If you've heard of the prestigious Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, (referenced, most famously, in the film Secret Window, starring Johnny Depp and based on the novella by Stephen King on joss collection For Past ) then ours highly likely you'll have heard of David Dean, whose stories have graced their pages for over four years, most recently in their latest issue, just released in December.
Mr. Dean wrote his first full-length novel, The Thirteenth Child, earlier this year, published by Genius Books.
You'll read my review of the book on January, song with an exclusive interview with Mr. Dean, but here you'll read a short history of the horror genre in literature and in film, including a look behind the workings of Mr. Dean's own monster, Gabriel.
“The Horror! The Horror!”
When the renegade and terrifying Kurtz, of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, utters the famous words I’ve borrowed as a title to this piece, we are left pondering his true meaning.
Is he speaking of the unpredictable nature of the world, the sudden and bewildering twists and turns that transform us against our will?
Or is he, instead, bewailing the weak nature of man, that despite his best intentions, is so easily warped and corrupted, reveling in evil for its own sake, exalting his own black heart while sinking ever lower into the pit?
Though his classic tale of slavery, madness, and power is a far cry from the traditional horror story, Conrad has crystalized for us the existential horror that haunts us all, as well as having utilized a literary convention that very many horror stories contain regardless of the setting, time, or place—the seduction of terror.
In that granddaddy of horror literature, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s optimistic hero discovers (with all best intentions) the secret to creating life from death.
A young scientist born to a world at the cusp of the industrial age, an age of enlightenment and science, he is unable to resist following his intellect to its logical goal—a new, and therefore, better man—Prometheus unbound!
Of course, everyone remotely interested in the horror genre knows what follows.
Even if you’ve not read the book, you can hardly have escaped the numerous retellings in both literature and film.
Poor Frankenstein unleashes a monster that preys not so much on the greater world as on Frankenstein himself.
And in the end, after having lost his reputation, wife, and home, he pursues the shambling horror to the vast Artic reaches where he also sacrifices his life to rid the world, and himself, of his creation. In that other touchstone of horror, Dracula, we find that it is the supernatural being at the heart of the novel that provides the seduction.
Though the title character is anything but attractive in Bram Stoker’s description of him, he nonetheless exercises a fascination on all that he encounters.
The hapless Jonathan Harker falls into his clutches through a financial arrangement brought on, in part, by his own desire for advancement within his firm—the seduction of success and money. Later, the beautiful heiress, Lucy Westenra, succumbs to what one senses is a far more carnal desire during Dracula’s secret visits to her bedchambers.
Even the lunatic, Renfield, responds to Dracula’s siren call, with its promise of overwhelming power and terror for all those opposed to his will, and by implication, all those that would confine and restrain Renfield—vengeance and justification!
And yet what temptations do the protagonists of today’s horror literature and film scene face?
Confronted by hordes of decomposing corpses intent only on making a meal of them, and not much else in the way of conversation happening, what, other than fleeing, would they be tempted by?
The same thing poor Robert Neville, Richard Matheson’s hapless hero of his ground-breaking sci-fi novel, I Am Legend, faces day after lonely day—the temptation to cease the endless, and soul-crushing, fight against these creatures that were once his fellow human beings, and simply join them.
Of course, in Matheson’s classic tale from the 1950’s, the threat was a world populated by vampires, not zombies, but vampires entirely unlike the intelligent, and actively malevolent, Dracula.
These horrors were once neighbors, family, and friends, now somehow resurrected by the same mysterious plague that has killed them; resurrected and sent forth in a restless nightly search for the blood of any left living; failing that they turn on the weak amongst themselves. George Romero’s seminal zombie film, The Night of the Living Dead, owes much to the first film version of Matheson’s novel titled The Last Man on Earth, a movie that still remains the best of the three films made of it, in my opinion.
Romero’s contribution was to turn the shamblers in the darkness into gory, rotting, cannibals, more suited perhaps to an age in which savage serial killers were edging their way into the public’s awareness and nightmares. Their staying power suggests they continue to occupy a psychic niche.
In the current era of terrorism and suicide bombers, zombies are not such a far cry from the hordes of fanatics willing to stagger into the midst of shopping malls and village bazaars in order to slaughter perfectly innocent men, women, and even children, though it cost them their own lives—that’s a truly ravenous appetite for blood and flesh. Another temptation that the living dead and their ilk provide is to respond in kind, trading violence for violence, blow for bloody blow; a downwardly spiraling cycle that risks one of the greatest horrors—becoming that which you fear and loathe the most—a killing machine much like your entrails-eating enemies.
Yet to acquiesce is to become one of them—to join their ranks.
The balance between maintaining one’s humanity, while at the same time surviving the maelstrom, becomes the ultimate challenge, and a metaphor for man’s brief and brutal time on this earth. In my own book, The Thirteenth Child, which Kelly was kind enough to review [that post will be up early January--Kelly], the horror of temptation is also a theme.
In this case, Preston Howard, a former professor of English literature and now the arrogant, if intellectual, town drunk, is tempted by the creature he has chanced upon in the autumn woods of Wessex Township.
“Gabriel,” as he has dubbed him, is neither zombie, supernatural, or man-created, but a product of millions of years of evolution—a predatory counter-point to man himself.
The last of a line of hominids that have shadowed man since his earliest days, preying on him and snatching his children.
Just human-looking enough to pass for man in the dim light of dusk, he is able to close and strike; he is the source of dozens of legends and myths around the world, a hundred fairy tales.
He is the troll under the bridge, the brownie who snatches the baby, the pied piper of Hamlin; Rumpelstiltskin.
He is the reality of that faint ancestral memory shared by peoples and cultures around the world—a shadowy figure at the edge of the campfire that, at first, we mistake for one of us.
Gabriel possesses no supernatural powers—he cannot fly, change shape, or walk through walls.
He is, however, uniquely adapted to his purpose—his own continued existence and survival at the expense of man. Preston’s greatest desire is to redeem his broken, shattered status within the community by revealing, and “owning,” the mystery and revelation that is Gabriel.
As in most horror stories, this is not to be; Gabriel has his own plans, and exposure is certainly not one them.
Though he lacks the more developed reasoning of a fully human being, he senses Preston’s weakness very keenly and uses his pride to blind him to Gabriel’s own plans for the children of Wessex Township.
It is only after a heart-wrenching encounter with Gabriel’s handiwork that Preston is able to slough off the blinders he has placed on himself, and begin to rediscover his own humanity, an epiphany shared by most of us at one time or another, though hopefully, under less horrific conditions.