Artist/photographer David A. Reeves is one of my very favorite artists because he uses paper cut art to create haunting photographic scenes. I am a paper cut artist so pretty much anyone who does something cool with paper cut art is cool by me. Bonus that he does paper cut art with zombies and the video game Limbo. So he’s pretty much the love of my art life. Check him out here.
Madness has been the genesis of many supervillain. You’ve got your mad scientists and your sociopaths, your split personalities and your obsessions. Madness comes in a variety of flavors.
It is important to note that being a villain does not necessarily require madness or psychotic disorders. It’s just used often to explain why any human could behave the way some of these villains do. We don’t like the idea that people can be so malicious and terrifying because they are just greedy and selfish. We need them to be less than human so we don’t think our neighbors, or worse, ourselves, can go down this path.
Real madness isn’t like it is in stories and movies. I remember when I was younger playing Vampire the Masquerade roleplaying game. One of the vampire clans was called the Malkavians and their “thing,” the thing that made them unique and interesting, was that they were incurably insane. Dementia ran in their blood line and they embraced their crazy. Unfortunately, few players could actually play them crazy in any new and interesting way and they were regularly banned from most gaming tables I knew. Madness, you see, is complicated and if you’ve never felt the paralysis of schizophrenia, you’re probably going to end up flailing about like a killer clown, rather than a serial killer.
Batman’s Joker suffers from writers not really knowing how to play crazy, too. He’s usually more comedic than disturbing and scary. A notable exception everyone is familiar with, of course, when Heath Ledger got a hold of him and brought sociopathy to a whole new level.
Allow me to be serious for a minute. I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell this story, but I think it is a useful anecdote for writers who want to explore this.
When I was younger I knew a boy with serious sociopathic tendencies and he acknowledged it to me on a couple of uncommonly honest occasions. He was a friend because I was naive and gullible and sociopaths, if they want to be, are incredibly charming. The charm was addictive. They have manipulation to a fine art in a way that should scare the hell out of you. He was more socially adept than most, but his lack of acknowledgement of other people’s rights was pretty astonishing. He was good at making friends, of making them feel like they were special and chosen, and he conned them by plying them with interesting experiences they might never have had on their own. He taught me how to smoke a cigar on the deserted streets of Salem, Massachusetts at almost three in the morning. Things like that. I was never targeted by him, just sort of along for the ride, but I know the girls he dated were emotionally vulnerable in a way I didn’t understand at the time and that made it easy for him. He was scary, sweet one minute and devastating the next, but I’m not going to talk about the particulars. He enjoyed wrecking people and he lied easily and frequently. He liked to tell stories of his interesting experiences and they became more convoluted and extraordinary with each retelling. Again, that wasn’t me, he never targeted me. I don’t know why. He could of and I was young enough I probably wouldn’t have known what to do, but our interactions were usually pretty positive and uncommon for him. The thing about sociopaths is that their emotions are faked. They borrow them from others to suit the moment. That’s part of their charm. They seem to know exactly the right thing to say and do at any moment. When we hung out though, he usually seemed pretty tired, like he was taking that time off from being himself.
The boy I knew wasn’t violent or physically dangerous, just kind of a really destructive, greedy bastard. He didn’t need to pay for rent or food because he could get others to do it for him, happily too. That sort of thing. He wanted people to admire and love him and when he got tired of it he would emotionally cripple the person to get them to leave. I suspect this is what would happen in the real world if normal people got superpowers. It was a long time ago though, in another life, but it makes me particularly sensitive to poorly written sociopaths. You can’t really describe one if you’ve never met one, which I hope you don’t ever do, but here’s a good clue. The flesh crawling feeling you get when you meet certain people? Probably a good indication to go the other way. I can’t tell you how many times people described this feeling to me when they first met my friend. They were right to listen to their gut.
Multiple personality disorders (dissociative identity disorders) are another popular writing trope that is usually done kind of badly. It’s sort of a stand-in for a plot device to have multiple characters in one character so all the actions of that individual can be crazy and unpredictable. You can have them do whatever you want. I can’t even name one instance of this being done well. In actuality, this disorder has some major underlying reasons for the split – coping being among them – and that should be a central configuration of a character. It’s usually not.
The point I am trying to make is that madness is complicated and disturbing and not a good plot device for making anything you want happen. It should be used specifically and for specific, important reasons. Anyone who has dealt with mental disorders will be able to spot the inexperienced writer the moment he/she puts pen to paper, and it will be annoying and offensive. Of all the things you can write about, this is one sacred place that requires diligent, honest research and proper treatment. You can’t Google the wiki page for a text book definition and you can’t make this stuff up, not like most things, because it’s too real and horrible and painful and shouldn’t be used lightly. I believe very strongly about this, from the use of depression all the way to psychopathy. That’s all I’m saying. Respect this one thing if you decide to write about it.
