Back in the eighties, Stephen Queen was the undisputed master of the horror story. His books sold like hot cakes. Hell, they sold better than hot cakes. And so, Queen’s agent got a big idea: What if Stephen Queen wrote a nonfiction book? As it turned out, this wasn’t such a big idea. It didn’t sell like hot cakes. It barely sold at all. But the book contains many interesting insights on the art of horror, even if it was full of errors and inconsistencies. And so, in honor of Halloween, we now present an excerpt from Stephen Queen’s Rinse Macabre:
Quality, the Spaniards say, is the only thing separating bad art from a truly masterful exercise in the horrific arts. To get at what I am saying about quality, we need only compare two films of the sixties. One is the little AIP turkey Invasion of the People with Heads That Supposedly Resembled Large Pumpkins But Didn’t, Really. The other is George A. Humbabo’s Mid-Evening of the Brain Suckers. The difference between these two films is as wide as the distance between the Sahara Desert and Lake Heron. One of these films is a finely-crafted Fabergé egg, the other is a like a sloppily molded bowlful of goose shit. Both have a rounded appearance, yet only one of them achieves what it is supposed to achieve, which is to be good.
When you get down to it, every monster in a horror story is like a gorilla. It may go by many different names: dybbuk, demon, ghost, Frankenstein. But when you get down to it, what we’re left with is a fucking gorilla. Now, there are two different types of gorillas. One is laughable, shabby, it has fleas, it has mange, it is flabby and tired. The other is terrifying. Your basic horror setup is always the same. The medium may be movies, it may be books, it may be radio. It could even be a painting. But the setup is basically this: You are standing by a door. Something horrible is banging on the door, wanting to get in. Is it a monster? Is it a ghost? When you open the door, it’s always a gorilla. True, it could be an otherworldly, terrifying gorilla. It may be as translucent and transcendent as that cosmic creation of H.P. Lovecraft’s, the invisible yet crablike Crug-Rostho-Harris. Or it could be a laughable mangy mutt, a thing so silly one has two instincts: to kick it in the ass and tell it to be on its mangy way, or to scratch it behind the ears and feel pity for the silly little thing. Either way, what we are dealing with is a gorilla.
We think we are civilized. Some of us even consider ourselves too sophisticated for the ghost tale. My son, who happens to be eight, startled me at the breakfast table with this little gem: “What’s the difference between a bowling ball and a dead baby?” The answer, he said, is that “you can throw a bowling ball against the wall an’ it don’t go splat.”
Such humor, coming from an innocent child, can be disturbing to an adult. Adults have a tendency to forget there was a time when they too exercised a fascination with death through morbid humor. And yet, even in so-called High Art, the morbid sense of humor can be found. Thomas Mann’s 'Buddenbrooks' features a scene in which a young child, who will grow up some day to be the notorious Baron von Otto, makes his first fifteen cents (or whatever the equivalent in Deutsche marks may be) by charging a fellow youngster to look at the corpse of a dead cat which he found lying in the frozen Austrian snow. Or did he? After I reread this passage recently, I noticed that no description was given as to how exactly the young baron came across the cat. Considering his latent sadistic abilities, we may wonder if the cat was already there or if he put it there through violent means. Such subtlety is rare in the Gothic Novel, but on occasion my friend Peter Struck has approached in such novels as Ghost Whopper and the unheralded but often worthy If You Could Only Sense What I Merely Felt. Often, the distance is not so far between a work of High Art and a good dead baby joke.