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[GUEST POST] Michael Aronovitz (PHANTOM EFFECT) on Antagonists and Their Given Backgrounds

Michael Aronovitz has been writing horror fiction for as long as he can remember. Since 2009, along with his two collections and two novels, he has published short stories and critical articles in a variety of magazines. In 2011 his short story, How Bria Died, appeared in Paula Guran’s ‘The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror’, and in 2014 his short story, The Girl Between the Slats, appeared in S.T. Joshi’s ‘Searchers After Horror’ anthology.

Aronovitz is a Professor of English and lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Kim and their son Max.

Antagonists and Their Given Backgrounds

by Michael Aronovitz

Given the choice, I would love to experience The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris, as a first time read once again. Not only did I find the story to be emotionally startling, but technically interesting in terms of the method Harris used to uncover the given histories (and motivations) of his antagonists. For the horror writer at least, this is the paradoxical issue we wrestle with from ground zero. While other genres introduce “bad guys” of all shapes and sizes, horror stories feature these strange creatures in a more personal manner somehow, and the trouble lies in these risk-filled moments where we would rip the sheet off a given killer’s past versus the widely accepted fundamental standard of showing and not telling.

Often, the less we know about an antagonist’s background, the scarier he is. Michael Meyers is the perfect example, as the original film opens with that famous scene offered through his eyes as a boy, donning the clown mask, and killing his sister. It plays like backstory, but tells us nothing. Even the psychiatrist can’t reveal to us why his ex-patient kills. He simply calls him “evil” and leaves the balance for us to figure out. All through the film, Carpenter toys with the moments most scripts would manipulate for at least a little bit of shameful (and overt) explanation, yet cunningly, he only leaves us more mystery.

And so does this mean we can never yank the proverbial veil off the past? I found out that Freddy Krueger’s mother was raped by a hundred maniacs, and that certainly did not make him less effective as a killer. Jason Voorhees never would have worked as a character unless I knew he had special needs and the camp counselors let him drown in the lake, but the fact is, when all is said and done, Michael Myers is scarier than both of them put together. At the same time, Halloween, like every other spark of artistic brilliance, is really a bell when you’re talking straight metaphor. It’s already rung, so we can’t have Michael Myers, or at least the exact formula of aesthetic omission that created him, ever again. Consequently, we are then stuck with the paradox once more. How do I show and not tell, and at the same time demonstrate believable motivation? I could do massive flashbacks, but the question then becomes “Why didn’t you start the story there?” I could start the story there, and the question becomes, “When are you going to get to the point already?”

Hence, we get stories started in the middle of the action and “clever” bits of exposition filling in the blank spots on the run. Still, as I alluded to before, even quick exposition often looks cheap, like a car chase, or one guy reading the “confidential file” of another guy to his face for our benefit, and we go around in these circles spending much of our creative time as writers trying to reanimate this structural fallacy in a manner that would both satisfy the reader’s need for “story-speed” and the more deep seated craving for underlying believability.

Harris is clever in this. We never find out why Hannibal Lecter eats people, not even in the sequel (though we do see the gory result of his convincing a guy to literally rip off pieces of his face). Still, Harris makes it a plot-point that Lecter gives the psychological profile (and therefore history) of Buffalo Bill, in a game he plays with Clarice Starling no less, so he can reveal these things in riddles and flashes. This is an unveiling process that takes a deliciously long time to accomplish, and makes dialogue (the tool of the teller) the scaffolding for what is “shown” (the grand prize of the demonstrator). Here, the structure meets theme and technique in a wonderfully crafty way that the reader can either be swept into or left to appreciate on a platform of mechanics, and that is an awesome feat for a horror writer to accomplish.

In my novel Phantom Effect, I experimented with this foundational issue in the sense that my biggest fascination with horror, and more specifically serial killer horror, has always been finding out why a maniac does what he or she does, and understanding it in a dark sort of way. At the same time, I would never want to make a reader feel like the story must go backward to go forward, especially since I write in a rather literary (and detailed) manner to begin with.

Therefore, I attempted to create my own vision utilizing a few tools from the Harris lexicon in reference to story scaffolding, making the ghost of my serial killer’s last victim force him to relive the critical moments that changed him in childhood, those he had repressed. The setting is an abandoned construction site, and the partially demolished Motel 6 becomes a literal funhouse of flashbacks, making the “history” part of the current story action.

My thanks to Thomas Harris. I’d love to experience both books for the first time back to back and see if mine lives up, while feeling the effect of his right down through the marrow.

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