Been a while! Can’t promise it won’t be another while, but I’ve been rambling more lately and Twitter’s going through some shit, so there may well be a couple essays coming. This one was supposed to be more toward Halloween, but: fuck it. A scary tale is good for winter, as someone I studied in school said.
By the time we’re thirty, most of us think we have our world figured out.
That’s not saying we know how everything works–most of us will acknowledge the existence of quarks and Bjork and people who enjoy yogurt-covered raisins and our general mystification around same–but we’ve got most of the rules covered. Fire is hot. Water is wet. The Red Line will take you from Quincy to Alewife most of the time, and you can’t ride it in the nude. We’re pretty sure of the rules for everything we think we’ll have to deal with.
What if something changes?
What if you encounter a being, let’s say, that doesn’t follow all of those rules? One that doesn’t even know–or care–that they exist?
Can you get rid of it? Do you want to? Will you ever look at the world the same way again, even if this being goes away, or will you always know that your rules don’t always apply–maybe that they’re not even rules at all?
Those are a lot of questions. One more:
Are “you” in this situation Fitzwilliam Darcy or Jonathan Harker?
I reread a lot, especially Stephen King–80% of his works are a very weird sort of literary comfort food for me at this point, and I’ll go back to them again and again when I’m sad or stressed or just disappointed by the new stuff I’ve picked up–and lately I’ve been going through Danse Macabre, his take on horror from the 1950s through the 1980s. I’ve had my own takes on his takes–oh, the Inception-style ramblings of people who like books–and it’s reminded me of an essay I wrote for Tor back in the day, on the relationship between horror and romance.
What if that, but MORE WORDS and also some cattiness about the industry?
So okay: as I mentioned back in that essay, the horror-romance crossover goes back a while. Before paranormal romance became its own sprawling genre and “monsterfucker” a household term, there was Buffy, and Forever Knight before that, and Dark Shadows, plus the not-really-sub-except-in-one-sense-text of Anne Rice. (I recall at least a few romance series with vampires from the 1990s, for that matter, even though I don’t think they had their own imprint.)
By the way, just in case anyone’s out there winding up Big Pronouncements about Ladies and Monsters or Women and Bad Boys, I’d like to note the existence of Dracula’s brides (not even the OG sexy vampire chick, though the first was a lesbian), Poison Ivy, Mystique, and like half of the aliens in original Star Trek. And I’d then like to invite you to go fuck yourself. There’s a lot to say about the intersection of hot people and people who are mystically or personally outside the norm, and I get into it a little below, but mostly: this happens for every gender, there are a variety of reasons, see also go fuck yourself.
Even when the monster isn’t an object of desire, you get a lot of peanut butter in your chocolate here. The Gothic novel was all about that: Jane Eyre, for example, combined a swoony inscrutable (if kiiiind of a manipulative dick) hero and eventual happy ending with mysterious fires and stabbings and screamings that, it turns out, were the result of a homicidal woman who gets described as a bloated purple hellbeast in a way that I don’t think any DSM edition mentions. Eighties slasher films generally skip the happy ending but provide plenty of sexual tension before Jason shows up; fifties monster movies usually have a couple or two chastely holding hands after the mutant of the day is defeated.
Plus, let’s face it, romance and horror are the two genres that get the most shit.
I got into Stephen King because, in September of my fifth-grade year, my teacher stood up in front of the class and gave us a lecture on how his books (and horror in general) were turning children into hardened criminals and corrupting the moral fabric of the nation and how we should never ever ever read them. “Just as all American publishers hope that their books will be banned in Boston, so do all English publishers pray that theirs will be denounced from a pulpit by a bishop,:” wrote PG Wodehouse (in an amusingly dated view of Boston–shit, brah, the only thing we ban around here these days is Krispy Kreme), and I would add “middle-aged authority figures will tell children not to read them,” to the list.
Like so many works of fiction rumored to Corrupt The Youth of America, King’s books were far less corrupting than the youth in question had hoped–although far less disappointing in quality than “Beavis and Butthead,” Mrs. C’s other weird boogeyman–but that wasn’t the last time I dealt with unasked-for opinions about the quality or worth or corrosive effect of horror novels. As for romance, my mother’s attempt to keep eight-year-old Izzy from reading about turgid shafts and pebbled nipples was largely half-hearted (and she later said she just didn’t want me to get the wrong idea about love, which “mostly ends in arguments over the right way to load the dishwasher”) and she gave it up when I was thirteen, but the number of essays I’ve seen accusing the genre of giving women “unrealistic expectations” is…reasonably vast and extremely annoying. (Not least because “unrealistic expectations,” for most US cis het dudes, boils down to “go to the gym once a month and shower more often than that.”)
