9/11 Changed the Rules for Writing Horrors
L. Andrew Cooper
In October 2001 I drafted “Lachrymosa,” one of the horror stories in the collection Leaping at Thorns. A couple who might be having the fight that ends their relationship drives into a suburban neighborhood where a scene of unfathomable violence is drawing an audience. During the six weeks prior to writing, like everyone else in America, I’d watched the same scene over and over, airplanes crashing into buildings. I wanted to write about the dehumanizing lure of tragedy. The result was a story that’s grotesque, upsetting, and really hard to explain.
Post-9/11 horror is an established phenomenon: books, conferences, and courses on the topic have popped up across the U.S. and elsewhere. Sooner or later, the distinction between “post-9/11” and “21st-century” will be pretty meaningless. People emphasize conspiracy and paranoia as key features of the phenomenon. One of three sections in Leaping at Thorns is titled “Conspiracy,” and while all my work is arguably paranoid, stories in Peritoneum such as “Leer Reel” and “The Road Thief” are super-paranoid. I’m on board with conspiracy and paranoia, but so was The X-Files in the 1990s.
Maybe post-9/11 horror is about nihilism, brutality, and hopelessness in the face of a world bent on destruction. That fits my work as well. I’ve had no complaints about the softness of “Charlie Mirren and His Mother” and “Prologue: The Family Pet,” the first stories in Leaping at Thorns and Peritoneum. We are traumatized by 9/11, so post-9/11 horror is obsessed with traumatic experience. But wait: have you seen Texas Chain Saw Massacre? There was this national trauma called Vietnam that produced repetitive gruesome imagery in mass media, divided the country, and inspired a very successful wave of nihilistic, brutal, and hopeless art. The 70s gave rise to the great masters we still celebrate. Before Stephen King discovered the healing power of psychic kids, his stuff was really mean.
Did America re-experience Carrie’s night at the prom on 9/11 and in its aftermath? Not in the way that matters. Sure, America might feel a little like Carrie—unjustly hated and splattered with blood, how could she do anything but unleash awesome power? Then again, America might be the popular kids, facing the wrath of religious zealots who’ve come across power they’re too backward to control. A lot of horror might fit present-day circumstances, but to me, it doesn’t feel “post-9/11.” The traits I’ve associated with post-9/11 all qualify, but they don’t add up to the main thing I feel about the tragedy, the main thing I think a lot of people feel about the tragedy. No matter your views on American imperialism, mass murder is senseless. The senselessness is indivisible from the horror.
Most horror contains a kernel of the unexplained, like Carrie’s psychokinesis, but psychokinesis has a foundation in quasi-scientific inquiry going back more than a century. King bases most of the novel in well-explained psychology, whereas, for most Americans, terrorist psychology is alien. Explaining it with certainty would miss its horror. Inscrutable motivation is horrific. So is uncertain perception. Even the events of 9/11, played and replayed, remain mysterious. In relation to Vietnam, the first televised war, extreme close-ups on Sally’s eyes in Texas Chain Saw emphasize the harsh truth of mad spectacle, and Tom Savini got famous for bringing his war experiences home to realistic gore makeup. In relation to post-9/11, seeing is no longer believing; who did what and why is still being debated by candidates for national office. The slashers of the 70s and 80s were odd fish, but we pretty much knew what they were up to. Post-9/11, the WTF factor is high.
I think I got better at scary WTFs for the stories in Peritoneum. I still like pre-9/11 horror, but I get annoyed when horror writers spoon out the same old advice about audiences needing various types of explanation. I don’t suggest abandoning sense altogether; others before us have exterminated rational thought. However, post-9/11, our security as a nation depends on the strategic withholding of information! Writers, don’t explain everything to your readers! Keep them alert by keeping the threat level high! Fear comes from ignorance! Keep them afraid!
After all, you know the world doesn’t make sense. Horror that explains itself is lying.
Book Synopsis for Leaping at Thorns: Leaping at Thorns arranges eighteen of L. Andrew Cooper’s experimental short horror stories into a triptych of themes–complicity, entrapment, and conspiracy–elements that run throughout the collection. The stories span from the emotionally-centered to the unthinkably horrific; from psychosexual grossness to absurd violence; from dark extremes to brain-and-tongue twister. These standalone stories add important details to the fictional world and grand scheme of Dr. Allen Fincher, who also lurks in the background of Cooper’s novels Burning the Middle Ground and Descending Lines.
Book Synopsis for Peritoneum: Snaking through history–from the early-1900s cannibal axe-murderer of “Blood and Feathers,” to the monster hunting on the 1943 Pacific front in “Year of the Wolf,” through the files of J. Edgar Hoover for an “Interview with ‘Oscar,'” and into “The Broom Closet Where Everything Dies” for a finale in the year 2050–Peritoneum winds up your guts to assault your brain. Hallucinatory experiences redefine nightmare in “Patrick’s Luck” and “The Eternal Recurrence of Suburban Abortion.” Strange visions of colors and insects spill through the basements of hospitals and houses, especially the basement that provides the title for “TR4B,” which causes visitors to suffer from “Door Poison.” Settings, characters, and details recur not only in these tales but throughout Peritoneum, connecting all its stories in oblique but organic ways. Freud, borrowing from Virgil, promised to unlock dreams not by bending higher powers but by moving infernal regions. Welcome to a vivisection. Come dream with the insides.
About the author: L. Andrew Cooper scribbles horror: novels Burning the Middle Ground and Descending Lines as well as anthologies of experimental shorts Leaping at Thorns (2014 /2016) and Peritoneum (2016). He also co-edited the anthology Imagination Reimagined (2014). His book Dario Argento (2012) examines the maestro’s movies from the 70s to the present. Cooper’s other works on horror include his non-fiction study Gothic Realities (2010), a co-edited textbook, Monsters (2012), and recent essays that discuss 2012’s Cabin in the Woods (2014) and 2010’s A Serbian Film (2015). His B.A. is from Harvard, Ph.D. from Princeton. Louisville locals might recognize him from his year-long stint as WDRB-TV’s “movie guy.” Find him at amazon.com/author/landrewcooper, facebook.com/landrewcooper, and landrewcooper.com.
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/author/landrewcooper
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