Friday, October 19, 2007


Since we're still revving up for Halloween, allow me to turn my attention from the exploitation of vampires to another form of undead, the Zombie.

Prior to seeing George Romero's unintentional iconic rip off of "Last Man On Earth", starring Vincent Price, I associated the zombie with such films as Val Lewton's "I Walked With A Zombie", Hammers' "Plague of the Zombies" and "White Zombie" starring Bela Lugosi. In these films, the zombie is a product of a dark Voodoo rite. Magic.

In the late sixties, Romero added a new twist.

No Voodoo rites in "Night of the Living Dead", but rather some strange radiation animated corpses, turning them into unthinking flesh eating machines. So successful was this manifestation of the zombie that Romero's vision now permeates most fiction and film dealing with the undead.

I've been tackling the topic myself. It's difficult. In writing stories featuring the more modern version of the zombie, I am foreced to grapple with an apocalyptic image where the protagonist is doomed to failure; where the defeat of mankind at the hands of nature is inevitable. Such a restrictive and depressive setting isn't easy fodder. I mean, how many different ways can you set up a protagonist to deal with the zombie threat in a crumbling infrastructure that resembles Baghdad at high noon.

What complicates such a story for me is the inevitability of the protagonist's demise. Sure, they may defeat the immediate zombie threat, but ultimately the undead are going to get them.

Brian Keene (one of several authors who have tackled this sub genre approach) in "The Rising" and "City of the Dead" shows exactly what the problem is. He creates engaging drama and likeable characters, but they of course end up as most protagonists in these tales end up, serving as a main course for the undead. Still, Keene's books are worth reading. He is entertaining and his novels are page turners.

Personally, I hate writing a story where the protagonist dies. I want my characters to triumph, or at least not fall under the wheel of a steamroller. I believe readers deserve more than to be shot down after investing in a character's development. Readers want a catharsis. The reader, who has given emotional time to the writer, wants to experience some sense of purging.

When writing about things Lovecraftian, I take care to carry this belief forward. In the world of Lovecraft, it's easy to kill off protagonists as they are overwhelmed by a reality that is nihilistic and beyond any mortal understanding. I won't spill the beans about what happens to my characters in "The Others", my contribution to "High Seas Cthulhu", but I'll just say that my character lives through the end of the story. Maybe changed, but he lives. The reader is allowed a catharsis.

Poe wrote that without hope there cannot be terror. Without hope there is only a tale of the fatalistic. The doomed man who knows his fate with a certainty that does little to spark horror. The doomed man who thinks that perhaps there is a chance, even only a sliver, engages the reader and creates the dramatic tension and suspense.

I will finish my novel "Food For The Flies", which features good old-fashioned Voodoo zombism, but I'll also attempt to chew my way through a Romeroesque zombie story. I think maybe that I have something to offer readers.

I hope.

And that's really the key to horror, isn't it? Hope.


Sidney said...

That's a great title. Hope you do get it finished soon.

Speaking of Romero's original - the opening cemetery sequence is really chilling to me, great black and white scares and though it lacks the ritual magic it's still a flick I like to enjoy at Halloween.

I'm kind of sorry more of the great horror movies aren't on TV this year for Halloween at least that I'm seeing listed. I have the major Universal flicks on VHS or DVD but I always love the Monstervision experience of having them packaged anew with Christopher Lee or Linda Blair hosting.

spyscribbler said...

Hope ... I didn't think of that. I suppose that would be true in thrillers, too. I must think on that more; thanks!

The Anita Blake series used to have a lot more zombies in them. They kinda just disappeared. I liked the way she did them.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Sid, I love the original. I love the fact that it looks as though it was filmed on burlap. I love the horrible soundtrack. I love the sometimes scratchy acting. It works. It's everything horror should be.

I know what you mean, too about watching the horror films for Halloween. I'm on a steady diet of them until the end of the month, and then I don't want to see another until the new year. As I'm writing this, another of my favorite Halloween treats is on: Alice Cooper.

Spyscribbler, I think hope is key to suspense.

Charles Gramlich said...

Hum, intersting about the connection of hope and horror. Poe makes a good point as well, but I disagree. I generally think that true horror is where the hope is finally gone. No liklihood of survival remains. It's like the line in the previews for "30 days of night," "no God." When hope remains, to me, it is a thriller.

the protagonist might survive in horror, but it is probably going to be temporary. Now, I personally prefer stories where the protagonist has hope, but it still seems to me that the ultimate horror is to be alive but with no hope.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I couldn't disagree more, Charles. I understand what you are saying, but consider this:

A man in a concentration camp knows he is going to die. He has accepted that. He is in line waiting for it. It is inevitable. He is broken. We watch him, feeling his pain, empathizing. The horror we might feel is a different sort. It is a horror for the breaking of all humanity; it is a leaden feeling that rolls forward and crushes. Killing hope, it kills spirit and the audience, like the condemned man ceases to care. Why care without catharsis?

A man in a concentration camp knows he is going to die, but...he also knows that several inmates are planning a revolt. As he is in line, he sees the faces of his would-be saviors. He looks to the ovens, walking forward, waiting and hoping..fearing. He is not broken.
As he steps into the oven, realizing he is now on a razorblade and at any moment might fall to one side or the other, the suspense builds to a crescendo. As the doors close, the suspense blossoms into horror.

Anyone else want to take a stand on this?

Travis said...

I never thought of horror in this context. I'm usually too busy pulling the covers over my head.

I would have thought that real horror would involve the systematic removal of all hope. The protagonist keeps fighting, even knowing that there can only be the short term victory of immediate survival.

So maybe the protagonist doesn't die at the end of one story, but we know that the big nasty is going to get him one of these days.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think you're talking in part about a difference between the actor and the viewer in horror. The man in the concentration camp who has no hope might not show any signs of terror because he has come to terms with his inevitable end. But I think you make my case for me when you talk about those who "watch" this man and know he has no hope. The "leaden" feeling, the killing of "hope." At this moment we have true horror. We know there is absolutely no escape for this man. We empathize, as you say, with his utter helplessness. We feel the despair, and the story ends there. Certainly, if the story continued you would lose the power of the emotion. The story must end when the last potential for hope burns away. Anything futher is anti-climactic and kills the horror.

The guy who thinks he might be rescued in line illustrates either a "thriller," either he "is" rescued, or a simply delayed horror. He realizes at some moment that rescue is not coming and all hope flees. The story ends there.

Mark Rainey said...

Although I have frequently ended things with the protagonist(s) dead or doomed, there's a lot to be said for catharsis in fiction. I takes an awful lot to kill hope, I think, and we, as writers, often do our damnedest to wax it sufficiently. Once hope is gone, there is no horror, no terror, just bleak acceptance. "Horror" itself is a brief, intense emotion -- a moment of realization -- rather than a long, drawn-out reaction (i.e., loss of hope) to awful things; how it comes into play depends on the author's intent and his skill in the execution of his work. Although it may be the climax, it doesn't have to be. To use the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD example: "horror" comes when Johnny reveals himself as a zombie. It comes when the little girl stabs her mother. It comes when the car blows up at the gas pump. There are individual moments that drive home the futility of the characters' position, in shocking ways. By the time Ben is killed, I think we're past horror and into hopelessness. Still, there is some catharsis, some release for viewer: Chilly Billy and his boys beating and burning the ghoulies. But the images of the bodies as the credits come round take us right back into hopelessness. It's a wild and wonderful ride.

Denying a reader the catharsis is risky, but sometimes the unexpectedness of it -- can make for something quite memorable. The ending of Carpenter's THE THING comes to mind here.