Reflections on Horror Literature: Relic

I’m going to make a claim of something very out of character, given the nature of much of what I write.

There is such a thing as too much research.

Relic, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, is a horror novel suffering under the weight of its own research. The monster is half-glimpsed, tangential, and less fully realized than the catacombs of the museum sub-basement or the DNA computer program some characters use to identify the creature. In a book that could have made its central monster a metaphor for evolutionary biology, the AIDS crisis, cultural appropriation and exploitation, environmentalism, or any number of other exciting hot-button issues, it instead ignores this potential by focusing on trying to make its setting more realistic.

I now know more about the politics behind the hierarchical staff structure in Preston and Child’s fictionalized Museum of Natural History than I do how anthropologist John Whittlesey turned into the cannibalistic Mbwun creature. I have more information about blueprints, night watchman rounds, Smithback’s book and Margo’s doctoral thesis than I do about the look and killing methods of Mbwun. And even through shoot-outs and terrifying treks through flooded catacombs, I felt no sense of urgency or action or even real threat or dread. The characters casually reveal important things—Mbwun’s existence in the museum for years, the method of killing the creature—as almost offhand things, barely worth mentioning, let alone showing center stage.

Now, if Preston and Child’s goal was to make a scary monster story, the above are all reasons why it failed to frighten or build suspense. However, if the authors’ goal was to write about the banality of evil and show how administrative red tape can be just as dangerous as a post-human lizard man who needs to eat part of people’s brains for its own survival, then they did a good job there.

Administrators are shown as craven publicity hounds who will cover up murder if it means not giving the museum a bad reputation. Academics like Kawakita are willing to throw away years of dedication to science in order to make a quick buck, even if it means endangering society. The only heroic characters are the naïve and the damaged, but the epilogue’s nihilistic (and sequel-friendly) coda seems to undo all the heroics they managed. It’s all ultimately pessimistic and highlights the worst in humanity, particularly amongst fame- and funding-hungry scientists.

Academics and non-profiteers are the real monsters here, and though that’s an interesting target, it makes for a dull read.

There’s a reason why certain genres are popular and others relatively non-existent. There’s no market for academic thrillers, as opposed to crime and horror. People want to read about cops and lawyers and doctors because they’re in the trenches of crime and problem solving. Reading about Margo typing things into a DNA sequencing computer is boring. It’s real, sure, and it’s exciting if you’re the one doing the science, but it’s a boring read. Monsters trudging around basements and sewers could be exciting…but not so much when they’re pitted against anthropologists, botanists, and biologists.

I think I would have liked this book a lot better if Pendergast had been the protagonist, rather than just a supporting character. Because as much as I like scientists in real life, they make for deadly boring monster fighters.

Reflections on Horror Literature: The Thing

John Carptenter’s 1982 film The Thing has a lot in common with Alien (which I reviewed two weeks ago). We have a working-class crew in relative isolation, we have a creature invading the safety of the crew’s home/workplace, and we have almost all members of that crew being picked off by the creature. But unlike Alien, The Thing’s annihilation of the invader doesn’t result in even a modicum of hope. We’re left with the lone survivors—MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David)—out of supplies and shelter in the Antarctic with no way to communicate their emergency to the outside world. As they watch the remains of their research station burn (presumably along with the last of the alien invader), they pass a bottle of scotch back and forth and exchange a bitter, resigned moment of wary camaraderie as they wait for death.

Grim. Very grim.

I rather like my horror to have be more of the “final girl” tradition, which Alien was, wherein at least one character triumphs and survives and we knowshe’ll be okay. Sure, Ripley was kind of aimlessly floating in her suspended animation with her cat, but she had supplies and a spacesuit and her wits about her. She was probably going to make it. In Carpenter’s other work, we may still have a hint that all is not well and safe (such as in 1978’s Halloween, but ultimately Laurie Strode finds relative safety in Halloween II), and yet here we’re presented with merely temporary safety, temporary calm, and no relief from the monster’s threat. Sure, Mac killed it, but he even voiced the idea that no one was leaving the station long before the final scene, telling Nauls (T.K. Carter) and Garry (Donald Moffat) that the best they can hope for is to destroy it, even if it means destroying themselves in the process.

Did I already mention this movie was grim?

Much like the various interpretations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the biggest horror of The Thing is the fact that the alien can assume anyone’s identity. Paranoia, then, is the monster, the suspicion among friends (or at least friendly colleagues) that the person sitting next to you may no longer be who he appears to be, and that the man walking next to you may not be covering your back but waiting to stab you in it instead. Other than the obvious similarities with Alien, The Thing also reminded me of an Agatha Christie drawing-room murder mystery, where the killer could be anyone and everyone. It’s a logic puzzle, ultimately, with the viewer trying to figure out which characters have disappeared off on their own during some of the onscreen death scenes.

