Troped to Death

I like my horror with a certain amount of…elegance. I don’t mean that I require diamonds, silk, and pretty words with my scary stories. Okay. I do like pretty words. Words that evoke images that tell a story in themselves–a kind of circular beauty. (Speaking of stories, Surreal South ’11 is going to press today! Just thought I’d throw that in.) My taste runs to the Gothic, or Surreal, rather than, say, the gorier aspects of Bizarro.

Folk tales and stories of haunted houses are like candy to me. I want cobwebs and hidden skeletons. Mysterious pairs of twins, woodcutters, scary old women, and maybe even Victorian taxidermy (really, is there anything creepier?).

Over two years ago I planned out a series of dark novels based on folk tales: Familiar Tales of Uncommon Horror. The first in the series, The Devil’s Oven, is based on The Gingerbread Man and became rather Frankensteinian. The second and third are from Hansel and Gretl, and Cinderella. The Hansel and Gretl story is set in the 19th century. The other two are contemporary. Sadly, dear reader, the series didn’t sell. My agent gave it her best shot, but it just didn’t happen. I’m still in love with the idea. There may never be a traditional publisher behind it, which disappoints me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to plow ahead. It may be slower going, but this is what I do.

Is there an appetite for similar adaptations? Uh, yes. There are hundreds of books out there–some of them quite excellent. There’s a spankin’ new television series called Grimm. So, expect even more books and films that make use of the stories that most of use grew up with. These tales are rich fodder for storytellers, and have been for hundreds of years. (I have known people who refused to let their children read fairy tales because they might contain anachronistic role models. Seriously, children aren’t that dumb, people. They adapt–and, believe it or not, they get their most significant learning from their parents’ words and actions.)

I wanted to bring up the The Devil’s Oven and Folk Tales, first. But what I find myself desperate to express is the sense of genuine horror, nay, terror, I felt when I watched the premier of American Horror on FX last night.

There are tropes that are common to specific genres of categories of literature and film. I like this definition of  trope: The use of a word, phrase, or image in a way not intended by its normal signification.

When I think of a typical slasher film, I think: Ingenue opening the basement door to investigate scary noises, the audience thinking, don’t go in there! The creepy old man or woman or child who warns the investigating kids to stay away. The house or woods where murders occurred. The handsome supporting actor who is really the murderer! In the real world, an ingenue is not necessarily foolishly intrepid, handsome men are not necessarily murderers, old houses are not necessarily haunted. But almost invariably, from one horror film to another, one is expected to recognize these commonalities. They have become tropes. You can see them in spades in investigative crime novels, too. Tropes are comforting. Tropes are often identifiers of genres. Overused, they’re deadly dull. Used carefully, like garlic or anchovies or spices in a sauce, they’re delightful.

My work-in-progress, which is within spitting distance of being work-completed, is called Bliss House. I’ve blogged about it before–I’m not particularly superstitious or secretive about my work. Bliss House also opens a series, this one about a, you got it, a haunted house. The series works backwards in time, each novel fully exploring the terrible events that happen to each generation of the inhabitants of Bliss House, the last novel explaining the house’s horrific origins. It’s an excavation of sorts, and I’m loving exploring the characters and the stories.

When I first heard about American Horror, I was intrigued. Then, last night, I finally got to watch the premier.

I watched as Bliss House itself, an enormous brick Victorian, loomed onscreen.
I watched a family move across country after a terrible, life-changing event.
I watched a damaged female protagonist try to make sense of both her emotions and her suddenly bizarre surroundings.
I watched that same female protagonist peel back wallpaper to reveal an old, strange mural.
I watched a man become hypnotized by the strange forces in the house.
I watched someone burn sage to purify the house of evil omens and spirits.
I watched a character who had burns over 70% of his body.

It was as though someone had been looking over my shoulder as I worked on Bliss House, taking notes. I nearly had a heart attack.

For the briefest of moments, all I could think about were the editors and Amazon reviewers who would look at my manuscript and dismiss it quickly because they’d seen it all before. My career collapsed before my eyes. It was exactly the opposite of my real life experience with Isabella Moon and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts, where there were people who thought my writing was just too different. I started thinking that I’d better brush up on my “Do you want fries with that?” patter.

I calmed, slightly, as the show went on. I couldn’t even begin to describe everything that happened in those 40-something minutes, because there was just so much. It was as though someone said, “Okay, we have to have a whole bunch of scary, weird shit happening to everyone in this first episode. Everyone! And everyone in the episode has to be really weirded out, but they can’t be weirded out enough to run out of the house, because there wouldn’t be more episodes. Then we can maybe slow down in future episodes and start explaining stuff.” I was glad for the pause button because there was an awful lot to absorb (Spoiler Alert!): A teenager who cuts, a woman with Down’s Syndrome who wanders in and out of the family’s house, followed by her batshit-crazy-scary mother, Jessica Lange, a few psychiatric sessions with a teenager who is obviously actually dead, a sex act with a guy in a rubber suit, a seduction by a succubus (?), Dylan McDermott naked from the back, Dylan McDermott, uh, masturbating, the terrorizing of a mean girl down in the basement, a girl fight, the brutal murder of an irritating pair of twins, Jessica Lange cursing and stealing diamonds, the protagonist catching her husband en flagrante, a man pouring gasoline all over his family and burning them in their beds, that same man tracking Dylan McDermott, and the stuff in the above list. Oh, and Dylan McDermott playing with fire and having sex with his wife. Phew! I know there was more, but I’d have to go back to the DVR.

What to do with all of this? I was very lucky to be watching the show with my husband, Pinckney, who has watched pretty much every American, Italian, Japanese, and Korean horror film ever made. He was able to tell me where each event, or trope, occurred in film before. That’s from The Shining, that’s from Hell House, that’s music from a Hitchcock film, etc, etc. I called The Others, and The Sixth Sense.

After that, I felt better. Obviously, the screenwriters and I have been watching the same films and, perhaps, reading the same books. Only, where the screenwriters had all that stuff happening in a single episode, I would only maybe use about a third of those events in an entire novel. (And nix on the Dylan McDermott masturbation scene. That is soooo not elegant.)

What does all this mean? Well, it’s a big lesson to me. As a writer, I obviously depend on the occasional trope–the same tropes that other people in the horror/suspense genre use. If I want to pout and be a baby about it, then I really should find another vocation, because this stuff happens all the time.

I’m reminded of what Pinckney told me when, early in my career, I said I was worried that I would accidentally write something the same way someone famous had. (Yes, I was pretty naive, and apparently had a very high opinion of my skills.) He said that you can give many writers the same subject and characters and they will all come up with stories that are pretty much unrecognizable from one another. Each writer has a different approach, a different history, a different vision.  Even when we model stories, they’re never quite the same as the original. It’s impossible.

I think I’ll probably just forge ahead, writing whatever in the hell I want, the way I usually do. It’s suicide to try to write to the market. I suspect it’s equally foolish to write directly against it, whatever that means.

As to American Horror: I do hope they slow down. I hope that the show is actually about something more than a lot of weird shit happening to people. They’ve got some excellent actors, Dylan McDermott’s really cute butt (if that’s really him, which it’s probably not), and a hell of a set. Although the basement in Bliss House is way, way cooler.

**The above painting is Heironymous Bosch’s The House of Ill Repute.