And yeah, horror and romance are associated with some fairly awful tropes from the 1980s–again, something I’ll go into later–although I don’t know that the actual prevalence is any deeper or the tropes worse than the average in other genres or even lit fic. Science fiction and fantasy from similar time periods isn’t exactly known for its emphasis on consent and diversity; nobody is going to accuse Updike of being enlightened about women; let’s not even discuss Tom Clancy. Every genre has to reckon with a fairly problematic history, but only romance and horror are regularly accused of ruining society.
So there’s probably some publishing history inside baseball there. There’s definitely some sexism: romance is largely written by and aimed at women (too often white het cis women, but I promise we’ll get there), and while horror isn’t exactly, there’s possibly something to be explored there with Mary Shelley and Mina Harker and how the patriarchy reacts to strength that doesn’t look like Steven Seagal.
But mostly, I think it boils down to two things.
One: both horror and romance hit you right in the biology. Between the two of them, they cover half of the famous Four Fs of the instincts–maybe two-thirds, depending on your reaction to being threatened and how much a given work crosses the line to action. A mentor of mine once told me that fear and desire are two sides of the same coin (both symbolized by the Devil card in Tarot, for what it’s worth) . He also mentioned “skin hunger,” the unnervingly named need for human contact that you can get through nurturing, violence, or sex–and that can be channeled into the others when one isn’t available.
Name three areas of life where most American culture is shitty, right? (I keep trying to write more explaining this and it keeps turning into an entire essay where I go back in time and punch John Wayne in the nuts, so tl;dr: we are awful, as Americans, about each of those categories in different ways.) Plus, there’s this Victorian hangover where Good Art does not provoke the Baser Urges, because it’s supposed to be on some kind of Platonic bullshit plane above fear (except for middle-class neuroses) or desire (except for torrid-but-oddly-sexless affairs between totally inappropriate people) where we can intellectually explore or morally uplift blah blah blah.
We don’t trust our desires, we don’t trust our fears, and so art that taps into either on a primal level is, as the kids say, Sus.
(Note: I am pretty sure the kids don’t say that.)
Two: See my intro.
One of King’s big themes in Danse Macabre is the contrast between the two sides of human nature. He uses Apollonian to mean the socially-approved, logical, respectable aspect of humanity and Dionysian for the wild, impulsive, party-animal bits. The Sun and the Moon also kinda work, if you’re into Tarot, or yin and yang–and you’ll note, or you should, that none of the dichotomies is about good and evil.
(They work out to the same thing in Danse Macabre, but first of all that’s a book entirely about horror and second, King, while liberal enough in a Boomer dad way, is much more monogamy-and-kids-and-backyard-barbeques than I am. I think chaos and indulgence disturb him a bit more than they do me, even when nobody gets hurt.)
Which seems weird where horror is concerned, right?
Like, you can wave your hands around about how The Thing or Cthulhu isn’t actually “evil,” just alien, but frankly whatever: at the end of the day, it’s going to eat your face. Leave philosophy to the ponytailed guys in college. Jason Vorhees isn’t exactly Carnival. Plus I think The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, not to mention King’s own Long Walk, demonstrated that Apollonian respectability and logic can produce plenty of horror themselves.
So let’s pull back.
Let’s talk about rules.
To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, another major influence and constant source of comfort reading, rules like “don’t fall into this enormous pit of spikes” are there for a reason. If we’re going to live together, we need to establish some safety rails: use your blinker when you change lanes, chew with your mouth closed, and don’t poison your grandmother even if she kind of sucks and you could use the cash from her will. That sort of thing keeps society working and keeps us all from killing each other, on purpose or otherwise.
Other rules, though? They’re bullshit. “Your gender is what a bunch of adults said it was when you were born, and you can only marry someone who got stuck with the opposite?” Completely wrong. “Rich people deserve respect because they’re rich?” Fuck that. “You have to forgive abusive people if they say they’re really sorry and promise they’ll do better?” NOPE. “Boys don’t cry and girls don’t fuck?” Come over here and let me punch you.
(Note: Pratchett also made his most dire metaphysical villains the Auditors, enforcers of Rules throughout the universe. He was one of the few people who really got how complicated life is, and the world is a lesser place without him.)
You need to think about the rules before you break them, but the rules are there to make you think before you break them, you know? Apollo and Dionysus were brothers, not enemies, and lawful is not the same as good, whatever cocaine-addled Jehovah’s Witnesses might have posited back in the eighties.
