As I believe I've mentioned before, part of my motivation for writing this blog was to give myself a reason to reinvestigate one of my "lost loves": horror fiction. I've been reading massive amounts of horror since then, from some of the oldest Gothic works to the most recent publications. Some of it has been edifying, but some of it has also been rather disappointing.
One of the contemporary authors I've been investigating is Richard Laymon, who has been in print since 1980. I've never read his stuff before, but recently I gave two of his books a try. One, The Beast House, is from his early phase, and the other, To Wake the Dead, is only a few years old. I discuss both books, which are... okay, below the fold, but they also remind me of one of my pet peeves of contemporary horror fiction, which I feel like ranting about a bit.
The Beast House (1986) is a story about, well, a beast's house. Numerous murders have taken place in the house over a hundred year duration, and legend has it that "The Beast" will slay anyone who wanders in the house at night. When a local women uncovers the diary of one of the house's original inhabitants, who claims to have seen the beast and been violated by it, events quickly draw numerous people into the fold.
I found The Beast House to be rather unsatisfying, for my tastes. The hero and heroine of the story are somewhat stereotypical (she's a woman trying to get over a long lost love, he's a military man who immediately falls for her). For my money, the main characters are just as important as the "monster": if I don't care at all about the protagonists, good or bad, I'm not going to feel particularly affected by anything that happens to them. The creature and its origin didn't really do much for me, either.
To Wake the Dead (2003) tells the story of Amara, once a beautiful princess of Egypt, now a vicious, inhuman mummy. When the seals on her coffin, long held by a private collector, are broken, the mummy is released to go on a flesh-eating rampage. The story here is a bit more satisfying, and the flashbacks (through journal entries) regarding the mummy's discovery in Egypt are nice and effective. In the end, though, events seem to happen at random and the ending feels a bit like an afterthought. The characters did little for me here, too.
The thing that really got me about both novels, however, is the complete overuse (to me) of sexual situations. In Beast House, the hero and heroine meet when he saves her from being raped. Later, numerous characters have sex that is more or less unrelated to the storyline, though it is described in erotic detail. Then the beast itself likes to have its way with the ladies, though at least that is arguably part of the story. In To Wake the Dead, several characters get trapped in an S&M dungeon which is described in detail over numerous chapters, and has almost nothing to do with the main storyline. A runaway teen is forced to perform sexual acts on a drug dealer, under threat of violence, and again it has nothing to do with the main storyline. And numerous characters have lots of sexual encounters, described in detail.
I don't have a problem with sexual situations appearing in horror novels; in fact, two of my favorite horror authors, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell, have written some of the most explicit sexual scenes you will ever read outside of Penthouse Forum. These scenes are integral to the story, however, and both authors are exploring the horrific possibilities that sex and relationships hold. The scenes in the books described above, however, are not integral to any part of the story, and seem to be there to shock, or even worse, titillate.
Here's the thing: if I really feel the need to be titillated, I can go have sex or, at the very least, watch some porn. Sex scenes in horror fiction that are present just for the heck of it feel like the worst sort of exploitation, kind of like trying to sell beer by making commercials filled with hot, bikini-clad ladies. It cheapens the genre, making it look like little more than porn that can't be honest with itself.
To be fair, this isn't a flaw of just the author and the books mentioned above. This horror-writing tic is quite common and turned me away from horror fiction for a number of years. I wonder how many others have had the same experience.