Friday, November 19, 2010

My Love of the Fantastic: Part I

The fantastic...such a label covers quite a bit of ground.  Basically, it encompasses everything and anything that would be considered otherworldly, out of the ordinary.  That includes such literary genres as traditional fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction, magic realism, paranormal romance and....horror.

I am dismayed at the fact that the horror genre has to be included here, which is the primary reason I'm writing this piece.  My love of all things fantastical and out of the ordinary absolutely does not extend to the horror genre.  Here, some fans of the fantastic might find themselves muttering, "What?!  She doesn't like horror?" in utter disbelief.  They might even wish that they could have an actual conversation with me, in order to discuss this seemingly illogical (to them) exclusion of stories, books, and even films that have the power to raise the hair at the back of one's neck, and give one goosebumps, while one's heart starts knocking rather loudly against one's ribs.

Well, there it is...I absolutely and irrevocably detest this particular genre.  In fact, much as I loved such Ray Bradbury books as The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, for example, I distinctly remember the feeling of queasy uneasiness that slowly stole over me when I read some of the stories in those books.  They gave me definite chills.  Having experienced this, I would never dream of reading another famous Bradbury book, The October CountryThat particular book has more than just a slight undercurrent of horror...

The thing is, I don't like feeling scared, especially when there's no good reason to be.  I don't like feeling "that little frisson of fear" up my spine.  In fact, I abhor it.  It seems so incredible to me that there are people who actually enjoy this kind of thing!  Why would anyone deliberately read a story, a novel, or watch a movie, that would make them feel terrified?  After all, the feeling of terror is not a pleasant one at all.  Nor are the physical sensations accompanying it.  I really cannot understand why books and movies whose entire purpose is the evocation of abject fear continue to be produced, and consumed.  What is it about the human psyche, I wonder, that seeks out this type of uncomfortable experience?  Well, my psyche certainly doesn't crave it!

I can understand other feelings related to the fantastic, if the horror genre is excluded.  I can understand feeling totally enthralled by the beauty of magical landscapes.  I can understand feeling awe and wonder at the miraculous feats of magic performed in fairy tales and mythology.  I can also understand the grim determination of a heroic warrior, as he (and nowadays, 'she' as well) battles a fearsome dragon, or some other equally daunting foe.  Ironically, this particular situation does include a certain element of horror; however, it's not usually the most important one in the story. 

I can also understand the love of a human, whether male or female, for a  mythical being. 

Then there's the wonder of meeting fascinatingly different, or even human-like, alien beings, crossing vast galactic expanses, using technology that is so advanced it borders on the magical.  There are so many things to ponder and wonder about -- new scientific discoveries, interactions between humans and aliens, exploring new, uncharted worlds....  These things, too, I can understand.

I cannot understand the appeal of terror. 

So, as I analyze my love of the fantastic, I have to admit that not everything out of the ordinary is wondrous, enthralling, and awe-inspiring, which means that I have to be very specific when I say that I love the fantastic.  I love every literary genre that deals with the fantastic, with the sole exception of the horror genre. 

Things can get a bit difficult for me when a writer introduces elements of horror into another fantastical genre, as in the case of Bradbury.  That makes me very uncomfortable, especially if I like other aspects of a writer's work. 

Another writer that comes to mind, where genre overlap is concerned, is L.J. Smith, who writes YA fantasy.  She is the author of the Night World series, which I love.  She's also the author of The Forbidden Game, an omnibus edition of three previously published books -- The Hunter, The Chase, and The Kill.  I won't say much about this edition here, as I intend to review it soon.  Suffice it to say, for now, that certain parts of the book gave me that uncomfortable feeling.  I can say the same thing for The Vampire Diaries.   I have already reviewed the first omnibus edition of this series, which includes the previously published The Awakening and The Struggle.  I might very well go back and put in some comments referring to this uncomfortable aspect of it in my review.

