Tuesday, November 2, 2010

At least he knew snow was white and cold

I hate to start with a gripe, but it is rare that a book I haven’t written is set in Iowa as Ronald Malfi’s Snow is. Usually we are treated to a gritty urban landscape like New York or Chicago, sometimes we get to see through the red haze of Mars (and contrary to that Venus/Mars book a few years ago, I don’t have a time share on the red planet), but not Iowa.

So, I was excited to see what somebody else would do with Iowa, how the state would fare in a horror/sci-fi novel. No references to this being heaven (which is nice, that got old), no mention of covered bridges or twisters or corn. Even so, there were a couple of things that were just wrong enough that I had to mention them.

First, based on the descriptions of the evergreen trees a passer-by might think Iowa is some kind of Alpine retreat full of deep ravines and overrun by snow boarders. It’s not. It is vast agricultural plains broken up by clumps of mostly deciduous forest. That is forgivable though, not really germane to the story. Second, driving from Chicago to Des Moines, especially leaving O’Hare airport, one takes I-88 to I-80, and is treated to four lanes the whole way. If Malfi wanted them in northeastern Iowa (where the story eventually unfolds) he could have had Todd Curry’s kid be in Waterloo or Cedar Falls or Dubuque instead of Des Moines. Again, pretty minor issue as the small town the action takes place in could be anywhere, but it is a detail that would have been easily corrected.

Finally, the detail that really tossed me out of the book. When Todd and his band of snowbound travelers roll into town and take refuge in the convenience store with Shawna, she is laying waste to the possessed townspeople … with a rifle. At one point she refers to it as a hunting rifle. This is fine, and technically not a problem. However, rifle hunting is illegal in Iowa. The terrain is too flat and devoid of things that will stop a round/bullet. If you fire a bullet and miss it will travel a great distance before it falls to the earth and that has the potential for a bullet to strike something else (or worse somebody else). The vast majority of the hunting done in Iowa is with shotguns. Shotguns and rifles look kind of the same, but they are different tools used for different purposes.

It would have been very easy to follow up on this point, and since guns play such an integral part of this story, the characters holing up at the convenience store using a weapon that was mostly wrong was a frustrating bit to chew through.

If nothing else these inconsistencies, this lack of attention to detail, reminded me to always be vigilant and to know as much as I can about the story I am writing. I quickly checked Malfi’s bio at about this point in reading the book and saw that he “currently” lives on Chesapeake Bay which leaves him open to have lived somewhere around Iowa, but without mentioning it I won’t give him credit for it. His bio also had something to say about literary and genre, a sore spot in my philosophy, but we’ll end on that note.

Did all of this ruin the book? Nope, it didn’t ruin it. There is much to like in this book. The aliens are pretty original; at least in the way they use the snow and possess people. Once the people are possessed they are part zombie, part supernatural critter. This worked for the most part. I was a bit confused by the scythe arm appearance of some of the critters and the worm/snake appearance at other times, but this wasn’t a deal breaker. The creepiest aspect was the possessed children with their blanked out faces. When the two kids in the police station got possessed sitting in the back of the squad car I got a bit of the willies. That was good.

As monsters they are extremely effective. They truly are alien and their purpose is never quite fleshed out. That is okay, the reader doesn’t need to be told everything. I got the impression they were on a recon mission, feeling out the humans and their defenses and responses. The next time they come back through their portals it won’t be so nice. They won’t be going after Woodson, Iowa, they’ll be coming for Chicago, New York, and London (let’s hope the writer does his homework on those places).

I also really liked the actions taken by the remaining humans. They seemed sufficiently logical in their actions and in their desire to survive. The outside-the-jammed-area-laptop was a nice little plot point. I was a bit disappointed to learn as the novel ended that these sieges on small towns had been happening all over the United States. That left law enforcement across the country looking foolish. One town loses contact, no big deal. Maybe even two if the storm is bad. But twenty-nine towns, mostly in the Midwest? That would set off alarms and red flags. People would roll into these towns to get visual and verbal checks on what the heck was happening. Plus the book ends with a very “coming next summer: Snow 2 The Revenge of the Snow” feel that I was a bit puzzled by, especially after reading Malfi’s bio.

Now back to that bio. This is the bit that chaps my hide: “Most recognized for his haunting, literary style and memorable characters, Malfi’s horror novels and thrillers have transcended genre to gain wider acceptance among readers of quality literature.”

Now we’ve all heard “transcend genre” but the notion that one must transcend genre to get “wider acceptance among readers of quality literature” implies that we genre schmucks are slumming it hoping to get up off the pulp covered floor to hopefully one day write something of quality. I couldn’t disagree more. And Snow isn’t bad, but it is nowhere close to literary. The most memorable character is the guy eating pizza at O’Hare airport who bets Todd on the flight status situation. He’s the one I remember two months after reading the book.

So, a decent book is kind of ruined by a lack of research and a dismissive attitude for the people who might actually enjoy this novel.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Never Trust a Swedish, er, Norwegian Dog

I am just going to be completely honest here. The Thing is one of my all-time favorite movies. It comes from the era of John Carpenter in which he could do no wrong (Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China). So, I will try to be objective in this blog, but know that I surely am not objective about this picture, I’m a fan.

The first thing I thought of when watching this movie (again) was how little the film seems to care about demographics, market share, or making everyone happy. There is no romantic subplot, no humorous aside. This is the best example of a full length feature film fitting into a short-story motif. That is, there is one mood, one of mounting dread and paranoia that culminates in a good old fashioned monster hunt. The cast is all male, and all business. I love that, it doesn’t get diluted in nonsense or obvious rewrites designed to broaden the audience. It is an unapologetic horror film with science fiction elements.

What makes this movie work is the perfect isolation of the characters. MacReady’s first line of dialogue (not counting the chess playing computer he loses to) just helps to ratchet up the micro-tension that much more: “First goddamn week of winter.” The men are just setting up for a long isolated winter when a Norwegian helicopter shows up with a stray dog and shoots at them. Later Blair destroys the radios, both helicopters and the mechanical land transports. They are beyond isolated.
This works on two levels. First, and most important, the characters can’t escape. They are there with The Thing whether they like it or not. Second, The Thing is there with them. Redundant? No. What I mean by that is the isolation saves the movie from having to show The Thing trying to infect the entire world.

Along with the unapologetic tone of the movie, the understated music really sells it. That simple bass line (ba-dum-bum … ba-dum-bum …) followed by the long strings/synth sounds. Carpenter really outdid himself with the music. His score for Halloween is probably more iconic, but the music in The Thing really sets the tone and ratchets things up in the subconscious for the viewer.

Along the lines of being unapologetic the movie doesn’t fall for the hackneyed slasher film cliché of sex equals bad equals you must die. The Thing strikes as it can, like a predator. It doesn’t make judgment calls; it doesn’t care about your background, your skin color, or your station in life. It just wants to replicate … everything.

And that brings us to The Thing. It is an alien, but is it a monster? You could argue that it is just doing what it was designed to do: replicate other life forms and blend in. Isn’t it just an animal doing what comes naturally? Nope, and that is what makes this one of my favorite movies.

If The Thing can design a spaceship and travel across the stars, then it has intelligence. Intelligence implies a civilization or a society of some kind. It also implies that it knows that it is subsuming these other life forms. But it doesn’t care. It would rather have to freeze back to sleep amongst the burnt out rubble of the camp than live peaceably with humans.

Oh no, it is no mere animal. It is quite the monster. In many ways the most heinous monster we have studied this semester. It is wonderful and leads to all kinds of big picture questions.

The big one and this is the only flaw I’ve ever found in this story is this: how can a copy have the same memories and knowledge of the original organism? Copying a dog? No problem. It can pant and bark and lick your face. No need to communicate on anything but a canine level. But to replicate a human? How does it know the memories? Does the tissue itself contain the knowledge? In the “science” of this movie it does. I’m okay with this. Heck, if Star Trek and other stories can teleport people from place to place and they are fully intact memory-wise then why split hairs here, right?

This movie has some iconic imagery:

-The Norwegian dog going into the room with the silhouetted head that turns around. Who is that?

-At the Norwegian camp the frozen corpse with the bloody tendrils hanging down crystalized and solid.

-The grotesque melded flesh they bring back from the Norwegian camp that looks like pulled taffy melted and gelled together.

-Norris’s chest bursting open and eating Doc Copper’s arms.

-The big stinger: the blood leaping out of the dish when MacReady puts the hot wire in it.

The other thing about this imagery that makes this movie such a classic is that once the big reveal happens things seem worse not better for the viewer. In most horror movies, once the monster is a known quantity (big guy with a knife, serial killer, ghost, werewolf, vampire, whatever) the viewer measures that against what was in their own head and usually finds the movie version lacking. But The Thing was so groundbreaking with its imagery, so scary with the way things unfolded that even after you know what is going on you’re still freaked out and not sure what is going to happen next. The fear doesn’t diminish, it continues to increase.

It is 89 minutes into a 100 minute movie before we return to the horror movie standard of the hunted (humans) now hunting the monster (The Thing). For 89 minutes we get a slow burn that turns the heat up and picks off crew members one by one. There is very little “I’m going off by myself” nonsense. There is very little in-fighting. The crew grows paranoid and nobody trusts anybody until the blood test works, but even after they go for Blair … Childs runs out into the snow.

Which always begs the question as MacReady and Childs sit there at the end, drinking their bottle and watching the camp burn … is Childs a thing or not? I don’t think so. I think it is fitting that two humans survive only to freeze to death knowing there’s nothing they can do about it.

There is no happy ending here; no cavalry rides in to save them. They faced a monster and won, but it cost them everything. And maybe they didn’t win, that is up to the viewer. When spring comes the rescue crew will show up. What do they find? What if a very much alive MacReady, or so it appears, walks out of the rubble with a tall tale about the events of the winter? Scary wonderful.

Again, it is difficult for me to analyze this movie with anything but fanboy glasses on. I just love the whole thing (no pun intended). It is bleak and dark and believable and unapologetic and really just one of the best horror movies of all time.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thinking It Won't Stop a Werewolf

Has the time of the werewolf come and gone? The underlying dichotomy within humans personified as the monstrous “wolf” within being the unbridled fury and passion side while the genteel human side represents the civilized potential of mankind. I don’t think the time is gone. In the grander scheme of things it is good versus evil only the eternal struggle is internal with the werewolf story versus external.