But perhaps the reason The Thing didn’t ultimately scare me as much as Alien could be the lack of empathy I felt for any of these characters. The threat comes upon them so quickly, we don’t get to see this crew in anything resembling “the calm before the storm.” Alien did a good job of showing the camaraderie of the shipmates before things went to hell, but The Thing’s crew is thrust into madness and uncertainty from the first minute. The cast is excellent, full of “Hey, it’s that guy from that thing!” types of veteran character actors, and yet they aren’t allowed to show their full range due to each one having limited screen time. I would have preferred fewer characters with more room to get to know each one, so that their gruesome deaths actually had some impact. As it is, I felt The Thing was as cold and isolating as the Antarctic scenery itself, and its hopeless ending left me wondering why Mac didn’t suggest blowing the station up to begin with. If you’re going to die anyway, go out with a bang, not a whimper.

Carpenter, John, dir. The Thing. Universal Pictures, 1982. DVD.

Reflections on Horror Literature: The Yattering and Jack

After the extreme horror of “Rawhead Rex,” I was a little nervous to read Clive Barker’s “The Yattering and Jack,” which is also included in his Books of Blood collection. And yet this was an almost whimsical, precious little tale comparatively (if anything can be called “precious” that includes multiple cat murders).

The Yattering is the antithesis of Rawhead. Where Rawhead was a confused, child-like ancient demonic creature, the Yattering is a lesser demon, all ephemeral and subject to the instructions of middle management. His job is to essentially haunt the house of bland milquetoast Jack Polo and annoy him to insanity. Polo takes the jabs in stride, appears to not realize the source of them, and rolls with it all, even as his wife commits suicide and his daughters begin to be adversely affected.

And yet Jack is more than meets the eye. It slowly dawned on me as I read that since we’re predominately getting the Yattering’s point of view, we don’t know if Jack’s mildness and c’est la vie attitude are genuine failure to see what’s happening to his house and home or if, as I suspected toward the end, he knew darn well what was going on and chose to essentially ignore it so as not to give the Yattering the satisfaction.

The Yattering and his bosses reveal through the course of the story that the reason Polo has been targeted at all is that his mother had been a follower of their kind but had renounced them in death. Therefore, hell must wreak revenge on the family, targeting Jack’s mother’s closest living kin—himself.

Unlike “Rawhead Rex”’s quick, violent, and deadly ending, where we barely get to savor the hero’s victory as Rawhead had already killed the man’s son, in this story we see the human truly triumph over adversity, with Jack very effectively tricking the Yattering and ultimately becoming his master, without killing himself or his daughters in the process. The Yattering thinks itself so clever, cunning, and intelligent (and he is, especially compared to Rawhead), but his smug surety of his own abilities is precisely what leads to his hubris and ultimate downfall. Jack is able to trick the Yattering into a rage, provoking him to go outside where he is forbidden to go. Crossing the threshold of the Polo residence causes the Yattering to become visible, corporeal, and therefore controllable. Jack is the Yattering’s new master. And though the Yattering warns Jack that “‘it’s considered ungodly to have any contact with the likes of me […] People have been burned for less’” (63) and that this could mean Jack can’t get into Heaven upon his death (64), Jack responds with the refrain he’s voiced throughout the tale: “‘Che sera, sera.’” (64)

The phrase itself has an interesting history, according to linguist Lee Hartman, and appears to be an invention of English speakers looking to exoticize the proverb “whatever will be will be” by making it appear as if it has roots in Spanish, Italian, or French, when in fact it does not. It also has no regular spelling, appearing sometimes with multiple accent marks and sometimes as “que” instead of “che,” as it does in the song popularized by Doris Day. (Hartman) In essence, Jack Polo has made a motto of an aphorism that sounds fancier than it actually is, a phrase borne of appropriation and invention, much like both Polo’s mother’s flirtation with demonic worship and Jack’s own apparent calm masking just as much cleverness and cunning as the Yattering.

Words and names generally are important in this tale. “Yatter” means “idle talk; incessant chatter or gossip” with the implication that the content of the talk is a bit frivolous and uninteresting, as is further evidenced by “yammer,” “chatter,” and “natter” all having similar origins and derivations (“Yatter,” OED). So the Yattering’s entire identity is wrapped up in spewing nonsense at a man who counters back with a phrase derived of nonsense which essentially means nothing other than “I acknowledge that events happen outside of my control.” Isn’t this phrase, then, essentially a bit meaningless? We therefore have two forces of nothing combating one another.

