It's almost too bad that Valentine's Day falls in the middle of February, usually at the exact moment the weather is at its winter worst, at least here in the northeastern United States. I suppose the reasoning is that it gives us something to look forward to other than bitter winds, bone-chilling cold and depressing five o'clock sunsets. Frigid weather is also conducive to spending Valentine's Day indoors with your significant other, which can certainly increase the romance factor. Not to mention increasing the opportunity to watch your favorite horror movies together. (Okay, so maybe Valentine's Day in the Kaufmann household is a little outside the box.) But all the heart-shaped chocolates and stuffed "I Love You" teddy bears lining the shelves of the chain drug stores in my neighborhood remind me that, even as I look forward to spending Valentine's Day with my girlfriend, there's another love that pierces my dark little heart as well, a lasting, consuming love shot not from Cupid's bow but from the lenses of filmmakers' cameras and the ink of authors' pens.
My love of horror.
As I'm sure it is with most genre fans, my love of horror stems from childhood. As a little boy growing up in Connecticut, with little to do but follow wherever my imagination led, I became fascinated with dinosaurs. I remember owning a plastic bag filled with tiny, multicolored, plastic dinosaurs of every variety: bright-yellow Stegosauruses, blood-red Tyrannosaurus Rexes, sky blue Triceratopses. If my mother is to be believed, the more frightening the dinosaur looked, the more I wanted to play with it. My bookshelves quickly filled to capacity with coloring books and Weekly Reader publications about dinosaurs. I simply couldn't get enough. That is, not until the great monsters of the imagination—Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein's monster, King Kong, Gamera and so many others—marched out of the mists of time to grab my attention. Only then did those little plastic dinosaurs start gathering dust.
You see, back in the 1970s, there weren't hundreds of cable channels to choose from on TV, and weekend programming didn't consist of a choice between fitness infomercials, decade-old sitcom episodes and reruns of Mythbusters. Back then, New York-area syndication stations like WPIX and WOR-TV would spend the weekends showing old science fiction, fantasy and horror movies. And as much as I wish I could say my love of reading horror comes from a studied literary background, the truth is that it really comes from watching weekend television as a kid.
I couldn't take my eyes off any monster movie that came through that old cathode ray tube: Godzilla, The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and I especially couldn't resist Ray Harryhausen extravaganzas like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (the scene where the giant cyclops fights the dragon was freaking tailor-made for kids like me!) or Jason and the Argonauts (two words: skeleton warriors!). Sundays saw WPIX airing Abbott & Costello movies all morning and, while I loved them all, my favorites were always the ones where they ran into monsters, often from the classic Universal movies: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man, Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy, Hold That Ghost, Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. Then came the theatrical releases I was allowed to see as a tyke, like The Land That Time Forgot, the 1976 King Kong, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was very much a horror movie to me as an eight-year-old. (Later, I would graduate to an appreciation of the Hammer Studios horror oeuvre, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee starring in films with lurid titles like Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, but that was still several years away.) Basically, any movie that had weird creatures in it, be they monsters or aliens, absolutely lit a fire under my imagination.
I decided I would grow up to be a scientist—not because I wanted to cure diseases or solve world hunger, but because I wanted to make monsters in a lab. Then I decided I would be an astronaut—not because I had any interest in piloting space shuttles or getting into prime physical condition, but because I hoped I would meet aliens. After that, I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker, in particular, a director of movies about giant monsters. Through it all, though, I was writing stories about monsters—
You would think this love of all things monstrous and frightening would have led me to read tons of horror novels as a young adult, especially considering those days, the 1980s, were the genre's publishing heyday, but strangely, I wound up spending my high school years reading quite a bit of truly-bad science fiction and fantasy. (I'm not painting those entire genres with the same brush, mind you, I just made some bad choices. I am looking pointedly in your direction, Piers Anthony!) Then, in the late 1980s, everything changed. I was browsing the shelves at the short-lived 59th Street location of New York City's famed Forbidden Planet bookstore when I discovered Clive Barker's Books of Blood. These were the original Berkley paperback editions with the creepy Halloween masks on the covers, which no doubt was exactly what made the books so attractive to me. I figured I'd give them a shot and, after that, my first true taste of horror literature, I never looked back.
