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From Sequentialtart.com

Horror, Crime, and Gender (amber benson mention)

By Margaret O’Connell

Sunday 2 October 2005, by Webmaster

The Genre Fiction Panels at the 2005 San Diego Comic Con

Since a number of Tart features this month have Halloween-related themes, I thought it might be appropriate to focus my 2005 San Diego Comic Con International con report on the panels I attended there on horror and crime fiction, among other fiction panels organized by Maryelizabeth Hart of the San Diego SF/mystery bookstore Mysterious Galaxy. The panel most immediately apropos to the present occasion was entitled "Fanged and Furry Fiction: Horror and Monsters and Spooks, Oh My!", and was moderated by Hart. The panelists included Amber Benson, who played Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, after co-writing several Buffyverse-related comics, has gone on to collaborate with Christopher Golden on the new Ghosts of Albion series of horror novels (Del Rey); Jim Butcher, author of the Harry Dresden series, about a modern-day wizard who earns a living as a sort of paranormal private eye (Roc); Robert Masello, a former TV writer who has published a book called A Friend in the Business: Honest Advice for Anyone Trying to Break Into Television Writing, in addition to several horror novels; David Hurwitz, author of the vampire road novel Wasting the Dawn (IDW), among other books; and Charlie Huston, author of Six Bad Things (Ballantine) and other acclaimed non-supernatural crime novels, who has just launched a new series about a vampire detective, the title of whose first volume is Already Dead (Del Rey).

Maryelizabeth Hart opened the discussion with a few introductory remarks about how modern, post-Anne Rice horror fiction frequently features beings who have traditionally been regarded as monsters as protagonists, not just antagonists. Amber Benson agreed that monsters can make effective antiheroes, noting that it can be more interesting to write about characters who are outsiders or even villains. She cited the example of the protagonist in Richard Matheson’s classic SF/horror novel I Am Legend, who is the last surviving normal human in a world of monsters and, because of that, an outsider.

David Hurwitz pointed out that when normal people are the protagonists in horror fiction, they are almost invariably either annoyingly stupid or boringly virtuous. Charlie Huston said that he had turned to his current vampire private eye hero because his earlier books had involved a human protagonist who gets beaten to a pulp on a regular basis. This made it difficult to propel the character through a violent story and have him remain still among the living at its conclusion. After dealing with this problem over the course of several novels, Huston decided to change tacks and instead write about someone who could beat the crap out of anybody, in addition to being able to plausibly survive virtually any kind of physical damage by virtue of established supernatural genre conventions. However, he added that he did not conform to all of the traditional conventions and beliefs in depicting his vampires. (As I discovered when I read Already Dead later, among other things, Huston’s vampires are visible in mirrors, and he provides convincingly worked-out science-fictional descriptions of the separate paranormal viruses which in his fiction cause bite victims to become either vampires or zombies.)

On the subject of research, Robert Masello revealed that at one point in his TV career his official title on Charmed was consulting demonologist. (His accountant advised him not to put this down as his occupation on his tax returns.) His job was basically to be a sort of continuity cop, keeping all the various characters’ powers straight and deciding what they could and could not do magically for script purposes.

Masello went on to say that producer Aaron Spelling would fire anyone from Charmed if they described the show as being about three witches who happen to be sisters, since the official line was that it was about three sisters who just happen to vanquish demons every week. The supernatural element was allegedly supposed to be incidental. However, this was hardly more unreasonable than the behavior of the producers on Poltergeist, another supernatural-themed TV series Masello had worked on previously. Whenever Masello pointed out glaring plot holes like the fact that the protagonists’ allegedly secret headquarters was on an island in the middle of nowhere, yet people managed to find their way to their door seeking help on a weekly basis, the Poltergeist producers would dismissively respond, "Oh, Robert - he’s so logical." Despite this tiresome-to-Hollywood-executives concern with plausibility, Masello said that he was more concerned with verisimilitude than veracity. He was perfectly willing to be flexible about relatively minor points as long as the result sounded good enough to fool anyone who wasn’t an expert.