All that being said, I was given two werewolf stories this semester, Cycle of the Werewolf and The Wolfman, “A Novelization by Jonathan Mayberry” as the cover advertises. I fear this fact (a novelization) truly hurt this book, but more on that later.

First the nuts and bolts of the story. The Talbots are a mysterious family. The mother died while the boys were very young. Lawrence, the youngest, witnessed her death and was sent away to an asylum. He eventually recovered enough to become a highly praised stage actor. The elder son, Ben, stayed on at Talbot hall only to be killed in a gruesome and mysterious way. Now all that remains is Sir John the patriarch, his trusty man-servant Singh, and the grieving ex-fiancé of Ben, Gwen Conliffe.

Lawrence returns home to find Ben dead, Gwen enchanting, and Sir John as standoffish and stubborn as ever. The details surrounding Ben’s death are odd as it appears a madman or possibly a beast did the deed. This all takes place in and around Blackmoor, a semi-rural enclave in England where superstition can still motivate and the towns people don’t trust outsiders. The detective sent to investigate the ghastly crime, Aberline of Scotland Yard (who also sought The Ripper the reader learns) is not trusted by Blackmoor, neither are the gypsies who pass through.

So, all in all we have a pretty excellent set up, right? Mysterious death, rumors of beasts, the exotic influence of the gypsies, a bit of historic tie in with Aberline, Jack the Ripper, and Scotland Yard. All well and fine, all very nice.

But I bet most people could guess at the plot points and progression of the story. There is indeed a werewolf; the Talbot family is indeed cursed. The gypsies know more than they are saying, and Scotland Yard can’t quite keep up.

I guess if I was to pinpoint the glaring error of this narrative it would be how aware it is of itself. After Lawrence is attacked and mortally wounded in the act of saving a gypsy child the elder gypsy woman, Maleva, nurses him knowing all the while that if he lives he will become a werewolf (or wolf man) at the next full moon. Her young friend/assistant Saskia knows Lawrence should be put down as the wild beast he will become, but Maleva refuses:

“The young woman looked at the wound and then raised her eyes to Maleva.

“Why do you save him?” asked Saskia. The sounds of weeping and grief still filled the camp. She knew everyone who had died, and grief was a knife in her heart.

“He risked his life for one of ours. For a child that he did not even know.”

“He has been bitten! If you have compassion for this man, then you should end his misery before it begins.”

Maleva shook her head. “You would make me a sinner?”

Saskia set aside the needle and took Maleva’s hands in hers. “There is no sin in killing a beast”” (128).

As a story point this would have been much more powerful had one tried to kill him and the other stopped her, or they were trying to kill him when others arrived and thought them mad for trying to kill a wounded man. Their thoughts, and the thoughts of the reader, do not match their actions. This happens a couple times in the story and it detracts from the tension and the believability of the characters.

After Lawrence wolfs-out and goes on a killing rampage through London he awakes naked and bloody, and overcome with grief. He seeks out Gwen and says he wants to kill himself. He says it … but he never tries to do it. If he really is so overwrought with emotion why doesn’t he do it? It would be much more effective for Lawrence to have gone to Gwen’s father’s pharmacy and downed a bunch of pills or a toxic tonic and then Gwen has to save him.

Yet another example of action that should be taken but is not is Singh, Sir John’s trusted man servant. Lawrence discovers that Singh has a veritable anti-werewolf arsenal and that he’s known about the Talbot family curse almost from the beginning. He knew from minute one how Lawrence’s brother Ben died. He probably knew what really happened to Lawrence’s mother. Yet with all this knowledge, with all this evil unfolding before him, much like Lawrence … he does nothing. He thinks the right things, but he doesn’t act on them.

I guess that is what kills the book for me. There is a lot of intense emotion alluded to, a lot of grief and anger and knowing of the next action, but the next action is not taken. It reminded me of Interview With The Vampire, a book in which much is spoken about but nothing is really done, lots of emotion, very little action. Hey, that book had Louis; this one has Lawrence, coincidence? But I digress.

On top of all that emotion without action the book started to be a historical fiction piece with references to Jack the Ripper and how ice blocks were stored with straw and the like, but the details really weren’t there. The world of the book, and Blackmoor and the nightly forests and cityscape of London really could have been fleshed out with a few concrete details. Instead that opportunity to ground the reader and to give The Wolfman a more real flavor did not ever come about.

So, is there anything to like about this book? Yes, the werewolve(s) themselves. The description of Lawrence’s miraculous recovery from his grievous wounds is well done. Much of the description of Lawrence’s body as it transforms and as he discovers himself after a transformation is excellent. There is no mistaking the wolf takes control when the full moon rises. The difference is Lawrence tries to fight it; the other werewolf relishes the change.

The wolf personas are beyond savage. This was a good touch. When the original werewolf tears through the gypsy camp it destroys everything it comes across. They aren’t just furry men, they are eight feet tall, covered in sinewy muscle that can rend flesh and trees and more. They can leap great distances and run faster than a normal wolf. In short, they are supernatural creatures. This is a good thing, and it does add some level of emotion to the futility of trying to bring one of these things down.

Ultimately this book doesn’t hold up. I don’t know if it is because it is a movie first and a novel second, though I have read some good books that followed that timeline. The characters, all of them, end up being too passive. In the face of the werewolf they react only in spirit. In the flesh they do not respond. When facing werewolves you have to respond in the flesh if you are to best the fur.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

So who exactly is the monster in Alien?

Alien is one of the great mind-games of modern cinema. It is an excellent film by nearly every measurable category. The production is first rate, the look, the tension, the attention to detail. The ships is craggy and industrial with pipes and steam everywhere, looking like what it is: a simple freighter. The planet looks like a surreal nightmare dreamscape, all fog and dark with constant wind. The alien vessel is just that, alien in nearly all aspects. It is huge and weird and full of … things.

Once the face-hugger gets Kane things really start to roll and the crew is so focused on the threat from without (the face-hugger and eventually the alien the movie is named after), they forget to look at the threat within. Many people say the best, most horrifying scene in the film is the one in the tunnels where Dallas buys it. That is probably the best stinger or “gotcha” scene, but the best scene is later, when Ripley is in the Mother interface room and Ash pops into view behind her.

Ash is the real monster in this movie. By far. And when he freaks out and tries to kill Ripley (or tries to not kill Ripley, the fact that this is never fully answered is wonderful and will maintain the debate for eternity) that is the real horror.

Yes, we’ve all seen the movie a hundred times now, but try to remember the first time you sat through this masterpiece. Try to remember the first time you saw Parker hit Ash in the face with the fire extinguisher and his head flops off … and he keeps fighting with white goo spewing everywhere. Talk about a freak-out. To this day when I see that scene, the headless torso flailing about with weirdly wet mechanical sounds and screeches going on while Parker and Lambert try to stop it, I just cringe. Nobody saw that coming.

As I’ve discussed with classmates and friends over the years, the alien is a tough hombre. It is definitely something to be feared and planned for. If at all possible it is to be avoided. Why the company that runs things in the Alien universe wants one for a weapons division pet (and spends several movies pursuing this goal) is beyond any sane and logical thinker.

But guess what? You could say the same thing about a great white shark, a grizzly bear, and a black mamba snake. The alien is bad news, but is it evil? Is it doing what it does with malice? Does it prey exclusively on humans? Nope. One of the sequels in this film series features a dog-alien that hatches from a dog on a prison planet. Throughout the series you get the impression that the alien bugs simply adapt to whatever their environment is and seek to take the top rung on the food chain. Every organism does this.

No, the monster in Alien is Ash, and the company who deems the crew of the Nostromo expendable in the quest for the perfect organism to use as a weapon. The first time you watch the movie you don’t catch all that Ash is up to, but after you know the story and know the film it is fun to watch Ash and all that he does.

He quotes regulations that make them land on the planet in the first place, threatening to take away bonus money the crew has earned. He overrides Ripley, ranking officer when Dallas and Kane are off the ship, and lets the face-huggered Kane back into the ship after the extra-vehicle search. Later, when Ripley starts to suspect things Ash is obviously not surprised when Ripley and Mother decipher the beacon signal that brought them to the ship. The signal is a warning, not a distress call. Finally, there is Special Order 937 that takes away all ambiguity. The company wants the bug, the crew is of no value, Ash is to ensure the alien makes it back to earth.

Sure, he’s a synthetic, a robot. Sure he has to follow orders. Sure, as you pay attention to him in the film he displays little or no emotion and defers to everyone else in normal dealings (the scene where Parker chases Ash out of his chair early on indicates this).

It’s the scene that freaks me out that tells the story. When Ash surprises Ripley (and the audience) in the Mother interface room she slams him against the wall, then flees. She’s furious, she’s confused, she’s terrified. Then we get to see Ash’s face up close and a single dribble of white fluid is running down his left temple. Later we understand this is what passes for his blood.

Did Ripley damage Ash? Is that why he comes after her, tearing tufts of hair out and tossing her around medical? Eventually he rolls up a magazine and jams it in her mouth. Why? He seems to be deeply conflicted during this. Again, is he broken or is he fighting his orders?

I go to the dark side of things here. It makes Ripley more heroic and Ash more evil. I think had Ripley not slammed him into the wall in the Mother interface room, surprising and damaging Ash, that Ripley would have died by Ash’s hand before Parker and Lambert got in the room. I believe Ash was trying to kill her, but Ripley broke something pretty important inside his tin head and that saved her life.

What do I base this on? It is a quick little shot, but it is crucial to the characterization and flavor of the entire film. After they reduce Ash to white oozing spare parts they put him back together enough to get some answers out of him. He quotes Special Order 937 and then proceeds to talk about his admiration for the alien. Right before they pull the plug, something they could do without fanfare or further discussion, Ash has other ideas:

Parker: Look, I am, I've heard enough of this, and I'm asking you to pull the plug.
Ash: Last words.
Ripley: What?
Ash: I can't lie to you about your chances, but … you have my sympathies.