One exception, however, is the mad scientist, who you can play with to your heart’s content, unless you plan to tack on some other psychopathy on top of his literary crazy. The mad scientist is mostly obsessive, too curious of the boundaries of the known world, and thrilled with discovery and invention. It’s a a disorder born mostly from literature and not from the real world. Though obsessive compulsory problems do exist, they just don’t usually lead to the building of freeze rays or the creation of artificial life as an outlet.
“Every artist was first an amateur.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said that. Smart guy. Although apparently, after his first wife’s death, he wrote in one of his journals “I visited Ellen’s tomb & opened the coffin.” Which is, like, I don’t know. Maybe a step too far down crazy train for me. We writers are a weird lot.
Edit: Instead of doing things I ought to have been doing, I redesigned my blog. What do you guys think? I’m not used to having dark backgrounds, so be honest. Does it work for you? Too dark? Your opinion matters to me! You’re the ones who have to look at it all the time
So there is a haunted house up in the Niagara Falls area, reportedly extremely scary of course, but they do something a little special that other haunted houses don’t. You know in amusement parks they take your photo just as the car descends the big drop? Well this haunted house takes your photo at a particularly scary moment in the house. We have no idea what it is the people are seeing that is clearly causing some drawer wetting, but whatever it might be is scary enough to cause tough looking high school boys to grab each other around the waist like little school girls.
Aside from the absolute laughing pleasure of looking through the pictures posted on their Flickr account, there’s a lot we can learn from these candid shots.
What does surprise and terror look like, fellow writers? This. This is what it looks like.
It looks like an 18 year old jock about to wet himself. It looks like a train of girls in the throes of being possessed by a vengeful spirit. It looks like old men bursting into tears and facial expressions so stretched and screwed up they look like they must be fake. I like the ones of grown men pulling their one knee into their chest, their fists bunched up close to their face as if they are clutching their petticoats from a mouse.
What it doesn’t look like? It doesn’t look hot, that’s for sure. Normal people don’t look cool and determined and super hot in the face of the grotesque, surprising, and/or unexpected. They look like cartoon characters. That’s a little lesson all MCs should learn.
My friend Lydia and I play a game while looking through the pictures. We pick out the people we’re going to have on our team during the zombie apocalypse. The ones who look unimpressed by the terrible thing while their comrades cower behind them. The ones in battle stance. There aren’t a lot of them, but we’ll be a strong team.
We also point out the Can’t Handle it Guy (or gal) who we’ll kick off the island before they get us all killed. You’ll know the ones when you see them – the ones who break the line of defense while the front half gets away and the back half is stuck behind Can’t Handle it Guy as zombie snacks.
Our second favorite game is called Imminent Breakup. These are characterized by one of the pair (usually the guy) running from the terror and leaving their significant other behind to be eaten. My favorite? The guy who appears to be shoving his girlfriend away with one hand, fighting to get out of her grip while she holds onto his t-shirt. Awesome.
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Joshua Hoffine is one of my favorite artists in the whole world. So much so that I’ve been reluctant to share him with anyone because then everyone will love him too and then I’ll have to share. And that doesn’t seem fair.
But he’s too talented for me to keep all to myself so it’s time to let him out of my “Inspiration Links” folder and into all of yours.
What makes Joshua different from other photographers is that his work is more film-like than pure photography. We’re lucky because he likes to post details on his blog about the photo shoots, how the sets and props are built, how the make-up is done, how he chose his actors/models. Some of the stage craft is mind boggling, all for one or two photographs. The photographs blow me away. Sure, they are horror at their very best, nightmarish and reminiscent of B-movie magic, but they are also art. Part dream and part story. I wouldn’t want to live in his worlds, but I like watching vicariously.
I think KEYHOLE is my favorite, though it’s hard to pick a favorite because they are all so freaking cool. KEYHOLE reminds me of this book cover, which I also love, so I’m thinking maybe it has to do with the perspective. I’m apparently missing my calling as a spymaster.
Cybils reading is going ok – getting my hands on some of the books is harder than I expected since so many of these are so new that I’m battling people for them at the library *points to knee pads* Sometimes I win, sometimes I take an elbow to the mouth. Alls fair in love and literature.
When the cover of this book was first released, I had a nightmare about it. I dreamed about an autumn corn field, barren and dry, and that I was running away from something trying to get to a house that kept receding the faster I ran. Anyone who has spent any time out in the country knows what this phenomenon feels like. Maybe it’s a physics thing – the curve of the earth creating some optical illusion, I don’t know, but there’s something about trying to cross a corn field that feels like eternity stretching before you. You walk and walk and walk and never seem to get closer to home.
That was what the dream was like. But nevermind. That’s only interesting in the context that the first time I saw the cover, it gave me nightmares.
A Monster Calls and Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan are two books with a strong argument for including art in novels. Using engravings to illustrate books used to be the norm, but at some point along the way adult readers and adult publishers made some conscious decision that illustrating books was for kids, drawing the dividing line between serious and not-worth-your-time novels. Many books are changing this perception, and I look forward to seeing more of it.
