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The Frankenstein Effect by Karen Runge

 

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Whenever I hear the name “Karen Runge” or see it mentioned in a post on social media, I immediately perk up. I imagine my eyes glossing over with sheer adoration. And I don’t mean that in a lascivious fashion. Not at all. What I’m saying is that when it comes to author crushes, to that oh-my-god-give-me-all-your-fucking-words sensation that happens with some of our best writers, I can’t imagine it getting much bigger than the one I have on this author’s magical words. And it turns out that she can bring the same alacrity with a pen and brilliance of thought to nonfiction work when she’s of a mind to. This article that we’re sharing with you today is a sample of that. Well-reasoned, stunningly written, and bleeding clarity and passion. I could go on about Karen and her words all day, but I won’t do that. There’s a much better writer than me in the house today and I’m going to get the fuck out of the way and give her the floor. Dig.

THE FRANKENSTEIN EFFECT:

Why Censorship Needs to Censor Itself

An Article by Karen Runge

This is general knowledge for most horror fans, but if you ask the average anybody off the street who Frankenstein is, most will tell you he’s the dead guy some mad Scientist reanimated. Ask kids, and they’ll stick their arms out and tilt their heads back and groan like little zombies. (It’s cute. Try it sometime.) Only some will be able to tell you that Frankenstein is in fact Doctor Frankenstein—the ‘mad’ Scientist—and in the original story, his tragic puzzle-piece monster is never, not once, even given a name.

The last time I stumbled across this exact question, the dude I was talking to got a little testy with me when I told him that Frankenstein is actually the Doctor.

“No he’s not!” He looked at me like he’d never heard anything so ridiculous said by anybody so full of shit. I swear if I actually held people to the bets they wanna make with me on ‘trivia’ like this, I’d be eating more steak than ramen. But heigh-ho.

The fact is, most people haven’t read Frankenstein. Maybe they’ve seen one of the more faithful film adaptations, but that’s only somewhat more likely. Regardless, everyone feels like they know the story, or know enough to guess around it. It’s been pressed deep into popular culture, which gives it a sense of familiarity—even if this ‘sense’ is inaccurate.

People who know the original tale will generally agree that it’s a story more sad than it is monstrous. It’s a series of tragedies—lives ruined by hatred and heartache, innocent bystanders paying for it with their blood. It has its shocks, but it’s a story designed to move you, while digging at you to ask a few deeper questions about the nature of life, death and morality. Ask for the pop culture version, though, and you’ll meet a huge, ugly dude with green skin and stitches everywhere and a couple bolts sticking out his neck. That’s quite a leap.

Not to get too romantic over metaphors, but there’s a pretty useful parallel here. As a horror writer and dark visual artist known for realism and extremes, I’ve had to find a name for this because I run into it all the time. I call it the Frankenstein Effect—when people confuse the monster with the maker. Frankenstein and his monster are both works of fiction, but imagine a horror artist (writer, painter, filmmaker, photographer, etc) as Doctor Frankenstein, and every artwork they produce as one of their vilified monsters, and you’ll get what I’m doing here.

I think we need this kind of metaphor more than ever. Ignorance of the horror genre and failure to appreciate its deeper themes and messages is leading people to approve its censorship in almost every area. YouTube has demonetised videos with ‘dark’ content, regardless of their aims. Schools in the States have called for To Kill a Mockingbird to be pulled from their curriculum because people find it ‘too upsetting’. We’re a few short steps away from straight-up burning books and jailing filmmakers. All because horror—the one genre driven entirely by its namesake emotion—is… too horrifying?

To which I say: When an ostrich sticks its head in the ground, is it really any safer? Does its willful ignorance of the dangers around it really help it in any way?

When we assume a book or movie is ‘bad’ purely because its subject matter is ‘bad’, we rip away all its power as social commentary, as a cathartic healing tool, as the light shining on a serious issue. As a warning. As a guide. And if anyone wants to hack the head off that ostrich, they’re going to have an extra easy time of it, now.

 

***

“I delight in what I fear.” ~ Shirley Jackson

Horror fans and creators are a bit of a special bunch. We don’t stick our heads in the sand—we deck our wings out with spurs and barbs and badass metal plates, and we charge at the things that frighten or horrify or shock us. We get up close and personal with our monsters—maybe because it’s useful for us, but also largely because it’s fun.