Even that isn’t enough. But then, what does Ash do? What does that order following plastic man do? He smiles. Smiles. That smile tells the story. He is happy to watch them die so that this alien can grow stronger. He’s happy to follow Special Order 937.

If that isn’t evil, then I don’t know what is.

All in all, Alien is, without a doubt, one of the best science fiction/horror movies ever made. It is relentless in tone and mood, shocking without being cheesy, and will be scary a hundred years from now.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


World War Z is so grand in scale it boggles the mind. Max Brooks did his homework, did his research, and it makes for a compelling read and a truly impressive work.

In the Acknowledgements Brooks thanks George A. Romero, director of the masterpiece zombie trilogy of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead (and other zombie movies in that same continuum). Romero’s influences are numerous in this book. The giant one is the assumption that zombies, slow moving unthinking zombies would be able to overrun all of society and effectively rule the planet pushing humans into pockets of survivors and clinging day by day counting supplies and praying for a miracle. I don’t share this notion, but I am going to put that aside for the sake of the book.

As I said in the opening, the book is impressive. It does what no other zombie tale has ever done. It has gone epic. Yes, every zombie story allows the undead to overrun the entire planet. In that sense they are all epic in scale. But the central focus of the tale is always a small band of survivors holed up in a farm house or a mall or a bunker while all around them legions of the moaning undead wander mindlessly waiting to get at them and feed.

World War Z goes beyond that. Its narrative scope is literally the globe. All the continents are featured, and all manner of character are brought into the narrative. There are soldiers (of course), but there are also politicians, doctors, filmmakers, scientists, divers, blind gardeners, and others. All of them share their side of the war, their story. The shared identity of hatred for the zombies and a collective moving through the stages of the event from Warnings, to The Great Panic, and finally to Total War and Good-Byes is compelling and believable.

Brooks knows the pressure points to hit in a reader. The section on the K-9 units being invaluable scouts, decoys, and bait in the war with the zombies was gripping. The tale of the downed C-130 pilot being guided back to safety by what probably amounts to a voice in her head. The blind Japanese gardener who survives in the forest with nothing but his wits and a sharpened shovel also brings the story from satellite level point of view down to a very personal narrative.

I’ve neglected up to this point to go into the zombies in depth so far. As with the better zombie stories Brooks is never exactly specific with what starts the undead rising. Patient Zero, or the first known zombie, is a boy in China and the book is written to imply that the infected undead originate in China. The zombies themselves are pretty standard issue. They are old-school slow movers, and they can only be killed by destroying the brain.

Brooks adds in a couple of very nice touches. First, the signature moan of the zombies is turned into a calling signal, like the howl of a wolf or the chirp of a cricket. It implies the zombies have some level of communication, albeit rudimentary and simplistic. The other Brooks addition to the zombie canon is having them survive and thrive under the water. This was an element I found particularly horrifying. The idea that there are still 20 to 30 million zombies roaming the sea bed, still hungry is freak-out inducing. It takes the scare of Jaws and the water being unsafe and turns it up about, well, 20 million times.

Another perfectly executed detail was the little things. The battle at Yonkers, NY contrasted with the later battle at Hope, NM. The army makes a big show in Yonkers using standard operating procedures for fighting other armies, other ground forces. They are being showy for the cameras and the general public. The tactics are nearly useless against the zombies and they get creamed.

Later in Hope, NM the army has learned, adapted and returns to its efficient lethality. They have in many ways regressed to a simpler army designed to take on individual zombies versus fortifications and vehicles.

If I have one beef with the book, it is the ambiguity with the timeline and the extreme length of time it takes for people to learn to engage the zombies intelligently. Brooks, in the Total War section lists off the tactical advantages the zombies have: they slay a human it adds to the zombie horde effectively doubling their advantage as it weakens the humans while strengthening the zomies, they don’t need to be fed as that is all they exist to do (eat), and they have no need for leaders. They also have no supply lines, no political philosophy to negotiate with; no level of diplomacy will work. They are as single minded as an enemy has ever been.

What Brooks fails to do, however, is show that this single mindedness, this idiocy on the part of the zombies is also a huge liability. Displaying one live human, heck just making a bunch of noise, and you draw them in. Once they are massed any number of things can be done to take them out, and in large numbers. Brooks refers to lemming operations inducing zombies to literally walk off of tall buildings to their death.

Yes, the sheer numbers are a factor, but Brooks hints at massive herds of them stretching across the Midwest like the buffalo used to. The battle at Yonkers was the front end of a group of millions moving out of New York City. Especially in the early going, when fuel and supplies were plentiful, having an easy target like that it is hard to believe it would take years of preparation to return and fight intelligently.

As stated above, the timeline is a bit fuzzy as well. The conflict goes through several cycles of winter as the freezing and thawing of the zombies is referred to in several areas. With the interview style of the book it would have been easy to include times and dates to go along with the names and locations of the interviewees. It would have given the story even more of a documentary feel.

Finally, though, I have to recommend this book. The style can be seen as less tension filled as it is obvious the interviewer and all the interviewees have survived World War Z (or they wouldn’t be available to hold or give interviews). However, this method works wonderfully for the shell-shocked grim ruminations of almost everyone. Ultimately what Brooks has done is to take the zombie from low budget small group attacks, the farm leagues of the horror genre, and put him up there as viable global destructor. The zombie has been called up to the majors with this book. That level of upgrade all while maintaining huge levels of detail and capturing various voices, regional quirks, and even maintaining a bit of humor (dark as it may be) is great stuff.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

He Got the Jack

Can I tell you how much I love this story? Well too bad, because I’m going to.

The Yattering and Jack is simply brilliant. It is horror yes, with exploding cats and possibly a daughter driven insane. But there is such a fun vibe underneath the surface that you can’t help but laugh at the entire thing. And, once again, Barker pulls off the sympathy for the devil he is so very good at. In this case it is a lesser demon who works for the devil, but the reader still can’t help but feel at least a little for the Yattering. I mean, who hasn’t had a dead end job only to end up with a terrible boss?

Jack Polo is the definition of milquetoast. He is dull to things that are dull. A bag of wet washcloths has more edges and more fight in them than Jack. He is emasculated by his wife through adultery right in front of his eyes and he shrugs it off. He loses three cats mysteriously (and badly, poor kitties) and he reacts like he’s reading a prospectus. The man may not have a pulse.

Enter the Yattering. An invisible demon who has been assigned to drive Jack into the arms of hell, he will have Jack Polo’s soul or his sanity, whichever he can pull off. But as the weeks and months draw out the Yattering realizes he can’t faze this guy. He can’t give him self-loathing. He can’t rattle him by moving and breaking things (and cats) in his house. The Yattering can’t leave until he claims Jack, and he begins to fear that he may be imprisoned with this person who barely registers alive by most measurements.

What is so wonderful about this story is the bigger world that Barker hints at: “It would even share the shower with Jack, hanging unseen from the rail that held up the shower curtain and murmuring obscene suggestions in his ear. That was always successful, the demons were taught at the Academy” (45).

What Academy? There’s an Academy that teaches demons how to prey on humans? Wow, cool concept. Kind of the anti-Hogwarts. Do the demons do graduate work? What is a demon Academy thesis statement: how to capture a soul and still get home in time for the game? This concept both lightens the story and adds depth and scope.

As the story continues the reader learns that Jack is keenly aware of the Yattering and is laying low waiting, trying to get the Yattering to make a mistake. The pacifist Gandhi routine is just an act, Jack is keenly aware of how much danger he is in and he risks his daughters in his final gambit.

The lynchpin to the whole story though is the Yattering. Once Jack reveals his game plan the reader weighs the players and finds the Yattering more interesting. In many ways, the Yattering is the good guy here, monster or no. Sure, Jack is being punished for the sins of his mother who escaped the ravages of hell. Hell is trying to collect what they see as theirs. The Yattering is simply the bill collector. He is stuck at the bottom of the totem pole trying to make a name for himself so he can move up the corporate ladder.

Who can’t relate to that? Sure, we might not all work in corporate America, but we’ve all had jobs that were mind numbing and dead end. Everyone has been stuck doing things that seemed utterly pointless then (and may seem that way to this day). Hopefully as you’re reading this you aren’t in a job like that now. If you are, know the Yattering feels your pain.

As it turns out, the Yattering is a warning story for everyone who hates their jobs. If you don’t love what you’re doing, you probably aren’t going to do a good job at it. The Yattering proves this. He also proves that as bad as things might seem, they can always be worse. By the end of this story Jack has completely turned the tables on the Yattering and the reader can only imagine how long it will be until the Yattering uses that same shower curtain rod to hang himself. But then another question arises from that: where does a demon go if he commits suicide?

See, this story just makes me ponder and consider and revisit. It is an excellent tale, one of my favorite from Clive Barker.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Werewolves Prefer Motorbikes to Cycles, Their Fur Gets Caught in the Pedals

One would think that a graphic novel (of sorts) featuring Stephen King and old-school comic book style drawings would be a homerun for a guy like me. I mean, I’m a comic book nerd of yore. I can name all the Robins who have worked with Batman. I knew what adamantium was before a Broadway singer/dancer played the Cannuckle Head from Weapon X and Alpha Flight.

As for King? I read Night Shift and Frestarter in seventh grade and haven’t looked back. I have devoured nearly everything he’s written since, and have loved almost all of it. The man can flat out suck you into his world(s) with great writing, he just so happens to write horror (which is more than okay with me, I mean look at the name of this Blog, right?).

So, combining graphic art with Stephen King storytelling should leave me gushing, right?

Boy howdy, do I wish. I’ll start with what didn’t work for me so I can end on the more positive of what does work. First, the point of view is just so distant. At no point does the reader get involved with this story. The narrator is so ethereal and stand offish it’s like watching some kind of bizarre newscast of werewolf attacks, but that doesn’t even capture it. There isn’t any emotion.

That lack of emotion continues through most of the story until we get to July and finally meet our protagonist. Marty Coslaw is the only featured player in the months that mark the chapters of this story who lives. He scares the beast, the werewolf, off with his own personal fireworks show. In the process he claims one of the creature’s green eyes.

