17 March 2004

"The Art of Suffering" by Martin Livings

It's been a while since I read a horror story that truly made me cringe, but "The Art of Suffering" by Martin Livings did so once or twice. The story also has a couple of very effective sentences -- my favorite passage being the following:
Then she lay face down on the bed, legs slightly apart, arms over her head, hands on the pillows. She knew this would make the muscles in her back stand out better, and also accentuate the subtle scars that were already there, crisscrossing her skin like delicate graph paper.
I love the image in that last clause. As a blurb writer might say, this is not a story for the faint of heart.

I wonder, though, who it is a story for? Yes, there's a certain visceral thrill to a gory tale such as this, the same kind of thrill available from, say, Day of the Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre (when I was a kid, I wanted to be Tom Savini ... in fact, some days, I still do), but for me, at least, film is a better medium for this type of horror story. If, as some writers have said, horror is more of a mood or an effect than a genre, then a story should have something in it other than just a few events strung together in a provocative scenario with a character given a sympathy-inducing background so that we the readers care about her or his peril, a care which is cheaply used by a writer to manipulate the audience. That's emotional pornography, not good writing.

This story also inspires me to make one request of horror writers (or any writers, for that matter): Could you please stop ending stories with dramatic sentences in italics. If your ending is dramatic, then it will be dramatic on its own and doesn't need your added typographical drum-beating. One-sentence paragraphs as endings are only slightly more justifiable.

A week or so ago, Brian over at Weirdwriter put up a hyperlinked list of 10 stories Ramsey Campbell said (in the FAQ of the website) are his favorite horror stories. After the list, Campbell said:
Whether these are the most terrifying is a moot point. Some certainly deserve the adjective, but I don't think it covers all the qualities of any of them.
There's some good advice beneath those two sentences. Writers who aspire to terrify, horrify, or just gross out their readers would be well advised to offer a few other qualities as well. Otherwise, I'd rather wait for the movie.

(Note: I found this story thanks to Jonathan Strahan's mention of the new Australian e-zine Ticonderoga Online.)

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