So I’m at work the other day singing along to David Bowie in my cubicle (like you do), and I hear the following lines:

Well she’s a total blam-blam
She said she had to squeeze it but she—
And then she—

And I think to myself, that skipped beat at the end of each line is so much more salacious than anything Bowie could have actually said.

This is an instance of an oft-repeated point: what you can’t see is often far sexier, more horrifying, or more inspiring than what you can see. This is easy to forget. There’s a reason why many modern horror films are referred to as “torture porn” — just as porn reduces eroticism to a numbing, empty series of copulations and money shots, horror that shows us everything is merely desensitizing, destroying the very terror it is supposed to provoke.

A competent writer or director, on the other hand, knows just how much he should show before cutting away.

Consider the shower scene from Psycho. A modern director might have given us a much less coy scene, with full frontal nudity and plenty of close-ups of the knife going in and blood gushing out. Hitchcock knew better. His scene gives us hints of Janet Leigh’s naked body, but not the whole thing. We see the killer’s face, but only obscured by a curtain or hidden in shadow. We see a knife, and we see blood, but the fact of knife piercing flesh is left to implication.

I’ve heard it said that Hitchcock was forced to do this by the censorial codes of the day, and indeed the scene skirted the edge of scandal in its time. But Hitchcock was still a better artist than that. Even if offered today’s license for vulgar exhibitionism, he would know better than to indulge.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, consider this book of “lost” sex scenes from Jane Austen. Granted, the book is a joke. Still, it seems to entirely miss the point of Austen’s dialogues, which are so wonderful precisely because so much is left to inference and implication. The pornographic impulse is completely missing from Austen’s work, as Austen knew that the most romantic scene, indeed the most erotic scene, is one in which the romance and the eros are present only in the blank spaces around the actual words. It says nothing good about us that someone thought that Austen could be “improved” by adding some sex scenes.

(The one bright spot in all this is that this book has plenty of one star reviews.)

What does this have to do with me? Well, I complained a few days ago about not having the appropriate vocabulary to directly describe a childbirth scene, and having to resort to circumlocution and euphemism. I have started to reconsider my position on this. It is possible that these scenes may be made more affecting by avoiding direct description, and leaving the gory and intimate details to the reader’s imagination.

Something to consider when I start to revise.

Today must be a day for short story recommendations, because here I come with another: Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction by Jo Walton.

It’s a horror story, though it doesn’t look it on the surface. A moral horror story, which gets its teeth from the ethical dilemma that forms the climax. The protag has to decide. We all know what she should do, and we all know what we would do, because we are Good People Who Do The Right Thing. So it’s obvious what we would do. Right?

Right.

Like I said, a horror story.

Sän has an interesting post about horror up at his blog. I would have commented on it earlier except, you know, I only meet Sän a few days ago.

His distinction between smart horror and dumb horror reminds me of something I got from Orson Scott Card a long time ago. This was from one of his writing books (I forget which one), and he suggested that there are three kinds of fear:

  1. Dread, which is the feeling when you know something is wrong but you don’t yet know what. Dread is the anticipation of Terror to come.
  2. Terror, which is the heart-pounding, adrenaline-fueled rush when you see the monster and (vicariously) experience immediate danger
  3. Horror, which is the revulsion and discomfort we experience in the aftermath of seeing something, er, horrible.

The strongest of these, he says, is Dread, but it’s also the hardest to sustain. Slasher films tend to deal almost entirely in Horror with snippets of Terror. OTOH, a really excellent thriller like Alien or The Ring manages to keep you in Dread for most of the movie. (In Alien, consider how rarely the monster is actually on screen, and how much time is instead spent creeping around in the shadows wondering where the monster is.)

Interestingly, Sän’s categories are almost entirely orthogonal to Card’s. You can do dumb Dread and smart Horror–in fact, some of the best stories I’ve read are best classified as smart Horror.

The last commenter mentions the Silent Hill games. Silent Hill 2 is the only game I’ve stopped playing because it was too frightening–and in gets this power almost entirely from Dread. The monsters in Silent Hill are not very frightening and you’re never in very much danger, so the Terror is pretty mild. There’s plenty of gore in some areas to provoke Horror, but they’re fairly rare. Rather, through a brilliant use of music, pacing, and lighting, the game creates a powerful atmosphere of Dread. So powerful that the game became no fun, because I dreaded putting the disk in.