Now, the focus of the story: the werewolf. His attacks are ferocious enough. He strikes with all the grisly intensity one expects of the bestial alter ego werewolves are to embody. The pictures are spot on too. I mean, the drawings look like the classic werewolf: wolf face and head, fur covered body, long claws. The green eyes are a nice specific touch.

But the wolf is random. He attacks out of nowhere. There is no connection to the victims. The reader doesn’t even know the victims until they are introduced in the same chapter in which they meet their bloody demise. Unfortunately the victims are cardboard cutouts because of this.

The reader has no one to root for, no one to care about until July, or halfway through the book. One hopes that we will then stay focused on Marty, but the story meanders to Constable Neary in August, a surprising turn in September when farm pigs satisfy the werewolf’s thirst for blood, and then back to Marty at Halloween in October. The wolf kills out of town in November, again taking us away from Marty, and finally we get our resolution in a December filled with silver and broken glass.

Werewolf stories generally study the duality of man: the civilized gentleman versus the creature hiding just beneath the surface who is insatiable, passionate and dangerous. Granted, all werewolf stories don’t have to do this, but this werewolf is just so sedate. In his personal life he is the last person you’d expect to be a bloodthirsty creature (that is a nice touch), but he is nearly emotionless about his transformations. He is evil in his rationalization, but his thought process and feelings are so subtle and understated it really takes a great bit of the emotion (the passion) out of the tale.

Now, what worked? I loved the chapters ticking off the months of a single calendar year. King apologizes in my copy saying he knows the full moon doesn’t coincide with all the holidays and special days in his story, but he just couldn’t resist using the familiar holidays to mark time. I don’t blame him one bit for using the holidays and putting full moon werewolf activity on the holidays. The thought of lunar accuracy never occurred to me. Don’t care about that if the story is working.

I also liked the grisly details of the kills. Without emotional connection to any of the characters, ironically, the only emotional response I could get from this book was the kills themselves. Constable Neary gets it in an especially bad way: “It swipes at him with one clawed hand – yes, he can see it is a hand, however hideously misshapen, a hand, the boy was right – and lays his throat wide open. Blood jets over the truck’s windshield and dashboard; it drips into the bottle of Busch that has been sitting tilted against Constable Neary’s crotch” (81). Blood in your beer. Bummer.

Again, if anybody should be howling to the moon about the levels of awesome this story provides, it should be me. Alas, it was too distant and too emotionally stunted for me to get fully invested. Ironically, I wonder if it was the mixing of the media that did this? Did the pictures dotting the story distract me or not allow my mind’s eye to develop the visuals I needed to see?

I thought about this after I read it and my eye wandered over to my bookshelf to spy the seven volumes of Stephen King’s Gunslinger saga, his magnum opus. The painting and drawings that are interspersed throughout those tales don’t take away from the story. That story, all seven volumes of it, is just flat out awesome. Pictures or no pictures it works.

No, the werewolf doesn’t howl in this one for me. It is a rare miss from the King.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Goodnight Moon, With Lots of Teeth and a Disdain for Women

Rawhead Rex, much has been made of the male/female interplay in this story. It is there, it is pretty overt (some might say overwhelming), but I’m going to focus on something else.

The moon. Clive Barker’s Rawhead Rex is obviously a monster. He has monstrous proportions with hands three times the size of a man, a nine-foot height, incredible strength, and that monster classic: a taste for human flesh, kids especially.

If we remove ourselves from the violence and gore (blood and semen and piss, all hard to ignore, but bear with me) Barker has personified the prehistoric. Rawhead stands in for pre-Christian society. He is uncivilized, untamable, comes from the wilds, and is most comfortable under the moon.

I am by no means an expert on Pagans or any of the pre-Christian societies. I know there was a big disconnect between a mono-deity religion and one that worshipped multiple gods (and goddesses). I know many of the Druid and Celt worship sites and temples were converted to Christian worship sites, and that many churches share ground with temples that came before them.

But that moon. I don’t know if this is my pop-culture tinged education, or what I’m supposed to believe, but if pressed I would say that Pagan’s were more enamored of the moon than are Christians. I don’t believe they worshipped it, but they had outdoor temples and ceremonies held at night. These have been demonized by modern culture and religion and made into something scary and dark and evil.

Enter Barker with Rawhead Rex on his leash. He comes out of the earth to wreak havoc. He’s a monster, but a thinking one. Sure, he doesn’t think well, but he’s more than just a beast. He has a plan, another monster classic (cue cartoon mouse Brain’s voice): to take over the world. I never was sure, but I think maybe Rawhead’s idea of taking over the world might have just been his little patch of wild woods now known as Zeal. I didn’t think he meant the entirety of the world. He just wanted to go back to the being the Alpha Monster in his neck of the woods.

Alright, I can’t ignore it completely. Rawhead can also very easily be a monstrous manifestation of male appetites. He eats what he wants, he sees women in very derogatory terms and deems them unclean when they are menstruating and has fond memories of raping humans so they can spawn his mutant hybrid offspring (killing the women in the process of course).

More than anything else Barker’s references to women from Rawhead’s point of view was the most monstrous of his traits. I thought it a huge copout that an angry mob led by a grieving father was the wrong ending. Rawhead needed to be taken down by a woman, not just the Venus statue, but a modern human woman acting like a momma-bear when her child is threatened. Instead Barker allows a male to take down the monstrous pre-historic all-male he’s created in Rawhead.

Finally, the descriptions of Rawhead were good. The idea of a moon face splitting wide to reveal a giant tooth-filled maw was excellent. Again, giving away my age and era here, but I couldn’t help but see the Rancor from under Jabba the Hutt’s palace in Return of the Jedi. That was probably just me, but the image of the all-mouth towering creature kept coming up Rancor for me.

All in all, not Barker’s best story. But Rawhead Rex is a great monster who has leapt from short-story pages to have a bit of a following and notoriety.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I've Heard of Hairy Legs, but This is Ridiculous

Breeding Ground reaches right into my head and pulled out one of the great fears. Sure, the specific fear for me is giant trap-door spiders that pop up to snatch people as they walk through the woods.

But Sarah Pinborough’s giant pale telepathic spiders born of the human women strike close enough to home to really freak me out. Add to that the way they come about and this is truly a gruesome tale of apocalyptic proportions.

Matthew Edge is our first person narrator and main protagonist. He fills the every-man role quite well. He’s youngish, a generally good person, just moving from his misspent youth into some level of domestic maturity when his girlfriend Chloe comes up pregnant. Since Matthew is a stand up fellow who genuinely loves his girlfriend this unexpected pregnancy just solidifies their relationship (in his eyes) and he gets busy getting ready to be a dad.

The problem is the pregnancy between Matthew and Chloe isn’t the only pregnancy they experience. It turns out those meddlesome scientists have once again doomed humanity to an apocalypse of their own making, quite by accident (again) of course, but the results are the same: a quick devolution from civilization to a few humans clinging to survival.

As I said before, spiders are one of my “things.” A buddy and I were once caught with a can of hairspray filched from his sister’s room and a lighter. We were removing books one by one from a bookshelf and preparing with our homemade blow torch to roast an eight legged abomination. His mom caught us and we ceased and desisted. She pointed out we might have burned the whole apartment building down trying to kill one little spider. Then, as now, as long as nobody got hurt, burning a building down to nail a single spider sounds like a fair exchange to me. Eight legged pieces of evil these things are.

So, Pinborough had me hooked with the spider angle. Another of my “things” is the post-apocalyptic tale. The Road, Terminator (the future parts), The Road Warrior, Dawn of the Dead (the original) all have a dark place in my little heart. How humans respond to a threat big enough to not just kill, but to rend society asunder is fascinating stuff. Breeding Ground measures up to this lofty company.

Our narrator and hero loses his girlfriend and joins a band of humans who are all traumatized by recent events. They make their way to a military base and there they learn some of the truths of what is happening. I don’t want to reveal too much here, but suffice it to say that we humans did it to ourselves. Pinborough gives us a vivid and nasty monster in her spiders. At one point she describes that the y still have some semblance of a face on their torsos and this image is burned into my brain. Vivid and horrifying. Nice.

I would be remiss if I didn’t broach the subject of gender when it comes to the characters and to the monster spiders. Initially the spiders birth from the women of society, and all the new spiders are female. At one point Chloe, well along into the “there’s something really wrong here” territory is communicating telepathically with a friend of hers. She is sitting, bloated and monstrous in her living room but her mind is riding brain waves the spider creatures can use.

It is hinted at that the spiders maintain a level of telepathy after they are born and mature, and this is truly a terrifying thought. A giant spider is bad enough. A giant spider with intelligence and the ability to communicate with other giant spiders makes them a formidable foe, one that maybe can use strategy and try to outwit you.

Pinborough may be implying that women communicate better than men, or that they communicate on different levels than men. I think that is pretty obvious. Men and women operate and communicate very differently. It is what drives much of the humor and frustration in our society. If the human women had lived and worked with the spiders to round up the men I would rail against this whole theme. However, the women in this book are slain in the act of giving birth. Regardless of the community of females, the new breed that has taken over the planet could care less. Women or men, we’re nothing but food to the spiders.

I only had two minor issues with this book. First, Matthew must be some kind of Lothario or Casanova. He has a beautiful girl to start the story, and before it is over he has had sex with essentially the last two women on earth. I mean, bravo Matthew, but this seemed amazingly convenient.

The other issue was a bit bigger. Why did Matthew, Rebecca, George, and Chester leave the military compound? The base wasn’t overrun; they didn’t run out of food or supplies. Sure, the other men were one by one succumbing to the lumps on their bodies that led to the men of the new world sharing the fate of the women. Pinborough led us to believe that there were literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of these spiders running around. At night they could see rows of glowing red eyes in the trees (freak me out).

I know there were rumors of a kid colony and Matthew babbled on about Rebecca having a baby, but none of that passed the sniff test. As brutal as it sounds, you let the other men birth their shiny black spiders, you kill the spiders, and you hole up in the compound. In post-apocalyptic stories there is no “happily ever after” and these characters were leaving survival for the great unknown.

