Playing Smartass

by Tom Ingram

It’s been a while since a long, abstract, generalized polemic has been seen around here, so here you go. Merry Christmas and/or happy holidays, all.

Canadians have a bad habit of relentlessly promoting any artists, writers, or musicians associated with us, regardless of artistic merit or tenuity of connection. Neil Young and Nickelback are testament to this, the former having not made it big till he left the country and started writing songs about American things, and the latter being an act of unprecedented blandness that receives unprecedented radio play, mostly to fill content quotas. Our national inferiority complex leads us to whore ourselves out to people who don’t really deserve it simply to prove that we’re a real country too, guys.

Which segues nicely to the topic of Kelley Armstrong. Armstrong is a Canadian paranormal romance/urban fantasy writer, essentially a poor man’s Laurell K. Hamilton. While Hamilton’s fiction is not by any means good, it’s certainly, ahem, memorable. Armstrong gets no such praise. Her Otherworld series of lurid stories about witches, vampires, and werewolves getting it on in various permutations are in the wretched position of being almost totally banal and insipid without even the small consolation of failing in an interesting way (like Hamilton). And she has a whole shelf to herself in the horror section of the Chapters at Polo Park.

I could go on at length about the state of the arts in this country, but it strikes me that the most jarring thing about this is not the “whole shelf” part, which is not all that uncommon—Pratchett has a shelf, sometimes more, and James Patterson, bless his heart, at one time had a whole section—but with the “horror” part. Because while it stands to reason that somebody likes Armstrong’s writing, and presumably would come to her defence in a discussion of its merit, it seems inarguable to me that her work cannot be rightly classified as horror, and moreover I doubt that even her fans would argue the point.

That’s right, this is a genre categorization rehash. By all means, click away if you feel you must. If you prefer, I’ve written a play-by-play analysis of Half-Life that’s quite nice.

I will confess to finding Laurell K.’s Narcissus in Chains disconcerting in a gruesome sort of way. But it wasn’t the shapeshifting and necromancy that threw me off—plain old cannibalism, impalement, and soaped-up nymphomania (which, seriously, ouch) were enough for me, thank you. Hamilton’s books would be horrifying without traditional horror content like vampires and werewolves.

And isn’t that (being horrifying) what horror’s all about? In the best kind of horror, the monster challenges your view of the world through the sheer fact of its existence—Cthulhu is, with his fatal weakness to high-speed watercraft, pretty poor as an antagonist. But his size, age, and total apathy combine to make him a fearsome symbol of humanity’s insignificance, and that’s why the Mythos is an enduring series of horror stories. The worst kind of horror goes for easy shocks. In both cases, they’re trying to frighten you, to stir up the areas deep inside that you don’t talk about at parties.

But vampirism doesn’t do that. Neither does lycanthropy. They haven’t for a long time. They were last horrifying in 1897, when a little-known Irish paranormal romance writer published his fifth novel. Dracula‘s intersection of violence, religion, and surprisingly overt and vivid sexuality may well have been frightening at the time. It’s not now, in an era where violence and sexuality in the media are commonplace, and most people could not use a cross as a vampire-repellent if they lived in the Dresdenverse.

There has been a proliferation of vampire books, shows, and movies in recent years, ever since the advent of Hamilton and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But while Hamilton is out to scare you with body horror, Joss Whedon has no interest in such things. When he pulls a scene right out of a 50s B-movie, it’s always with a knowing postmodern smirk that makes fear pretty much impossible, even if the vampire prostheses weren’t hilarious to look at. And anyway, while Bram Stoker was graphic about the idea of neck-biting and blood-draining in Dracula, Whedon and his acolytes leave it more or less in the abstract so they can get on with the interesting stuff.

It’s not surprising then that Armstrong, who is as much a Whedonite as a Hamiltonian, is not a scary writer. This is not an implicit value judgment. She’s not trying to be scary.

