On the surface of things it would appear that author Franz Kafka and filmmaker George A. Romero don’t have much in common with each other, especially in terms of their respective conceptions of horror. Horror, in Kafka’s work, is a sort of existential dread, the terror dawning that God either doesn’t exist or is indifferent. One of Kafka’s friends, an admirer of his work, once asked him if he thought there was hope. “There is hope,” Kafka said, droll smile barely curling the corner of his lips. “But not for us.”
The idea that God is indifferent is disheartening, but not quite as terrifying as the Lovecraftian idea that there is a God, or multiple gods, and that they hate and despise us, and are waiting for some foolish mortal to stumble on them, say the right incantation or dislodge the correct lock so that they can break free and get this eldritch party started, settle the score with us fragile, blood-filled and morally hamstrung meat bags.
But let’s turn to George A. Romero, the man who gave us the Zombie film genre as we know it (and was neither remunerated correctly for his contributions nor many times credited, period). His horror is visceral and in the tradition of the Grand Guignol theater. There is suspense in his works, dread, but the true horror comes when nothing is implied and everything is shown in all of its gory glory, wet organs punctured, the reanimated dead fighting over uncoiling spools of long intestine jiggling like suet as they yank the slickened offal in both directions. It is, as Stephen King pointed out in his book Danse Macabre, especially terrifying because we feel like laughing even as the terror courses through us.
What both George A. Romero and Franz Kafka have in common is the belief that much of horror’s power stems from a refusal by the sadistic or indifferent force (or the plain hungry force in Romero’s case) to proffer the victim with a sufficient “Why” for what they are doing, or a “why” to explain this thing that is happening, or not happening in the case of Kafka. In The Trial a man is charged with some crime that isn’t divulged to him, and in The Castle he attempts to approach a castle which forever remains out of reach for him.
If something terrible happens to us, we obviously experience it as unpleasant and frightening. But we generally understand that the serial killer or rapist is looking to gratify some sort of sick urge. The kidnapper is many times looking just for ransom money. Sure it’s gross and grisly when an heir’s grandson gets his ear severed from the side of the head because Daddy Warbucks thinks the kid staged his own kidnapping to feed his drug habit, but it makes a kind of sense, and sense tempers the worst horrors.
This may explain the obsession with “origin stories” for bad guys (although these days such stories seem be the coin of the realm in superhero fare more often than in the slasher flicks I remember from my childhood in the eighties).
Jason Vorhees might be implacable and silent, as he gazes at you with black hollow eyes from within his blood-splattered hockey mask. Michael Meyers, appearing in his modified William Shatner mask with even darker eye hollows (and a butcher knife) seems to have a limitless capacity for evil and even less feeling than Jason, who at least occasionally looks puzzled and cocks his head to the side like a confused dog. But we know where these guys came from and how they got to be the monsters that they are. You just have to go back far enough in the series to get answers to such questions, but you get a “Why”? that stays the hand of ultimate horror.
But who turned Gregor Samsa into a bug, and why?
As for Romero’s lack of a clarifying “Why,” one can attempt to answer the question by simply saying that the zombies are eating people because they are hungry, and since they’re no longer human what they’re doing isn’t even what the anthropologists would call gustatory cannibalism (as opposed to the ritual type). But that doesn’t answer the main questions, which how did they become reanimated and why?
The first of the Dead movies seems to hew closer to the Cold Water atomic horror template (especially aesthetically, what with the eerie public domain horror music and the grainy black and white camerawork), or I think it’s implied or maybe stated in the movie that a comet or asteroid came to Earth with a payload in one of its craters that spread some sort of virus that reanimated the dead. But these kind of explanations in the Dead films always felt sort of pro forma and just there, insufficient explanation and all the better for it. There is no “why”.
Dawn of the Dead continues the saga, with the mystery abiding behind the source of the curse or the disease, or whatever the hell it is that animates the dead and causes them to feast on the living. There’s that great scene where the four main humans holed up in the Monroeville Mall have cleared the place of zombies, and are enjoying the fruits of their conquest of the temple to commerce. Fran (the only woman among their number) shivers in a massive fur coat she’s pilfered from a woman’s department store and mulls over the question that earlier, when the only concern was survival, never really got asked. “What are they?” (Close enough to “Why?” to suit our purposes for the night’s blog entry). “They’re us, that’s all,” Peter, one of the two National Guardsmen among their number, says. He then tosses out a chestnut from his grandfather, a practitioner of Macumba, a syncretic religion that spread from Sub-Saharan Africa to Brazil by way of the transatlantic trade in humans. “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”
This most memorable line is not really an attempt to answer the “Why,” since a good explanation (regardless of whether or not it satisfies any scientific or rational criteria) at least gives the confused and forlorn some hope. That the corpses of people who don’t even have functioning digestive systems are trying to eat you because (maybe) there’s no more room in Hell does not help one cope. And it leads quickly to an ugly infinite regress, in which the answer to one “Why” not only leads to another, but only makes things worse and increases the sense of terror in the face of the unknowable.