Survival is the only option. I read Breeding Ground not knowing it has a sequel (Feeding Ground), but my last thoughts as I finished this book were: too bad these guys made it this far and now they’re going to their deaths.

I guess dying on your own terms has a certain level of control to it, but living for as long as possible, and taking care of those you love, protecting them from monsters and death, Matthew should have staked out his piece of the earth inside the military base and tried to make it his new home.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Monsters Want to Say Goodbye Too

What can one say about The Funeral? The delicious short story from Richard Matheson that can be played as late night low-budget horror television fun or be played as a terrifying look into monsters commemorating their earthly demise.

The story gives in a bit to some stereotypes with the pointy-hat wearing witch with the cat and the odd little man repeating “tasty” at poor Morton the mortician and funeral director, but I can forgive these little things as the story is kind of fun and maybe, perhaps, isn’t horror?

Sure, the people who attend the funeral are standard fare at any haunted house. Sure, the story is about a funeral for someone who is clearly undead. But what happens that is horror-esque?

Morton is asked to put on a funeral. Yes, this is morbid stuff, but like it or not we are all going to end up dead one day. Death and taxes baby. Funerals, death as a subject, can’t be relegated to just the horror genre.

Morton puts on that funeral, and does a splendid job. He completes all the requests, including taking down the mirror, and is paid handsomely for his efforts. He is made uneasy by the guests at the funeral, but is that horror? Who hasn’t been annoyed by relatives at an official event? Who hasn’t rolled their eyes at the fanboys talking to the screen during a movie? No, being annoyed by guests is as much a part of social interaction as using turn signals or saying “good morning.”

This story, for me, was touching and a bit funny. All Asper wants is a proper funeral, something he feels he missed out on the first time around. I wonder how many people are truly happy about their funeral? How many of us would do them over or do them differently? Oh wait, we can’t, we’re dead. That’s the funny part. Maybe I am a bit twisted.

But think of all the socially formal events you’ve had to endure: graduations, weddings, funerals, birthdays, retirements, etc. For all but birthdays, you get to do them once. The Funeral almost made me sympathetic to the brides who lose their minds about trivialities like center pieces and the color of ribbon tying balloons down. Almost.

I mean, Asper is dead and a ghoul, and he doesn’t throw a hissy fit about things. In fact, he probably could have killed Morton with ease but he doesn’t. He restrains himself, unlike some of his funeral guests, and some brides to be.

This story reminds me of Hellboy or Joss Whedon’s Angel. Matheson has taken traditional monsters and placed them in a mundane, very human environment. He has fleshed them out to show they have feelings beyond “kill the people” and some of them, Asper anyway, want nice things, no matter the cost. No, Matheson doesn’t take the monster and make it the hero, but he does take the monster and make them … normal.

I mean, when not eating people, what does a monster do with themselves? Even if you give yourself a full hour per meal that leaves 21 hours in the day, what do you do with your time? If Matheson is to be believed, monsters probably do some of the same things.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What are Vampires Scared Of?

I am Legend is a story that is so strong it is a wonder it hasn’t transcended the genre and other mediums. Yet, here we sit in 2010 and after three movies that completely missed the point and a slew of post-apocalyptic stories that tread more shallow waters, I am Legend still doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

Richard Matheson has done two things in this story. First, he has scientifically explained vampirism and given it historic context. This is impressive and fun to read. The fact in this story that it all comes down to germs and spores is wonderful.

However the second thing he has done with this story is borderline genius. It is what makes I am Legend easily my favorite post-apocalyptic story of all time. I gush, but it is true.

What did Matheson do? He took the reader in and had them pull for a main character we could relate to, that we rooted for, that we hoped beyond the bleak and terrible situation that somehow, someway he, Robert Neville, would find a way to a happy ending. You know he won’t get the happy ending, but you empathize with him.

Then, when we the readers are hooked, we are invested; he pulls back to a wider view of the new world to reveal that we the readers have in fact been pulling for the new world’s boogeyman. Neville is the thing that goes bump in the night. He is the thing that vampires, vampires, fear.

That shift in focus, that revelation is so wonderful, so original, so beyond awesome as a writer that I still find myself reflecting on it. This is at least the third time I’ve read this story and I continue to enjoy that delicious twist. How does Matheson pull this off?

First, his main character is very much the every man. He is a married factory/plant worker with a young child. He carpools with his neighbor, loves his wife, and is just as baffled about the dust storms and rumors of infected people as the reader. He isn’t some superhuman or military dynamo. He isn’t a scientist with a lab and a staff. He’s just a guy. It’s easier to pull for this kind of character.

By the time we meet Robert Neville the world has ended. He’s all alone in a world populated by vampires. As he hunts for supplies to survive he dispatches these creatures with all the passion of someone vacuuming a carpet. It isn’t bad, it just is. The reader, armed with the knowledge of Dracula and other vampire stories knows this is how it has to be. Of course Neville is staking these creatures, it’s what we would do.

Finally, Matheson draws us in with the hauntingly intimate flashbacks of the last days of Virginia Neville, Robert’s wife, and shares with us the horror of her return from the grave. This, for me, is the scariest scene in the book:

“He couldn’t even scream. He just stood there rooted to the spot, staring dumbly at Virginia.

“Rob … ert,” she said” (77).

So the reader has no problem pulling for this poor lonely lost soul. We share his frustration in trying to figure it all out. We feel his loneliness and his isolation. Then Ruth shows up and Matheson turns everything over on the reader.

Ruth appears to be another normal human, another survivor. Neville is barely human when she arrives, so far gone in his patterns and his survival, he’s more robot than human, but he’s still more human than Ruth turns out to be.

The entire exchange between Ruth and Robert is wonderful, especially when read a second time with the knowledge of the ending. As a first read, the reader shares Neville’s confusion over why Ruth is horrified by his matter-of-fact description of his discoveries, experiments, and executions of the vampires. He is doing what anyone would do in this situation.

But after knowing the ending (which I won’t completely reveal here, I truly want all new readers to experience this for themselves), the exchanges between Ruth and Robert take on a completely different tone:

“Her throat moved and a shudder ran down through her.

“It’s horrible,” she said.

He looked at her in surprise. Horrible? Wasn’t that odd? He hadn’t thought that for years. For him the word horror had become obsolete. A surfeiting of terror soon made terror a cliché. To Robert Neville the situation merely existed as natural fact. It had no adjectives.

“And what about the … the ones who are still alive?” she asked.

“Well,” he said, “when you cut their wrists the germ naturally becomes parasitic. But mostly they die from simple hemorrhage.”

“Simple –“

She turned away quickly and her lips were pressed into a tight, thin line.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“N-nothing. Nothing,” she said” (145-146).

For the reader this is a no-nonsense description of a man dispatching monsters. To Ruth, a vampire, this is the butcher of her people describing how easy it is for him to execute her brothers and sisters. From Ruth’s perspective she is hearing a serial killer, a mass murderer explain how he commits murder, and how easy it is for him to do it.

This juxtaposition of motivation and point of view is powerful stuff. Both sides are correct here, both sides have skin in the game, have high stakes to play for, and the reader can see both sides of this conflict. That is excellent writing, excellent plotting, and just excellent story telling.

As was said in the opening of this essay, for some reason movies haven’t been able to capture the power and brilliance and simplicity of this story. The one that comes closest is The Omega Man but even it tries to end happy. The latest version, I am Legend is a fun little popcorn movie I would have enjoyed if they had called it Vampires in New York or Albino End or something else, anything else.

So, my parting thought is this: if you’ve only seen movie versions of this story, you haven’t experienced I am Legend. Books are usually better than their adaptations to screen and stage, but in this case it isn’t even close. The underlying story elements are completely absent.

I can’t recommend this story, in written form, highly enough. If you like your vampires creepy and scary, then this is your story.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Twist the Whole Thing

“Cabal” turns nearly everything over. Clive Barker succeeds in making the cops and doctors the bad guys, and the things, the monsters, the Nightbreed under the cemetery, well, not quite the good guys, but the guys the reader roots for anyway.

Boone is at best a confused, guilt-ridden, and weak person. At worst he’s crazy in a dangerous serial killer kind of way. It turns out he’s not a serial killer, but he may not be completely sane either.

The serial killer turns out to be Decker, Boone’s psychiatrist, and for most of this story Decker pulls everyone’s strings in an effort to cover for nearly a dozen murders (more, actually as Decker confesses to Boone) so he can continue his killing spree in a new location. All he has to do is pin his past killings on Boone and slip off to another happy hunting ground. But Boone’s girlfriend Lori won’t buy into the story and Boone won’t stay dead.

Unfortunately the reader is right there with Lori, not believing the story. Decker has found a perfectly willing patsy in Boone, and Boone is happily going along with the idea that he was some kind of mass murderer, but the Nightbreed Peloquin knows Boone is innocent of spilling blood. The exchange between Boone and Decker on pages 47 and 48 is the first twist of the story:

“I killed nobody,” he murmured.

I know that,” Decker replied.

“That’s why I couldn’t remember any of the rooms. I was never there.”

“But you remember now,” Decker said.

“Only because –” Boone stopped, and stared at the man in the charcoal suit, “because you showed me.”

Taught you,” Decker corrected him.

This exchange is chilling, and the reader can happily be carried along by this notion. But the pesky details crop up. Eleven separate murders is a lot of forensics, a lot of timelines, a lot of evidence that has to line up and be verified. If Barker had Decker trying to pin one or two murders on Boone, maybe the reader goes with it. But eleven? There is just too much that has to happen perfectly for Boone to fit into eleven separate murder scenes perfectly. Modern forensics and police procedurals kind of ruin this type of plot point.

Once Boone gets to Midian, once the Nightbreed are fully engaged as part of this story then it becomes a near masterpiece. Clive Barker takes the creatures of the night and paints them as just another species of sentient being. Humans call them monsters, and they do prey on humanity when they can, but so do lions and tigers and bears (oh my) and we generally don’t consider them monsters. Barker shows them as misunderstood and the prey of humanity in their own right. Towards the end of this story Barker sums the Breed up very well: “The un-people, the anti-tribe, humanity’s sack unpicked and sewn together again with the moon inside” (185).