When the panelists were asked about their inspiration and the source of their interest in their chosen genre, Masello replied that he got into horror because when he was a child his mother was heavily into any kind of horror fiction, especially Gothic romances. Dave Hurwitz admitted that he had never watched a lot of horror movies because he was too easily scared - for instance, he had had trouble sleeping after seeing the original 1953 George Pal film version of War of the Worlds. Jim Butcher remarked, "I don’t have a muse, I have a mortgage - it’s scary and inspirational at the same time."

On the subject of writing monsters as relatively sympathetic - or at least relatable - characters, Hurwitz commented, "For me, monsters are like people, only more so. I’ve only had thirty-four years to get this weird, but some of my characters have been lingering on for two or three hundred years." Charlie Huston concurred that there was no way to write a decent book without finding the humanity in your characters, even if they were monsters or animals.

Jim Butcher said that he approached writing characters with paranormal abilities as if he were writing superheroes. For instance, in the case of a werewolf, Butcher would ask himself "What are a wolf’s powers?" Butcher’s approach to this particular horror convention is somewhat unorthodox generally. He explained that he has werewolf characters who know enough magic to turn themselves into wolves, but have to get training from an actual wolf about how to function successfully in their lupine forms.

At the theoretically more "mainstream" panel on crime fiction the day before, Keith R. A. DeCandido, author of the fantasy police procedural Dragon Precinct, in which two detectives from the city guard investigate the murders of members of a famous Lord of the Rings-style party of adventurers, explained that such genre-bending books often work quite well because "What makes a mystery a mystery is the plot. What makes science fiction science fiction is the setting, so it’s easy to combine them." DeCandido wasn’t the only writer present with crossover tendencies. Fellow panelist Nathan Walpow, author of One Last Hit, remarked that he had originally wanted to write regular novels, but eventually realized that crime fiction is easier to sell.

When the subject of research came up on this panel, which was also moderated by Maryelizabeth Hart, Richard Morgan, author of Woken Furies and Carbono Alterado, commented that there’s research and there’s retroactive research - that is, incorporating things that you’ve seen or experienced yourself into your fiction. He cited the example of a trip he had made to Spain, where he saw the Valle de los Caidos, a cathedral memorializing fallen Franco supporters whose deliberately intimidating architectural features included columns shaped like what appear to be Nazgul-esque Black Riders with evil grins holding up the roof. Morgan said that he had detoured the hero of his novel all the way from San Francisco to Madrid just so the protagonist could share his creator’s impulse to blow up the place. Keith DeCandido chimed in that for him, living through 9/11 in New York City had turned out to be inadvertent research for a Star Trek short story he wrote about the fall of Betazed to the Dominion.

In a discussion of mystery publishers’ predilection for ongoing series, Max Allan Collins, author of the graphic novel Road to Perdition and longtime scripter of the Dick Tracy newspaper strip, described how his publisher had responded to the completed manuscript of his book The Titanic Murders, in which the case is solved by a famous real-life 1900’s mystery writer who went down with the ship, by suggesting "Let’s make it a series." Collins eventually came up with a way to get around the fact that both setting and detective were kaput at the end of the first book by proposing to write a series of thematically-linked mysteries revolving around famous historical fiascos. However, he said that it was pure dumb luck that the latest novel in the series, The War of the Worlds Murder, had been released just as the Tom Cruise remake of the movie hit theaters, since neither he nor his publisher had had any idea that this was supposed to happen. On a stylistic note, Collins remarked that although first person narrative is not essential for crime fiction, it is often identified with it, to the point where many noir crime films employ voiceovers by the lead character to provide a first-person viewpoint effect.

The third of the prose fiction panels I attended, which was once again moderated by Maryelizabeth Hart, was called "The Yonnic Factor: Do Women Write Differently?" Amber Benson was on this panel, too, along with horror/fantasy writer R. H. Stavis, author of the supernatural novel Daniel’s Veil (Medallion Press), and Del Rey Books editor in chief Betsy Mitchell.

