Weird Tales: Mike Allen on Fascinations with the Disturbing

Writer: Mike Allen
Weird Tales Story: An Invitation Via Email (Issue #350, May/June)
Writer Bio: Mike Allen lives in Roanoke, Va. with his wife Anita, a comical dog and a demonic cat. He’s the editor of Clockwork Phoenix and Mythic Delirium. His most recent fiction has appeared at Helix and Cabinet des Fées. His usual blog is here.

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Once upon a time my wife and I went out with another couple for the dinner-and-a-movie thang.

Everyone else looked to my guidance to pick the film we would see. I chose Requiem for a Dream, and thrilled at every brain-frying, stomach churning minute of it. Roger Ebert describes Requiem as “a travelogue of hell,”and it is. I became so caught up in the aggressively beautiful way that drug-induced doom overtakes and demolishes each character that it didn’t even occur to me that my companions might not be having the great time that I was.I emerged from the theater agog, and exhilarated … and the couple who came with us came out, well, quiet. Anita finally took me aside and informed me that if our companions had had any idea what they were in for, they would have begged to see something else. The movie left them shellshocked. It did me too, I suppose … but I like being shellshocked by an entertainment.Why is that? From whence grows the root for this love of the disturbing?

It’s tied, I’m sure, to the tidal forces of my childhood that turned me into a horror fan, but it’s not the exact same thing. Horror fiction, horror movies, often serve as a sort of thrill jaunt, a physically passive alternative to a five-minute roller coaster ride — you feel like you’re gonna die, but you ain’t, that’s the point. But do you ever walk away from a roller coaster disturbed?

I know my love for horror serves as a kind of armor, that it’s a trait I developed because I’m someone who’s particularly vulnerable to (and fascinated by) horror. A well-meaning third grade teacher exposed me to “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” at a naive, sheltered and oversensitive eight years of age, and night terrors visited me afterward for the next (ulp!) eleven years … my first encounter with Lovecraft (“The Rats in the Walls“) at about age 12 made things exponentially worse, but I couldn’t leave it alone, even when “Pickman’s Model” left my heart pounding every time I groped blindly in my parents’ cavernous basement for the pullstrings to turn on the lights.

Just as with those stories, I vividly remember the tales that left me disturbed — haunted in some way beyond a mere confrontation with my own potentially messy mortality. They hit me during that same crucial 10-to-12 age range … it never even occurred to me that literal damnation was an option as a story outcome until I read “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (fully illustrated, I might add), which brought home what eons of torture really meant in a way that my Presbyterian upbringing most definitely had not … akin to that, Thomas Disch’s “Descending,” with its absurd nightmare of an endless escalator that simply exists, utterly indifferent to the poor doomed slob who gets trapped on it.

Where else have I found that sickening shift in reality, that, because it’s an artificial creation, something muted by narrative distance and born of craftsmanship, leaves me with that feeling that I now find an equivalent to the consumption of a rich meal? In film over the years: Sam Lowry’s hallucinatory breakdown at the end of Brazil. The Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive. The ruthless logic of Dr. Strangelove. Colonel Kurtz musing about a snail on a razor’s edge. It’s no coincidence in this context, I suppose, that Apocalypse Now was modeled on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which addressed “the Fascination of the Abomination” front and center.

I certainly have felt that Fascination, most recently and powerfully embodied in the Judge, the towering bald albino from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian whose rifle reads Et in Arcadia Ego and who dances naked after he murders — this figure that manages to stand out for his evil in a book where perversion and bloody massacre serve as casual scenery. It’s almost as if the author is acting on a spiritual dare: take the worst truth you can imagine, and I will show you that things can be far worse, that the core of your being is not equipped, can never be equipped to cope with the worst that’s out there, even the worst that’s inside you. And I will dare to entertain you, not so much by what I tell you, but how I tell it. (And this is how, perhaps, those of us who have the Fascination transmute it into something we can manage? I can’t really claim to know the answer.)

This type of storytelling is fundamentally different from reporting atrocity, even in fiction form. Take, for example, Osama, which details the horrors that befall a helpless Afghan girl under the Taliban. It’s an absolutely necessary movie, a film that bears witness to a people’s suffering, but there’s nothing entertaining about it at all. Nothing that can be entertaining.

But take then a tale such as Peter Crowther’s “Bedfordshire,” which has as its core some of the most repulsive, controversial subject matter imaginable (child molestation, suicide pacts), and watch how Crowther uses long accepted social mores to weave a damnation for his protagonist that’s certainly equal in its horrific-ness to that of the man with no mouth in Ellison’s story. Even as dismay descended through me, I couldn’t help but admire the construction of the constricting turns of the screw.

Is there perhaps a knowing wink between artist and viewer here, a kind of acknowledgment that, regardless of how good we have things personally, aren’t we really all together in Dante’s Circles? A reviewer prying at Laird Barron’s “The Imago Sequence wrote that “this very disturbing tale is about getting to a hell the protagonist has been in all the time.” I read that and thought, yes, that’s why it’s so good. It’s without doubt an electrifying chapter in the travelogue.

Lately, my wife and I (and some like-minded friends) have been getting together with friends to watch Dexter, the Showtime series about a forensic scientist who is also a (quite prolific) serial killer, who justifies his urges by pursuing the worst of the worst — he’s kind of the next logical step past Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. Most definitely a character in his own hell, but one who has made himself its demon prince. Can you root for Dexter as he dismembers criminals, collects blood trophies and sabotages his own FBI manhunt? We certainly did.

I recommend it to anyone who shares the Fascination. Just be judicious in inviting along your squeamish friends. Or, heck, don’t be. Let them learn.

Comments

  1. says

    Let them learn! That’s the stuff that made Charles Dickens what he was. He spoke of the terrors that his nurse caused him with her love of telling stories that made his hair float. G. W. Thomas quotes him as saying “…Her name was Mercy, though she had none on me.”
    http://www.gwthomas.org/dickens.htm

    But then, terror and horror are also culturally taught – “repulsive, controversial subject matter” can be – Miss Piggy.

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