Wednesday 3 November 2010

Michael J. Bassett, Silent Hill, and Robert E. Howard

I've been quite critical of Michael Bassett's Solomon Kane in many regards. I even nominated him for the de Campista awards, which, in retrospect, I don't think was entirely deserved. Not because the changes he made to Kane's origin were any less objectionable, but because he did such a damn good job of praising Howard, without qualifiers or nonsense. His weird ideas on Solomon Kane's origins are an honest, artistic derivation, not one dictated by focus groups or trying to fit in with other stories he wrote. I'm not going to defend Solomon Kane as a Howard adaptation (which it isn't in the first place), but I know Bassett's heart was in the right place.

Anyway, Solomon Kane still hasn't hit North American theatres for reasons unimaginable, but Bassett's next adventure has been announced at Bleeding Cool - Bassett's writing and directing Silent Hill: Revelations, the sequel to the not-great-not-terrible Silent Hill.

Robert E. Howard’s pulp hero Solomon Kane has his rabid, protective fans, and so do the Silent Hill games but I”m not too sure about Michael J. Bassett. Not yet, anyway. I’m certainly pretty lukewarm on his pictures so far – though, as is so often the way with directors I can just shrug off as artists, he seems to be a thoroughly lovely bloke and I always find myself rooting for him to keep making films, hoping they will get better as he goes along.

I laugh heartily at the mention of REH's "rabid, protective fans": you'd think no other fictional property in the world has passionate aficionados. Sonic thefreaking Hedgehog has passionate aficionados! Eh, I suppose it's nicer to be considered "rabid and protective" instead of "whiny and thin-skinned."  I also agree with the description of Bassett's character: in every one of his interviews he's been exhuberant, likeable and generally a swell chap.  A lovely bloke indeed, and part of my disappointment with Solomon Kane's lack of play in North America is because I'd rather he be successful than some smug, arrogant prat like Michael Bay.

I'm not as huge a fan of Silent Hill as I am of Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane, but I know enough about the series to know that, when it comes to narrative and atmosphere, it's one of the most important video games in recent memory. Silent Hill is one of the most terrifying, unsettling games I've ever had the discomfort of playing, but what strikes me is how psychological it all is. I haven't actually played 2 or 3, but based on just browsing the wikis and watching videos online, I'm struck by the surprising depth therein.

The name of that town is Silent Hill. 
Although it is known as a scenic resort area, it is a cursed place where the town's former inhabitants were once driven away, brutal executions were once carried out, and a mysterious plague was once prevalent.
The town is centered around Toluca Lake, from which a thick fog perpetually enshrouds the area and makes vague the reality and dreams of those who visit the town.
And according to those who have seen them, there are also times when "things" that should not naturally exist appear.
A few incidents that have occurred in this town up to this point have gone unaddressed, leaving behind a great number of mysteries.
Here and now, looking back on it all, let's elucidate these mysteries one by one. 
 - The Book of Lost Memories

Silent Hill, at its core, is a town where Freudian nightmares become reality.  Take the first game: the individual whose insecurities and fears become manifest is a little girl called Alessa.  When her father Harry is desperately trying to find his own daughterin the mist-shrouded ghost town, he comes up against all-too-physical manifestations of Alessa's torment: her fear of bullies is represented by grotesque diminutive horrors at the abandoned school; monsters from fairy tales and books that frightened her appear in altered form; her anxieties from being confined to a hospital result in it being haunted by hideous hunchbacked doctors and nurses.

Silent Hill 2 ups the ante by having the monsters be spawned from the protagonist's anxieties.  James Sunderland has a lot of emotional baggage that starts to quite literally haunt him after he receives a message from his dead wife, which forces him to go to Silent Hill.  Here, things take a turn for the Freudian: horrific creatures whose arms appear to be wrapped in a straight jacket of their own skin allude to James' unease of hospitals; the obscene nurses manifest James' feelings of sexual frustration at being unable to be with his comatose wife; the menacing Pyramid Head represents James' own self-loathing and sense that he needs to be "punished."

The other games continue in this vein (though based on what I've heard the series took a sharp downturn after Silent Hill 4, which itself had a mixed reception), but the idea of Freudian nightmares being the monsters adds an extra level of depth the likes of Resident Evil and Dino Crisis could never hope to achieve.

Heh, imagine a Solomon Kane/Silent Hill crossover.   Actually, that would... just be another Solomon Kane story, more than anything else.  Kane's fears are pretty self-evident, and I don't know how one could turn his psychological terrors into creatures of a Silent Hill bent.