Buuuuuut: humanity isn’t great at that level of nuance, and this country is even less so. Maybe people used to be better, when Saturnalias and Days of Misrule and similar feasts meant everything went for a week or two each year. Maybe we’re better in cultures not dominated by extremely uptight white people. I don’t know–but Americans, by and large, like certainty and simplicity. We talk about knowing Right from Wrong, like there’s no gray area in between, and we hold up the fact that other people “followed the rules” as a reason not to bend them. (Even as we ourselves do so in minor ways all the time: let he who’s never gone 80 in a 65 zone…get off the fuckin’ turnpike.) We don’t always follow the structures we set for ourselves, but, as anyone who’s read parenting books knows, we really like to have them.
Horror and romance often ask what happens if we don’t.
Horror is generally the most extreme form of Well, Fuck It: the rules it breaks start at “do not cut up campers with a machete” and go all the way into “giant monsters die for serious if you steer a goddamn boat into them, dead pets stay in the ground no matter where you bury them, and the worst result of watching a video is seeing Kevin Sorbo trying to act.”
(This is one of the reasons why some older horror can feel very dated. The Midnight Society and others have brought up the propensity for Lovecraft stories to use OMG ITALIANS as a horror element, and stories by otherwise-talented writers Machen and Matheson throw in OMG ORGIES or OMG LESBIANS and the modern reader is a bit nonplussed because this isn’t horror, this is a pretty good college party. King himself does this in some of his earlier novels–in The Shining, the dogman is creepy because he’s clearly broken and because he’s approaching a six-year-old, but the other intended-as-ominous references to sex leave me going “…yeah, sounds like a fun time, so what?” Sexual rule-breaking, as long as it’s consensual, is never going to be true horror because the rules restricting consensual sex are largely stupid and should be broken.)
As King says in Danse Macabre, the genre is often small-c conservative at heart: the heroes uphold the norm, basically want to be good, and watch for the mutant. The goal is to get back to life before whatever the threat was, as far as that’s possible. In horror, except for dystopian horror, the rules are good.
But the heroes generally have to break them too.
You don’t cut people up with a machete…unless you have to decapitate the homicidal mother of a long-dead camper before she does it to you. You fight off threats with fists or guns, not garlic and crucifixes…until the guy floating outside your window takes five bullets to the chest and keeps on coming. At the very least, you have to acknowledge that the rules you thought always applied don’t and, say, go get an old priest and a young priest because spinal taps are not solving your daughter’s problem.
After the low-sanity effects in the awesome (and tragically un-followed-up-on) game Eternal Darkness, your hero would often exclaim “THIS. CAN’T BE. HAPPENING!” which is a reasonable enough response to zombies and giant blob monsters and angular eyeball things…but it could, and it was, and they had to live with that knowledge.
Horror leaves the rules subverted, even when the heroes win.
Romance? The idealist in me says that the rules it breaks uphold larger ones: love and happiness are what matter, good people can overcome social differences and understand each other enough to build lives together, questioning customs is good, etc.
That’s the ideal. In practice…
The star-crossed lovers generally defy their families and get together–but “getting together” largely means finding a way to inherit a vast estate anyhow. (I can understand this–being working-class is zero fun now and was less so in the 19th century–but I also have to give Wodehouse credit for having half of his plots resolve with the hero opening an eel-jellying shop or something.) Sometimes the stuffy person learns to lighten up, but that often goes along with the free spirit learning to settle down. The rake reforms: the “moral” character doesn’t embrace decadence. (Again I would note an exception, this time from Georgette Heyer’s “Venetia,” where I found her enthusiasm for theoretical orgies delightful.)
Weirdly–or maybe not, because, again, America–we’re a lot more comfortable fucking with the spacetime continuum and the details of murder than we are even considering alternatives to the class system or a very 1950s notion of sexuality.
I am talking, here, as someone who both enjoys and writes romance. And we have gotten better as a genre (except for the “inspirational” lines, which are basically MAGA with Vaseline on the lens and regularly feature war criminals finding redemption and true love with either virginal or virtuously widowed women): women are largely allowed to have actual sexual desire and agency rather than being “violently introduced to passion” as was the case in the novels of my youth, a growing number of books feature LGBTQA+ main characters and/or happy endings that don’t involve marriage and kids, and there’s even a robust exploration of non-monogamy in many indie presses.
We’re getting more comfortable affirming rules like “consent matters” and “all sorts of people (except fucking Nazis, OMG) deserve happy endings” and “not all happy families are alike, fuck you Tolstoy.”
Or at least, we’re doing that in text.
Here is where I get catty.
The chapter on TV in Danse Macabre discusses how horror on TV was really difficult because of network S&P being butts. It’s sort of an entertaining period piece now, in the era of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones and even network shows like CSI and Criminal Minds. Where violence is concerned, the concept of “least objectionable programming” has gone out the window.
But last time I read that chapter, I thought of Hallmark.
When Netflix was raising its prices and cracking down on password sharing and all that bottom-line stuff, the idea I had for luring more viewers to a non-cable, non-ad-dependent platform was this: make romance movies where the characters fuck.
