24 May 2013

The Philosophy of Horror (Noel Carroll)

My husband has a degree in film from NYU (go ahead, ask him how useful it is!), so he has a few texts hanging around--including Noel Carroll's fantastic The Philosophy of Horror.

I haven't indulged in academic writing in a while, which is a roundabout way of saying this isn't general-audience-easy to read: but it's worth the trouble indeed, for anyone interested in the horror genre and by extension the way that fiction works from a philosophical perspective. Carroll spends a lot of time of both the paradox of fiction, i.e., "How can something cause a genuine emotional response in us when we know it's not real?" and the paradox of horror fiction in particular--"Why on earth do we read/watch things that frighten and disgust us?" These chapters (2 and 4) are the most abstruse; Carroll admits in his introduction, "[Chapter Two] is the most technical chapter in the book; those who have no liking for philosophical dialectics may wish to merely skim it, if not skip it altogether." (Isn't it nice when an author gives you permission? I had forgotten my love of said dialectics until I fell back into the comforting style: "X theorizes this. But that doesn't work because of Y and Z...")

Chapters 1 and 3 are the empirical heart of the book, and the ones that will stick with me as I consume artifacts of the genre, and related ones like sci-fi/fantasy--currently, this means that during my daily binge on Supernatural, part of me checks off Carroll's criteria. First, he defines and refines the concept of art-horror (distinguished from feelings of horror elicited by real-world events), and what's required of a "monster" to be an object of this emotion. They must be threatening, obviously, but further, what he calls "impure." The latter term borrows from anthropologist Mary Douglas, who explained the impure as things that fall in between or cross the boundaries of cultural categories, creating contradiction from which we recoil. The easiest example of this is things like ghosts or vampires, who are both living and dead; but Carroll ticks off many other types of transgressive monsters: combinations like werewolves (man/beast) or China Mieville's khepri (woman/scarab); magnifications like the radiation-embiggened critters of 50s sci-fi; the incomplete, crawling hands and eyeballs and formless blobs. He argues persuasively that the fundamental feature of art-horror is cognitive threat; we react to these interstitial creatures with not only fear but revulsion.

And in chapter 3, he analyzes recurring features of horror plots--not denigrating them as formula, but teasing out the way that many stories work, in order to understand how they're satisfying. He characterizes the most common structure as "the complex discovery plot," which consists of four phases: onset (the monster begins to affect the human world, generally by killing people), discovery (the protagonist[s] begin to understand that this threat is unnatural, outside their usual experience), confirmation (often, they must convince an authority of the nature of the threat, overcoming initial resistance to the supernatural explanation), confrontation (what the Winchesters would, constantly and puzzlingly, refer to as "ganking" the monster). Of course, these four phases can be shuffled around and repeated and recombined, and some stories only use two or even one (all onset! all confrontation!). It's an absolutely marvelous theoretical framework, elegant and precise and extremely convincing.

And, you know, a great excuse to read some Joe Hill or watch some horror movies. For research.

22 May 2013

The Amazing Spider-Man, Volume 2 (Stan Lee/Steve Ditko)

My intermittent attempts to read more of the superhero-comics canon has featured some early Marvel lately. I only lasted a couple of issues into Essential Classic X-Men Volume 1, because SHEESH, Jean Grey, you have massively powerful telekinetic powers, stop putting up with these boys treating you like a rare and delicate flower. (I should read the Claremont run instead, right?)

Thoroughly enjoyed this Spider-Man collection, though, featuring issues 11-19 and Annual No. 1, all from 1964. Honestly, I feel a little silly weighing in on heavyweights like Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, dabbler that I am--but here goes anyway: Lee's writing is sooooo fun here! So blinkin' punchy and breathless, and I downright love the braggadocio of the covers. From #16's, for instance: "Warning! If you don't say this is one of the greatest issues you've ever read, we may never talk to you again!" Hyperbole at its most charming.

And I have actual things to say about Ditko's art! I mean, obviously his human figures aren't naturalistic, and everybody's heads are alarmingly rectangular. But he's great with action and acrobatics, and varies viewing angles and framing distances, so that even conversations have a cinematic sense of movement. And I generally found it easy to follow the direction to take between speech/thought balloons in a panel, not always my strong suit.

Also, who would win in a whining fight: Peter Parker or Luke Skywalker?

16 May 2013

Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals (Gordon Grice)

Recently I've been working my way through the non-fiction titles on my TBR shelf, which I often neglect. In very brief: a 60s Catholic title on true and false demonic possession, sadly not as awesome as it sounds; Peter Carlson's followup to K Blows Top, May 28th's Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy, another winner about two New York reporters shuffled between Confederate prisons before their daring escape across the Applachians; Leonard S. Marcus's winning collection of interviews with picture-book illustrators, Show Me a Story.

And so I came to Gordon Grice's SUPER AWESOME Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals. As the title implies, it's a compendium of the wide range of animals that are known to kill or injure humans--not just the usual suspects like lions and crocodiles and cobras, but insects that spread disease, domestic dogs that try to better their social standing by biting children, fish that leap out of the water and collide with boaters (one woman suffered a collapsed lung and five broken ribs when a sturgeon hit her), elephants that huck rocks at people (in fact, the elephant kills people in more ways than any other animal, including stomping, goring, swatting with the trunk, even sitting on them on purpose). It's encyclopedic in scope, engagingly written (favorite image: Grice's son's carnivorous water beetle darting around its aquarium "like a frantic pecan"), and a treasure trove of Fun Facts that delight my bloodthirsty inner child. Here are tidbits from all the pages I dog-eared (yeah, maybe it's a bad habit, but it meant I could find these again):
  • "[The panda is] best known as the mascot of a certain conservation group and as a sexually reluctant object of human scrutiny in zoos." [25]"
  • People often ask me what the most formidable predator in the world is. . . . As it happens, there is a clear answer to this perennial question, and the answer is orca." [89]
  • "[The crocodile] can even slow its metabolism so it doesn't starve while waiting to ambush a particular prey item."[133]
  • "In Germany, a single crow with the habit of knocking people in the head drew police to a park where, after one or two stratagems failed, they finally got the bird drunk on schnapps and arrested it." [149]
  • "It has been said that if England had been as rife with chiggers as the southern United States is, English Romantic poetry might have been avoided." [179]
  • "[A]bout sixty [species of millipedes] have repugnatorial glands. (The great regret of my life so far is that I have never had occasion to use that phrase in conversation.)" [182]
  • Wondering why it is that butterflies are exempt from the usual insect disgust: "This thought recurs to me every time I see some painted beauty flexing its wings like a slow dream of sunset while it sips at a pile of dog feces." [207]
  • Caption beneath a picture of a cutesy-wootsy bunny-wunny-woogums: "Pet rabbits have bitten off human fingers." [272]
More anthology than narrative, the book still manages an underlying theme, saying to its human readers: You are not exempt from nature. You are, rather, part of it, for good and bad. You are not at the top of any "food chain"--to animals, you're just another animal, sometimes a pest, sometimes a meal, most often completely uninteresting.

(FYI: I read this in hardcover--the book changed publishers and title for the paperback. I like the hc cover better, because GRRRR TEETH, but you'll probably have better luck finding it as The Book of Deadly Animals, with a yellin' hyena.)
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