by Suzy McKee Charnas
It’s all over the TV channels – from The Walking Dead to Death Valley and several more in the pipeline (Awakening, Department Zero, Zombies vs. Vampires) to half a dozen vampire shows, and some weird stuff in between. Fades, new from the UK, seems to be about dead people shifting between being ghosts and being flesh-eating zomboids. Being Human covers two dead bases at once, with a ghost and a slew of vampires. Death is suddenly not just this thing that happens with a bang to bad guys in a cop show, but a big, big deal that we dive willingly into for an imaginary immersion experience.
Well, death but also after-death, not-quite death, undeath, transient-death, or transcendent death (protag Paul, in Fades, is an “angelic” who’s sort-of-almost-probably-not-conclusively-dead, and is or is not going to “ascend” any time now to some other state). It’s everywhere! At least, it’s everywhere in movies and on TV and in video games, here in the relatively death-dodging West, which is the place that I (more or less) know.
We see comparatively little of real death here, relative to parts of the world where wars rage and gangs use the most public possible body-dumps as messages of threat and contempt to their rivals. It happens, for us, in hospitals and nursing homes and hospices, out of sight unless you go looking for it (or live in a “bad” neighborhood of a city that’s on one of the drug-traffic trails that run up from death-fixated Mexico). We have removed ourselves from true death and dying as much as possible.
The less we see of it in reality, the more we seem to gorge on its counterfeit: images in crime shows hinging on icky forensic realism (Bones, CSI in its multiple locations, and some “true crime” shows) and what one critic dubbed “carnography” – Saw, Hostel, and other “torture porn” which is ghoulishly graphic about dismantling the physical body with maximum gore, pain, and visual horror. Our pop culture’s appetite for this stuff is apparently insatiable, addictive, and compulsive. We turn to the channel, then glance aside to avoid the worst details of the fausse charred corpse, bug-covered remains, or shambling ghoul.
There’s always been this vein in Western culture, of course. Look at some of the graveyard statuary of medieval Europe for grisly examples. The dance of death has always drawn us in, gorge rising but eyes wide. And it’s so much more present now, not so much as religious warning as forbidden (but not *really* forbidden) entertainment. So what’s happening, to bring that old sensibility and appetite for darkness and decay so vividly to pseudo-life these days?
For one thing, it’s about the tantalizing possibility that at some time in this new century, a more or less endless postponement of individual death will become a scientific reality. “Death, thou shalt die – ” for the super rich, anyway. At the same time, we are constantly reminded that our entire planet is dying under the weight of our own demands of it, and that a finger on the nuclear trigger somewhere could bring death to all (or we could fall to the Great Pandemic, or the volcanic upheaval of the sea-bed).
When almost everyone keeled over at 45 or earlier, often right out there in the street, death was just death, and didn’t the Bible say so? But now, the thought of just missing the gold ring and dying as others waltz off to lives of almost indefinite length, there’s this buzz of anxiety, off resentment, of horrified fixation.
Of rebellious fascination and mimicry. Of playfulness.
Enjoy it while we’ve got it, folks; nobody knows what the next wild turn of events will bring, but our moment is one that poor old Poe could only create in small, for himself and his readers. This is a precious moment for all who work in the horror field. Other moments will come, bringing other approaches, but this moment is ours.
About Suzy McKee Charnas
Suzy McKee Charnas was born and educated in New York City, attending Barnard College (1961) and, after a two-year stint in Nigeria with the Peace Corps, New York University (MAT, 1965). She taught at the New Lincoln School in New York until Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital hired her away as a curriculum consultant for their high school drug-abuse treatment program. In 1969 she married and moved to New Mexico, where she began writing fiction full-time. Her first novel, Walk To The End Of The World (1974), was a John W. Campbell Award finalist. Her SF and fantasy books and stories published since then have won her the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Mythopoeic Society’s Award for young-adult fantasy, and the James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award—twice. Her classic dark fantasy The Vampire Tapestry is now available as an e-book, as is her young adult fantasy Sorcery Hall Trilogy (The Brone King, The Silver Glove and The Golden Thread), and her stand-alone young adult fantasy novel The Kingdom Of Kevin Malone.