Monday, 12 April 2010

Danse Macabre

After I mentioned Stephen King’s book about horror, “Danse Macabre” in my main blog, I thought I might just as well do a review of it over here.

The book is quite old by now, the first edition was published in 1981. It covers horror films and horror movies from the 1950s into the late 1970s and very early 1980s. But it also covers the basics of horror: vampire, werewolf, ghost and ‘the thing without a name’ (you might call it Frankenstein’s monster or the creature of the black lagoon or even Grendel). It also covers quite some autobiographical stories and a few points about being a writer (and especially a writer of horror novels).

I own a rather used English copy and used to own a German copy before (which was basically disintegrating when I bought the English one). I also used to check out the German version at the local public library quite regularly before I got my own. The book has accompanied me through most of my teenage years and has given my quite an insight into both the world of a person growing up in the US during the ‘hot phase’ of the Cold War and the basics of horror stories. But while modern Stephen King novels do no longer really interest me, I still pull this book out of the shelf every now and then and read a few chapters. (I still own three Stephen King books: “Danse Macabre”, “Salem’s Lot” and “Needful Things”.)

But what is this book really about and why do I review it here? The book is about horror. About the movies, the novels and, most importantly, the brain. Because that’s where our fear comes from, in reality.

It’s not the huge spider on the screen that makes us afraid. It’s our own fear of spiders that makes us scream or stare or hide behind the back of the guy in front of us. The huge spider is, to us in the movie theatre, harmless. It’s just a picture and can’t harm us. And most of the time, the huge ones are neither as huge (watch “Eight-Legged Freaks” to see some really big ones) nor as dangerous as the movies tell us.

Making people afraid is just as difficult as making people laugh, because both humour and fear are very personal things. And so Stephen King gives us many a personal insight while writing about the field in which he has worked successfully then (and still works successfully today). He writes of his own horrors as well as of the horrors of his generation (the kids born in the USA during or shortly after World War II). Those are not the same horrors my parents faced (who are about his own generation) or I faced as a kid growing up, basically, after the time described in his book.

His analysis of the basics of horror, the Tarot, as he calls it, is extremely well done. He takes four classical novels and a few from the time he writes about to show the basics of vampire (represented classically by “Dracula”), the werewolf (represented by “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”) and the thing without a name (represented by “Frankenstein”). He also writes, using various stories, about the ghost, which is such a mainstream topic of horror it has a chapter to its own.

But even more interesting to the modern reader is his look on the horror stories that have been produced between his childhood in the 1950s and the publishing of his book in 1981. People my age or younger have only seen the movies on TV (or video or DVD), never on the ‘big screen’ at all. And the horror described in the novels is not our horror. Because most novels use scenarios that are horrible at the time they are written, but not necessarily afterwards, you see.

Still, the book is great reading material. Stephen King, used to writing novels, writes a very fluid style, even when writing non-fiction. You learn a lot about the history of horror in the Cold War while being really entertained. Give it a chance if you stumble over it.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Funny Fantasy

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been rereading some fantasy stories. To be more precise “Going Postal” and “Making Money” by Terry Pratchett and a story I’ve written myself a couple of years ago, while I was still at university. They all are more or less funny fantasy (Pratchett more so than my own story).

I was a teenager when I discovered the fun of funny fantasy through Robert Asprin’s “Myth” novels. I also liked the “Phule’s Company” and “Thievesworld” stories, but Skeeve, Aahz and the rest of the crew are lodged somewhere deeper in my heart. I stumbled over a lot more of those funny stories when looking through bookshelves in my favourite bookstore at that time. It was something of a high time for funny fantasy in Germany, I think. But it was not until after I’d finished school that I stumbled over the first Terry Pratchett novel (“Witches Abroad”, if I remember it correctly).

I’ve also tried my hand at some more ‘sombre’ fantasy stories (heroic and epic fantasy), even “The Lord of the Ring” (which I might finish some day in the very distant future). Unfortunately, even after everything has been said about Bram Stoker’s ability to write good novels (not very high), “Dracula” has proven a much faster read for me than LotR for other readers. I read some other more epic or heroic stories, of course, but fun was always more my taste. If I want dead people, I read a horror story or a mystery novel or a thriller. That’s why the “Black Company” novels have never been my cup of tea while the “P.I. Garrett” series is something I really like – even though both are from the same writer, Glen Cook. There’s a dark humour in the cases of Garrett, but none in the adventures of the Black Company mercenaries.

What I like about funny fantasy is the light it shines on our world. The Discworld, for instance, might be flat as a pizza and travel through space on the back of four gigantic elephants that stand on the shell of a very, very, very big turtle. But the people living there, in many aspects, are pretty much like those living in the apartment right next to you. By telling about them and their ‘strange’ world, you can actually tell a lot about our own world.

Take “Making Money”, for instance. It’s the second story in which the former con-man and current postmaster general of Ankh-Morpork, Moist von Lipwig, has appeared so far (I hope for more of those). It’s about the change in banking on the Discworld (replacing coins, that is ‘metal currency’, with paper money). It has started out in the previous story of Mr. von Lipwig, in which he introduced the stamp that’s been used as a makeshift currency ever since, it seems. But it also teaches the reader some interesting facts about economy. Want them? Yes? Okay:

First of all, gold might be a very sought after metal, but the reason for this is not the metal as a such. Gold is precious simply because we have decided it is. On a deserted island, gold is worth far less than, say, a bag of potatoes. And potatoes are worth the same everywhere, because you can turn them into a good meal with a bit of water to cook them in, some butter and a pinch of salt. Gold would have no worth at all for people had we not decided it was worth a lot. It’s a metal that can be used to make jewellery, but so can silver, platinum, copper, bronze or even plain steel. It is used in other industries, too, mostly because it’s a chemical element that will not mix with others well. What really guaranties the wealth of a country is not the amount of gold it owns, but the amount of work the people in it can put out. It’s the things it can create (or at least mine) and sell that give it a certain ‘worth’. Look at Greece at the moment. They’re not out of gold, but they use more money than they make (and that’s never a good thing).

Second, it’s not advisable at all to find something else to do people’s work. In “Making Money” an army of four thousand golems appears. A golem is strong and can work everywhere, even in the middle of lava or deep under water. It doesn’t eat, it doesn’t sleep, it doesn’t have any other needs. It exists merely to work. Four thousand golems can do a lot of work. But if they did it, as one of the characters points out, hundreds of thousands of people would be out of work. They have needs, they sleep, they eat and drink, they want entertainment. And, if they make money, they spent it on the products they (and others) have made. If golems do all the work in the city, they create an army of beggars, not a wealthy city. Now, replace ‘golem’ with any other word for big production machinery you know…

As far as my own story about a wizard and a knight (and a couple of other people) is concerned, I still like it. I reread it the day before yesterday and the ending still is good (a great final battle between two wizards) and the three parts don’t really look like three different stories with the same main characters they originally were. When I composed them later on, I changed some details and added one scene to the first story in order to make the whole new story a bit better.

There is humour in it – because I can’t keep it out of a story, even if I really, really, really try –, but it’s also a bit heroic (not epic, as it’s just about 100 pages all in all). It has a certain style to it that reminds me of the stories I’ve read at that time. My style has changed a bit in the meantime – it’s been about ten years, after all. I wouldn’t write the story the same way I wrote it then, that much is for sure. But then, I guess, every writer can say that.

Funny fantasy is not about the great heroes, it’s more about losers that can change or normal people who suddenly find themselves in rather abnormal situations. That’s what makes it funny – and that’s what makes it more than just sword-wielding knights and magic-spinning wizards.