Attempting to define the historical differences between male and female writers, Benson remarked that traditionally women wrote very woman-centric fiction because the female sphere was all they were allowed to know. (Perhaps the best-known example of this is Jane Austen. Although most of Austen’s novels were written during the Napoleonic wars, they are so intensely focused on the often brutally pragmatic female world of courtship and marriage prospects that virtually the only allusion to this major political event in any of her books is a discussion in Persuasion of how protagonist Anne Elliot’s once and future suitor, the formerly poor naval officer Captain Wentworth, had gained unexpected prosperity since his initial attempt to win her hand due to the prize money he had been awarded by the Crown for his role in capturing several French ships in battle.)

In terms of style, as opposed to subject matter, R. H. Stavis commented that the editor of the horror magazine Black October claimed that he could always tell if a writer was female even if she used initials. However, he had been totally fooled by Stavis’ writing on a serial horror piece about little boys and a jack in the box, never realizing that the author was a woman. Amber Benson cited the analogous example of Sarah Caudwell’s mystery series beginning with Thus Was Adonis Murdered, whose protagonist Hilary Tamar’s gender is never specified. According to Benson, all hints as to whether Hilary was male or female remained so thoroughly ambiguous and indeterminate throughout the series that "I just kept picturing [the unidentifiably androgynous] Pat from Saturday Night Live." On a somewhat contradictory related note, Betsy Mitchell pointed out that there is an essay called "The Kyu! Factor" whose author contends that the average male has some kind of innate ability to reproduce the sound effect of bullets splattering off a wall without ever having been taught.

Returning to the subject of women authors who use pen names involving initials, Stavis explained that she began doing this because of an experience which had led her to believe that male editors who knew that she was female sometimes expected her to make male characters sound girly in some way, or read some sort of stereotypical girliness into said characters which might or might not be there. Basically, she had received criticism to this effect about one of her stories from a male editor of her acquaintance. However, upon re-examining the story in question, Stavis could not pinpoint exactly which details of the male characters’ portrayal supposedly smacked of girliness. When she decided to test her perception of her own success at writing convincingly male-sounding characters by submitting the same story to a male editor she did not know under her current non-gender-specific pen name, he immediately purchased the story without breathing a word about any of the characters’ allegedly obvious giveaway girly traits.

This anecdote somewhat tied in with a comment from a female audience member about how many young female writers produce stories featuring Mary Sue-type heroines (that is, protagonists who are obviously thinly disguised idealized versions of the author) or yaoi (male/male romances) with stereotypically feminized ukes ("uke" being the Japanese term for the character who assumes the stereotypically female "passive" sexual role in a male/male relationship). Amber Benson responded to this by pointing out that, especially at the beginning of their careers, many famous male writers had also written blatantly autobiographical fiction—most notably James Joyce, whose first novel was actually entitled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In Benson’s view, female writers had not been a significant part of the landscape during the historical period when producing such thinly fictionalized autobiographical or "self-inserted" work was standard operating procedure, although this has apparently not stopped many female fan fiction writers active today from engaging in essentially the same practice.

Other, somewhat more scattershot comments of interest included Stavis’ anecdote about a conversation she overheard between her eight-year-old daughter and a little girl from a traditional religious family. The other little girl had told Stavis’ daughter that she didn’t think she’d get married, but might want to live with her friend Julia. Stavis’ daughter promptly informed the other girl that she could marry Julia even though she was also a girl "and then you could have twice as many kids." This led Benson to reminisce about the portrayal of Willow and Tara’s relationship on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At one point, Benson said, she had become highly indignant over the network’s reluctance to let the two lesbian characters do anything overtly physical together on camera. A gay props guy had sympathized, but told her that ultimately Willow and Tara would accomplish more by making a long-term lesbian relationship seem normal without overtly pushing the envelope than characters who were more in the audience’s face about making out, etc. According to him, the more low-key way the relationship wound up being depicted on Buffy would subtly change viewers’ attitudes through a sort of stealth normalization process.

As this account suggests, the Mysterious Galaxy-sponsored genre fiction panels, which I believe began only two or three years ago, have already developed into yet another relatively low-profile but fascinating programming track at the San Diego Comic Con, somewhat akin to the concurrent Comic Arts Conference panels featuring academic analyses of various aspects of comics. Although these prose fiction panels receive a lot less hype and hoopla than the more bigtime media events, on the whole, I found them to be among the most interesting and memorable aspects of the convention.