As I have dipped my quill daintily into the horror inkwell once or twice, it behooves me to spread my intensely limited knowledge to the Internet-addicted masses. So for the month of October I’ll be posting a whole mess of stuff about the genre. Mostly just stuff I like, because I’m lazy that way.
The debut instalment: “I Heart Monsters,” a Last Word editorial originally published in the pages of Quill & Quire, November 2012 issue.
I dearly love monsters. But I’m not so good with horror films. Such is the bifurcated nature of my existence.
As a child, although I devoured Stephen King by the truckload, I would wuss out at the merest hint of cinematic terror. Rather than watch a giant shark munch on Robert Shaw, I’d sit on the stairs and let my sisters describe what happened.
But I was a movie buff, and so one night, alone in my parent’s basement, I steeled up my courage and tuned in at midnight to watch a grainy copy of Night of the Living Dead on television. By the end credits, when poor Duane Jones emerged from hours of nightmarish terror only to be killed by one of his own, I had pretty much soiled myself.
I was hooked. No other fictional monster—film, paperbound, or otherwise—has ever affected me on such a visceral level. There’s something desperately primal about the dead rising from the grave to feast, a quality noticeably absent from other “monsters” hanging around the multiplex lately. In an age where every supernatural serial killer wields a wicked way with wit, werewolves have shirt allergies, and mopey shampires twinkle about in the sunlight, the rotting flesh of the zombie is a breath of fresh air.
I knew I wanted to write something with a zombie as central character, something as far away from the teenification of my youthful terrors as possible. There can be no romance in rot, I thought; little passion in putrefaction, few delights in decomposition. I wanted the monster back; I wanted gore, violence, grit, screams, and the ingestion of limbs. I wanted my admittedly skewed sense of humour to marinate the meat of the plot, but leaven it with sudden spurts of blood and fragments of bone, amplifying the scares like a Coen brothers film.
However, a first-person account of a ghoul revealed a blemish in their perfection; as protagonist, your archetypal animated cadaver is unacceptably tedious. Turns out, monsters lacking motivations make for wonderful villains but are terrible in leading roles. Zombies disgust, horrify, and act as metaphor for all manner of subtext, but ask one to hold its own in a conversation? You’re better off teaching a giant ape how to make snow angels. So by necessity, I was forced to tweak the mythos more than a little, although I was positive I could maintain the grindhouse aura of my favourite fright flicks.Let’s be honest: every author uses artistic license. I’m no literary fundamentalist, demanding adherence to the canon. I cannot stand that classic vampires are invisible to mirrors; I can buy a supernatural allergy to religious symbols, but abstract transparency never sat right with me. Ditto the requirement of silver bullets for werewolf slaying, and defeating barmy computers with logical paradoxes.
Accordingly, I began with what I perceived as the essentials—putrid corpses shambling about as if they owned the place—and worked from there, grafting personality overtop the mouldering meat. Allowing my creature the pleasure of a name helped; it’s less difficult to separate monster from man when the monster’s name is Sheldon. Sheldon must definitely be a card-carrying member of the unwillingly resurrected, I knew, yearning for human lunchables, and he must struggle to cope with the aggravation of decay. Beyond that, I felt I could add some intelligence, even a soul, if you will, and explore how far I could push a netherworld beast into the world.
I relocated Sheldon from boneyard to the realm of the ordinary Canadian; the person who works for a living, pays his taxes, feeds his cat, and cares for his ailing mother. The story would allow for gore galore—zombies without carnage are like Scorsese gangster epics edited for television; kind of okay, but you miss the obscenities—but layering it would be the travails of a man infected with an ailment with no cure and horrific side-effects.Until I recognized, unexpectedly, that what I had on my hands was not a monster story at all. As I followed Sheldon from the morgue to his house to places beyond, the structure of my planned creature feature scenario eroded away. No survivors hid in cellars; no blood-soaked battles waged through the pages; no post-apocalyptic wasteland beckoned (although Toronto came close). There was only a lonely fellow, dealing with a less-than-winning hand in life’s rigged poker game. And despite all my efforts to the contrary, despite my insistence that I wouldn’t fall into the same trap as so many others, the “monster” in my monster ceased to be.
I know there will be readers as similarly dismissive of a morally conflicted ghoul as I am of shimmering vamps (it always comes back to that, doesn’t it?). They will harp that inner conflict has no place in our monsters. To which I reply, why not? I now believe that understanding a monster does not take away from horror; rather, it adds to it. Allowing for a modicum of empathy accentuates the horror by giving us an idea of how we might react under the same circumstances, a prospect far scarier and more emotionally satisfying.
After all, how do you know you wouldn’t eat a hobo if zombification took hold?
How do you know you wouldn’t like it?