Horror, Real Life, and Happy Endings: The Shootings in Seattle

Here in Seattle, a stray bullet killed a man in front of his children about a week ago. Someone else was shot in the right leg near the Space Needle. The next day, we had five drive-by shootings and a man was shot to death during an invasion of his home. Last Wednesday, another six people were shot to death and one was wounded at Cafe Racer, an artsy little coffeeshop. That brings us to twenty-one homicides in Seattle, so far this year. That’s more than were reported for all of 2011.

This doesn’t happen here. This happens in Chicago, or New York, or Detroit. We don’t know how to handle it here.

For my part, I was dealing with it with a kind of numb indifference.  You can call it cynical and jaded, or you can more charitably assume I’m just trying to keep the big picture in mind, but: I try not to pay any special attention to horrors in the world just because they happen to be in my backyard.

About thirteen thousand people are murdered every year in the United States. Guns kill about nine thousand of them. Worldwide, gun-related deaths number anywhere from 150,000 to 300,000 annually, depending on who you ask. So why should I care about a shooting more just because it’s geographically close to me?  Isn’t that narrow-minded and tribal of me?  I mean,  just because the shooting happened in Seattle, it’s not like it affects anyone I actually know, right?

But it did.  The first thing that shocked me out of my complacency was this post on Twitter from my good friend and writing partner, Glynis Mitchell:

The second shock was learning that among the dead was Drew Keriakedes, who I’d seen perform as “Shmootzi the Clod” with Circus Contraption. I never met him directly, but I will always remember him.  He was the perfect front-man for that wonderfully weird little troupe, both frightening and whimsical, welcoming and ominous, with his run-down clown look and his ragged and passionate singing voice that rivaled Tom Waits. Circus Contraption’s site describes him as a “sousaphonist, ukelelist, accordionist, banjo man, vocalist, [and] songwriter,” and I don’t know if that even begins to cover it. The Stranger’s blog has a post that can give you a better idea of what we’ve lost with this death than I can.

This did touch people I knew directly, after all.  It’s as if the universe was conspiring to remind me not to be so cold, to pay attention to what’s going on in my community.

It isn’t, of course. That really doesn’t happen. Things don’t happen just to provide meaningful little lessons.

That only happens in stories.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a post on fellow writer Stant Litore‘s blog, entitled “Horror Writers Against Happy Endings.” He writes:

I think often horror writing avoids happy endings because horror is more concerned with hope than with happily ever afters — but horror fiction has no interest in naive hope. Horror is grounded in human pain, in the open-eyed acknowledgment that life isn’t about happy endings. It’s about moments of bravery and love and hope wrested out of the jaws of violence, misery, loss, regret, and unfulfilled longing. [….]

There is a time and a place for happy endings. But just now — while large numbers of people in the First World can afford to ignore the suffering outside their windows — right now is not the time for happy endings. Right now we need what horror fiction can do for us.

That post just didn’t sit right with me.  I had some objection to it, some criticism I couldn’t put a voice to, turning over and over in my mind.

I guess that to me, it seems overly simplistic and reductionist to say that just because there are bad things happening in the world, horror fiction has to be relentlessly grim and dark as well. I’m more inclined to agree with this quote from Larry McCaffery’s “Conversation with David Foster Wallace” :

Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

I don’t think that horror writing has to have an unhappy ending in order to be honest.  I don’t think it has to have a happy ending, either.  The only thing I think that horror fiction has to do is to make us look openly and honestly at, well, horror. At the fact that dark and bad things happen.

But there are as many different ways to react to that darkness as there are people.  And how our characters react will shape the ending of the story.

Like any other genre, horror stories don’t have to have a happy ending or an unhappy ending — they have to have the right ending.  There are forces at work that shape the proper endings of stories, and we can tell when an author has tried to bend a story to have the ending he wants it to have rather than the ending that it demands.  We can ignore those forces, but we shouldn’t.  We’ve been telling stories for thousands, maybe millions of years, and we have the shapes of the gears and cogs that power their engines deep inside our subconscious. Let your story do what it wants.

Sometimes the right ending is the unhappy one. The one where hope is completely lost and everyone loses, because that’s what the story is about. Sometimes, the story needs a happy ending, it needs to have a final girl who will face the darkness and be touched and burned by it, but who will survive, and emerge again into the light.

Because good things happen, too. Denying horror the ability to have a happy ending would ignore that, and would fail to do the one thing good art always has to do — tell the truth.

After the shootings at Cafe Racer, a Reddit user commented:

I hope you got a chance to walk by Racer this evening. I only knew Drew and Joe though association of the amazing musical community here in Seattle, but I live right near Cafe Racer and have eaten and performed there on a number of occasions. I walked across the street to find an incredible sight. What seemed like hundreds of friends, musicians, mourners, neighbors, were all gathered together. They sang, they played, they cried, and they were all there for each other. The music was powerful. The emotion was real. This community was rocked by a devastating, senseless event, yet less than 11 hours later they were celebrating the lives and legacy the men from GFB left behind.

At one point in the evening, after much music with his accordion, Another GFB member shouted, “Without all this, we’d be fucked!” I looked to either side, and knew that he’s right. Without my friends, my bandmates, and the folks that surrounded us, I’d surely be lost. The power of music in this community is undeniably strong.

Here is a picture he posted, as well, of the memorial that had been left for those who died:

What he says is true of all art, not just music. Without it we’d be fucked, we’d never make these kinds of connections, never get to make sense of anything. In the real world, we never get endings at all, not in the sense that everything is tied up neatly and satisfyingly, no loose ends or unexplained mysteries. No proper endings. That’s why we have stories, I think.

In the real world, things just stop.