Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Disturbing, but not scary

-Hey, it's that day! Do kids even go out begging for candy on Halloween anymore, or have they permanently moved that to the Saturday before? I know the college kids try to limit their rioting to Saturday nights these days.

Despite this confusion, I'll play along with the holiday by presenting my list of the scariest comics I've ever read:

1. That issue of Thor (I think) with an add for Kull the Conqueror (I think) which scared the shit out of me as a kid. It was something about an evil presence in the dark jungle or something. My brother used to taunt me with it, even though he was three years younger. I was a pretty pathetic 8-year-old.

2. (TIE) Everything else. Sorry, but I've never really been scared by a comic. I've found comics to be haunting or creepy or gross, but nothing has ever put me in a state of irrational terror like a good horror movie does.

I was a little surprised when I came to this realization. I really like horror comics--EC and other pre-code stuff, Warren's b&w magazines, Rory Hayes' bizarre strips, Chester Brown's early short stories, assorted horror manga, From Hell--these are some of my very favorite comics. And I don't read them with an unusual degree of ironic detachment or anything like that. These are deeply unsettling comics which linger in my head long after I read them. Take Brown's "A Late Night Snack" (reprinted in The Little Man): it's horrifying, terrible, utterly disturbing, a real testament to Brown's skills--but not scary. Not really.

I've always thought that, for a piece of literature or art to really scare me, it needed a visual component. Now that might be because I haven't read enough good horror--I tried reading some Lovecraft last summer, and man was I ever disappointed. This probably due in part to Lovecraft's torturous prose--he uses words like Todd McFarlane uses lines. His dialogue is absolutely atrocious, particularly when he's trying to write in a dialect. It's almost like his main influence was WPA slave narratives where the white interviewer would indicate their contempt for black subjects by spelling "of" as "ov" or "does" as "duz." And, worst of all, the stories I read weren't remotely scary, or even creepy or unsettling. I'm sure part of the problem is that I'm reading these stories many decades after their themes were integrated into larger popular culture, so the impact of multi-tentacled elder gods is somewhat muted. Or maybe I just don't find that shit scary. In any event, reading Lovecraft certainly didn't convince me to try to make time in my schedule to read other horror prose. Maybe one day if I'm ever facing long commutes again....

Despite their apparent inability to scare me, I do find comics to be a good medium for telling horror stories. As a medium based in art, comics can pack a quite a visceral punch. And the nature of the medium allows the reader's eye to linger on these images, giving the artist a pretty powerful canvas on which to work. Unfortunately, I also think this is what prevents horror comics from scaring me as well.

Bear with me a minute. My favorite horror director, hands down, is Dario Argento. There's something about his movies that appeal to me on a very deep level--they're visually arresting, full of haunting images (and not just gore--Deep Red is full of unsettling images, such as the protagonists' exploration of the abandoned house and the killer's eyes staring out of a dark closet). But what makes these images so terrifying is that film is a medium inherently grounded in time. We can't linger on them (unless we pause the DVD, but that's kind of like cheating, isn't it?). They flash on the screen and leave us wondering what they mean. For a horror movie to really scare me, it needs to create a state of dysphoria grounded in confusion. A lot of that depends on the author's ability to control the pacing of the work.

Comics creators can attempt to simulate these feeling by employing a cinematic style. In a horror context, this might be done by obscuring the object inspiring terror, or by altering the frequency, size, and/or shape of the panels to compel the reader to speed up or slow down. But this is no substitute for the inherently temporal nature of film. The reader of a comic can always go back to look at a panel, linger on a panel, or skip ahead to an especially compelling panel down the line. Take, for example, this page from Josh Simmons' House. (And I really wish my scanner was properly, but this is the best I could do given the circumstances.)

Page from House, by Josh Simmons

The male protagonist has lost his glasses and seems to see some human-like figure beckoning him forward. (It's in the third panel as well, but my scanner cut off the very top of the image and then passed out from the stress of actually having to scan something. Stupid $50 scanner.) If this were film, the image of the human figure could be much more ambiguous. The filmmaker could show it only for brief flashes. Here, it's definitively on the page--there's no doubt that the protagonist sees (or thinks he sees) some figure. In film, this could produce a more visceral shock--the image could be manipulated so that the audience themselves were not entirely sure what they were seeing, putting the viewer in a similar position to the protagonist. House doesn't succeed or fail based on that scene alone (for the record, I think it's a very good comic), but it does reveal a fundamental difference between film and comics.

The other major difference is, of course, sound. I think it underscores the temporal issue--sound is only fleeting, and an odd noise cannot be lingered on until one can definitively discern what it is or become comfortable with its presence. Sound bolsters the illusion that the film is happening in the now, that the horrors being faced are immediate and real. It also adds a lot of mood as well--Argento really got a lot out of Goblin, the prog/jazz rock band which scored many of his best films. That makes a big difference to me, and it's another advantage film has over comics. I don't think that advantage is consistent across all genres, but it's crucial for horror.

-Speaking of Lovecraft, I think the greatest good he ever did was to inspire the incredible, mind-bogglingly underrated Rudimentary Peni album Cacophony. Rudimentary Peni started out as a fairly straightforward British anarcho-punk band, eventually becoming Crass proteges with an EP on their label. Actually, the EP on Crass' label (Farce) is totally boring compared to their self-released, self-titled debut EP. Their songs on the Crass-released EP were typically plodding British anarcho-punk. On their first EP, however, singer/guitarist Nick Blinko would occasionally lapse into howls and other non-verbal singing. He also played around with the tone of his vocals, ranging from studio-aided high pitched shrieks to guttural moaning. But not the guttural moaning of today--more like a wounded animal than the popular Cookie Monster style.