This is a great description for the Breed. They truly are creatures of the night. As Midian is razed into non-existence by the humans Barker takes the opportunity to show all forms and non-forms for the inhabitants. All manner of creatures are described fleeing the onslaught. This was excellent as it showed the Breed as a diverse group of creatures, not just a bevy of vampires or a cluster of werewolves. The creatures are unique and original and truly monstrous, just like humans.

Another great point for this story is that as awesome and supernatural as the Nightbreed are, they can be fought and destroyed by the humans. So many monster stories feature creatures that humans have no hope against, yet humans are the rulers of the planet. The Breed are in hiding because the balance of power, from a sheer numbers perspective, is in favor of the humans. This adds to their sympathy from the reader and helps them root for these creatures of the night.

The title for this story, “Cabal,” does bug me from a strict definition perspective. Boone is renamed Cabal by the Baptizer Baphomet. A cabal, by definition, is a group. Boone is tasked with being the one who rebuilds Midian somewhere else, somewhere more acceptable. So, the reader tries to give cabal the meaning of bringing the many who are Nightbreed back together in one place, but that doesn’t really fit either. Then the reader tries to say the Cabal is Boone from his human days and now Cabal is the Nightbreed creature he has become, but that is only two entities (and really only one). So, one has to guess that Barker just dug the word cabal and that is fine, if a little distracting.

Overall the genius of this story is that the Christian humans are the bad guys. They attack what they don’t understand and the Nightbreed just want to be left alone. Now, the Breed aren’t completely innocent. Peloquin attacks and nearly kills Boone when he first gets to Midian. He sees Boone as nothing more than meat. But this tale is excellent for giving the Breed their place on the hero side of the good/bad ledger.

Barker has always had a gift for creating supernatural creatures of an epic and memorable quality. The Nightbreed of “Cabal” may be his crowning achievement, even more than the Cenobites.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Shine On You Crazy Writer

Stephen King’s “The Shining” proposes the world has two kinds of people: those who are psychically sensitive and can feel things beyond normal senses, and those who cannot. This extra ability may seem a gift, and those who have that gift surely have fuller lives and know more things about people, relationships, and how the world works. But everybody in King’s story who has this gift, this “shine,” only witnesses horror and death.

Jack Torrance, by nearly every measure, is not a nice guy. He drinks to excess, he has a temper, and he has problems controlling himself. He has problems with the truth (as illustrated by the way he treats a stuttering student trying to make the debate team). When things don’t go Jack’s way he blames others, especially his wife and son. The reader isn’t surprised The Overlook Hotel chooses Jack to manipulate into doing its dark bidding. This is a character teetering between boyhood immaturity and adulthood; only the character is far too old to be having these kinds of issues. This teetering is also reflected in his precarious balancing act between sobriety and alcoholism. He loses both of those balancing acts.

Jack is a writer. King has used the writer/artist as a protagonist on more than one occasion: “The Mist,” “Bag of Bones,” “It,” and others. Write what you know must be true as King has done well with this axiom. Many people accuse writers of being autobiographical when they put a writer in the protagonist role. However, I hope King doesn’t see a lot of himself in Jack.

This story works on about three different levels: as a haunted house/isolation tale, as a descent into madness, and as a domestic/family abuse story. All three of these levels provide the reader with horror as King does excellent work personifying The Overlook and painting the Torrance family as believable characters caught up in supernatural events.

First, The Overlook. King based this setting on an actual hotel in the mountains of Colorado The Stanley (though my copy of the novel denies this). As with most haunted house stories The Overlook is big, empty and foreboding. It dwarfs the Torrances and provides an excellent place for imaginations to run to the horrible. Danny Torrance, he who is the strongest with the shine, draws the malevolence of the hotel like bears to a salmon run.

The Overlook is haunted by many ghosts from a good many eras. King never really lets the reader know whether the hotel draws bad people to it, or if the bad people who own the place fill it with their bad spirits and vibes. Either way, the hotel is brimming with restless spirits, and they want one more: Danny Torrance.

Danny is gifted with the shining, or para-psychological abilities. He can call out to other shine-sensitive folks with just his mind, as he does with Dick Hallorann. He has dreams and visions of the future and warnings from a shadow self (Tony). The Overlook is either scared of Danny and wants him out of the way before he can reveal the power there, or it wants Danny’s power for itself. Either way, The Overlook’s endgame is one dead Danny.

The hotel employs Jack, Danny’s father, to accomplish this. From the scrapbook to the hornets to the topiary animals to actually seeing the ghosts at the masked ball in the bar Jack gets drawn into the hotel’s influence.

Part of what makes the hotel as a setting so effective is its isolation. King uses the impending snow and the absolute cutoff due to the snow to ratchet up the tension. Every one of the Torrances, even Jack, has second thoughts about staying up at the hotel when the snow begins to fly. King has given glimpses of what is to come through Danny’s visions (REDRUM) and the reader just KNOWS they should flee. But once winter comes down the Rockies at them fleeing is no longer an option. They are trapped with the hotel and all its ghostly occupants, and Jack is slowly being seduced into doing terrible things to his family.

Without this isolation “The Shining” would not have been as compelling. If Wendy could have scooped Danny up and just driven away a lot of the tension is lost in this story. King chose his location very well.

The descent into madness is truly frightening. The Overlook convinces a man to turn on his own wife and son and try to murder them. This is unnatural in the extreme. Many parents would rather die than harm their kids. King refers to Wendy in these terms in “The Shining.”

The reader believes this father could harm his son and this husband could harm his wife because Jack starts the story as not the nicest person. He’s broken his son’s arm in a fit of rage. He’s attacked a student who sabotaged his car. He’s had outbursts at his wife, was complicit in a car accident while drunk that destroyed a child’s bicycle (luckily not the child too), and when pushed his response is anger and arrogance. A reader can believe this sort of man, this alcoholic self-centered immature lout could be manipulated to do harm to that which he loves as long as the reward is booze and a book deal.

Is King making fun of writers by showing how obsessed Jack is with being acknowledged as a good writer? He might be. Jack does think the sun rises and sets with his writing. He flaunts his finding of the shady past of The Overlook to Ullman, the hotel manager. On some level he has to know this will cost him this last paying job, knock him off this bottom rung of the ladder he is clinging to for life and sustenance. Yet, for Jack, the potential story imbedded in the past of the hotel is worth the risk. For him the story is king, no matter the cost. Well, the story and the booze.

Finally, the family dynamic is huge in this story. Wendy stays with the abusive Jack because her own father was an abuser. It is her norm. In a very real sense she has married her father, and did it to spite her mother. I’m sure many readers can relate to this metaphorical incestuous relationship suicide.

Danny is a bit of a cheat as a character. Because of his shine he can sense and read his parents much better than a character/child has a right to. King uses this to really carve into the reader’s consciousness. We feel bad for Danny when he can sense his parents’ fighting and sadness. In some ways these passages were too telling. When Danny lies in bed and sees the word “DIVORCE” in his mind’s eye the reader is being hit over the head with that knowledge. After Jack breaks Danny’s arm any good mother, and Wendy fits that bill, would be thinking divorce. We don’t need Danny to spell it out for us.

What King does well with Danny is to show a parental favoritism. Despite Jack breaking Danny’s arm when he was three, despite the hornet stings, despite Jack’s moodiness, anger, and yelling, Danny is a daddy’s boy. Wendy laments this several times in this story.

Now, real parents and real kids will deny the existence of favorites in families, but they are there. We all strive to make equal decisions and to treat our children the same, but the reality is that is impossible. Domestic socialism doesn’t work any better than political socialism does. King was brave to include the tight bond between Danny and Jack. Speaking this level of truth added a lot to the Torrance family dynamic. It also made the breaking of the father/son bond and eventual death of Jack that much more tragic.

Overall, “The Shining” is a modern masterpiece. My only complaint is the unknown factor of what causes The Overlook to be evil. Is it a nesting place for evil people? Is it the location? Which came first: the bad hotel or the bad people making the hotel bad? This can be seen as a strength because the reader can make the distinction for themselves, but a bit more along these lines would have been great.

Also, the “shine” that Danny is so strong with loses a lot of its uniqueness in this story as by the end every major player has displayed a level of “shine.” Danny is strongest with it, followed by Dick Hallorann who rushes from Florida to save Danny and Wendy. Jack obviously has it since he has a nice set of conversations with ghost bartenders and past-guests (long deceased). King says all mothers shine a bit, and Wendy displays that as the book builds to its climax. Even Ulmann the annoying little hotel manager appears to see the remnants of Vittorio “The Chopper” Gienelli lying in the doorway of The Presidential Suite. Heck, even a fellow airplane passenger shines at Hallorann as they exit the plane in Denver. Danny’s ability would have seemed more special had he and Hallorann been the only ones who could access that shine.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

We're Going to Get Bloody on This One

If you’ve read Lovecraft you know the man had tells. I’ve mentioned his worship of the god that is setting. He defines the term “story of the weird” with his eerie backdrops and other-worldly creatures. His other-worldly language and names for these monstrosities is also one of his great strengths. Most of the time encounters with these abominations leaves the people in his stories broken mentally or dead, but rarely bloody, rarely grotesquely maimed.

Not this time.

“The Dreams in the Witch House” gets bloody, and the story is better for it. Poor Walter Gilman is another of Lovecraft’s doomed protagonists who has stumbled into the greater world of other dimensions, witchcraft and death. He is something of a math whiz, and this knowledge coupled with his unfortunate dwelling conspire to pull him into Keziah Mason, the Black Man, and Brown Jenkin’s trans-dimensional world of shadows.

Lovecraft has an excellent concept in this story: that advanced math and old-world folklore combine to unlock the secret knowledge of trans-dimensional travel, immortality and the ability to move through solid objects. A scoop or two more of quasi-scientific knowledge and this story comes dangerously close to science fiction. Some of the details of witches and their dark powers are described by Lovecraft: “The hidden cults to which these witches belonged often guarded and handed down surprising secrets from elder, forgotten aeons; and it was by no means impossible that Keziah had actually mastered the art of passing through dimensional gates. Tradition emphasises, that uselessness of material barriers in halting witch’s motions; and who can say what underlies the old tales of broomstick rides through the night?”