Franz Kafka said he (and by proxy his writing) was a dead end. Considering the amount of mileage so many have gotten from him, it might be more accurate via extended metaphor to say that he’s created a cul-de-sac around which the mind swirls again and again, searching for the hidden “Why”, until the traveling in circles begins to feel less like a stimulating exercise and more like circling the drain, a downward spiral toward Hell (presumably well-stocked with both man-bugs and flesh-eating zombies). I guess what I’m saying is the attempt to answer the question “Why is this happening?” and not getting an answer is at the heart of such disparate but abiding and timeless works of horror as The Metamorphosis and Dawn of the Dead, to say nothing of the greatest horror of all, human history.
Here’s as close as Kafka came to addressing the “why” …
Franz was walking with his friend one day, who, sensing there was some sort of metaphor to be gleaned from The Metamorphosis, prodded Kafka about the story’s meaning and offered his own suppositions as to what it meant, the metaphor behind The Metamorphosis.
Franz, the usually mild-mannered insurance claims handler, became unusually animated, interrupted his friend, and said that “the Dream reveals the reality, which conception lags behind.” That, he continued, was “the horror life.”
You are given the faculty to ask why, and the need to have that question answered and resolved, even in the face of a great threat. Asking someone or something a question while they are trying to kill you is not a good strategy, but the lack of an answer given for their reasons compounds the horror of whatever is to come next, which is usually your death.
I don’t want to get into theodicy (it’s late enough already), so let’s just say that both “horror” as a state of existential terror and “horror” as a genre seem to suggest it’s more plausible that either God doesn’t exist or that he or it doesn’t like us very much. I hope that’s not true. And considering I haven’t been turned into a bug (yet) or eaten by a zombie (yet), I’ll stick with Pascal’s Wager for the time being.
I was going to say that unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few decades, you know the general arc of author Stephen King’s career, along with his critical reception, and how both have altered. But the truth is that King is famous enough that even if you’ve been living under a rock, providing you have keen hearing and wi-fi rays can penetrate rock (and maybe they can’t, I don’t know) chances are good you know who Stephen King is, what he does, and how others feel about him.
I’m too young to remember when the guy first burst onto the scene (I was born in the early 80s), but my age also means that I was pretty much in the eye of the storm, King-wise, when for good and for ill, the guy made his deepest penetration of pop culture. One could even be illiterate and know who King was, thanks to both the magic of the glass teat and the silver screen. In one of my earlier books I wrote about an encounter between two boys in first grade who talk about Stephen King, concluding that he is an evil old man who lives in a castle, and when a movie is sufficiently scary, say about a malevolent clown who pulls kids into the sewer, or about vampire children who scrape at your bedroom window during the night with their claws, said work was screened for King, and, if he thought it sufficiently horrifying, King nodded his head and said, “It looks scary enough, put my name on it.” Or words to that effect.
For the literate-but-pleasure-reading-public, Stephen King was no master stylist, but was without peer as a storyteller. He was someone who knew how to hook you and keep you on the line, for several hundred pages, and the ubiquity of his paperbacks at newsstands in airport terminals no doubt eased the travels of insomniacs taking transcontinental flights in the 1980s, who were worried about junk bond barons raiding their pensions or Libyans with shoulder-mounted cannons trying to beat the high score set by whoever shot down Pan-Am Flight 103.
For the middle to highbrow, Stephen King was initially perceived as a hack, someone who had taken a lifetime of pulp detritus like E.C. comics and crumpled typewriter pages discarded in Rod Serling’s wastebasket and somehow managed to get a platoon of ghostwriting monkeys to shape this grist into a number of very-well selling mass market paperbacks.
The problem with calling King a hack, though, is that a hack is someone who doesn’t do it from the heart, someone who churns it out as if they were on the clock and does it just to get paid. Stephen King is prolific as hell, but if he were doing it solely for the money he would have stopped a long time ago.
Eventually the gatekeepers (I imagine them sitting around a wood-paneled Manhattan boardroom, a group of horse-faced Boston Brahmans in black turtlenecks, tan sports blazers, and oxblood loafers) had to concede that Fine, King wasn’t a hack, and he wasn’t even trash, but his writing trashy. Thus provided one was to treat the indulgence of reading his work as a guilty pleasure, like a tabloid hidden inside the folds of a paper of record during the daily commute, then even the Good People could read King all in good fun.
This attitude may or may not still be prevalent among the Good People. I remember encountering it a couple times as an undergrad, with one especially insufferable professor (insufferable for other reasons) sniffing haughtily and snorting before saying, “Stephen King is …okay.”
This kind of stalemated “Okay,” drawn like an unwanted concession by a wrestling opponent who’d been pinned but was too proud to tap out, eventually morphed into respect, or at least a more grudging acknowledgment of King’s staying power and maybe even his (gasp) literary merits (relatively speaking, of course, old chap). This was due to the simple fact, already touched upon, that the guy kept writing through the initial critical indifference, the later drubbing, and finally the acceptance.
