by Peter Tennant
It’s an emotive term, and probably the first thing that comes to mind when you see those two words up there at the top of the page is the subgenre of ‘torture porn’, but of course there’s more to it than that. The idea behind the best of hardcore horror is not simply to portray violence in the most explicit and grotesque terms, to disgust the reader, but to deal with the raw material of horror, the terrible things that we all fear, in a way that is brutally honest, to write, as Joe Lansdale said of The Night They Missed the Horror Show, ‘a story that doesn’t flinch’.
Perhaps the first to codify the idea of extreme horror as a separate and artistically viable strand within the genre was the splatterpunk movement of the last years of the 20th Century. The term ‘splatterpunk’ was coined by American writer David J. Schow, and writers associated with this nebulous movement include talents as diverse as Lansdale, Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon, though whether any of them would actually welcome the brand name is another matter. The idea was to get away from quiet horror, the suggestion inherent in much of the material then published that terrible things could only be implied rather than confronted head on. The splatterpunks didn’t want to be polite and apologetic, to smuggle horror in by the back door; they wanted to kick the front door down, drag us out into the street and rub our noses in the stuff. And if the name splatterpunk isn’t used much now, is even a term of disrepute for some, then at the same time I think it’s fair to say that the values the movement espoused, the idea of horror as explicitly violent and confrontational, have largely been absorbed by the genre’s mainstream practitioners.
Of course the depiction of extreme violence and inhumanity has always been an option for writers, with many of the finest exemplars from outside of the genre, as for instance Bataille’s Story of the Eye, Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden or Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. Such works ask us to confront the things which we usually turn away from or put out of mind.
Perhaps the seminal figure in this idea of a literature without boundaries was the Marquis De Sade, whose work was a far cry from the neutered portrayal presented in the film Quills. Sade’s great novels are sexually explicit, and in the most extreme ways, delving into the darkest corners of the human psyche and coming back with reports of fetishes and peccadilloes unimagined by most of us, and hand in glove with this is some of the most terrible violence ever committed to the page. But at the same time Sade is a revolutionary and social philosopher, his catalogues of atrocity a reaction to the Age of Reason and the prevailing philosophy of the noble savage. With his unapologetic and brutally explicit portrayal of the grossest offences against man and nature, Sade calls into question both the existence of a just God and the rights of the powerful and privileged to act as they wish without fear of reprisal.
Modern writers of horror fiction have followed a similar agenda of showing us the very worst in human nature by way of appealing to the best, and by doing so they endeavour to make real to us the suffering of others.
We all know that child abuse is a widespread problem. Some of us can even quote facts and figures. But it remains an abstraction all the same. Only that’s not possible when you read something like Jack Ketchum’s novel The Girl Next Door, a meticulously detailed and harrowing account of child abuse, one which shows how easy it is for others to become complicit through turning a blind eye, looking away, or worse still, holding the victim somehow culpable. Ketchum leaves us with no place to hide.
We all abhor racism, but it takes a story like Lansdale’s The Night They Missed the Horror Show to put us into the head of a bigot, to help us to understand how such people think and the ways in which they dehumanise others, and only by understanding can we ever hope to address the problem. Disgust alone, worthy as it may be, is useless.
And as far as disgust goes, at the moment a lot of us probably feel that way towards the financial elite, but it’s only when we confront the poster boy for Wall Street excess, Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’ black comedy American Psycho, a man for whom everything, even human life, is a commodity with a price tag, that the disgust becomes focused, that it gains a human face and personality in lieu of a collection of statistics.
With the best of hardcore horror, disgust is not an end in itself. Rather, disgust is used as a means to an end. We are challenged to confront reality at its harshest and most brutal, to not flinch or turn away, but to see beyond the excesses to whatever root cause they are a symptom of. If you have a horror story that addresses social issues directly and along similar lines to these examples, then it may be something that TFF would be pleased to consider.
[You can read more of Peter Tennant’s thoughts at his personal blog, and reviews at Case Notes.]