainty, only to let those ideals betray you later on. It’s a long grift, but one that works.

There’s also the fact that Lovecraft is inconsistent in the descriptions of his horrors. As I pointed out earlier, Lovecraft’s not trying to amass a rigidly defined mythology, but rather utilizing a loose one to tie his stories together. Monsters change shape from story to story, and the ambiguity of the descriptions only lends itself to how effective this is– although I don’t really have any evidence that this was done intentionally, I’m following the hunch that this is what makes HP’s work so damn haunting. Especially for those poor souls who have investigated the entire pantheon. Nyarlathotep shows up in a bunch of works, almost never fitting the same description twice, the Mi-Go are alternatively described as Yeti-like and crab-like fungoids… but my favorite is Yog-Sothoth, who generally goes unseen save for a benevolent lightning strike to banish some abomination back to the void. Admittedly, the following passage comes from a story I haven’t yet read, “The Horror at the Museum”:

Imagination called up the shocking form of fabulous Yog-Sothoth—only a congeries of iridescent globes, yet stupendous in its malign suggestiveness.

First pause to recognize how nondescript that is, and yet it conjured some image in your mind. Second recognize how he nods to your own imagination, in addition to the narrators,  with the very first word, effectively robbing the narrator of certainty. Now let’s take a look at a passage describing, not Yog-Sothoth, but one of his human half-breeds, from the hilarious vantage of a hillbilly:

“Oh, oh, my Gawd, that haff face–that haff face on top of it… that face with the red eyes an’ crinkly albino hair, an’ no chin,’ like the Whateleys… It was a octopus, centipede, spider kind o’ thing, but they was a haff-shaped man’s face on top of it, an’ it looked like Wizard Whately’s, only it was yards an’ yards acrost….” — The Dunwich Horror

I find this passage particularly fantastic firstly because it contains a very uncommon break from the academic prose in favor of the native tongue of hill people– and even the layman can’t articulate precisely what the creature looks like, only approximating that it looks like an octopus, or centipede, or spider with a giant ugly face on it. Second, it’s incongruous with the description from Museum, even though we know by the final line of Dunwich, that “it looked… like the father.”

This kind of indirect, approximate horror can be found in the narrative structure itself. I mean, it has to be, right? If it’s in the language and “canon” then the story itself needs to mimic the same philosophy. HP does not disappoint. In The Dunwich Horror, the final spectacle is seen only from afar and those that watched it through a telescope were mentally injured:

Curtis, who had held the instrument, dropped it with a piercing shriek into the ankle-deep mud of the road. He reeled, and would have crumpled to the ground had not two or three others seized and steadied him. All he could do was moan half-inaudibly.

It becomes a game of telephone. It’s not that what Curtis saw was reported, but his reaction to the thing he saw, thrice removed from the reader. You attach to Curtis’s reaction, but you still want to know what he saw.

Even better is how the Whisperer In Darkness plays out, beginning with the “ending up front,” motif:

Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end.

 And neither does the reader. It’s all suggested, all unknowable. The story continues in the now obligatory academic skepticism of strange supernatural happenings, when the narrator makes a pen-pal out of a true believer who seeks an academic understanding of the Mi-Go. The horror happens “off-stage” to that character, writing an epistolary arch of curiosity, fear and finally acceptance and friendship with the alien race. When the narrator visits him, he understands something is off, but only sees traces of the Crab-like fungoids, never the things themselves. When he speaks to a human being’s brain in a jar, that too is met with skepticism, with a narrative eye looking for clever deceits, but it’s never answered one way or the other as to whether a person or a recording provided the dialogue. Even when he’s speaking directly to one of the fungoid creatures, it’s a ruse born of either crafty mask work or expert taxidermy. He leaves it as a question as to what.

After everything (and often at the beginning), Lovecraft will give the opportunity to jettison the narrative from the reader’s mind, and suppose that the narrators really are insane. It’s a red pill, blue pill binary. Red pill, and it’s a fall towards an investigative rabbit hole as the rules of biochemistry and physics begin to deteriorate, before culminating into, possibly, a fervent spiritual awakening subservient (or antagonistic) to higher gods.

Blue pill, it’s a sick fantasy from a sick mind. Which is how Lovecraft wants you to swallow it. The cognitive dissonance between trusting one’s own interpretation over the rational accounts of those who have encountered unspeakable, unknowable horrors, is perhaps the juiciest turn of all. It forces the reader to linger in that space of nothingness and unknowable-ness long after the book is put back on the shelf.