Friday, December 11, 2009

Horror versus Thriller: Hellblazer

Today there is freezing rain outside. It is probably the end of a week of bitter cold.

(In Eugene, until the very end of December, it never snows. If there are clouds then they trap the daytime heat and keep the night time low above freezing. If there are no clouds then the city's heat escapes and both days and nights might be below freezing, but without clouds there cannot be snow! The only chance of snow is right when a stretch of several frozen and cloudless days end, such as today.)

It is a good day to talk about one of my favorite comics, the Hellblazer graphic novel named Freezes Over.

But to start, I need to expound about what makes a tale a horror story...

Back in 2006 I wrote on Shamus's blog about how the literary genre of horror has merged with the genre once called thriller. More recently I studied the horror genre because of its similarities to political intrigue. The relevant summary is that today a movie is called a "horror film" if it has frightening moments and gore (what used to be called a thriller) rather than the older definition of having an atmosphere of eeriness, helplessness, desperation, and confusion.

Personally, I have no interest in movies or comics that are thrillers. Unlike many people, I do not find quick frights at all entertaining. But I do enjoy a creepy setting where something is disturbingly abnormal and the protagonists have to experience it while they are outclassed and really just want to be somewhere else.

Enter John Constantine.

His comic book series has been published for many years, and has seen many writers. (The Freezes Over story is four comics, #158-161, written by Brian Azzarello.) Initially Constantine was an occult expert who could outsmart both criminals and evil creatures. The local library has those stories, but when I looked at them they held no interest for me.

Eventually the writers decided he had a unique superpower they named serendipity. Unless he really tries hard not to, Constantine will always say the right thing.

It is a fascinating literary device.

Foremost, it allows Constantine to share the reader's foreknowledge that the story's ending will be happy. Constantine will survive, the bad guys will be punished, and innocents will be saved. This greatly aids the realism in the tales without breaking the fourth wall: Constantine would never suspect he is a comic book hero, but he has reason to act like one anyway.

Second, it fits well with the original horror genre. The serendipity power wants to punish the bad guys but requires Constantine to talk to them. So Constantine always gets captured and threatened, and often gets beat up. He (and the reader) usually lacks any idea about how he will escape or how badly he will be treated before he eventually emerges victorious. Those four key qualities of a true horror story--eeriness, helplessness, desperation, and confusion--are quite compatible with his superpower.

Third, the superpower is not intelligent or alive but can take over Constantine's life. Unless he carefully monitors what he is about to say and do, he almost lacks free will as the serendipity puts words in his mouth. To complicate matters, the power only tries to protect innocents: many of Constantine's friends and allies are not innocents and often they get killed during his adventures. Constantine seldom knows if he could have done something different to save them: all he knows for sure is that they would still be alive if he completely avoided his superpower, but then other people would probably have died, and in any case Constantine cannot quit because he is addicted to fighting evil and needs his serendipity to survive that. Thus the comic fits the horror genre not only because of the stories but even by the very nature of the protagonist's superpower, which prompts the reader to think about free will and the value of life.

(At this point many blog readers might complain that I am misrepresenting Constantine by only presenting one side of his character. That is a valid criticism but I will ignore it. I am discussing the side of Constantine that I most enjoy, in preface to describing why a particular adventure is so great.)

Enter the events of Freezes Over.

The story is easy to summarize. A huge snowstorm has closed the roads in rural Britain and drivers looking for a place to wait out the storm collect in a roadside bar. The bar's owner, his wife, and the bar's three regulars are soon joined by a family of four, a trucker, Constantine, and three violent criminals making their escape after committing a murder and robbery crime. There is also a car in the parking lot with someone in it; Constantine notices this as he arrives, and talks to the man, who is a serial killer. By always saying the right thing, Constantine convinces the serial killer to commit suicide in his car, and then inside the bar arranges circumstances so that the three violent criminals end up dead but no innocents are hurt. The bar owner's wife hits someone, and is hit back. The father in the family of four threatens someone with a gun and gets shot, but only suffers a minor shoulder wound.

The story has absolutely none of the magic or occult stuff that characterized the early Hellblazer tales. The characters and their actions always seem quite real, except for Constantine who in this story gives his serendipity full reign to direct him. But everything Constantine says makes sense in the end: why it was important that he initially act like a weak jerk, then he became spooky, and then gruff and tough. Azzarello's writing is superb.

Key to the story is a regional legend about The Iceman, a monster that the bar's regular customers fear. Constantine is initially ignorant of the legend, but after hearing it he weaves it into most of what his serendipity causes him to say. He uses the legend to manipulate people, until at the very end of the story he debunks his own myth. The reader of the story is prompted to think about the power of myth and how myths control us because Constantine is himself aware of the similarity between his superpower and myths: both heartlessly control people, but both are necessary. He says:
All I'm sayin', is choose the right words and you can talk a person into just about anything... I been doin' a lot of sayin' tonight... keeping a legend alive is a good thing... Faith and fear's what it is. The glue of humanity. It's important s***. An' like any dirty job..."
Finally, the story's eeriness stays with the reader in a good way. A real horror story makes us more grateful to have life, health, and family. Not because it implants fears about an imaginary monster hiding around the corner, but by reminding us how fragile our lives are--how much we owe to quiet, predictable days, the ability to enjoy what we already have, and the generosity of providence.

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