A very obvious objection that might now be raised here is that it's totally absurd for a proclaimed Twilight fan to detest the horror genre.  Vampires are, after all, creatures that inspire horror, are they not?  To parody Gertrude Stein, " A vampire is a vampire is a vampire".  Right?  Well, no, not necessarily.  The idea of vampirism certainly does inspire horror; however, not all vampires are created equal.  Not all vampires are like Dracula, mercilessly drinking their victims dry, slinking alone through the darkness, deliberately instilling terror and revulsion in all who unfortunately run into them.

Stephenie Meyer's family of vampires, the Cullens, are not like that.  In fact, they are presented in contrast to the Volturi, a group of ruthless vampires who rule the city of Volterra, in Italy.  The contrast is most marked when one compares the leader and role model of the Cullens, Dr. Carlisle Cullen, with the leader and dictator of the Volturi, Aro.

I must again avoid going into too much detail here, since I do want to review all four books of The Twilight Saga.  Indeed, it's incredible that, as much as I love them, I have not yet done so.  But explaining that would mean going off on a tangent, so I won't go into the reasons at this point.

Unfortunately, there are some story details in Stephenie Meyer's Saga that do make me a bit uncomfortable.  Although these books are classified as 'horror' on Goodreads, I feel there are so many overriding elements that I love about them, that I have to say I forgive Ms. Meyer for the uncomfortable moments.  I would therefore hesitate to classify them as belonging to the horror genre.  I would insist that that they should be listed as 'YA paranormal romance', which indeed they are, in such bookstores as Barnes & Noble and Borders.

The most important of these overriding elements I'm referring to is the love between Edward Cullen and Bella Swan, which I will deal with in detail in my forthcoming review of the first book of The Twilight Saga.   It's not the type of thing one would expect to see in a novel primarily calculated to arouse fear.  In fact, a Biblical verse comes to mind here: "Perfect love casts out fear."  As depicted by Stephenie Meyer, Edward and Bella's love is nothing if not perfect.  It's an impossible ideal, the stuff of fairy tales.  Edward is the somewhat flawed knight in shining armor, who manages to overcome his tragic flaw, and Bella is the somewhat 'ugly duckling' whose last name is a little prophecy of what she will end up being -- a beautiful, highly accomplished princess.   This is hardly the kind of stuff one would run screaming from.

The first horror writer that comes to mind, and whose books I absolutely refuse to read, is Stephen King.  Just looking at his picture on the back cover of one his books, during a visit to my neighborhood Barnes & Noble, scared me!  Seriously, the guy looks like...well, let's just say, probably one of his own villains...  I did read one of his stories once, out of curiosity, and that was a huge mistake!  I don't recall the name of this story, but the plot gave me a couple of sleepless nights.  I resolved never to so much as touch another of his books again!

Of course I have to mention the utterly detestable Edgar Allan Poe, who is supposed to be an icon of American literature.  Well, he was, I must grudgingly admit, a master prose stylist.  His stories can also give the reader sleepless nights, though.  I remember suffering through three of them, because they were English assignments in high school: "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Cask of Amontillado".   For those who are familiar with these horrible tales, enough said.   For those who are not, I would recommend you avoid them like the plague.  They are definitely not for the fainthearted.

Other writers whose works I have also avoided reading, and intend never to read, are H.P. Lovecraft, V.C. Andrews, Dean Koontz, and Clive Barker.  I would also have to include R.L. Stine.  I skimmed through one of his books once; unbelievably, he writes primarily for children.

Granted, there's a little bit of horror in all fiction, in the sense that tragic events do and must happen, so that conflict, which is the basic dramatic ingredient, is maintained.  The horror genre, however, magnifies this element until it's the one that predominates in the fictional work, whether story, novel, or film.  Gruesome, macabre descriptions abound, and very evil characters -- to the point that they are no longer human, but monsters.  Worst of all, these monsters never do seem to be stopped.  I'm thinking, for instance, of Hannibal, in The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris, which was later made into a movie starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.

I do realize that there might be monsters in fiction, that these are, in fact, a necessary evil.  When they are allowed to run amok, and remain undefeated in the end, after the reader has gone through pages and pages of the most horrible and terrifying events, then I have a problem.  How do I avoid this problem?  Simple.  I refuse to read such fiction.

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