I love horror and all its sub-genres. My own work is more on the heavy/psych side of things, but I have nothing but time for stuff like Tales from the Crypt and books by guys like Brian Keene. Got a ghoul for me? Fantastic. And when I’m done with that, and had a few laughs along to a B-grade beauty with way too much blood that’s definitely the wrong shade of red, I will go back to writing about sexual sadists and master manipulators and the very real consequences of torture and abuse.

No, I do not approve of torture and abuse. But I do write about it. And I try to do so with as much empathy and insight as I can muster. This doesn’t make me a ‘fan’ of evil acts. It just means I feel a need to take them seriously in my own approach. It means I try to be honest about them.

And that’s where it gets tricky. And that’s where the Frankenstein Effect strides up, green skin and misplaced bolts et al.

I briefly dated a guy who couldn’t understand that while I love horror, I can’t stand salacious murder shows where the gory details of real deaths are glorified for a slathering audience. I love extreme film, but a friend couldn’t grasp why I don’t enjoy receiving clips of tortures and executions from hardcore gore sites (also real). I tell people I write horror, and they look at me like I’m someone they should probably keep away from their kids.

Here’s one that really hit home.

The celebration party for my debut novel, Seeing Double—held in a sunny, outdoor restaurant on a beautiful, cloudless evening. Friends and family gathering around for an excuse to drink too much and raise a few glasses for me. I gave my thank you speech in Chinese (apt for the novel). It was an awesome night.

“What are you celebrating?” A bunch of people at the next table asked. “A book? Your book? What’s it about?”

It’s important to note here that I don’t talk much about my work until it’s good to go—at the very least, first draft down or in a publisher’s capable hands. I’d never had to answer this question, because until this day I was still giving my usual response: ‘I’ll talk about it when it’s done.’

So now what?

“It’s about a group of sexual predators,” I said. Trying to keep it simple.

(To this day, I haven’t found an easy way to answer this question when in ‘polite’ company. Believe me. I’ve tried.)

Their expressions changed from curiosity to distaste in a series of slow-ticking micro-seconds.

“Sexual sadism?”

I got weird looks from them for the rest of the night. I gave them a wide berth. It was ridiculous, how unnecessary all that was.

This kind of reaction is vexing enough when meeting it out in the wild, far from familiar turf. How much worse, then, when it comes from within our own camp?

Here’s what’s happened recently.

A breakthrough YA Fantasy author pulls her three-book deal with a major publisher, after she is accused of racism. It seems her interpretation of slavery in her make-believe world was distasteful to some. The key words here are ‘interpretation’ and ‘make-believe’. As if ‘Fantasy’ shouldn’t cover that already.

A Schlock writer’s debut novel is slammed by a well-known reviewer for a major horror magazine, because this reviewer finds the key material too upsetting. As a mother, she feels that scenes of infanticide—no matter how honestly and empathetically presented—cannot be tolerated. This is too much for her maternal sensibilities. Fair enough, except she goes so far as to attack him on social media, with the entire inner community watching, and then berates him when he dares defend his work.

And my own book? Resplendent with a WARNING: EXPLICIT CONTENT label smacked on the cover, one reviewer took a few stars off because they felt some of the scenes were ‘too extreme’—and stated as much in their review.

This maligning of the makers because of their monsters is clearly having direct effects on the future of the genre and the freedom its artists feel when interpreting their subject matter. Basically, I mean: it’s killing it.

For those who can’t accept darker horror, there are dozens of softer sub-genres where you are invited to laugh and enjoy without guilt or a sense of confrontation. But don’t yell at us because we didn’t let you cheer at someone dying, and asked you to feel it instead. Don’t try to take me down because I wrote a serious rape scene: no titillating panty-tearing, no pouty screams. Would you prefer that I did write it that way? Or would you rather I deny rape happens at all?

Are extreme horror artists supposed to stop working because we’re getting people a little twisted up inside? Because we’re giving them something to think about? Do all our vampires need to sparkle these days?

***

“Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red.” ~ Clive Barker

People respond to extreme/controversial horror by yelling: “I’m offended!” As if this is a complete argument in itself. They also say this without once considering that maybe it’s supposed to be offensive. That maybe that’s the point.

While they are free to close a book or walk out of a movie if they feel it’s getting too deep under their skin, they do not have the right to dictate which extreme horror works we get to keep and which they would like us all to burn. Granted not all extreme horror is any good. Much of it is gratuitous and offensive, particularly at the amateur level. But I’m afraid we don’t get to pick and choose. By following Frankenstein Effect logic, we would have to in turn get rid of some of our most powerful and affecting classics—many of which were written to make specific, strong statements. Some of which have had deep and positive effects on popular culture and our understanding of real-world evil. Here’s just a few: all of which were originally maligned for being ‘too extreme’. Some of which, continue to be.

