Going back to when I was a little kid, I loved horror movies. I was raised on a regular Saturday night fix of Chiller Theater and Creature Features. Back in those prehistoric days before DVD or even VHS, when seven channels was all you got (in New York it was CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, WOR, WPIX, and whatever channel 5 used to be), you had to scour the TV Guide’s movie listing in the hope that a really good horror movie would be on.
But like most kids, I wasn’t all that discriminating. Sure, I knew that Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man were better movies than House On Haunted Hill or I Was A Teenage Frankenstein but hey, any port in a storm, as they say. So while I hoped for the original Invisible Man, I contented myself with Attack Of The Crab Monsters.
I never lost the enjoyment I got when watching a good horror movie, but I did become more discriminating. Not long ago I rented Attack Of The Crab Monsters and enjoyed it for the nostalgic dumb fun it was, but it’s not going to replace Rosemary’s Baby in my list of the great horror films.
This love of horror movies transferred to books, as well. I discovered Stephen King just before the movie version of The Shining came out, and spent the 1980s reading a lot of horror novels in my spare time. I enjoyed the best writers in that genre (King, Peter Straub, Thomas Tessier, Ramsey Campbell, James Herbert, and even, for awhile, Dean R. Koontz before he started pushing outright horror aside in favor of suspense). I also got into the so-called “splatterpunk” scene of the 1980s: Clive Barker, John Skipp and Craig Spector, David J. Schow, and others.
I like my horror readable, gritty, realistic in characterization, and fantastic in plot. Evil should be evil, good should be good, and good should triumph in the end.
The single best summation of my view of horror fiction was in The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, when Samwise Gamgee says:
It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
In my wildest dreams I couldn’t have put it any better. Which brings me to The Golem, by Edward Lee.
I’m not a prude in these matters by any stretch. I loved reading the splatterpunks, so violence and gore doesn’t make me faint or blush. I don’t have any problems with sex, either, though explicit sex scenes are almost 100% unnecessary. So what’s my problem with The Golem?
The key ingredient of any horror fiction is the evil that provides the antagonism. For horror fiction to be successful, the villain or villains of the piece must be believable.
I can hear the protests now…”What’s believable about a killer clown that lives in the sewer (Stephen King’s IT)? What’s believable about a fog that turns people into homicidal maniacs (James Herbert’s The Fog)? What’s believable about a hipster vampire in the New York subway system (Skipp and Spector’s The Light At The End)?” The answer is that elements that are outside of humanity can be accepted by the willing suspension of disbelief. The killer clown is believable because I’m willing to accept it.
When dealing with human beings, however, the suspension of disbelief is much harder. Human characters need to be well-constructed. Sure they can be evil, but they must be believable because they are human. I can buy the killer clown because I don’t know any killer clowns. I can also buy Hannibal Lecter because I’ve read about real-life serial killers and cannibals.
What I have a really hard time accepting are human characters that are so over-the-top in their evil that they become cartoons. In the portrayal of real, human, evil, Edward Lee’s The Golem is closer in spirit to Sleepaway Camp, Mother’s Day, and Motel Hell than it is to The Silence Of The Lambs or Psycho. There is a sliding scale of quality for horror fiction with The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Psycho at the top. Somewhere in the middle are movies like the original Halloween. Below that are the Halloween knockoffs like Friday The 13th. Mired in the dreck at the bottom are the Friday the 13th knockoffs and the cheap grade-Z movies like the immortal Monster A-Go-Go.
By the quality of the prose, Lee’s book belongs in that middle sphere. It’s a fast-paced, easy-to-read thriller with plenty of action. But in the characterizations, The Golem belongs with the grade-Z stories.
The two main characters are likable enough, but the villains are so overwrought in their evil that they remind me of the perpetually laughing, borderline hysterical, crazy man with the leering eyes that populated exploitation films like Reefer Madness.
What made Hannibal Lecter one of the greatest villains of all time? Was it the fact that he was a cannibal? No. In both the book and the film, it was because Hannibal Lecter could easily have been the man next door. He could have been the psychiatrist you went to for marriage counseling. Until he invited you to dinner.
The villains of The Golem are multiple: the first is a bunch of rabbis who practice a heretical form of Kabbalah that worships Satan. Okay? The second are the enforcers who work for the rabbis. They’re mean, stupid, rapists and drug dealers who look and sound like they stepped out of a parody of Deliverance. The third group of villains are two cops who are also drug dealers and rapists. One of the cops is also a necrophiliac. You still with me? ‘Cause it gets stupider.
The cops are prone to talking to each other in public places about their nefarious deeds, and always spell out just how evil they are for the reading public by guffawing over the crackheads who they’ve had killed, or what attractive female witness they might just rape. The enforcers engage in the same type of subtle dialogue. It’s as if every thing they say should be followed with, “Do you see how evil I am?” The rabbis come straight out of The Master’s lodge from Manos: Hands Of Fate. There’s also an ax murder in the prologue I still don’t understand.
As if the dialogue was not enough to alert the suspicious reader that they are reading about VERY BAD MEN, there are multiple scenes of rape that really made me want to take a shower to get the sleaze off.
Now none of this is beyond the realm of good horror fiction. All of these elements have been touched upon in better, more serious novels and films. But the reason those novels and films are better is because the characters were believable despite their actions. It is this combination that sends chills down the spine. What is really scarier? The idea that Jeffrey Dahmer was considered the guy next door even though he had human body parts in his refrigerator? Or Jack Nicholson hamming it up with rolling eyes and “Heeeeeeerrrrreee’s Johnny!” dialogue in the movie version of The Shining. Personally, I prefer the former. Clearly, Edward Lee prefers the latter…so much so that his book is filled with such characterizations.
It’s a shame because Lee isn’t a bad writer at all, but the book is so over-the-top that it nearly becomes a parody of horror fiction.