It doesn’t have to be onscreen–there are cases where I’d like that, but I know that grossly-named “intimacy scenes” involve a lot of completely necessary logistics and consent guidelines and safety rules. People kiss and then wake up in bed the next morning? I’m a big girl, I can live with that. But Hallmark standard, which Netflix originals follow for zero reason, is that a couple will kiss…once. At the end of a movie. In which they’ve gotten engaged after knowing each other for a single week and never banging.
IN THE GODDAMN TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.
And yes, sex-indifferent or -repulsed ace people exist and deserve happy endings, but–and feel free to correct me, ace friends–in that case there’d be a conversation where one person says they’re not that into sex and the other says hey, that’s cool, and that needs to happen onscreen. Because right now, your heartwarming movies are presenting a world where people make serious commitments after a completely chaste week together, and these people are assumed to be allosexual and not, like, Amish.
Although…they definitely are all a certain type of person, aren’t they?
White. Cis. Het, unless not being het is the focus. Culturally Christian, unless that’s the focus, and usually it’s gross and involves a non-Christian person learning to love Christmas or whatever. Middle class, or the Rockwell image of “working class,” where you do wholesome physical jobs all day and never worry about throwing your back out and not having health insurance or disability. No history of sexuality for the women, though the men may have a “playboy reputation.” Any relationships will have ended because the other person cheated or wouldn’t commit, and not for any of the messy reasons people leave their SOs in real life. All of them want marriage and babies (or learn to do so by the end of the film) and life in a small town.
To quote King quoting John Wyndham: blessed is the norm.
I get some of the desires here, I really do: while I don’t love that it’s always the woman who has to learn how great small towns are and how horrible the corporate rat race is, corporate culture is vile and making the C-suite of a major company is a pretty empty and destructive goal. (If I ever write a Christmas romance, one of the main characters will leave their high-powered executive job and open a tattoo parlor or take over the all-night pierogi shop by the dance club.) I don’t need to see the squalid underbelly of rural life in a heartwarming holiday film, or have the characters struggle hard to deal with past-relationship baggage. It’s nice to spend two hours with people who are basically good and a community that’s doing okay at the core, no matter how much of a fantasy that may be. Fantasy helps us escape shitty situations and sometimes it gives us the inspiration to improve them.
But when that inspiration involves only the people above, it’s shit. It’s affirming rules that are actively oppressive and (in the case of sexuality and sexual purity) destructive even to those who play by them. It’s upholding the 1980s romance rules about Who Gets a Happy Ending, and those rules were complete toxic bullshit, but even there people fucked before they got engaged, good Lord.
It also affirms a horrible meta-rule, one that the great Chuck Tingle addressed in a recent post: sex and happiness don’t go together. Works that deal with explicit sex (especially when that sex isn’t vanilla, heterosexual, monogamous and often with the possibility of making children) have to be dark and brooding, or deconstruct traditional tropes and ideals, or have moral universes with no real good guys.
I haven’t talked about fantasy or sci-fi here, but I see that a lot in those genres, especially in roleplaying. Brightly-colored, idealistic worlds with struggles between good and evil ignore sex or euphemize it away: there may be mentions of succubi or alluring nymphs, but there’s nary a cock to be found. Universes with explicit sex and maybe some BDSM or orgies? GRIMDARK, ALL IS LOST, GOD IS DEAD. At best they’re “deconstructions,” which in practice means “everything you like about this genre is bad and wrong and silly and here’s why,” and I have no interest in that. When “idealism and happiness are for kids” edgelordery collides with “unconventional sex is for morally questionable people,” this is what you get.
And it is, I would like to stress, COMPLETE BULLSHIT.
There are good people in the world. Most of them fuck. Many of them fuck people of the same gender, fuck multiple people, and fuck in kinky ways. There are doms who like rainbows and unicorns. There are drag queens who read stories to kids and stop assholes with automatic rifles from killing people. There are spiritual leaders who go to, or hold, orgies. Openly. Joyfully. With the full understanding that consensual gang-bangs can, and do, coexist with a loving deity and clear moral imperatives as human beings.
Conflating “sexy” and “dark” does nobody a single favor. It encourages apathetic Reality Bites cynicism as an adult model on one side, and on the other, it says that people who don’t want the Hallmark model don’t deserve the heartwarming stories. It definitely contributes more to depression when one major political party is trying to legislate those folks out of existence, but this can’t help…and honestly? Everything’s connected. It’s pretty easy to go from “these people aren’t part of Idealized Universe” to “these people don’t deserve Idealized Universe” to “these people don’t deserve legal protections.”
And that, to bring in the ostensible topic of this essay, is pretty goddamn horrific.