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.