The entire Whedonian school of urban fantasy takes elements from horror, but they take a more analytical tack than real horror writers. For an example of a proper horror story, The Monkey’s Paw outlines a clear set of rules for the paw’s workings. However, for the sake of atmosphere, the story largely glosses over the plot holes opened up by these rules. Being pedantic, worrying overmuch about nice distinctions, is inimical to horror.

But what about it? The paw grants whatever is wished of it, but always with an ironic twist. So what happens if an enterprising wisher asks for something they would hate? Does the paw ironically twist this round to a positive outcome? Or does it sense that someone’s being a smartass with the rules and drop a piano on them? What about a wish carefully formulated to have only one possible interpretation? Does the paw respond to language, or intentions? What happens if the paw is transferred from one person to another and then given back? Or, the question I’ve always thought of as the kicker, what was the ironic twist on the final wish? We never hear the husband’s exact wording, so it’s left to our best guess*.

The Monkey’s Paw is, for all its over-familiarity, a scary story. But it’s maddening for a certain type of person, because if the husband and wife had stopped to think for even a few moments, they might have figured out a loophole in the paw’s rules. It might be that the paw specifically punishes this behaviour, but the annoying thing is that they didn’t even try.

In contrast, look at John Kendrick Bangs’s short story The Water-Ghost of Harrowby Hall. The titular ghost is doomed to haunt the owners of Harrowby Hall by appearing at midnight on Christmas Eve and soaking everything in the house, with the usual caveats preventing the owners from unloading the house or otherwise escaping her. At the end, the latest owner of the house takes advantage of the ghost’s compulsion to follow him around for one hour and leads her outside to freeze. He then puts her in a warehouse made of asbestos and maintained at a steady -416 degrees Fahrenheit (don’t look at me, I didn’t write it).

In horror, the mythological rules hold that there is no escape; any attempt to fight fate will inevitably make things worse. This meshes well with horror’s reactionary nature: if you break the rules, you’re punished and no two ways about it. However, in Armstrong and Whedon and Bangs, the rules are just what they look like: rules, which can be circumnavigated by a sufficiently talented legal orienteer. When “no weapon forged” can destroy the villain in Buffy‘s 214 “Innocence”, she takes him out with a rocket launcher. This isn’t even particularly new—Harrowby Hall was actually published shortly before The Monkey’s Paw.

We could invent new labels that no one will ever use, but in this case it’s actually unnecessary. There is an already existing genre which is primarily defined by playing smartass with the rules. It’s called fantasy.

The word “fantasy” conjures up images of castles, wizards, and elves. This is accurate to some extent, but remember that the genre is broader than that: it encompasses everything from Terry Brooks to China Mieville. Not everything with the fantastic trappings qualifies intuitively as fantasy—King Arthur stories and Greek myth are usually excluded. And not all subgenres are Tolkienesque: Mieville, Jim Butcher, and even magical realism along the lines of Groundhog Day all fall under the fantasy umbrella.

The element that unifies all these disparate works is that they play smartass with an established set of rules, which can take many forms. Often a fantasy work will draw on mythology, taking the traditional strengths and weaknesses of a certain monster and stretching them. For example, vampires can be repelled by crosses. Is it the cross itself that repels them, or what the cross means to its bearer? In older lore, this question was never asked because the assumption was that everyone was Christian. There were no control-groups: everyone who used a cross against a vampire would have believed in it.

In Buffy‘s agnostic ‘verse, Willow, who is Jewish, can nail crosses to her bedroom wall to keep the vampires at bay. Often, nobody even has to be around the crosses for them to work, as in Buffy and Dracula. But in Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, it’s not the symbol but the belief behind it that repels the vampires, with the strength of repulsion being (as I understand it) proportional to the strength of belief. Harry Dresden knows for a fact that God exists, but does not practice any religion. If he were to use a cross, it wouldn’t work. However, his pentacle necklace does the job nicely.

