Biological and Supernatural Horror

(This post contains spoilers for the graphic novel Wytches: Volume 1 by Scott Snyder as well as the TV series The Walking Dead. If spoilers bother you and you’re not already caught up on both of these, take heed!)

A friend of mine in college pointed out that there are two principal types of zombie in horror fiction: biological zombies and magical ones. Biological zombies operate under the mode of a disease. The creature is still alive, but thanks to the infection, it’s subject to necrosis of the flesh and uncontrollable violence. Magical zombies are true “undead;” they really are corpses, animated puppet-like by a supernatural force like an evil spirit, lost soul, or sorcerous spell. Biological zombies are easier to kill, in that they are subject to all the laws governing organisms; the infection might numb pain or otherwise force the sufferer beyond its normal limits, but injure its vital organs and it’ll die like anything else. With magical zombies, on the other hand, special measures are required. These are the things that might keep coming at you if you hack them to pieces, the severed limbs still flailing about with the force that animated them. To defeat magical zombies, you must undo the force moving them around, which might mean striking them with holy water or enchanted weapons, dispelling the necromancy controlling them, etc.

These concepts apply more broadly to horror fiction than simply zombies.* Do the events that transpire receive a scientific or pseudoscientific explanation, or are the monsters and their powers paranormal in nature, operating on magical, metaphysical, or religious rules–if, indeed, any rules at all–rather than natural laws? Something like Paranormal Activity falls squarely into the latter category, of course; most of today’s zombie fictions go for the former, with “infection” and “virus” being extremely common terms.

Both of these horror paradigms have their merits. Biological horror has the advantage of being a little more plausible, more amenable to thoughts of whether such a thing could really happen in our world. Supernatural horror keeps us guessing, in that the regular rules of the world may not apply in full, so we have less certitude about what might happen next. But in today’s highly skeptical, secular world, supernatural horror seems to have become somewhat passé. Even when the creators of horror fiction want the flexibility of supernatural horror, where the characters’ mundane solutions to the problem are likely not to help, they slap biological-horror explanations onto the thing, and it ends up creating a muddle.

The Walking Dead, at least as depicted on the AMC television series, is one such muddle. The zombie-making phenomenon is supposed to be a biological agent; the Centers for Disease Control were the hope dashed at the end of the first season, and the hoax errand Eugene takes the characters on regards the development of a vaccine. While these missions don’t pan out (or else the show would be over), the characters don’t react as if they’re unthinkable. Everyone does take the “walkers” to be subject to mundane methods of disease control. But if you think about it for more than a moment, it’s clear these critters are supernatural in their mechanisms. As early as the first episode, you see walkers whose musculature is entirely mummified, but because the skull is intact, the creature still moves around. That’s magic, not biology. It just happens that the spell is broken by head-stabbing, for some reason. While that in itself isn’t enough to ruin the show for me (there are plenty of other flaws for that!), it puts an extra strain on suspension of disbelief.

Another example from recent memory is Wytches, a graphic novel about a species of burrow-dwelling humanoid monsters that abduct and eat people “pledged” to them, and in exchange, give people medicines that cure crippling illnesses, extend life, inspire love, and other wondrous effects. The theme at work is that as horrible as the wytches are, those who would pledge others to them for health and power are perhaps even more monstrous. It’s a great premise, and leads to some seriously disturbing scenes. But Wytches, too, suffers from a biology/magic muddle. It’s revealed toward the end of the first volume that the wytches’ powers are a “natural science” peculiar to their species, and the various phenomena associated with them are chemical in nature. The process of “pledging,” at first implied to be a thing that takes premeditation and cruel intent, turns out to require no more than splashing someone with a bit of green goo that attracts the wytches’ attention. It becomes no more horrific or personal an act than firing a gun, and in fact in some of the closing scenes, one of the characters sprays her enemies with a hose full of “pledge” (like the cleaning spray!) to defeat them. It trivializes the horror in a way that a more ritualistic pledging might have avoided.

The reasons this bothers me so much vary from one instance to the next. In some cases (Wytches), it’s the man-behind-the-curtain effect, where when the story reveals how things work, it’s a letdown from the more chilling hypotheses you’d come up with yourself. In others (Walking Dead), it’s that by claiming a science-friendly basis for the horror, the world raises the standard for consistency and believability, then fails to meet that standard by treating its subject with too many stretches and handwaves. So I suppose my word of advice for horror creators is thus: we may live in a world with a lot of post-supernatural thinking, but when it comes to fiction, we’re looking for our perspective to be stretched. We’re more likely to be frightened by what’s fucked up and unexplainable than things that follow all the rules to begin with—especially when their explanations end up tepid!


* Note that I’m leaving out things that don’t really require a mechanism of explanation, like the stalkers and serial killers of psychological and slasher horror. I’m here discussing horror that has at least a tinge of the fantastical, like some kind of monster or freakish phenomenon.