Thankfully, their first album (Death Church) found them escaping Crass' shadow. The first song, "1/4 Dead," established their mordant take on anarcho-punk, droning that "Three quarters of the world are starving/The rest are dead." The song ends with a strange flourish--everything drops out but Blinko's fuzzy guitar and Grant Brand's bass. The notes kind of of repeat the harmony of the song, but in an almost playful way--you almost expect Blinko to start laughing. The themes are already starting to move away from typical anarcho themes; song titles include "Cosmic Hearse" and "Vampire State Building." The latter is bizarre--Blinko sings a duet with an inhumanly deep voice, each verse ending in sing-songy repetitions of a single word ("wheelchair" or "mommy," for instance).

Cover of Death Church, art by Nick Blinko

At this point, the album totally veers from the anarcho-punk Brand preferred into Blinko's preferred style. He furiously (and comically) rolls his r's on "Blasphemy Squad." On "When You Are a Martian Church," each line of the chorus is punctuated by droning "aaah" sounds. On "Flesh Crucifix," Blinko moves even further from traditional hardcore/punk vocals; he shrieks like some unearthly creature throughout the song (think John Coltrane's free jazz period), and the chorus is chanted rather than sung.

But that's absolutely nothing compared to1988's Cacophony, undoubtedly the best record ever to emerge from the anarcho-punk scene, and one of the best to emerge from the punk as a whole. Blinko establishes the tone on the first song, "Nightgaunts," by muttering an incomprehensible incantation as the music begins. He repeats the technique throughout the album, often ending songs with whispering, chanting, moaning, weeping, growling, retching, dramatic readings, gasping, purring, or buzzing. Often he does several of these things at the same time.

Cover of Cacophony, art by Nick Blinko

One song ends with an a capella rendition of something which sounds like a 19th (maybe 18th?) century drinking song. Many songs don't actually have vocals--"Zenophobia" mostly consists of Blinko trying to carry a tune by making retching noises. Actually, it does have some words--it ends with a modulated deep voice conducting what sounds like a wedding ceremony, until Blinko stops saying actual words and starts muttering again. The only words in "Imps of the Perverse" are a monologue by a speaker suggesting that Lovecraft should have given up horror writing for the WPA (aha! there it is again!). The song ends with, uh, meowing. I can't possibly do justice to the various bizarre sounds which emanate from Blinko's voice (which is why I uploaded the songs mentioned above). Half the songs aren't actually sung so much as spoken, and those which are sung often contain animal noises rather than lyrics.

This might be a good time to mention Blinko's mental illness. At some point after Cacophony was released, Blinko was institutionalized for mental illness (Wikipedia says it's Schizoaffective disorder). The next Rudimentary Peni album, Pope Adrian the 37th (1995), was based on Blinko's experiences while institutionalized. So there's an element of exploitation involved when listening to Rudimentary Peni. There's an even greater deal involved when considering Blinko's art. In addition to providing the cover art for his band's releases, Blinko also drew the covers for several other hardcore albums and eventually became an "outsider artist" of some renown. Unfortunately, his psychiatric medication leaves him unable to draw. This apparently hasn't stopped Blinko, who quits taking his medication in order to produce art. I really like Blinko's art quite a bit; here's a link to some of his work.

Leaving aside any issue of exploitation, Cacophony is a genuinely unique album. It's a shame that more post-punk/indie rock types aren't aware of it, because it stands up next to some of the most daring records of the 1980s (or any decade, really). It's in the same general region as the Butthole Surfers at their peak, but even their appreciable weirdness is dwarfed by the insanity and innovation of Cacophony. Maybe it's Rudimentary Peni's association with Crass which has kept them away from those who would most appreciate their best work. Maybe it's the band's goth overtones, or the obscurity of their label, or maybe just that no band could ever hope to build upon the strangeness of Cacophony. Whatever the case, Cacophony is the closest I've ever heard to a scary album, and it's one of my very favorites as well. Do check out those links in the spirit of Halloween or whatever.


Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

You're not wrong about Lovecraft. He's definitely an acquired taste which may not be worth acquiring. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Lovecraft is not scary. What he *is* very good at is disgust--disgust for the flesh, miscegenation, the Lower Races of Man and, uh, seafood.

You know, all the good stuff.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Seriously, his short stories read like someone's detailed synopsis of a short story. If he's one of the pillars of nerd culture, I have to think that nerds are one of the Lower Subcultures of Man.

Okay, I already kind of thought that.

Jaap said...

"he uses words like Todd McFarlane uses lines" is an awesome sentence, and you can feel good about yourself for that.

Anonymous said...

Horror movies seldom scare me at all. The only thing I've discovered that really scared the crap out of me was the first Aliens vs Predator game for the PC, when you're playing as a marine. After playing a some of the later levels (instinctively leaning away from the monitor) and dying, I was left with a strong feeling of NOTHING YOU DO CAN MAKE ME GO IN THERE AGAIN. Yeah, it's a good game.

Dick Hyacinth said...

I didn't mention it, but video games frequently invoke that kind of feeling in me. I remember feeling genuine relief when I got through the first dark world (or whatever) section of the first Silent Hill game. And I was only able to play Condemned in short bursts--it was just too intense.

jsuperfecta said...

Maybe you just read some bad stories--The Dunwich Horror, perhaps? It's one of his more well-known ones despite being pretty lame. If you didn't read one of his best (which I would say are The Thing on the Doorstep, The Color out of Space, The Whisperer in Darkness, and At the Mountains of Madness), do try another before writing him off entirely.

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