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How Not to Horror

My editorial position is to review and write about, predominantly, things I enjoy. I’ll let the occasional gripe or complaint slip through, but for the most part I’ve found that nonstop delectation in the guzzling of Haterade is, while enjoyable, a young man’s game, and in my 30s I have learned to ditch shame about what I enjoy (and thus the concept of the “guilty pleasure”) and embrace who and what I am. Life is a far briefer rocket ride than most of us would care to contemplate, and maximizing my enjoyment of the journey at this point means focusing on the things I love a little more and the things I hate a little less.

But few of my rules are ironclad and this week is an exception to that policy, because I am going to focus on three pieces of horror fiction – two novels and one film – that give an excellent lesson in how NOT to craft horror; or, at any rate, how to craft it quite badly. Our object lessons this week will be provided by Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels, Edward Lee’s Header, and the film 1st Summoning. Let’s start with Gospels, Clive Barker’s unforgivable follow-up to 1986’s classic novella The Hellbound Heart (and his first novel for adults since 2007). Gospels was Barker’s revisiting of two beloved characters, the demon Pinhead (AKA “the Hell-Priest”) and Harry D’Amour, paranormal PI. The Hellraiser family of products is Barker’s most prolific and profitable mythos, in spite of most of it having been crafted by other writers, directors, and artists, and Pinhead is his most easily recognizable and distinctive character; Barker’s answer to Jason, Michael, and Freddy.

The premise is promising: civil wars in Hell, a Dante-esque trip to the depths of the Inferno and back, a showdown between two of Barker’s best-loved creations. I tempered my expectations going into Gospels: I’m a devoted Barkerite since the mid-90s, and I’ve been waiting for his promised follow-up to The Hellbound Heart since the early 2000s, when whispers of it first began to circulate. Given the result, I wish Barker had left The Scarlet Gospels unwritten and to his readers’ imaginations. It is, if I’m being direct, a poorly-written book, which is shocking for a writer whose prose circa The Books of Blood fairly leapt off of the page with an electric crackle. Gospels is badly structured, full of one-dimensional characters who speak in wooden clichés and quips, and riddled with typos. It is dumb, briefly and inexplicably transphobic, and clunky, altogether without a doubt the worst thing I’ve read that was written by Clive Barker. What lesson can we take away from this book? An important one, I think: don’t trust publishers to have the best interest of their authors at heart. An ethical literary agent (or, hell, even proofreader) would have sent this back to Clive with instructions to work on it until it was fit for publication. This shoddy first draft should never have seen the light of day.

The only occasions on which Barker’s prose comes to life in Gospels are extended descriptions of gore. Blood and guts are all well and good, but not nearly enough to sustain a work on their own. That brings us to our second lesson, which will be illustrated by Edward Lee’s Header. Header was released in 1995 through Glenn Danzig’s Verotik publishing house, and has lingered like a rancid, cheesy stench in the horror canon since then (I could live to be 150 and never manage to wrap my head around Header’s popularity). Header, for the uninitiated, is Lee’s gross-out novel about a gang of murderous necrophiliacs given to drilling holes in and sexually assaulting the skulls of their victims – “head-humping,” in Lee’s unfortunate and oft-repeated formulation. Now, look. I’m not against the gross-out, as Stephen King calls it. I’m not even necessarily convinced that it’s “the lowest form of horror” – I have defended the artistic merit of The Human Centipede movies, love Tusk as much as the next guy, and think that Eli Roth has brought some hideously interesting innovations to horror in the last few decades. But Header – which lore has it was written as a kind of boundary-pushing half-satire – is inexcusable, not so much for the ick factor as for its myriad other flaws. Lee’s book is filled with cringe-inducing hillbilly patois. It is remarkable in its misogyny and in the ugly, 1990s angry-white-guy sense of grievance and entitlement that it oozes, particularly during its execrable finale. Lastly, and perhaps most damning, the content that is intended to shock is pretty tame, all things considered. Compared to even non-horror pieces of fiction like Naked Lunch or The 120 Days of Sodom, Header is a snooze. The lesson that Header offers us is that even shocking, transgressive horror needs to be inhabited by something more, be it an idea, artistic vision, or allegory. Mere shock for shock’s sake is usually downright lame.

Speaking of which, in my experience even poorly made low-budget horror movies are usually considerate enough to offer me a memorable monster, a jump scare that gets my heart rate going, or a halfway-decent score. Not so with 1st Summoning, a boring, cheap-looking Satanic Panic dud. Summoning is a perfect example of our third lesson: horror isn’t going to make itself. Allow me to explain. In 1st Summoning, writer Chris Piner and director Raymond Wood no doubt thought they had an easy project. A found footage narrative frame, the menace of a secret cult, a few genuinely (and memorably) creepy locations… how could it go wrong? Here’s how: it’s not enough to simply assemble the constituent components of a good horror story and then expect them to magically animate themselves without creative life being breathed into them by an author or filmmaker. It almost feels as though the participants in 1st Summoning pitched a movie as a goof and were immediately offered financing, at which point they realized that they didn’t have any idea what they wanted to do with the damned thing. This illustrates our last lesson: when crafting horror, look before you leap. You usually need a plan before a good project can take shape.  

One nice thing about mistakes is that they often offer an opportunity to learn what went wrong and why, and to avoid similar mishaps in the future. In The Scarlet Gospels, Header, and 1st Summoning, we have three prime examples of how not to make horror: lessons that I hope have proved instructive. They have for me. 

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