Gilman has recurring dreams that grow stronger and more vivid containing a bent crone of a woman and the little rat-creature Brown Jenkin. These tour-guides-from-hell drag him through to other dimensions inhabited by horrors only Lovecraft could conjure.

Each morning Gilman awakes with physical evidence of having left his bed, but no evidence that he left his room: “At once he saw there was something on the table which did not belong there, and a second look left no room for doubt. Lying on its side – for it could not stand up alone – was the exotic spiky figure which in his monstrous dream he had broken off the fantastic balustrade.”

I have no evidence that this is the first instance in fiction of physical evidence being retrieved from the dream/subconscious level of existence and being brought into the physical/corporeal world. However, it has to be one of the earlier, if not the first, instance of this sort of plot point. Modern readers will recognize this sort of thing from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in which dream monster Freddy Krueger can kill you in your dreams and your living body dies in its sleep. Later the “Matrix” movies make use of this sort of thing in which a person’s mind is in a “game” and if a person is killed in the game/matrix their body dies in the real world.

This, for us today, is not an original idea. As I read this story I was struck by how original this might have seemed to Lovecraft’s earliest readers.

Gilman gets pulled further and further into this other dimension and is included in hideous blood rituals that kill toddlers. He tries to stop this ceremony to no avail, and eventually is killed for his attempts at stopping these acts. As Elwood, a fellow tenant and student, befriends and tries to help Gilman he witnesses Brown Jenkin dispatch Gilman most gruesomely: “It would be barbarous to do more than suggest what had killed Gilman. There had been virtually a tunnel through his body – something had eaten his heart out.”

Earlier in this story as Gilman fought the crone Brown Jenkin also bit and bled to death a two year old gathering the baby’s blood in a rune-covered light metal bowl. As I said in the opening, this is a very grisly and blood-soaked tale by Lovecraft standards. This actually comes as a bit of shock and that is a welcome addition to the narrative.

As with nearly all Lovecraft the exposition-style of storytelling is frustrating and drags things to a crawl. Once a person knows this about Lovecraft you can make your peace with it and read Lovecraft for the other pleasures he provides. However, “The Dreams in the Witch House” has some logical disconnects and plot points that conspire to scuttle the overall narrative.

First, I love the coupling of math, witchcraft, other dimensions, and folk lore. I think this is brilliant, and the promise of Gilman “stumbling” into this knowledge and the other-dimensional witches coming to him through his dreams all works well.

But after the contact is made with Gilman the reader is left asking why? Why did they include him? I thought they would try to kill him to keep their secret and to maintain their other-dimension hiding place. When they didn’t try to kill him I wondered what their purpose was. He didn’t help them do anything. He fought them when they killed the two year old boy, and then they do kill Gilman.

This is a plot point that could be solved with just a couple lines of dialogue:

“Who the heck are you people?” Gilman asked looking around the other-worldly landscape.

“I’m Keziah Mason,” she said.

“The witch? What do you want from me?”

[Insert any reason for their contact with him you’d like.]

However, this conversation never takes place. This is a big deal as it is kind of the heart of the story. Gilman cracking the code of these other dimensions is great. Lovecraft could have had him stumble upon these baby-killers in the walls. He could have had them trying to off Gilman. Instead it’s played as a half-assed middle ground that just doesn’t work very well.

The other major logical disconnect is the lack of options Gilman has. Lovecraft almost alleviates this when he has Gilman move in with Elwood on the second floor. But fresh rat holes and eerie lights descending around this room aren’t enough to motivate Gilman to hit the road. He just goes further and further into these other-dimensional dreams and eventually to his doom.

It’s too passive. He’s too passive. He’s a student, and a math genius. Why can’t he fight? Why can’t he stand and fight The Black Man? Why can’t he step on Brown Jenkin? I cheered when he kicked the little deformed rat, but it just bounces back and eats his heart out.

The story doesn’t need Walter Gilman to win. He’s against some pretty major foes, foes who have defied death for a long time and who know the secrets of the dimensions far better than he does. But he goes too easily into this story. A little more fight in him and this would be one of my favorite Lovecraft stories. But he’s too weak and that weakness saps the story overall.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Mother Will Love the Satan Right Out

It’s all there, right in front of the reader, and in front of Rosemary. Ira Levin wrote such a tight, straightforward novel and at the same time open to all kinds of interpretations when he gave us “Rosemary’s Baby.” The story is simplicity itself: young couple is finding their way in the big city, he wants to climb the ladder of his business, in this case acting, she wants to have kids and start a family. Within that simple family dynamic all the horror in the word resides.

Levin winds this story so tightly that with each quiet little revelation you feel the tension tick up a notch. Yet, even as the story is coming to a close the reader is rooting for Rosemary to be wrong. Each of her worries: the history of the building, Terry’s suicide, the tannis root, Guy’s whereabouts and how he came to have tickets to a show, Hutch’s coma, Donald Baumgart’s blindness, all of it really could be mere coincidence. The reader, for Rosemary’s sake hopes so. But of course she isn’t so lucky.

From the first meeting with the Castevets Levin shows his hand. Sure, it’s just a peek, but the clues are all there. Roman Castevet says: ““No Pope ever visits a city where the newspapers are on strike”” (Levin 55). Later in that same conversation Guy Woodhouse, Rosemary’s husband, responds: “Guy smiled. “Well,” he said, “that’s show biz”” (Levin 56).

The disdain for the Pope and God in general, are right there for the reader to see. But Levin has his story so well written, the reader not only sees the seeds of the Satanists the Castevets turn out to be, but also how Rosemary is an outsider and Guy is fitting right in with them. “Rosemary, in one of the straight-backed chairs, felt oddly out of things, as if the Castevets were old friends of Guy’s to whom she had just been introduced. “Do you think it could have been a plot of some kind?” Mr. Castevet asked her, and she answered awkwardly, aware that a considerate host was drawing a left-out guest into conversation” (Levin 61).

The story continues to isolate Rosemary and to draw Guy into the circle around her. Not long after the dinner party at the Castevets Guy is alone with Roman for a while. Rosemary is visited by Minnie and Laura-Louise and given the necklace Terry was wearing when she committed suicide. It is a charm full of what the Castevets call “tannis root” that Rosemary thinks stinks. She decides not to put it on. Guy responds “Guy, in the doorway, said, “If you took it, you ought to wear it”” (Levin 70).

This kind of tension building continues as Rosemary is further ostracized (or is she just being paranoid?). Levin never plays dirty tricks on the reader; he places it all out there for us to see. We see the moment Guy either joins the Satanists directly, or at least they act on his behalf by striking Donald Baumgart blind. This is offstage; the reader is with Rosemary at a play called The Fantasticks. When she returns the whole house smells of tannis root. Rosemary just assigns the odor to the charm Minnie gave to her. The reader knows there is more to it than that as Guy is scrubbing himself in the shower.

Near the end of the novel Rosemary runs into the person Guy said he got the show tickets from. He never gave them to Guy. This minor piece of information is nothing in the grand scheme of things, maybe just a simple misunderstanding or a lapse in memory on Rosemary’s part. But by the time this information is revealed we’ve seen Hutch, Rosemary’s surrogate father, lapse into a coma, heard odd music and chanting, watched Rosemary have an unusual and painful pregnancy. Even more, we’ve watched Rosemary systematically get cut off from the rest of the world.

All of this tension building, this tight plotting, this excellent set up and building of suspense shows master craft work by Levin. He truly has a masterpiece of suspense here. It’s no wonder it’s stood the test of time.

However, my favorite aspect of this story is that it doesn’t turn out to be some paranoid delusion on the part of Rosemary. Everything she fears comes true. Levin gives the reader, and unfortunately Rosemary, a real supernatural encounter with Satan. This is done in a dreamlike haze as Rosemary has been drugged, but it is real. It did happen, as Rosemary learns when she breaks into the Castevets apartment in the final scenes of the book.

To take a supernatural occurrence like that, and place it within the relatively mundane (but interesting and well written mind you) confines of a New York City apartment? That is the essence of horror. To take a relatively absurd concept (sex with the devil) and give it a concrete real-world adult application is impressive. For me, that is where the great horror lives.

Finally, once the reader gets to the end and realizes that Rosemary isn’t a paranoid basket case (but the reader is never really sure until Rosemary sees the picture of the burning church in the Castevet’s apartment, you really do have to wait that long), Levin isn’t through with the surprises.

You’ve guessed the group has conspired against Rosemary. You’ve guessed that something untoward is happening. When Rosemary finally sees her baby (Andrew, not Adrian) she is horrified by his eyes, Levin could have ended it there. The movie ends it there basically.

Instead her maternal instincts take over. Sure, he’s Satan’s spawn, but he’s also half hers: “He couldn’t be all bad, he just couldn’t. Even if he was half Satan, wasn’t he half her as well, half decent, ordinary, sensible, human being? If she worked against them, exerted a good influence to counteract their bad one …” (Levin 244).

So, instead of Rosemary leaping out the window like Terry did before her. Instead of using the knife to kill her baby, Rosemary becomes his mother. It’s a great twist, and, even better, a believable twist. Rosemary is a bit of a pushover (voted the way Laura-Louise wanted her to, letting the Castevets steamroll her time and again, etc.), but she really is the only good person in the whole book. She trusts, and the reader believes (or really wants to believe) that she can foster that goodness in her baby boy.

Beyond that, it is a blunt and, once again, obvious point by Levin about the power of good and evil. If Rosemary is the only good, and obviously Satan is the focal point of evil, then their child has the potential for both, just like all of us.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

We're Going to Innsmouth, Bring the Tartar Sauce

This story has so much potential it is frustrating how it loses narrative momentum three quarters of the way through. Many of Lovecraft’s hallmarks are here: abundant and lush (too lush, I’ll explain later) setting, other-worldly creatures, underground tunnels, a hapless or bystander type narrator, and a twist ending (sort of).

Innsmouth is a dying coastal city in which rumor and legend hide a truly horrible transformation. The slowly decreasing population has a distinct “Innsmouth look” described as such: “His age was perhaps thirty-five, but the odd, deep creases in the sides of his neck made him seem older when one did not study his dull, expressionless face. He had a narrow head, bulging, watery blue eyes that seemed never to wink, a flat nose, a receding forehead and chin, and singularly undeveloped ears.” As the reader continues in this story that “Innsmouth look” strikes fear as you learn that this isn’t just some family trait, this is the outward visual manifestation of a horrible transformation taking place, and it is happening to the entire town.