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Modrim

In my last post, I mentioned The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The game is from 2011, so readers may be amused that it’s my current obsession, here in 2015. Especially with the much newer and shinier Fallout 4 by the same creators devouring people’s attention across the world even now! But I’ve always been one to delve into games several years after their release. Part of it’s a matter of cost; $60 for a game, then more on top of that as expansions come out, is too steep for me. If I wait a few years, I can usually get the game plus all its downloadable add-ons for half the price that the base game was at launch. But not only is it less expensive, it’s more valuable to me as a well-aged game, because of mods.

I first became involved with game modding in college with Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, a sprawling Dungeons & Dragons-based role-playing game that attracted a vibrant community of fans to hack and tweak it. You could get bug fixes above and beyond those the game’s original developers had time to take care of, put more characters on the roster, rebalance abilities, and add new dialogue including, hey, sexy romantic interludes between the main character and their love interests. The same applies to today’s open-world RPGs by Bethesda. Such tinkering appeals to my perfectionism as well as my interests in programming and game design, and enriches my appreciation of the game itself… when I stop downloading and applying mods and get down to actually playing, anyway!

Mods start to come out as soon as the game itself does, but the best fan work takes time like anything else, and waiting lets the modder community zeitgeist come to consensus on the top-quality stuff. For your amusement and edification, here’s a list of what I’m now putting to use in my Skyrim game!

The Skyrim Total Enhancement Project (STEP), version 2.2.9.2. This comprehensive guide walks you through the setup of dozens of individual mods, specifically geared toward beautifying, bugfixing, and improving the usability of Skyrim without making huge changes to the gameplay as originally designed. If you’re willing to take the several hours needed to go through it, this will get you a much prettier, thoroughly fan-patched game, and equip you with all the tools you need for any further mods you’d like to add. I use almost everything from their “extended” mod list, except for:

  • Complete Crafting Overhaul. It conflicts, in design if not on a technical level, with something I add later.
  • Burn/Freeze/Shock animations. Reputed to be unstable.
  • Skyrim Enhanced Camera. It’s supposed to be immersive, keeping you in first-person camera whenever possible, but a lot of the animations are disorienting and suffer from camera clipping that way.
  • Lock Overhaul. It adds skill level restrictions on what locks you can open with the minigame, and I dislike “you must be this tall to enter” restrictions on accessing areas.
  • Not So Fast Main Quest. I get that the main plot line can feel hurried if you rush through it, but I like knowing what the next step is at any given point. No need for extra delays.

Onto that, I added the Immersive Survival pack, which adds some beautiful weather effects and requires that you feed, shelter, and rest your character to keep them in fighting shape. I love that, for instance, Realistic Needs and Diseases makes food and drink items relevant (normally they’re weaker versions of potions, no upside) without making hunger management a Roguelike-esque slog. After playing for a little while, I removed the following mods from the list:

  • Frostfall. It’s a great mod, don’t get me wrong; it makes a lot of sense to have cold-weather survival as a gameplay theme in a frozen land like Skyrim. While I used it, I had some intense situations where I got wet and nearly froze to death before I stumbled into the warmth of the inn. But I found that it slowed down the pace of things too much. I’d venture into a snowy new territory, and oops, I’m getting too cold, so I have to stop, build a fire, upgrade it, and stand there for a minute while my warmth meter refills. And if the fire is badly positioned, the wind takes the heat away, so you need to try somewhere else. Too much of a drag. That said, I kept the Campfire mod that’s a prerequisite for Frostfall; it’s still super fun to be able to throw down a tent wherever you need to sleep or build up a fire to cook things on the road.
  • Hunterborn. Skinning and butchering animals instead of “looting” them is clever and well implemented, but again, it was more of a brake on gameplay than something I found engaging in its own right. Each animal you harvest from eats up several hours of your character’s day, and until they get their skills trained up, what they get out of the process is of lower quality than what you’d have playing vanilla.
  • Harvest Overhaul. The main effect of this is to give you more alchemy ingredients, which I didn’t find to be scarce to begin with.
  • The Huntsman. It’s thematic, sure, but I didn’t see any need to add a random special weapon to an otherwise broadly-scoped set of mods.

To the above, I added Perkus Maximus, a top-to-bottom rebalancing of spells and skill perks by one of the mod community’s biggest names. It’s in fact the guy’s second major effort in the same sphere, putting to work all the lessons learned from his prior popular perk overhaul mod and the feedback it received. I’m super impressed by it: looking at the skill perks available, I have an “ooh, that’s cool” reaction to almost every option, rather than the “meh” that loads of vanilla perks produce. To tune the experience, I’ve added several mods suggested in PerMa’s discussion forums: extended perk descriptions, missing weapons, rebalanced shouts, tweaks to artifact items, and a mod that makes arrows shoot bullet-straight (what can I say, I like feeling like a badass sniper, not a fumbling putz).