Another fertile ground for fantasy is in universal narrative tendencies. Joseph Campbell showed that stories tend to follow a single very specific form, and most heroes are very similar. In a way, this establishes rules—a hero must have the usual “heroic” traits. Terry Goodkind subverts this nicely in the Sword of Truth series. Goodkind’s Objectivism is a poor match for traditional heroism, which emphasizes sacrifice, duty, and selflessness. His hero, Richard Rahl, is by most sane standards a prick. But with Rahl, Goodkind defies the rules. Every story ever written says that heroes must be selfless. Goodkind, who gets distracted by his politics too often but is essentially a good writer, asked why and, getting no satisfactory answer, went ahead and changed that.

The most obvious source of rules is the current conventions of the genre. Swords and sorcery fantasy began with Tolkien and by 1983 was well entrenched as the standard of the genre. Plenty of crap was put out that purported to be original, but actually just rewrote Tolkien with different names and different setpiece battles. This eventually began to bother Terry Pratchett, who wrote the Discworld books, a series of elaborate parodies of high fantasy, in response.

One of the conventions established by Tolkien and used over and over again by his imitators was that the descendant of an ancient line of kings would come from humble roots to restore order to the land. This was seen in Aragorn in LoTR and countless others. In Pratchett’s Discworld, however, the righteous returning king has no interest in any position above the rank of police constable. The steward who holds his place is the most effective ruler the Discworld has ever seen, and the group trying to get a king on the throne are villains who hope to profit from it.

There’s really no end to Pratchett’s subversion of conventions, because unlike most authors he makes an explicit point of doing it. One of the timeless narrative traditions is that, to use Pratchett’s words, “million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten”. In his Guards! Guards!, some characters try to slay a dragon by giving themselves handicaps calculated to make the odds of success 1000000:1 (they are off slightly, but the odds of surviving the failure turn out to be exactly 1000000:1).

But that’s not to say Tolkien was slave to tradition, either. He was certainly influenced by heroic mythology, but the interesting thing about The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit both is that the traditional strongman heroes are side characters who essentially run interference for the main characters, who are pretty obvious stand-ins for Tolkien himself. The actual plot takes place in a very few decisions at the personal level, and most of the battles are decided before they begin. It’s difficult to see Tolkien as anything like a maverick, given how shamelessly he’s been aped in the last sixty years. But there you go.

In Greek mythology, Oedipus is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother, and the steps he takes to avoid this fate are exactly what bring it about. Croesus consults an oracle for advice on a military campaign, and decides to go to battle when the oracle says “a great empire will be destroyed” if he crosses the river Halys. Unfortunately, she did not specify which great empire and Croesus loses the battle. Time and time again, the story says that if fate has it in for you, there is no escape from punishment. This tradition is carried on by horror, where slashers implacably seek out their victims and the descendent of a cannibalistic cult cannot quite escape his family’s depraved nature.

But the world doesn’t work that way. The real world is not by any means a happy-go-lucky place. It doesn’t care if you survive. But it’s not out to get you, either, and it’s not particularly bothered if you thrive. There are certain consistent rules that must be followed no matter what, but if you can engineer a way to follow these rules while still living the good life, the world is not going to send out an angel of death to strike you down. By asking questions like “how does the cross vs. vampire thing actually work?” fantasy literature recognizes this.

With the prevalence of monarchism, the frequently backward-looking setting of knights and horses, and the use of magic and mysticism, fantasy looks superficially like a dark, unenlightened genre, the polar opposite of science fiction. But there has to be a reason why the two genres are largely read and written by the same people. The smartass instinct is simply the scientific instinct in disguise: a desire to learn how the system works, to seek out things that don’t seem to make sense and come up with a theory to explain them. Fantasy literature adopts an essentially scientific point of view—scientific about imaginary things, but the principles are the same.

* Imagine that the husband took the paw in his hand and said, “I wish there was nobody out there”: “The street lamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.” [return]