Lolita, Vladmir Nabokov

Lord of the Flies, Arthur Golding

Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis

Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr.

Everything the Marquis de Sade ever penned (and while we’re here, take a moment to wonder where we got the word ‘sadism’ from)…

…and a megaton of other classics that revolutionised our cultural understanding, and our ability to empathise with real people caught in real-life taboos.

***

“If you’re afraid of dying, and you’re holdin’ on, you’ll see devils tearin’ your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freein’ you from the world.” ~ Jacob’s Ladder

That line up there floored me when I first heard it, finally watching that specific film at that exact time in my life. That line hit me, bulls-eye. In essence: Sometimes your demons are really your angels. I think this quote applies to more than just a commentary on the nature of heaven and hell, and how our own attitudes define our experience. I think it applies to any experience in life that sparks a sharp reaction. The way I see it, this runs the spectrum. Someone processing an assault or a loss or an injustice, someone struggling through a breakup. Hell, even just someone having a bad day. It’s in the aftermath and how we process these events that determines whether we wind up bitter about them, or balanced by them. You’re offended by a book? A movie? An exhibit? Then it’s a devil for you. But bear in mind that it’s just as easily an angel for others. Your outrage is your choice, and you’re free to voice it: but that’s your emotion, and there’s no reason why it should trump the power and true message of the art itself.

***

A final note, from this proud extreme horror artist.

Writing extreme horror scenes is hard. So is reading extreme novels, as is watching extreme films. While I enjoy the emotional and intellectual depth in the journeys they offer, all of this is hard. It involves some very intense forms of inner confrontation. This is also why the idea that I, as a creator, ‘like’ this kind of brutality in a personal sense shows an almost pathological level of ignorance on the part of the ‘offended’.

The fact is, we live in a beautiful, terrible world. It is filled with beautiful, terrible things. There’s balance there, if you don’t insist on tilting the scales.

So.

If you’ve just read a book or seen a film/exhibit that sickened you, that triggered you, that maybe brought something back:

Go for a stroll somewhere pretty. Buy yourself an ice-cream. Cuddle up with someone who cares about you—hugs are awesome healers. If there’s no-one suitable around for hugs, a teddy bear will do. Talk to a therapist, to a close friend. Write about it. Think about it. Whatever gets you through. You may still dislike the work that got you there, but I guarantee you’ll be a lot more enlightened at the end.

If you still prefer your horror safe and sweet, that’s absolutely fine. There’s plenty of room for you already. But when you protest art just because you don’t like how it makes you feel, you are actively encouraging the world to look away from the real-world issues it has in its sights.

I mentioned making extreme art is hard?

Don’t yell at the folks who brave the darker waters. We’re actually trying to show you something—and in some ways, we’ve done it at our own expense.

Far from berating us, odds are high we’re in need of a few hugs, too.

14 replies »

  1. Profound words. Thank you for sharing this enlightening and wise article. I must confess to my shame that I am one of those who hasn’t got round to reading Frankenstein yet, but I did know he was the scientist, not the monster. I think I will rectify that very soon: it has been on my reading list for far too long.

    Like

  2. I think there is a lot that is great about this article, and I’m avowedly anti-censorship.
    BUT…
    Reviewing is as personal a thing as writing is (and I say that as someone who does both and whose first novel featured infanticide and matricide). I don’t think reviewers should ever be less than 100% honest about their reactions to books or movies, because if they are they’re not being true to themselves or their readers.
    I recently reviewed Jack Ketchum’s ‘The Girl Next Door’ and I gave it a lesser review than I might have, not because I thought it went too far, but because I thought the quality of Ketchum’s writing wasn’t up to the task he set himself. My benchmark for books that pull no punches at the moment is ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. It’s a benchmark not just because Lionel Shriver describes horrific events in it, but because she does it brilliantly. She emotionally involves the reader to the extent that when the horrible things happen they have way more impact than they would have otherwise. Ketchum didn’t come near to hitting her level.
    All the works mentioned in this piece justify their extremes by being amazing works of art. A book that is extreme and mediocre deserves to be reviewed as such. That’s not censorship, that’s honesty.

    Liked by 1 person

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