As always, Lovecraft bows at the altar of setting in this story. The reader is treated to pages and pages of seaside ruin, empty decrepit houses, seafronts and factory buildings, ocean surfaces and architecture. This attention to setting derails the narrative momentum of this story in Chapter IV. For seven pages, a full quarter of the story, the reader is treated to an absolute overkill of details of buildings and train tracks, windows and walls as the narrator escapes the fish-frog hordes searching for him. This section should have been full of suspense and dread. This section should have had the reader on the edge of their seat. Instead the reader is waiting for the whole cat and mouse (or human and fish-frog if you like) affair to end.

Why? On page one Lovecraft ruins the suspense by telling us it was this narrator who called in the government. We know he (or she) is going to live. We know there is no real danger. Chapter IV ends with a parade of fully transformed fish-frogs making their way past the narrator as he hides along the forgotten train tracks. This is good stuff, the “big reveal” if you will, but it comes seven pages after the reader has been lulled to sleep.

The fish-frogs themselves are outstanding. Once again, Lovecraft has dug into the crust of the earth and found an other-worldly evil that universally creeps out the reader. The idea that there are millions upon millions of these things down in the depths is terrifying. The best use of these creatures to strike horror in the reader is this: “For at a closer glance I saw that the moonlit waters between the reef and the shore were far from empty. They were alive with a teeming horde of shapes swimming inward toward the town; and even at my vast distance and in my single moment of perception I could tell that the bobbing heads and flailing arms were alien and aberrant in a way scarcely to be expressed or consciously formulated.”

Hordes of anything are usually scary, hordes of fish-frogs who sacrifice humans and mate with other humans really have the reader freaked out. As the story goes and the reader thinks back to the description of Joe Sargent (the bus driver) the line between human and the “Innsmouth look” and the fish-frogs who come shambling out of the water is made. The idea of not being able to blink, of limbs elongating and becoming webbed, of gills growing out of the soft flesh of your neck truly does horrify a reader.

But then we come back to a plot point I found “fishy” if you’ll allow the Innsmouth pun. Lovecraft tells the reader through the drunken ravings of Zadok Allen that once the transformation is near completion a lot of the newly formed fish-frogs take trial runs down into the depths. This is an excellent plot point and one the narrator desire illustrates well as the story closes. As the transformation nears completion these near fish-frogs are boarded up in homes and shunned from the light of day.

If they seek water, and truly live in water, why wasn’t water more of a plot point for Lovecraft? Why wasn’t the town dotted with ponds or pools? Why didn’t Innsmouth build a canal or dig the harbor into the heart of the city? I kept waiting for the narrator to discover the underground tunnels (a Lovecraft staple, he loved the idea of subterranean connections, he probably loved the subway system) were actually underground canals. If that didn’t happen I was expecting the waterfalls the bus drives over to get into town to come into play as a place budding fish-frogs go to frolic and stretch their gills. I know, personal expectations cannot be blamed on the writer, but if the water and the drive to return to the water were so important to the transformed, then water could have played a bigger role in this story (and could have been used to up the creep factor as well).

Now we come to the narrator. He ends up becoming what he dreads in this tale. That seemed to come out of left field, but wasn’t a deal breaker. After reading the story, though, and knowing of the town’s long history of oddness, disappearances and superstition, the reader does wonder one thing: what is so special about this narrator that his stories and explanations were enough to motivate the government to swarm in record numbers to essentially eradicate the fish-frog threat. From the opening of the story: “The public first learned of it in February, when a vast series of raids and arrests occurred, followed by the deliberate burning and dynamiting - under suitable precautions - of an enormous number of crumbling, worm-eaten, and supposedly empty houses along the abandoned waterfront.” The narrator goes on to tell of a submarine that torpedoes the Devil Reef as well.

So, what gave this narrator the power to get action that all the rumors, gossip, and disappearances previously did not? It seems a minor question, but one that is pretty important after completing the story.

All in all, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” works on one level (creepy). With a little tweaking, and a more real-time narrative voice, this story could work on every level (creepy, tension filled suspense, vested interest in the narrator, good narrative flow). Fish and/or frogs are not by themselves creepy or horrifying. Humans generally dismiss them as lower creatures. Lovecraft takes that notion of the lower creature and twists it to make them superior to humans. In doing so he takes a rather mundane animal and makes it creepy. That is a great credit to this story. Taking that element (creepy critters) and ratcheting up the other elements of storytelling and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” could have been a masterpiece.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"The Thing on the Doorstep"

Lovecraft not leaning heavily on his setting chops. This is a nice twist and it does give the reader a decent plot driven story. Sure the characterization is thin, the dialogue almost nonexistent, but “The Thing on the Doorstep” for once isn’t an over indulgence in eerie backdrop and moody set descriptions.

Edward Pickman Derby (any relation to the Pickman who was taking photos of monsters from beneath the North End?) is unique for Lovecraft in that the reader gets to witness pretty close to first hand what happens to him. Normally Lovecraft’s narrator (Dan in this case) would be retelling the harrowing tale of his good friend, the loyal but odd and in some ways genius (Edward Pickman Derby in this case) to another acquaintance and much of the tension would be lost due to the reader’s knowledge that all the supernatural events are past tense and pose no present threat (usually).

“The Thing on the Doorstep” is much more real-time and the story is better for it. Edward and Dan’s relationship is questionable. Lovecraft’s choice to describe Edward as childlike and soft all the while maintaining a close relationship with an older man had gay overtones to it. “His voice was soft and light, and his pampered, unexercised life gave him a juvenile chubbiness rather than the paunchiness of premature middle age.”

Add to this some of Lovecraft’s less than flattering comments towards women. “Her crowning rage, however, was that she was not a man; since she believed a male brain had certain unique and far-reaching cosmic powers.” Later in explaining why Asenath Waite sought out Edward: “She wanted to be a man – to be fully human – that was why she got hold of him.”

As the story goes the anti-female and possibly gay overtones are mitigated by the fact that Asenath may in fact actually be her father just inhabiting her body, and since he started life as a man he would probably be more comfortable back in the trappings of a male brain and body, even a weak and childlike one such as Edward offered. However, if Edward was so weak and easily controlled, how did he get the chance to kill Asenath as he claims in his note at the end of the story?

Up to that point Edward has been everyone’s patsy. He is utterly over-parented throughout his existence, his friend Dan is more a second home and confidant than an equal. Dan the narrator never speaks of the two of them going out, most of their time together is in Dan’s home which may indicate Edward is being guided/influenced by Dan. Finally Asenath marries him, takes him to the home she wants to live in, drives off his family servants, brings in her own (one who smells like fish, eww), and periodically steals Edward’s body to go driving up and down the back roads only to leave Edward wherever he wakes up.

Edward, poor sweet Edward, should not have been able to take Asenath out. “I lied when I said she had gone away. I killed her. I had to. It was sudden, but we were alone and I was in my right body. I saw a candlestick and smashed her head in.”

No, Lovecraft’s opinion of women wasn’t a very high one. Asenath herself is only half-female. The other half is some other-worldly thing from the deep bowels of the earth, down six thousand steps or some such. She isn’t even allowed to be a character. She is but a vessel for her crazed wizard father. If that is truly the case, then Edward’s striking the body of Asenath down is that much more impressive.

I like this story. It does suffer from one pretty big plot flaw though. The reader guesses what is happening, that Edward is being possessed, and the reader is given clues that the old man, Ephraim Waite, is actually possessing Edward. All of this plays well, is creepy and wonderful.

My favorite fright in this story is vintage Lovecraft. Lovecraft provided a unique language and vocabulary to his just off the beaten path world of dark things and shady places. When Dan goes to Chesuncook to retrieve Edward and Edward is found raving, the delirious rant is just excellent:

““Dan – for God’s sake! The pith of the shoggoths! Down the six thousand steps … the abomination of abominations … I never would let her take me, and then I found myself there … Ia! Shub-Niggurath! … The shape rose up from the altar, and there were 500 that howled…. The Hooded Thing bleated ‘Kamog! Kamog!’ – that was old Ephraim’s secret name in the coven … I was there, where she promised she wouldn’t take me….””

Nobody before or since has provided such colorful language and flavor to stories such as this. Lovecraft had a very real sense of another world just below the surface of this one, or just a thin dimension over. Even more than his flair for settings in his writing, I believe it was this dark-vocabulary that gave Lovecraft a place in the canon.

So, what was the plot problem? Once Dan puts six bullets through the body/head of Edward the possession of that body should have ended. Up to this point in the story the reader has seen how difficult this process is. Edward, even weak willed Edward, has been able to fight it. The possession process has taken more than three years, and even then Asenath can only hold Edward for short bursts.

Yes, they performed a Hallowmass ceremony which was to make the process permanent. However, Edward’s note at the end made all the effort to take his body seem false. “A soul like hers – or Ephraim’s – is half detached, and keeps right on after death as long as the body lasts.” And if this quote is accurate, and Ephraim is in possession of Asenath, and has been all along, and Asenath’s soul was “half detached and keep right on after death” then where did her soul go when the old man took her? Another anti-female point against Mr. Lovecraft.

This kind of reasoning leads to the reader thinking there is nothing mere mortals like Dan or Edward (or me the reader) could do in this situation. Once they target your body for possession you are just screwed. Pack it in. You can hit them with candlestick holders. You can empty revolvers into them. They take a licking, but they just keep on ticking.

It takes a great deal of urgency out of the story, and it negates the actions of the characters we are pulling for. Plus, prior to this twist statement there is no clue of it.

Overall, this is a solid short story of “the weird” as Lovecraft said. It draws the reader in from the first sentence: “It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.”

In it’s time this story had to really strike a cord. Today body possession, voodoo, zombies, witchcraft, all of these are well accepted character traits one can utilize to scare the reader. Lovecraft, once again, was ahead of his time and for that we who write horror owe him a tip of our hat.