I am a huge fan of genre mash-ups. I think it's because they're so rare these days and also because they're almost always fish-out-of-water stories. There's nothing wrong with a straight-up horror story or a comedy or western, or whatever. But mix them together and the result can be very entertaining. It can elevate a so-so story if done correctly. My novel The Last Battleship was something of a mash-up in that I tried to blend war and horror together. Hopefully I succeeded. We don't get enough of these type of stories and I think we're the poorer for it. The commercial entertainment industry is too wimpy to take many chances. Oh, we get the sci fi/horror mash-up all the time but beyond that...not too much.
This isn't a new idea but it's done so rarely it seems like it is. I think that's why Cowboys and Aliens (2011) did so well at the box office.
The pitch must have been something like this: "Take a western and mix in some sci fi." It was okay. It had some genuinely entertaining scenes. And there's no arguing with the awesomeness of uniting Indiana Jones and James Bond to battle some ridiculous alien gold prospectors. But from a storytelling standpoint the movie was horrible. That didn't seem to matter and I hope its success will at least make more producers less skittish about crossing genres.
Look what James Cameron did with Aliens (1986). It's a sequel to one of the greatest horror movies of all time but it's not quite a horror movie. Oh, it's scary as hell, don't get me wrong; but it's difficult to categorize it as a straight-up horror movie. It takes place on another planet and deals with an alien adversary. So is it sci fi? To me it's always been a war movie with horror undertones. I think it qualifies as a mash-up of war and horror with a bit of sci fi added in for flavor. I mean, does this image make you think "horror" or "war"?
For me this is a war movie that makes use of horror movie tropes. This does not diminish anything about it as far as I'm concerned. It's probably in my top ten favorite movies of all time. On paper it could have been just as effective if the aliens were replaced by a superior (human) enemy force. I don't know if that would have been as good but I can see how it could have been done.
As I'm writing this it occurs to me that, next to sci fi/horror, the next most popular genre mash-up must be war/horror. You can make the point that all war stories are horror stories and I would not argue. It's difficult if not impossible to watch the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (1998) or most of Black Hawk Down (2001) and not be scared shitless. But those movies/books don't use supernatural horror and that's where I draw the distinction. There are still a few examples I can point to where someone got their war mixed with somebody else's horror and discovered two great tastes that taste great together.
In a previous blog I talked about horror comic books. Some of these, like Swamp Thing and Ghost Rider, mixed horror and super heroes together. There are other examples. Sticking with war/horror one last time, DC gave us Weird War Tales. It ran longer than I thought it did, from 1971-1983. A solid twelve years and 124 issues. Not bad. I have some of them, including #1. The issues in my collection are entertaining and I wouldn't mind completing my collection of that title. By and large they got it right.
I'm less enthusiastic when genres I don't care about are combined, although I applaud the creators for trying something different. Romcoms, paranormal romance, dramedies, etc. Not really my cup of early grey but at least someone's taking a chance. I can respect that even if the genres don't interest me.
A couple more examples before we get out of here and hit the local watering hole. I want to mention two examples of genre mash-ups that not many people think of as such. They're both quite famous, actually. I'm talking worldwide famous. The first is Superman, created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and published ever since by DC Comics.
Of course everyone knows Superman is a super hero. That's where the term "super hero" comes from. You probably even knew that. But he mashes super heroes and science fiction better than any other character in literature. In fact, in terms of money generated over time, I'm willing to bet Superman is the all-time champion of genre mash-ups. He is a "strange visitor from another planet!" as the opening naration in the old TV show with George Reeves informed us. An alien visitor? What's more sci fi than that? What enables Superman to be super is the yellow sun of earth. On Krypton he would have been no more super than Jimmy Olson is here. Yes, the science is a little on the iffy side but that's okay. So are warp drive and lightsabres and we accept those.
And the last example is one I guarantee not many people would consider a genre mash-up and I'm about to prove how wrong they are. I'm talking about that most beloved of holiday classics, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Stay with me. It was first published in 1843 and it is ostensibly a story about personal redemption that happens to take place during the Christmas holiday. But it's way more than that. Take, for instance, the title page of the novel:
It says it right there: "A ghost story of Christmas." Since ghosts belong squarely in the horror/supernatural genre, it has just become much more than a simple holiday fable. Scrooge is visited first by the ghost of his old partner and mentor, and then he sees three more ghosts before the story ends. But there's more. It is also undeniably a sci fi story. I'll prove it.
The three ghosts employ a plot device that is 100% science fiction: time travel. They take Scrooge into the distant past and the far future. The Ghost of Christmas Present is the most sci fi of them all because not only does it take Scrooge ahead 12 hours to Christmas morning at Bob Cratchett's house, it even takes Scrooge a full year into the future to the following Christmas. And this is where the sci fi elements of A Christmas Carol become in-yo-face. It shows him an alternate future. Scrooge discovers that Tiny Tim has not survived the year. But at story's end, when Scrooge has his change of heart and joins the Cratchetts for Christmas dinner, Dickens flat-out tells us Tiny Tim will survive. Time travel, alternate realties and ghosts define this novel as way more than a run of the mill drama. It's a genre mash-up of the first order. Good job, Mr. Dickens.
Now onto that watering hole I mentioned. First round's on you.