Monday, December 26, 2011

Imagination is a Dual-Edged Sword

By Kathleen Bradean

Like Lisabet, I'm not a huge fan of horror. The problem is too much imagination. A good writer gets a grip on me that I can't shake even when the story is over, and I can spend nights jumping at noises. Movies get me too. It took five times to get through just the opening sequence of John Carpenter's The Thing before I could brace myself to see the whole movie. It's the music in movies that creeps up my spine. I learned that long ago when my oldest sister wanted to watch Frankenstein when we were alone one night. She lowered the sound and put on Carpenter's music so I could stand to watch it with her. Knowing that it's the music doesn’t make it any less effective.

Horror and erotica are closely related. More than any other genres they try to provoke a physical response from the reader. Both want your heart to race and use a lot of sensory detail to make it happen, but to different ends. L.A. Banks, who passed away earlier this year, talked about how to use that sensory detail to make a horror scene work at a writer's convention years ago and I still find her observations useful although I turn them from horror to erotica.

The odd thing is that I have no problem reading or seeing horror in manga and graphic novels. I'm eagerly awaiting the next issue of Chew. In it, the main character can see the entire past of anything he tastes, which makes eating food a real problem. One taste of bacon, and he can see the pig in the slaughterhouse. This unusual ability comes in useful when solving crimes, although, yes, it means tasting part of the victim. So it's gross out horror, and yet, I love it.

Another manga series I follow is The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. A group of college students with differing abilities are brought together by an enterprising and not terribly ethical female student to find bodies and (with the help of one of their group) reanimate them long enough to try to figure out how to make money from helping the spirit with any unfinished business. They run into some other unsavory types, including a funeral home that reanimates murderers so that the victim's family can extract revenge, usually in the form of torture. As with most horror, it's a hard look at society and never features easy answers. Unfortunately, since I'm not Japanese, I know that there's some subtext that I miss about how their way of making a living puts them outside society, which is very much a part of the continuing story arc through the episodes. The drawings can be gruesome, but that doesn’t bother me.

I want to like horror. I'm sure that horror writers are just barely on the rung of respectability above erotica writers. But the good horror writers do their job too well. I'm spooked for days by the atmosphere created in the story. At night, shadows in the corner of the room take on sinister forms, sort of like seeing shapes in clouds but not nearly as fun. Imagination, it's a writer's best friend, but as a reader, I wish I could crank it down a few notches.


  1. I gave up on watching horror when I got my first apartment... alone. I haven't watched any in years. I guess it's the imagination thing.

  2. You sound like the perfect horror story reader. Where can I find readers like this?

    I'd be very interested to read what L A Banks said about writing sensory detail. How can get a hold of what she said, please?


  3. I'd never considered there to be any relationship between horror and erotica, but I can see that one might make that argument. From my perspective, the connection comes not only from the treatment of sensory details but from the way the imagination conjures forms and futures. The essence of horror is the unknown (imho) - the sense that something unspeakably awful is waiting to pounce. In erotica, that turns into yearning, anticipation and fantasy.

    Quite an observation. As for who's higher in the literary food chain, well, we don't really have an erotica author who measures up to Stephen King...

  4. Garce - it's been years, so I can only recall snippets, but she casually mentioned how nice the air conditioning felt since it was so hot outside and asked us to feel the movement of the air on our necks. Then she asked us to be as quiet and still as we could and imagine that we were alone, in the dark, walking through an abandoned building. Then to think of that breath of chilled air on the back of our necks in that context. Almost everyone shivered and rubbed their necks as if to erase the sensation. The sensation of touch doesn't make the difference in a story, it's how your character reacts to it. The same is true with any sensory input, and it's heightened in horror (and I'd argue in erotica as well). Hearing is a very important sense in horror, more so than in any other genre. Horror is rarely set in in noisy places. Usually they're quiet so that the characters can hear quiet little sounds that get a magnified reaction. (If I remember more, I'll let you know.)

  5. Lisabet - I don't think of it as a relationship so much as a kinship. Both seek to trigger reactions from the lizard brain. I can't think of a single western that's tried to draw a physical reaction from me.

  6. Interesting point about the relationship between erotica and horror, Kathleen. I think there is an ongoing debate about whether the 2 genres can be combined effectively.

  7. Jean - they would certainly leave your lizard brain wondering what it's supposed to do - fuck or flee. I wonder if male Black Widows and Praying Mantis feel the same dread-lust?


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