Friday, April 06, 2012

Not Scary

I'm going to rant for a bit, just a warning. Yesterday I tried to read a new fantasy novel, this one billed as being in "the old school sword & sorcery tradition." About twenty pages in, the book's protagonists had entered a ruined temple and they were suddenly confronted by a monster, a huge horrible creature summoned from the outer dark. And what did the heroes do? They started wisecracking. I hate this. Absolutely hate this. And here's why.
As I've noted many times before, 'old school sword & sorcery' was created when pseudo-historical fiction was combined with horror. If monsters are used they are supposed to be aberrations of nature and they are supposed to be SCARY. At this point the writer's characters aren't acting like people. They're acting like characters. I get it. They're tough. They live in a world where monsters are known to exist maybe. They've probably seen monsters before. But I've seen tigers before. If one came walking into my apartment right now, I don't think I'd start wisecracking to the cats.
The whole idea of horror is that it's supposed to scare you. Sword & Sorcery, at least in its original form took place in a world more or less like ours. People were just as shocked by actual magic or by the appearance of strange, scary monsters as you or I would be.

Let us look at Conan in Robert E. Howard's The Tower of the Elephant:

"As Conan came forward, his eyes fixed on the motionless idol, the eyes of the thing opened suddenly! The Cimmerian froze in his tracks. It was no image--it was a living thing, and he was trapped in its chamber! That he did not instantly explode in a burst of murderous frenzy is a fact that measures his horror, which paralyzed him where he stood. A civilized man in his position would have sought doubtful refuge in the conclusion that he was insane; it did not occur to the Cimmerian to doubt his senses. He knew he was face to face with a demon of the Elder World, and the realization robbed him of all his faculties except sight. "

See? This is Conan. CONAN. I think we can all agree that Conan is the biggest, baddest character in the genre. And Conan reacts like a human being. He is frozen by horror, Freaked out. Want more? Here's Conan in The Devil in Iron when he learns that the impossibly giant snake inside a dank chamber is real:

"His hand jerked back in instinctive repulsion. Sword shaking in his grasp, horror and revulsion and fear almost choking him, he backed away and down the glass steps with painful care, glaring in awful fascination at the grisly thing that slumbered on the copper throne. It did not move. "

It's okay for your heroes to be afraid. Conan will later battle that snake and kill it, overcoming his fear. It makes him even more heroic. Heroes who aren't horrified when confronted by actual horror aren't realistic. It's like a kid's idea of a hero. And really, from a suspense viewpoint, if your characters aren't concerned for their own safety, how do you expect your readers to be concerned for them.
In my case, you won't have to worry about it because I have put your book down and won't be picking it back up. End of rant.


Paul R. McNamee said...

*clap clap*

The plethora of fantasy worlds inhabited by everything under the sun does rob the intensity of the supernatural or preternatural when encountered.

You're spot on about classic S&S - the monsters were scary, unusual, not an everyday occurrence and if they didn't make your hair stand on end, they sure as heck made the hero's hair prick up.

Keith said...

I second Paul's comments. Classic S&S usually did have strong undercurrents of horror, at the very least. I've been thinking about that in regard to some projects I've got on the back burner, specifically how to amp up the horror. And one of the examples I've thought about was "The Tower of the Elephant".

David Morrell has written that the best piece of writing advice he got from Phil Klass (who wrote as William Tenn) was to write about what scares you. Howard was afraid of snakes, which is why I think the snake scene in "The Devil in Iron" works so well.

Anyway, now you've got me curious as to which book you're talking about. Sounds like one I want to take a pass on.

Keith said...

Since we're discussing horror in S&S and using Conan as an example, one of the more horrifying scenes in the Conan stories occurs at the end of "The God in the Bowl".

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Paul, yes and I think folks tend to forget that element of horror. I've been guilty of it myself in the past, but these days I try to do better.

Keith, very true about The God in the Bowl. The end of that one sends Conan running into the streets!

Rachel said...

"And really, from a suspense viewpoint, if your characters aren't concerned for their own safety, how do you expect your readers to be concerned for them."

Absolutely fantastic point!