Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Elements of Horror: The Gross Out.

There’s a famous quote from Stephen King which says something like: “I consider terror to be the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrify the reader. But if I cannot terrify, I’ll horrify. And if I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross out.”

Mainly today, I want to talk about the gross out and its role in horror fiction. The gross out occurs when the reader makes the “disgust” face. The reader’s head recoils slightly from the page. The mouth curves back and down and the lips purse slightly as if the person has tasted something foul. The nostrils are flared, not to draw in a scent but rather to push air out so no scent can get in. Imagine what your face does when you smell something that really stinks and you’ll have the disgust face.

Disgust is an emotion, and as such it is capable of being evoked by physical description. Disgust is generally one element of horror, but it is, to my way of thinking, the least important element. Disgust is also easy to evoke, although easier in some readers than in others. I’ve read a lot of horror fiction in my day, for example, and written quite a bit, and it’s pretty hard to gross me out. A scene written purely for the gross out is thus likely to work best on those who read little if any horror. A good horror writer can typically gross out most folks with a snap of the fingers. But all you do then is send those folks away from your work, not draw them in. For the gross out to work it has to be only one element, a minor element, among all the other elements of good storytelling.

To avoid grossing out my blog readers, I’m going to give only vague examples of what I’m talking about below. I recently read Spawn by Shaun Hutson because someone said he was one of the grossest writers out there. The book certainly had a lot of grossness in it. For example, one early scene has hospital workers burning bed linens stained with all manner of bodily fluids. I made the disgust face at the description, so Mr. Hutson achieved his aim there. The problem was, I felt nothing other than disgust. A later description of aborted fetuses worked the same way. Disgust plus disgust does not make horror. It’s more like showing people boogers and watching them recoil.

At the same time, however, I was also reading Beyond the Porch Light and Other Tales by our own Ferrel D. (Rick) Moore. Now, Rick Moore understands what makes horror work, and he applies all the elements in a seamless meld to evoke the full range of human emotions. Yes, there is an occasional element of grossness, but it is only a dash of seasoning to work that mixes fear, loathing, terror, shock, and—-very importantly-—love and affection into the story recipe. Here’s a great line from Moore’s story “Burying the Past,”: “…he would have seen that fear, loathing, and anger slithered behind the old man’s eyes like the pale worms that moved beneath dark porches.”

There! The “pale worms” evoke just a hint of grossness, a hint that doesn’t overwhelm but takes the reader deeper into the place where true horror dwells. That’s when you know you’re in the hands of someone who cares deeply about the craft of writing horror fiction. Moore wants to wring every emotion out of you, not just turn your stomach. That’s the mark of a good writer in general, and of a good horror writer in particular.

I haven’t quite finished Beyond the Porch Light… yet. I have one story to go. So far my favorites have been the title story, and an awesome little tale called “Electrocuting the Clowns.” All the stories are good, however, and I have no reservations about recommending this collection to anyone who likes good storytelling. And if you like to feel a little shiver while you sit and read, while the sun slowly sinks outside your home and the darkness comes creeping, then all the better. Just don’t venture beyond the porch light.

----
----

41 comments:

Steve Malley said...

Woooo, FIRST! And one mighty fine post it was, too!

I've been noticing a lot of gross-outs in literary fiction of all places. One litfic I read recently featured two pages of loving description of the contents of the spittle pans in a tuberculosis ward.

Book wasn't about TB or antyhing, and the action moved right away from there, never to return. Just, you know, gross.

Shauna Roberts said...

After I post this, I'll head right over to Amazon.com to get Rick's book.

Thanks for quoting Stephen King's line about terror, horror, and gross out. That's the first typology of the elements of horror I've seen. Would you subdivide horror in a different way or add other elements to King's three?

Shauna Roberts said...

Ah, I see you answered my question in your review of Rick's book: "fear, loathing, terror, and shock on the negative side of the emotional range, and love, affection, sympathy, and empathy on the positive side." I hope you discuss the use of some of these in future posts. (Or have you already done so?)

Barbara Martin said...

Excellent post, Charles.

A gross out for me isn't the route to writing good horror, at least not a lengthy section. The description you used of Rick Moore's writing was perfect in providing just a hint before going on. Subtle phrasing works best.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Wow, Rick is in good company here with Stephen :) I bow to your horror expertise and must take your word for all of this. I'm guessing they're not the kind of stories you can catch up with on your lunch hour. bleh.

Natasha Fondren said...

I didn't know he had a book of stories! Why didn't he say anything? I'm so glad you blogged about it!

