Thursday, September 10, 2009

Kill Everybody

I'm not one to be controversial. I'll give some of you a moment to quiet down. However, I want to talk about something near and dear to my heart--the apocalypse. I recently had a discussion with another writer. I believe we were gnawing on the concept of zombie novels and apocalyptic fiction. I said: "You know, I have this thing about not killing everyone off. I mean, if we're going to create a character, endow him or her with all these marvelous qualities, and then torture them for the length of a novel. After dragging the character and the reader through all that, don't you think the hero has a right to live?"

The other writer chuckled in a terrifying manner. "Oh no. Kill 'em all."

Well, it is the apocalypse after all. But what does it say when we kill off everyone. If we create a hopeless environment, populated with hopeless people, then where is the tension? And where is the catharsis? How many times can you have Charleton Heston kneeling in the sand and screaming in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty? How many times can you rescue a heroine only to have her claimed in the last second of the film by an unkillable Freddie Kruger? How many times can you paint yourself into a corner, such as Stephen King does in "The Stand" and resolve it with a literal "deus ex machina"? Let's face it, the ending of "The Stand" remains one of the most disappointing and ludicrous resolutions in the history of modern literature.

As a writer of Lovecraftian fiction, I know that no one is going to be able to take down Cthulhu or Azatoth. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to give my character some victory, or my reader some catharsis.

Call me a pushover, but I want my audience to cheer and when they leave the theater or close the book, I want a satisfied smile on their faces.


Travis said...

You have just perfectly described why I stopped reading George R.R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire. Every time I was a little invested in a character, that character was maimed or killed.

So I never finished it.

Stewart Sternberg said...

There are always people who applaud the villain and hope Darth Vader wins in the end. There are always people who want the hero downed. Maybe they feel things are too predictable otherwise. Me? I want Indiana to triumph over the Nazis and Luke to beat the Imperial Stormtroopers.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm wondering if the other writer you mentioned is younger than you. When I was in my 20s and even into my 30s I wanted everyone dead when I read horror. No light, no hope. Evil triumphs. Or at least darkness does. But in my later 30s and 40s that changed. Perhaps having a child did it, or maybe just getting older, but I began to want some folks to live, and for there to be light and hope at the end. I guess I'm sounding like a wuss here.

I've often found that King has a hard time ending books satisfactorily.

Jon said...

With the chance of victory, or at least survival, there is hope. No hope? Then why bother with anything,including reading about no hope?
I always wondered why people would spend good money and time reading existentialism. The preface to any existential book or story should contain the notation: Nothing that follows matters a damn bit. The last line should be: The End (Why Did You Bother?)
Same applies to, "Kill 'em all."

Stewart Sternberg said...

No, the writer isn't. However I think there is an audience that wants this form of darkness and the author recognized that. But you raise an interesting point. Age changes perspective and writing.

Agreed...although sometimes a nihilistic view is reflective of a response to a world where things increasingly spin out of control. Not all can be positive.

Beth said...

I think The Road by Cormac McCarthy meets your criteria re: apocalyptic fiction – it leaves the reader with hope. I loved it.

(thanks for the visit)

Barbara Martin said...

I'm glad we agree on having a protagonist go through trial and error and reach a semblance of victory or triumph. That is the sole purpose of our lives, be it fiction or reality.

I like a satisfactory ending, not an ending that was thrown away because it was easier to write. It shows the weakness of a writer.

During an/the apocalypse there will be someone alive afterwards. Life has a way of hanging on despite desperate conditions. It mutates to survive, and so should writing.