It didn’t hurt that Stephen King, when in nonfiction mode, demonstrated more than an autodidact’s knowledge of not only horror fiction, but of great literature and the mechanics of writing. Danse Macabre is one of the few texts analyzing pop culture that might cause an undergrad (and even a professor) to work up a light topcoat of sweat if they were to grapple with all of the theories and history elucidated in the book, which takes the reader on a tour from Continental Romanticism all the way to schlock b-pictures dealing with the horrors of the atomic age. Touching very briefly now on On Writing, let’s just say there’s a good chance that the book is likely to supplant Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style as the go-to text for people who want to learn how to be writers. Sure, if said wannabe writer is in a reputable MFA program, they’ll hide the book on the dorm room bookshelf, sans cover, but they’ll still learn more from that twenty dollar hardback than they will going fifty-thousand dollars in debt to have some tweed-jacketed Updike lookalike make them parse The Yellow Wallpaper or The Story of an Hour closer than a monkey examining its offspring’s head for lice.
It’s been awhile since I’ve read anything by King, but during my formative years as a young man and a young writer I read quite a bit of him. I was already well-enough alienated from society in a literal sense at that point already to not worry about what was or wasn’t salonfähig as the Germans say, so I didn’t care whose imprimatur King did or didn’t have. I read ‘Salem’s Lot with the same set of eyes I used to read Remembrance of Things Past (unless some sinister eye-merchant, like the one in ETA Hoffman’s Der Sandmann, swapped out my peepers in my sleep one night while I was dozing).
What I may or may not have noticed about King, though, besides the obvious, is that he was (and probably remains) a writer of unparalleled stamina.
This is something King himself addressed at some point in his writing, I think in relation to his novel Carrie. He talked about how short the novel was in its initial typewritten draft, and that he had to pad the thing out with these interleaved committee meetings on telekinesis (sort of like a Kefauver Inquiry, but into paranormal phenomena rather than mafia meddling with boxing).
King pointed out, with an uncharacteristic scoff in his voice (apparently he can look down his nose just as much as some éminence grise tending goal at The Paris Review), that one can sense when writers who are attempting their first novels struggle to cross the finish line, to write something of fifty or sixty thousand words. King himself said that when he went back and read something from his Carrie period, he recognized his voice, his style, and mannerisms, but the work read as if he had been suffering from a very bad head cold or had been under the grip of the flu while composing it.
Since Carrie, though, I don’t think King has struggled over the finish line even once. Or if he has, he hasn’t betrayed that to the reader.
For just as writing is a form of telepathy between writer and reader (as King points out in On Writing), some things can be communicated by the less-than-expert telepath against his or her will during transmission. They can betray, reveal, broadcast their weaknesses much as a poker player or boxer can. They can also bluff.
Many times reading novels by writers of varying ability (some of them very good), I have sensed them fatiguing, sagging psychically. It seems that when King hits this potential wall of fatigue which every creative person encounters, no matter how inspired or well-trained their muse, he steps up his work-rate, to borrow a phrase from boxing (and we’ll stick with boxing and ditch poker, since I know something about the former and nil about the latter). He not only refuses to buckle to the inclination to slow down, but seems to find himself spurred on to new heights by it. Just as some animals and some fighters are more dangerous when they’re wounded, King seems to find his deepest well of inspiration at the point where most other people pack it in for the day.
He is not just prolific in terms of cranking out books, one after another, but is a marvel of perpetual motion even within the pages of a single book, or story. Whatever planted this seed that’s borne an inexhaustible forest of fruits over the decades, (admittedly of varying quality, even according to his hardcore fans)- whether it was poverty, abandonment by his father who’d made his own halfhearted attempts at being a writer, or if it was just inspiration he was born with- King has been punching away at his unconquerable foe now for more than four decades. Addiction, alcohol, criticism, aging, and speeding vehicles have not slowed him down. The blandishments of fame and success have not robbed him of his vital essence, the succubus has not sapped his “precious bodily fluid,” to borrow a phrase from Base Commander Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove.
He’s the literary equivalent of Henry “Hammering Hank” Armstrong (sometimes also billed as “Homicide Hank”), dubbed the “perpetual motion machine,” a boxer who reportedly walked to and from work a cumulative twenty miles each day…to drive spikes while on the clock. And then spent his nights in smoky Masonic temples, Moose lodges, and VFW halls battling it out for fifteen rounds with no air-conditioning under hot lights in front of sometimes-hostile crowds.
Stephen King is a rich and famous writer who does not need a panegyric composed by me deep down here in the trenches of a little-frequented blog, anymore than Muhammad Ali needed the praise of a kid in some grimy PAL gym getting his hands wrapped as he prepped to get paid a couple hundred bucks to have his brains beaten in before a room half-filled with folding chairs.
But if you think he hasn’t earned than $400 million, you’re buggin worse than Phife Dog.