Something I'd wondered, however, is what Conan's fears would be if he wandered into Silent Hill.  Although Conan was more or less psychologically healthy (as much as a barbarian reaver, slayer and plunderer could be at least), with nothing like the baggage of Konahn or the Momoan, he had a few psychological hang-ups.  The "strange madness" that falls upon the Cimmerian race like a suffocating blanket, most strikingly depicted in the first draft of "The Phoenix on the Sword," is a powerful thing:

He paused a moment, idly listening to his friend’s retreating footsteps, which fell hollowly on the tiles. And as if the empty sound struck a kindred chord in his soul, a rush of revulsion swept over him. His mirth fell away from him like a mask, and his face was suddenly old, his eyes worn. The unreasoning melancholy of the Cimmerian fell like a shroud about his soul, paralyzing him with a crushing sense of the futility of human endeavor and the meaninglessness of life. His kingship, his pleasures, his fears, his ambitions, and all earthly things were revealed to him suddenly as dust and broken toys. The borders of life shrivelled and the lines of existence closed in about him, numbing him. Dropping his lion head in his mighty hands, he groaned aloud.

Conan also comes close to pure panic when he's enchained in the dungeons of Belverus in The Hour of the Dragon.  I'd say it could have its origins with his captivity in Hyperborea: whatever happened to him there, it was traumatic enough that it affected his policies as king.

Conan wondered if his own bones would be found at some future date, hanging in their rusty chains. He fought down the unreasoning panic of a trapped wolf.

The Cimmerian did not curse, scream, weep or rave as a civilized man might have done. But the pain and turmoil in his bosom were none the less fierce. His great limbs quivered with the intensity of his emotions. Somewhere, far to the westward, the Nemedian host was slashing and burning its way through the heart of his kingdom. The small host of the Poitanians could not stand before them. Prospero might be able to hold Tarantia for weeks, or months; but eventually, if not relieved, he must surrender to greater numbers. Surely the barons would rally to him against the invaders. But in the meanwhile he, Conan, must lie helpless in a darkened cell, while others led his spears and fought for his kingdom.

Of course, Conan's greatest terror is the fear of the supernatural:

There was no explaining this thing, but it was so. He was on Xapur and that fantastic heap of towering masonry was on Xapur, and all was madness and paradox; yet it was all true.

He wheeled to race back through the jungle, down the carven stair and across the blue waters to the distant camp at the mouth of the Zaporoska. In that moment of unreasoning panic even the thought of halting so near the inland sea was repugnant. He would leave it behind him, would quit the armed camps and the steppes, and put a thousand miles between him and the blue mysterious East where the most basic laws of nature could be set at naught, by what diabolism he could not guess.

- "The Devil in Iron"
They traversed a long, dark, vaulted corridor in which, Conan noticed uneasily, the skull on the staff glowed phosphorescently. He felt a surge of unreasoning, wild animal panic that urged him to rip out his knife and slash right and left at these uncanny figures, to flee madly from this grim, dark temple. But he held himself in check, fighting down the dim monstrous intuitions that rose in the back of his mind and peopled the gloom with shadowy shapes of horror...

- The Hour of the Dragon

Though Conan eventually killed so many devils that he practically viewed them as supernatural rats, Conan never quite got over that base fear of what lurks just outside the realm of human perception.  It isn't a phobia: phobias are irrational fears.  Conan's fear of the laws of reality becoming lax, of the very shape of the land shifting and transmutating, of terrors born of nightmare and lunacy, of everything one thought of as sane and immutable, is something that he has to deal with in the stories.  From that point of view, Conan would probably survive Silent Hill - but it wouldn't be a stroll for him either.

What would the monsters of Conan's Silent Hill be?  Who knows.  The obvious answer is to take the horrors from the stories and give them a Silent Hill makeover.  The suffocating melancholy could be great flying horrors which envelop Conan in their wings.  The fear of being trapped and helpless could be manifested by monstrous snakes (Snakes!  Why'd it have to be snake!?!) or Cthulhoid terrors who bind and strangle him in their tentacles.  The fear of the uncanny and unknown could be served by things that are "not right", the Uncanny Valley sort of thing.  That's not to say fears should be the only emotions manifest: the battle madness of the Cimmerians could be amply demonstrated by berserk apes (because you have to incorporate apes in there somewhere, surely?), while his bewilderment over the hypocrisies and vagaries of civilization could be represented in some fashion.  Perhaps subconscious fears could play into it: guilt over sacked towns and murdered innocents, concerns over the choices he's made in the past, and all that jazz.

The usual Silent Hill nasties wouldn't appear: no need for Pyramid Head, Bubble Nurses or Grey Children, because they're specific to the characters in the games, and represent very precise psychological elements.  Obviously, a Silent Hill game with a Conan-esque protagonist *could* morph into an action game - if you give Conan a chance against the monsters.  Yet Howard recognized that every battle Conan engaged in with a giant animal or monster was a battle for Conan's life, one that he could easily never have emerged from alive.  Thus, all that needs to happen is to up the scale: Conan could probably take out a small horde of humanoid creatures, but they aren't the danger: it's the huge monsters that could kill you in seconds that are.  There may be nothing in the universe cold steel can't cut, but you have to deal that cut before that something cuts you.  Horror is horror whether you're a helpless infant or a tough barbarian.

It'd be a nice experiment, at least.  Isn't it interesting how the monsters Conan faces in his stories could be analogues of his own fears?

(I apologise in advance if I've been throwing around the word "Freudian" inappropriately: I'm not a psychologist, so if I'm being really annoying, replace all appearances of the word with "things that symbolise something else")

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