Of course I hit the "please make this available on Kindle!" button. :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve Malley, well, in my opinion, literary fiction almost always trails behind genre fiction in the cutting edge but eventually gets around to aping genre ficiton. That spittle pan thing, though. Eww!

Shauna, I did write a fair amount about this topic in Write With Fire. I think King got it pretty well right, though. TO me, horror is where fear and terror meet. Terror is almost purely psychological, and fear almost purely physical, with horror in between.

Barbara, I agree. I don't mind some gross material in fiction that engages all my emotions, but if that is the goal then I tune out.

L. A. Mitchell, I read 'em on my lunch hour, but maybe most folks wouldn't want to. :)

Natasha, Rick definitely doesn't brag much. He's got some novels as well, and I'm going to have to get ahold of some.

Cloudia said...

Good Points!

Aloha-

Comfort Spiral

Barrie said...

Interesting post. I'm definitely one of those readers who's put off by too much grossness. I linked to you in my My Town Monday post, BTW. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, thankee.

Barrie, cool. I'll check it out.

Paul R. McNamee said...

I've always liked that quote from King. But I believe you are correct - the 'gross out' needs to be mixed with the horror and terror and shouldn't be there for its own sake.

Greg Schwartz said...

hey, thanks for the recommendation, i just added that book to my to-read list. any book with a story called "electrocuting the clowns" is an automatic buy.

i agree with you about the gross-out being one of the least important parts of horror. when it's not combined with true horror, it doesn't achieve anything. the only time i've really felt it to be useful is in humorous horror, where you can take a description so disgustingly far that it becomes funny.

Lana Gramlich said...

That IS a great line. Glad you're enjoying this book so much better than the other.

the walking man said...

Want disgust? Look up Albert Fish. His name came up in conversation so I looked him up and regret it.

that said...truth is stranger than fiction and all...I will have to go look at Rick's work.

BernardL said...

Gross out literature, gross out movies, and gross out people are on my avoidance list. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Paul R. McNamee, King says in Danse Macabre that the gross out factor is always present in horror. I haven't decided whether I agree or not yet. Nevertheless, it shouldn't be the main factor.

Greg Schwartz, Yeah, I like that title a lot. You're right, the gross out can play a role in humor, as in Team America the guy vomits for like five minutes!

Lana Gramlich, yes, the Hutson and the E E Smith books have not been good.

Mark, hum, never heard of Albert Fish. But you know I'm gonna have to see.

BernardL, I agree for gross out people. I can handle in it lit and movies better, though I'm not wanting just that for sure.

laughingwolf said...

good stuff, charles...

rick says he needs to do some heavy copy editing on the books of his i listed earlier on my page, but i'm sure he appreciates new readers, as we all do :)

jennifer said...

As usual, I am sitting at the computer with my lunch, combining two things that I love dearly - food and blogging. I was a little nervous about reading this post. Thank you for being gentle with the topic.

Have a great week!

Chris said...

Have you read Edward Lee? He's like the Charlie Parker of gross.

Charles Gramlich said...

laughingwolf, we could all use a little more editing, I'm afraid.

jennifer, I often eat and blog as well. It may not be the best habit to get into but I can't help myself.

Chris, I have read Edward Lee. His grossness is far more stylistically and artistically pleasing than the stuff in Spawn.

jodi said...

Charles, just like sex, as long as the grossness is not gratuitous, I can take it....

pattinase (abbott) said...

DISTRICT NINE-saw it with seven people. All the other women were grossed out by various scenes. Didn't bother me. My bugaboo is torture. If there is no torture, I am good to go.
BTW, my daughter's book BURY ME DEEP goes into spittle quite a bit. She became an expert in that area.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jodi, yes, a balance is best,

Patty, spittle is a cool word isn't it? I want to see District 9. I heard someone else today tell me it was violent but very good.

ivan said...

Well, if you want to be really grossed out--and even haunted for days-- there is nothing like the master, H.P. Lovecraft. Vicious menacing slugs from under the oceans, from under the earth where they had heretofore slitherd and rumbled about looking for human prey, voracious cephalopods, who, oddly look like the Masonic emblem on the U.S. one dollar bill, the freakish eye on top.
Even today, I can't look at a dollar bill without thinking of something slithery godawful and pyramidical-- but a mutant slug all the same. Thulu Mythos.
Lovecraft obviously did not think like you or me. Died so young. Probably set upon by a vicious Masonic slug.

Mary Witzl said...