And yet Jack Polo’s name isn’t meaningless. “Jack,” often a nickname for “John,” is a name, a word, a noun, a verb…it serves multiple purposes and can connote actions such as propping up a car or providing comic relief (as when used to signify a jester). A “jack-of-all-trades” is a master of multiple practical avocations, in fact, and therefore Jack’s practical dispatch of the Yattering is quite well foreshadowed by his name alone (“Jack,” OED). “Polo” is a game, which further extends the battle between the two; while the Yattering sees it as a war, to Jack it might be less fraught than it seems, and to have a whimsical personal refrain, a practical first name, and a surname taken from a sport implies a kind of pragmatic strategy on Jack’s part. Yes, it’s a game of nonsense, but one must be careful in the arranging of the pieces and the players. Game theory itself is an entire academic discipline comprised of logic, mathematics, and philosophy.

Thus the story takes us from Point A, wherein the Yattering is the clever imp and Jack is the dull victim to Point B, which sees the Yattering reduced to a simpering servant and Jack triumphant and clever. While the result is not terribly horrific per se, reversals are a thread running through a lot of horror literature and media. The turn, the moment the plot becomes dire for one or more characters and something irrevocable occurs is something good horror employs quite frequently. In this story, we may be delighted to see it work out for our hero, and yet it’s also frustrating in a way, since the reader is pulled along through the action from the Yattering’s perspective. Is it satisfying to see him reduced to servitude? Or are we happy that for once human ingenuity wins out?

Works Cited

Barker, Clive. “The Yattering and Jack.” Books of Blood Volumes One to Three. New York: Berkley, 1998.

Hartman, Lee. ““Que sera sera”: The English Roots of a Pseudo-Spanish Proverb.” Southern Illinois University, 2013.

“Jack.” Oxford English Dictionary

“Yatter.” Oxford English Dictionary.

Reflections on Horror Literature: Breeding Ground

What is it with spiders?

Unnameable, unknowable evil is so often embodied in horror fiction by giant arachnids, as exemplified by the true form the titular nightmare in Stephen King’s It. But are real life spiders so scary that we have collective anxiety about them evolving into human hybrids—eight-legged flesh bags as depicted in Sarah Pinborough’s 2006 novel Breeding Ground?

Spiders are perhaps disconcerting, eliciting the understandable unease based on the status of their poisonousness. But they can’t fly, easing our ability to escape from them, and they serve valuable gardening and insect control functions. Besides, who can argue with the lovability of Charlotte’s Web or your friendly neighborhood webslinger, Spider-Man?

I would argue that the choice of a spider-like form of mutation in Pinborough’s novel is lazy and contrived, as is much of the rest of the book. Weather-controlling humanoid spiders who can be defeated by the blood of a deaf person or animal? The hand-waving explanation of genetic food modification would not result in all of those conditions, unless the cover-up is more extensive than the scientist and government characters let on.

But Breeding Ground causes a lot of head scratching generally, not just for its unimaginative monsters. I honestly struggled to unpack its pregnancy plot to discern whether Pinborough was putting forth a very feminist ideology—or just the opposite. The idea of pregnancy and birth run amok is another time-worn horror trope, but unlike arachnophobia it has roots in more legitimate anxiety. Here we have cultural fears explored rather richly—fear of men’s alienation during a partner’s pregnancy, fear of the loss of control of the female body (both by the male partner and the woman herself), and fear of the child, either before or after its birth. Other works have tackled this subject more elegantly and subtly, both from the perspective of the mother (Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby) and the father (David Lynch’s film Eraserhead). In Breeding Ground, we have a female author attempting to address this through a father’s point of view, and because Matt is ultimately unsuccessful in saving Chloe from the pregnancy that destroys her, I was left feeling ideological whiplash.

Are we meant to sympathize with Matt and his horror at Chloe’s growing body? Are we meant to castigate Chloe for consuming the couple’s real child while held hostage by the alien one? And how should we see Katie’s suicide, once she, too, falls victim to the widows?

The creatures’ nickname, and all the associate shaming of women throughout (albeit by definitively villainous characters) is troubling, but so, too, is the woman who ultimately proves most useful. That Rebecca is powerful in her otherness, her reduced senses (ergo, her lack, positioned in contrast to Katie), her gentleness and literal quiet sat badly with me. And the use of her blood—hello, menstrual symbolism!—was to me another lazy invention.

If I want to give Pinborough some credit, I might argue that the widows, the ecological tampering, and the now-misogynistic survivors are not the true monsters here. Nor are the women who suffer these parasitic gestation. The real monster, dare I say, could be pregnancy itself, which ultimately no longer cares that its wombs are dead; in a world without women, men then are the new incubators, vomiting up giant black beetles in one of the book’s most violent scenes. Pregnancy will triumph and destroy bodies no matter their sex.