What I liked, and what I still like, about the horror genre are the chills I get from a really good scary story. Horror gives me the opportunity to revel in the imagination of an author who, through his or her sheer writing talent, can provide that weird, almost indefinable frisson one gets from the best horror tales. It's very hard for me to become truly frightened by the printed word, since fear is such a primal emotion and often requires visual or aural stimuli in order to be evoked, but subtle chills and not-so-subtle grotesquerie are certainly possible to create with the power of words alone, and I enjoy experiencing that in the safety of a controlled environment like a book. In real life, I have no love for violence, death or unexplained noises that wake me up in the middle of the night, but in fiction, ironically, I enjoy these things immensely. Again, I think that's because fiction is a safe way to explore them. A book can affect you emotionally, but no matter how well written it is, it cannot actually, physically hurt you and so, the distance it provides allows you to explore some of the darker aspects of life and death from a safe and comfortable vantage point. For children, even more than for adults, such an opportunity is invaluable.
But of course the things we like as children aren't exactly the same as the things we like as adults. Life experience gives us a chance to grow, a chance for our horizons to expand and our tastes to evolve. I hated tomatoes as a kid, for example. Hated them in any variation, from soup to the slices on my Quarter Pounders, except in ketchup form, though I suspect ketchup isn't as close to the actual tomato as Ronald Reagan thought in 1981 (look it up, youngsters!). As an adult, though, I love tomatoes and no sandwich seems complete without them. Similarly, my tastes in horror have evolved over time too. As a kid, what I loved about horror was simple: monsters and gore. As an adult, I require more from the genre, things like atmosphere and good writing and characters that are more than cardboard cannon fodder.
Another thing I grew to love about horror as an adult is something I never could have fathomed as a child—namely, the genre's propensity for shaking up the status quo. There are an awful lot of horror stories, novels and movies that feature a family unit, or society as a whole, threatened by an outside force. Too often, in my opinion, those stories end with the antagonistic force defeated and the status quo safely defended, but the potential for shaking things up in a lasting way, for seeing how people react to the introduction of an X factor and how it might ultimately change them, is what truly fascinates me about horror. Human nature never ceases to amaze me, and horror, like any genre, explores human nature at its core. Because in the end, even if it's a book about a monster, it's really, at heart, about the people who have to find a way to deal with that monster's intrusion in their lives. To me, finding out how they cope is just as much fun as learning about the monster itself. It's true that as a kid I probably would have found character-oriented scenes as boring as the scenes in a Godzilla movie when the giant rubber monsters are replaced by the human hero doing human-scale things, but now I consider characters an essential part of my love for horror, because without them the threat is meaningless.
Some loves fade with time; others stay with us until the end of our days. For me, I suspect my love of horror will remain in the latter category. I loved it as a kid without even truly understanding it, and I love it even more as an adult who does. Lovers everywhere get a special day in February to celebrate their love, but me, I get two special days to celebrate mine, one in February and the other in October. You can't beat having that much love in your life.
Sadly, it's also my love of horror—and science fiction, and fantasy, and all the gray areas in between—that makes the news that IROSF will be shutting down after six years of publication so heartbreaking. IROSF is a wonderful place where genre fiction is treated with the respect it deserves, where expectations are never lowered because of subject matter or the appearance of a rocketship on a book cover (or a skull, for that matter), and being a part of the IROSF family these past five months has been equally wonderful. Stacey, Bluejack and the rest of the editorial staff—including those fabulous copy editors!—all welcomed me with open arms from the get-go, taking in an aficionado, not of science fiction or fantasy but of horror, speculative fiction's lesser-known, raven-haired sister who likes to sit in the corner and stick needles into burlap dolls. Even being here such a short time, I could tell that this is a special place, and I would be lying if I said I wasn't going to miss everyone. As Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart once said about the man in the TARDIS, "Splendid chap. All of them." (Yes, I'm a Doctor Who freak—there's still so much you don't know about me!)
And I'll miss you, too, the IROSF readers. I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed hearing from such smart, engaging and supportive folks in the comments section of this column. I know there are other places online where you can go to continue your conversations, and where you can get sharp, in-depth reviews of genre literature and film, but we all know there will never be another place like IROSF. Like your first love, there's never another quite like it.
As for this column, I'm currently looking for a new home for it. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I will still be blogging about the horror genre and its elements, both good and bad, over at LiveJournal. Feel free to pop over and join the conversation. Out of love, of course.