Monday, October 25, 2010

Soultaker by Bryan Smith

Soultaker fascinated me.

It didn't fascinate me due to it's quality. It can be politely described as formulaic but fun, something to pass the idle hours on the commuter train. There are about five or six horror writers I regularly come back to when I want something lurid and sensationalistic and fun. They wear their genre bonafides on their sleeve and their stories are almost interchangeable: corruption and anarchy hits a maddeningly suburban town, the protagonist is always some Sunset Strip hair metal type, the violence splashes gleefully across the page, and the woman are always cartoonishly sexually aggressive. The tea sipping elitist in me is mortified that I enjoy this stuff, but my inner five year old devours it.

Soultaker plays pretty close to form. A female sexual demon known as a Lamia comes to a shitty little suburb and begins corrupting the populace by taking the form of a surly goth teenager and fucking the local hot shot jock. The jock's alcoholic writer brother comes to town to help him out and is unwittingly forced to fight against evil and blah blah blah. It's not particularly inventive or challenging but it's competently put together and I enjoyed my time reading it. The reason it stuck with me after I put it down because the more I think about it, the more I feel it's a story about male fear of female sexuality.

I've gone on rants before about how I believe horror is often a satire of our fears. Some of them are cultural fears, some of them are fears specific to an era in our history, and some are universal. It's no secret that human cultures have spent generations trying to control what a woman does with her body and Soultaker feels like a sort of extreme satire about what could happen if women had complete control of her own sexuality.

Lamia is an unequivocably female threat. While her goal is to perform some sort of mass sacrifice for another hundred years of life, she achieves it by seducing and destroying anyone who gets in her way. Her acolytes are all women and they use an almost comically exaggerated sexuality to get what they want. They're not bashful or subdued; they want to fuck and come and push bondaries all the way through to graphic murder. The men who they take over become simpering submissive slaves bent to their evil will. The heroes eventually become drawn into an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style web where they can no longer trust that their friends or families aren't acolytes or slaves of Lamia. All the heroes are male with the one exception of a lesbian who happens to be Lamia's daughter and uses the same sexuality in an attempt to destroy her mother.

I absolutely don't want to suggest that I think Bryan Smith is a misogynist. While the subjects he's tackling can be incredibly challenging, I don't really sense any particular malice from his work. To be honest, I'm probably overinterpreting the intent behind his book. For all I know he just wanted a little raunchy sex, a little gruesome violence, and a bunch of fun scares. Besides, I'm currently reading the collected horror stories of Robert E. Howard and his virulent racism makes Smith seems like the copywriter for the ACLU.

I don't know if I would actually recommend this book to people. It's crudely written and the subject matter might turn off people with sensitive constitutions or people whose socially conscious dial is set too high. I don't know how much of the stuff I'm drawing from the story is from my notorious penchant for over-interpretation and how much of it was deliberately laid down by Smith, but the gender politics of the book kept me fascinated.

Also, it was a good way to kill five or six hours on my commute.


Taranaich said...

Besides, I'm currently reading the collected horror stories of Robert E. Howard and his virulent racism makes Smith seems like the copywriter for the ACLU.

Howard's racism was a problem of the 1930s in general: this was a time when it was practically scientifically argued that certain ethnicities were genetically inferior to others, there was segregation in all walks of life, and it was illegal for a black person to marry a white person. Howard's views were really not all that different from a great many people, especially in the southern states. If Howard's racism was "virulent", then it's a virus many contracted during that period.

What's more, most of the horror stories featuring racist elements are set during the same time period Howard lived in, or even earlier. Racism in stories like "Black Canaan" and "Pigeons from Hell" is thus symptomatic of the time period. It isn't like Howard especially hated, say, black people, otherwise, why would he create sympathetic heroes like Ace Jessel or N'Longa?

Racism is ugly, unpleasant and anathema to many people nowadays, but it's also a part of history. You simply cannot judge an author or his work purely through the lense of 20th Century standards, or half of all fiction would suffer as a result. Certainly you cannot compare him to a modern author like Bryan Smith, who has no such excuse for misogyny (if indeed it was intentional on his part.)

Creature said...

Intellectually, I agree with everything you say. Howard, like Lovecraft, was a product of his time and the things they created reflected the attitudes they came from.

My issue is more in terms of reconciling myself to liking their work. It's probably just an odd quirk of my personality, but I love sharing things I like. The problem is, my best friends are not white and I have a hard time saying "Hey, you should check this author out. By the way, he thought people like you were slightly better than animals." It's easier to get into Howard's stuff as a white guy because he's not talking about me. The hate speech isn't about me.

And I don't really think Bryan Smith is a misogynist. I think he was telling a pulpy horror tale. The subtext is totally there, but I think it lies more in my interpretation than in conscious effort by the author.

Taranaich said...

"Hey, you should check this author out. By the way, he thought people like you were slightly better than animals."

Unfortunately, that's just the way of the world in the 1930s and beyond. Gather a group of people from that time, and a substantial portion would've thought like that.

Well, the easiest way to get around that is give them stories that don't have that problem. "Double Cross," starring Ace Jessel, is a particularly good one, since it deals with the title character - an intelligent, proud, sympathetic black man - coming to his hometown for an exhibition match. Half the town hate him for leaving and becoming a success, while the other half hate him because he's black. At the end of the story, all the townsfolk are united in support of him. Unsurprisingly, this story never sold, while typical pulp stories

I can sympathise with the uncomfortable nature of dealing with friends of different ethnicities, but I've had some success with my black friends and family. There are a few black regulars at the Conan forums, and the black author Charles Saunders is a big Howard fan. If they can find something worthwhile in Howard's fiction, maybe your friends can too.

Just don't give them "Black Canaan" or "Skull-Face."