My husband laughed out loud when I read him that quote of King's. We're both very hard to gross out, though our kids always try. They make me laugh: any parent who changes diapers and wipes noses is going to be a tough call when it comes to being grossed out.

My daughter told me about a book she'd read that involved someone, um, pleasuring a corpse. She found that gross. I'll reserve judgment until I read the book myself, but I was pleased that she was grossed out. You really wouldn't want your kids to be blase about that sort of thing.

You are right: whether a book is gross or horrifying or whatever it sets out to be, the writing is always the thing. If that is done well, you can get away with just about anything.

Wil said...

I'm thoroughly disgusted.

Wil Harrison.com

Charles Gramlich said...

ivan, I'm a big fan of Lovecraft. Have read everything he ever wrote. HIs grossness was certainly suggested. Cthulhu is a nasty bugger. But he didn't do much actual description of the Old Ones. Horror in the 80s went through the Splatterpunk period, in which horror writers tried to gross out each other. I had a small hand in that and it got realllllyyyyyy nasty I'll tell you.

Mary Witzl, Kids especially love gross things, although their gross outs are mild compared to what most adults have experienced. I remember how Josh loved stories with worms and boogers and stuff in it. It was pretty hilarious, but not terribly powerful from my advanced age!

ivan said...

Mary Wirtzl,

Down on my luckk one year, I joined a group of migrant Portuguese lady farm harvesters.
Learned some Potuguese in the fields, and some new English:

"Astrud? She's gross. She blows dead bears."

Ah, on top of old Smokey!

Erik Donald France said...

Good one. The gross out, for me, is definitely better applied in small doses that go a long way without having to flog all the dead horses.

Turn of the Screw is a horror bit without the gross out, that works fine. Poe? And there must be many more that let the reader's imagination fill in the dark spaces.

sage said...

I like the shivers, but not the gross...

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, that was fairly gross.

Erik, I just watched a movie based on one of James's works last night. Definitely atomspheric without much if any gross factor. I like that sort of stuff, though it's hard to do these days.

sage, today's audience for horror movies, though, seem to be of a different mindset. They don't feel fulfilled without at least a little gore.

JR's Thumbprints said...

When grossing out the reader, it's best to spark the imagination instead of going into a full out blitz with the descriptive details.

Charles Gramlich said...

JR., absolutley!

Clare2e said...

Charles- District 9 is really good, and because of the storytelling and characters, just like it ought to be. It was gross in parts, but not intolerably so, I didn't think.

For me, what sticks is when grody details are tied to an emotion or memory in the story so well that it becomes a powerful motif that the author can play again or at least hint at. When it's just Blood-Gore-Now reassemble the limbs and fluids into a new configuration, but doesn't mean anything because we don't care what/who it's happening to, it's not at all the same. And I actually find myself skimming. The same with boring, pointless sex scenes. Gore and smut are too available for me to waste my time on something that isn't better done.

Rick said...

Charles, I'm a little late coming to this post, but I want to thank you very much for your kind words. Beyond the Porch Light was one of a series of books I published with iUniverse for free many years ago. As laughingwolf pointed out, it was before I'd really learned to write, and it and the others suffered a great deal from my inexperience. However, I've re-writen all of the books in question and they'll be coming out fully edited by mid-November. Anyway, thanks much friend.

Charles Gramlich said...

Clare2e, I'm definitely hearing good things about District 9. I'll have to give it a shot. Yes, indeed, when you get something gory tied in with characters you care about, then it hits you where it hurts, like when Carrie gets soaked in pig's blood in the movie.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hi Charles,
You just took me back to my misspent youth where I read tons of horror novels and LOVED them! I also enjoyed Danse Macabre (the copy I had in junior high came apart at the spine I read it so often) and in that full circle fashion, I'm kind of coming back to writing in a gothic way. An agent contacted me about writing a young adult novel (I was like, really? Really?), so I gave it a whirl and kind of went Flowers in the Attic with it. Waiting to hear what he thinks, but I had a lot of fun working in that genre again.

Heff said...

Heff digs "the gross out". The only thing that REALLY freaks me out is stuff involving eyeball removal. I don't know why.

Charles Gramlich said...

Michelle, that's cool about the YA novel. Excellent! I hope good things come out of it.

Heff, you and Lana have that in common. She can't stand the eye stuff. I admit I don't handle it perfectly well myself.

Shauna Roberts said...

I have to admit, "eye stuff" gets me more than anything else.

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna, apparently you are not alone. That's interesting though. I wonder why that is.