But the fact that this twisted and bleak interpretation is the best I can muster about the author’s purpose is me reaching here to find some greater theme or meaning behind a lot of shock and schlock. I ultimately don’t feel this book succeeded as post-apocalyptic survival tale (the rescue into a government stronghold was too easy), nor do I feel it worked to say anything edgy or subversive about inherent human worries about pregnancy, really, because Chloe’s death comes so early and we never get to explore a female character’s point of view. In the end, this was an entertaining and occasionally gross book whose sole appeal for me was in its charming British slang and brisk pacing. Otherwise, it’s a lot of well-worn ideas with nothing cohesive to hold them together.

Reflections on Horror Literature: “The Funeral”

Last week, I discussed Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend—a dark, disturbing and trendsetting novel that cemented several horror tropes in literature and film (particularly in zombie-related pieces) we still see today. Comparatively, his short story “The Funeral” sets a completely different tone and serves a different purpose.

Where I Am Legend makes the reader question the nature of the monstrous, positioning it ultimately within the framework of humanity-as-scourge, “The Funeral” illustrates the more mundane query of “Would you sell out your principles for a fat paycheck?” Of course for our main character, Morton Silkline, the answer is “yes.”

Silkline works for a funeral parlor—either as a planner or director; the text is slightly unclear, but he is solidly in the sales end of things. When a vampire hires him to plan his own funeral, resulting in an event best described as “chaotic,” replete with guests of the supernatural variety, Silkline is horrified and disturbed. And yet, upon receipt of Ludwig the vampire’s vast piles of gold, Silkline “found strength” enough to rationalize to himself that “the affair had not really been as bad” as he’d originally perceived it. This avarice entices Silkline to take on a second client by story’s end, this one a Cthulhu-esque tentacle monster.

The funeral itself is ridiculous to the hilt, at turns eccentric and neo-Victorian, à la The Addams Family, and at other moments more monstrous, making Silkline’s conniption fit during the event seem more logical. These bits reminded me of the failed Bryan Fuller reimagining of The Munsters from 2012, Mockingbird Lane. (The mixed whimsy, decadence, and horrific nature of the characters in the latter seem much more inspired by this story than the original Munsters, in fact.) And yet the overall tone of the story is indeed comedic and difficult to truly take seriously, in stark contrast to I Am Legend, therefore it’s difficult to unpack any real deeper meaning here other than satire or perhaps an acknowledgement that family gatherings—whether your family is perfectly ordinary or whether it is a collective of vampires, ghouls, werewolves, and witches—it is not immune to the same petty arguments and tensions as any other family. Funerals, like weddings, tend to bring out the worst in people.

If there’s any seriousness to be found here, other than Silkline’s greed, it could be in the absurdity of tradition. Ludwig, still perfectly ambulatory and alive in his undeath, seems to feel it necessary to hold a funeral for himself, even as he rests—still speaking and addressing the guests—during the event, admonishing them on occasion for their bickering. The need to actually hold such an event for someone still perfectly capable of attending it is indeed ridiculous, but perhaps Matheson is attempting to address the artifice of the event even for mere mortals. To be put on display for people to publicly mourn, hors d’oeuvre in hand, is slightly odd. Silkline’s every mannered bit of pabulum-as-sales-pitch—“When loved ones lie upon that lonely couch of everlasting sleep…let Clooney draw the coverlet”—is offensive and exploitative.

Essentially, then, “The Funeral” is a story about tradition and greed going hand in hand to exaggerate and make monstrous the fragile human condition.

Ten Tips for Getting Through NaNoWriMo without Losing Your Mind (Part IV)

3. Remember that this is 50,000 words, minimum. That means that for 30 days, you must write at a pace of approximately 1,667 words per day to stay on task. If you’re feeling slow and/or know that you can catch up on weekends, you could round this down to fifteen hundred or even round up to two thousand, whatever you feel comfortable with. Since you’re going for speed over quality during your first pass with this novel, you could even look at your typing speed for a rough guide as to how long this might take you. This blog post will hit about 300 words and took me about fifteen minutes to write, for example, so if I were trying to hit the magic 1,667 I’d estimate just under an hour for my daily goal. Of course, in practice, novel writing will take you more thought and more effort, especially if you didn’t already brainstorm enough ahead of time. But if you can keep to a pace that has you at the computer for about an hour a day, you could ostensibly get this accomplished without too much pain. Where do you find this magical extra hour a day? Lunch breaks, getting up a little earlier, going to bed a little later, cutting out that rerun of Cheers you watch when you get home. Whatever you do, it can be all in one sitting or in little bursts, but experience has told me that one sitting usually works better for keeping your narrative consistent. Get up an hour early every day and just get it done first thing, if need be. It’s only for a month, after all, and maybe you can use that as your regular daily writing hour from here on out.