Having restarted the game a few times due to modding and unmodding, Live Another Life is a breath of fresh air. No more sitting through that long, stuttery carriage ride to Helgen–start somewhere else on the map, with a character backstory to suit. The alternative starter areas can be a little more dangerous than Helgen and Riverrun, but that’s fun too!

The last major mod I added was ASIS (Automatic Spells, Increased Spawns), using the improved INI files here with the settings they recommend. I initially picked this up for the “automatic spells” part, to let the game’s NPCs use the various spells introduced in Perkus Maximus. But I gave the “increased spawns” the old college try too, and found it a quite enjoyable change. It makes miscellaneous fights a lot more challenging, in that instead of facing e.g. two or three bandits at a time, you might have to deal with five or a dozen! Despite not liking difficulty-boosters in general, I’ve been able to adapt my play style to this one, with a lot more attention to terrain, hit-and-run tactics, and target selection. It makes for some epic, memorable battles, where it really feels like you’ve assaulted a fortified enemy stronghold.

And last but not least, I tossed in Khajiit Speak. Because I almost always play cat-people when I can, and it makes the player character’s dialogue much more authentic to the way you hear other Khajiit talk in game!

Sexy Fictions

As most regular readers of this blog would know by now, I won the National Novel Writing Month this year, putting 50,000 words into a rough draft between the start and end of the month. What you don’t know, though (because this is the first I’ve told anyone), is that some 2000 words of that was smut.

Aside from some by any standard quite embarrassing cybersex back in high school and college, it’s the first I’ve ever created something sexually explicit. No doubt that’s in part due to that Catholic upbringing I wrote about earlier. And I certainly don’t make any claim that it’d be worth reading, given the WriMo ethos of quantity over quality added to the intrinsic silliness of most smut and most first efforts. But I certainly found it exciting, and a little liberating!

Much has been made of the USian double standard when it comes to violence vs. sex, in entertainment. It is far easier to find a TV show that will depict a disembowelment or a decapitation than one that will show a penis. I find that particularly strange, given that sexuality is a significant part of most adult lives, and certainly a much healthier thing in itself than beating the crap out of people tends to be. I often feel the lack of it, when reading or watching things that otherwise portray a wide variety of human needs and experiences.

It’s not that simply finding something titillating is difficult. “The Internet is for porn,” as the song goes, and it takes mere seconds to have the ‘net deliver on that purpose. But the sort of mass-produced stuff that’s easiest to find is soulless and formulaic, quick to deliver a sexual buzz, but entirely bereft of anything deeper. I want it all, I suppose: sexy action that means something due to how it’s situated in a larger narrative. Not just actors, but characters; not just foreplay, penetration, and climax, but character arcs and relationships that, as relationships do, sometimes lead to the bedroom.

I’ve looked for the kind of meaningfully situated sexytimes fiction in various places, to varying degrees of success. I’ve played a few eroge, but it’s difficult to find one whose gameplay doesn’t feel trashy and misogynistic, the player building up points until they can add characters to a portfolio of sexual conquests. This Salon article about a plot-driven porn flick had me hopeful, but the film fails horrifically in the respects the creators boast about; it’s a bunch of conventional pornographic scenes interspersed with badly acted arguments about monogamy, hardly a plot worth following. There’s a whole Web site dedicated to modifying games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to have sexual content, but from what little I can tell before I need to leave in revulsion (there’s a lot of love for… nonconsensual stuff there), it’s as vapid as the rest, adding nudity and erotic animations without any character or plot context.

The closest I’ve come to satisfying this odd craving has been in genre fiction that happens to have great sex scenes. N.K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Broken Kingdoms, for instance, have some really well written encounters between their characters that fit perfectly within the greater stories of those relationships. The Saga graphic novels feature some pretty steamy images with their main characters. But it’s difficult to specifically seek those things out, because books are rarely reviewed with this focus in mind.

Which brought me to this point with the WriMo novel. In my outline (I find I’m most successful if I have things mapped out to at least the chapter level, if not scene by scene, before diving in), I had a spot carved out for an amorous encounter between the protagonist and a chief rival. When I got there, I skipped over it. I told myself it was because the relationship between the characters had developed a little differently than I’d planned, and it no longer made sense for them to hook up. Of course, that was my comfort zone speaking.

When I got to the end of the subplot involving these two characters, though, I found that I was only a couple thousand words shy of the 50,000-word target for the month. I wasn’t likely to get very far with something entirely new; I had plenty more in the outline, but I would barely have scratched the surface of the next major arc before running out of space and/or time. So I looked back at that passed-over interlude, and thought, what the hell. Be the change you want to see in the world, right?

It was fun, in any case, though it’s probably for the best that no one else will likely ever read it! Now that I’ve done such a thing once, maybe it’ll be easier to psych myself up to doing it again. Practice makes perfect?