A Monster Calls might be a young adult book, but its illustrations are profoundly beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Like a vintage, gorgeous wool coat full of spiders.
The artist’s name is Jim Kay and I love how creepy and active his drawings are. I can feel the monster lumbering across the landscape, the hoom, hoom, drum of his steps. I can’t help it. I hear Yeats in my ear, whispering, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Every page has something more than words, and I love how carefully this book was typeset. The messy India Ink drawings splash and smear and spread up and around the blocks of text, forcing the paragraphs out of their standard blockiness to fit into uneven, unnatural shapes. The white space feels contained and surrounded, and this proves an interesting effect on reading. It becomes far easier to lose your eyes inside the text, herded and corralled by the black drawings which drive out the real world like shadow. The diving into the narrative and getting trapped there is almost too easy. It provides a visual illusion of being drawn in too close to the text and characters, too close to the events, and my rational mind is tricked into feeling, for brief moments, like I am in immediate danger instead of the text boy, Conor.
While it looks like a horror, A Monster Calls isn’t traditional in any sense of the word. It’s scary, yes, but in a primal way – the same emotion that pressures you off a dark, empty street even when you don’t recognize an immediate threat. The story is sad and traumatic and haunted, but not in the way I was expecting. Like the art, the voice of the story does its own little illusion to really creep you out.
The story is written from a thirteen year old boy’s perspective and reads like a children’s book. There are simple perspectives, thirteen year old boy thoughts, but the events unfolding, the psychological hauntings, are the sort of things children are usually hidden from, their eyes covered, their curtains pulled. The juxtaposition is unsettling and visceral. Every time I put the book down I have to work to control my panic.
A gorgeous book masterfully written, language spun out of spider webs and falling leaves, characters who are neither easy to love or satisfying to hate, all culminating on a twist of storytelling that will leave you with indescribable emotions and a need to be alone for a while.
It’s only real failing is that it looks like a horror novel, a really great, traditional, experienced horror novel, and it’s not. Not in the least. The cover is very grown up, the silver metallic finish and simple, classic font choice feel too adult for the writing style found inside, and this is probably going to turn some readers away before they realize how rich the story actually is. This is a book where nothing is trustworthy – that even the cover is playing tricks on you.
Back when I was a kid, when you had to walk three miles in the snow in bare feet to find the nearest haunted house, monsters were scary. Monsters didn’t bother with fast cars and teenage girls…unless they intended to eat them, turn them, or possess them. They were never described as hot, no girls were lining up for mad hot make-outs in the back of Freddy’s Beemer. They didn’t sparkle, or go to high school, or consider sex after matrimony.
And I’m not even dogging on Twilight here, I mean, pretty much all the monsters these days come to us steamed, pressed, and neutered.
I yearn to be scared by monsters again. I want Dracula stalking the beautiful Miss Lucy, draining her slowly of her blood so that she is more haunted than alive. I want psychological warfare on the menfolk. I want Renfield baiting and noming on flies and spiders.
There’s just such a suspicious lack of scary anymore. What was once the domain of Horror has now become that of Paranormal Romance, which, whatever, is fine. But I’m ready for the mists upon my skin and Jack the Ripper doing ghastly things to the denizens of the underbelly of London. I want Frankenstein building new monsters and a newfound, special terror of cemeteries and old churches to keep me up late into the night. I want mad scientists knocking back psychosis cocktails. I want to carry salt when I pass the empty house at the end of the block and I’d love to to be kept awake by knock-knock-knocking in the walls.
I haven’t read something properly scary in a long time.
And horror, though difficult to master, is rich with atmosphere and untouched stories. I’m concerned with how fiercely YA (and much of adult) has been gripping the sexy side of werethings and undead spirits. Even zombies are getting dolled up for prom and I can’t think of a more sacrilegious thing. Hunky zombies? Really? What’s happened to our obsession with being scared? Where once October was filled with haunted houses and stupid ideas like let’s sneak into the abandoned house down the street and have a seance and play with Ouija boards* now it’s all like “Do you like me check yes or no – yours always The Invisible Man.”
We’ve turned Dracula into our high school crush and tamed the Hounds of Baskervilles like Pokemon. When the raven comes rap-rap-rapping at our chamber door, he turns out to be a fallen angel come to watch us sleep. Who said stalking wasn’t sexy?!?
There is opportunity here to dig into the psychological trauma of American hauntings and really scare the pants off one another. Monsters need to return to their roots. They need to take hold of their chutzpah in both hands. They deserve to be badass again.
It’s been a while since I’ve been so much as creeped out, guys, and I swear on a first edition Twain that the day the protagonist locks lips with Cthulhu, I’m out of here.
So, it’s time to bring the scary back. And until then, we can keep each other entertained with what slim pickings are out there. Next week I’m going to share two creeptastic books with you and some movies worth turning the nightlight on for on Thursday.
But now it’s your turn. In the comments, recommend some books that kept you up all night, afraid the walls would start bleeding and the crows would come the moment you shut your eyes. Share your scariest.