February 2004

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

The Scariest Day of Them All

Valentine's Day is approaching. That means that it's time to look at genre novels that deal with love, or -- as those of us in the horror field like to call it -- sex.

Okay, that's not exactly fair. There have been plenty of horror novels that have told moving stories of ghosts/zombies/whatevers who return from the dead to help/haunt/whatever their One True Love. And the Big Two of the genre, Dracula and Frankenstein, both have the monster's need for love as a motivating force. But in today's post-splatterpunk world, lots of horror authors go for shock value (to quote King in Danse Macabre, "...If I find I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud."). And there's little that's more shocking than having a lover morph into some horrible creature. Well, except for having one's penis torn off.

I still remember, as a teen, buying Skipp and Spector's Book of the Dead, and reading the opening story, "Blossom," by David Schow (writing under the pen name of "Chan McConnell"). Set in the world of Romero's Night of the Living Dead movies (in which the dead mysteriously come back to life as zombies), the titular character is an asthmatic prostitute who suffocates while having sex with a customer. As her client, oblivious to what's happened, continues to have his way with her, the zombie holds him tight and squeezes her vaginal muscles harder than any "normal" human could, and severs his penis.

Yeah, imagine a sixteen-year-old boy reading that one.

But that was the point, really. I'd bought the anthology expecting a few tales of zombies attacking people in their homes or whatnot. A story like Schow's was about the last thing I expected, and the most disturbing thing I probably could have imagined at the time. The fact that it wasn't the only story in that classic anthology to feature a severed phallus certainly didn't make the rest of the book any more comfortable to read.

Of course, men have only lately had to fear sex in their horror tales (a dual effect of Deliverance' s redneck rapists and Halloween's "virginity equals safety" message). But women have seen rape used as a standard storytelling technique for years. For every rare sexual threat to the male in early mythology (Osiris comes to mind), there's Zeus, Hades, and half a pantheon having their way with every woman they come across. The trend continues into Gothic novels and bodice rippers and has certainly been a crutch of many a writer today; the late, great Richard Laymon seemed incapable of writing a novel without at least one rape scene in it, and many lesser authors have followed his pattern.

But sex and horror isn't all about rape and penis mutilation. Ironically, horror novelists have lagged here, as most of the better stories have appeared on the big screen (one David Cronenberg film festival could lead to a lifetime of psychoanalysis). But the visual nature of sexual horror has also resulted in some damned fine storytelling in comics. And two of the best horror graphic novels of the last ten years have slipped quietly under the radar.

That's hard to believe, when you realize that the first of these was written by Warren Ellis, who, along with Brian Michael Bendis, is pretty firmly established as The Writer in comics today. Strange Kiss, a short graphic novel available from Avatar Press, introduces William Gravel, Ellis's recurring hero who is one part John Constantine, one part Nick Fury. It's hard to really talk about this novel without spoiling much of the visual shock that Ellis and illustrator Mike Wolfer use so well, but suffice to say that the story applies our current disease-ridden (Ebola, Mad Cow, etc.) culture, and examines it through a very disturbing sexual magnifying glass. It's pure shock horror, but there's nothing wrong with a little shock horror every once in a while. Unfortunately, Ellis continued the Gravel adventures in Stranger Kisses and then an ongoing Strange Killings series, both of which lacked the punch of the original. Stick to the first volume, and you'll be fine.

If Ellis uses the graphic format to shock, Howard Chaykin's mid-'90s The Thick Black Kiss is more subtle, telling a story that blurs both gender and genre. Chaykin, who wrote and drew American Flagg, one of the best and most important indie books of the '80s, builds on many of the themes he touched on earlier in his career. We get what appears, at first, to be a traditional noir story, chock full of beautiful, manipulative women, and cynical, tough men. And then things change, as the women turn out to be much more than they appear at first, and the crime story becomes secondary to discovering what's really going on. As with Ellis's story, telling too much would spoil some of the surprises. But Chaykin's book (out of print now, but still available in some stores) tells a hell of a story, using the sexual escapades and surprises as a means to enhance the tale, not as an end for the tale itself.

If spending Valentine's Day with a romance movie and a candlelit dinner is your sort of thing, that's great. But if the first thing you think of when someone mentions the ultimate Hallmark Holiday is Al Capone's men shooting down seven members of Bugs Moran's mob, then Ellis and Chaykin's books might be just the sort of books you're looking for.