Horrific Visions: Neal Shaffer talks "The Awakening"

As a genre, horror encompases many different styles of stories. There are stories that disturb the deepest recesses of your brain (referred to in Hollywood circles as "psychological thrillers"), those filled with monster and ghouls, the slasher style of horror and many others. There's one popular form of horror, giallo, that while most American audiences may not know it exists, it has heavily influenced American cinema. Writer Neal Shaffer and artist Luca Genovese hope to widen appreciation of giallo this November with the Oni Press graphic novel, "The Awakening."

First off, what is Giallo? Giallo has its origins in the late 1920s/early 1930s in Italy with the Mondadori publishing company. The term giallo, which literally translates as "yellow," described a series of lurid mystery/crime pulp novels published by the company through the 1960s. The yellow covers promised a thrilling and mystery driven story was to be found inside, much like the pulp novels found in the United States in the early 20th century. Within Italy, giallo was immensely popular.

Giallo made its mark on film history beginning in the 1960s, when film maker Mario Bava popularized the genre with giallo films like "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" and the highly influential "Blood and Black Lace." Later, director's Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava (Mario's son) continued to bring giallo to Italian cinema, greatly influencing the work of directors like John Carpenter and Brian DePalma.

While it's difficult to precisely define giallo, the sly stories offer up bizarre plots, crime solving marked by inventive skill and imagination and often high violence and sexual content.

CBR News spoke with writer Neal Shaffer to learn more about his upcoming graphic novel "The Awakening," and what it takes from the giallo style.

"[The Awakening's] about a young woman who witnesses the murder of one of her classmates during her first weeks at a prestigious boarding school," Shaffer told CBR News. "The killer also strikes her over the head, which renders her mute. During her recovery she begins to suffer visions of her classmates getting killed one by one, but is powerless to tell anyone or do anything about it. There's also a detective, a priest, and a lot of questions."

The lead is named Francesca, an exchange student from Italy who grew up as something of a latch-key kid in a very wealthy family. Things look good for Francesca as she enters the school, quickly falling in with a new group of friends, but that doesn't last for long.

"The detective is named Landis and the priest is named Olsen," continued Shaffer. "There's also a teacher, named Woodman, who plays a significant role. Saying too much more would spoil the fun."

"The Awakening" is a story Shaffer's been itching to write. He's a big fan of horror stories, particularly these kind, and with Oni's green light, he's finally getting to write the story he's always wanted to write. While the original press release called "The Awakening" the first part of a trilogy, that's not entirely accurate. Shaffer and Genovese will publish a group of three books, all in the giallo style, but the stories are independent of one another.

As we mentioned above, horror comes in many shapes and sizes. Shaffer tells us this story tends to lean towards a psychological thriller type of story, but it certainly doesn't lack in gore.

"I don't know that I could draw a parallel to anything except the giallo movies," said Shaffer. "That said, it's not necessary to have seen one to appreciate this book. I'd say it's fairly different but if you like horror you should hopefully like this."

Giallo has had a tremendous impact on thriller and horror films in both Itlay and the United States, although it's rarely credited by American directors. By embracing giallo, we asked Shaffer if it was his hope to bring a new style of horror to comics.

"I don't know...that's a good question. The truth is that I never really gave any thought to what impact this story might have on comics as a whole," admitted Shaffer. "I can't really gauge the size of my audience, so I don't even know if it will be read by enough people for it to have any impact at all. My main hope is simply that people read and enjoy the book, and if it gets people thinking or has any kind of a 'macro' impact then that's just gravy."

Shaffer has never met his collaborator on this project, Italian artist Luca Genovese, but has enjoyed working with him on "The Awakening" and looks forward to their next work.

"Luca is in Italy, and I have exchanged a few emails with him. His English is OK but my Italian is nonexistent, so it would be impossible to communicate without Michele [Foschini of Indypress Comics in Italy, Neal's go-between]. He (Michele) has been fantastic - he translated the script and his company is publishing the book simultaneously in Italy.

"This is Luca's first American work (though once people see him it certainly won't be his last), but he has worked extensively in Italy (most notably on a book called 'Zero Zelo')"

Finishing up, we asked Shaffer if he could recommend some good examples of giallo films for those read this whose interest has been piqued.

"Two Dario Argento films - 'Suspiria' and 'Deep Red' - are probably the best places to start. They're both fantastic."

For more preview art from "The Awakening," click here.

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