Monthly Archives: September 2013

Reflections on Horror Literature: 30 Days of Night

The idea of vampires taking advantage of the month-long darkness of Alaska seems like such a good idea. I wonder why it took writers so long to come up with the idea, so natural does the concept seem in Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s graphic novel 30 Days of Night. Unfortunately, this is a great idea executed poorly, even though I’m a fan of graphic novels.

My problems with 30 Days of Night are essentially twofold: first, despite this great idea, neither the humans nor the vampires are very well developed, at least in this first volume which collects together the original 2002 miniseries. We see the relatively adorable interplay between married sheriffs Eben and Stella Olemaun, but their relationship is not as fraught with sorrow and terror as it could be, even given Eben’s bad end. There’s an interesting subplot about vampire hunters that gets completely dropped. And the vampires themselves, even their ringleaders, are mere hints of villains with motivations rather than fully fleshed-out baddies with plans and backstories. Again, I suspect much of what is lacking in this first collection gets expanded upon as the series progresses, but I’m not sure if I’m hooked and intrigued enough to continue reading.

My second problem is the artwork. Templesmith’s illustration style is praised by many, but it simply didn’t work for me. I’m not a comics traditionalist and do, in fact, appreciate experimental style. I think Templesmith’s artwork would have worked for me quite well in a different medium. But far too many times the action confused me, mostly due to the lack of clarity of the art. This is some beautiful and subtle work that, quite frankly, seems inappropriate to the subject matter and merely serves to obfuscate things. Furthermore, I wonder if perhaps my issue with the characterization wasn’t in some part due to the lack of clarity of the artwork. In a visual medium, characterization is conveyed not merely through narrative but through the illustration, and in this case both felt so sketchy to me as to be ultimately ephemeral and lacking substance.

As monsters, similarly, the 30 Days of Night vampires were little more than hints. I felt no particular fear, though their appearance—what we can glean of it, at least—is eerie. These vampires are one step above the zombie-like creatures of I Am Legend, but they’re hardly the elegant, closer-to-their-humanity planners and plotters of Bram Stoker or Anne Rice. These vampires are creepy yet practical, concerning themselves with staying cloaked in darkness (hence their Alaskan vacation) and making sure the evidence of their extended buffet is shrouded from public view, by burning the dead townsfolk in their homes and calling blaming the resulting disaster on a gas explosion. Quite clever, really, except for their failure to take into account Eben’s destroy-from-within plan. Despite all the carnage, I just couldn’t manage to feel any sort of palpability of threat.

Again, I put some of the blame of that sense of disconnection on the characterization. We need to feel close to characters to care about their fate. I found Eben and Stella’s last sunrise to be sweet and sorrowful, but the foreshadowing of it was a bit heavy-handed. Though I haven’t seen the film adaptation, I suspect this entire concept works better as a film, where the very thing lacking in the graphic novel—nuance of non-verbal cues, facial expressions, and clarity of imagery—can convey much more.

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Reflections on Horror Literature: Rawhead Rex

“Rawhead Rex” is a gruesome story from Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection. I had a definite visceral reaction to the tale’s body horror, gore, gross-out moments, and frequent talk of rape and child murder, all of which made it a tough read for me. (Stylistically, I found the near-constant point of view shifts to be particularly distracting, which also made it a slog.) Thematically, however, the story left me intrigued more than disgusted. I’ve been long fascinated by the mythical character of Rawhead, even employing him–obliquely–into a story from my collection Grinning Cracks entitled “Abaddon.” In my story, a dark fantasy retelling of The Wizard of Oz, I use the creature (here called “Mister Head”)” as a twisted stand-in for the wizard himself.

In Great Britain and some swaths of North America, Rawhead has many different name variants, most commonly Bloodybones (for a truly creepy nursery rhyme-style dirge about the creature, seek out the 1988 Siouxsie and the Banshees song “Rawhead and Bloodybones,” a fanvid of which is viewable on YouTube). Ultimately, the creature is a boogeyman used to warn children against bad behavior, and this sort of scare tactic is not an uncommon one. As parenting focused less on fear and more on a combination of nurturing and wary consequences, however, our collective cultural reward systems shifted away from telling children to behave to avoid a boogeyman toward a gentler encouragement of good behavior to avoid reward deprivation (i.e. be good so Santa will bring you gifts). Have we lost something as a society by deviating from negative reinforcement? Perhaps. But kids being kids, they will still be drawn toward a fascination with the macabre as they mature and attempt to negotiate the various mysteries of the world. If parents didn’t invent Rawhead, children would do it themselves.

Something of the semi-forgotten nature of the monster is inherent in Barker’s story. When Rawhead is disturbed, he is quite literally unearthed after a long slumber, and in the centuries since his imprisonment, society has forgotten how to combat him. His ultimate undoing–a crude statue purportedly of Venus but sounding a lot more like a pagan matriarchal figure from Celtic mythology–is an interesting weapon and leads me to ponder the story’s potential as a castigation of patriarchal religion, but the fact that its wielder is a man and that the story’s female characters are rendered utterly useless–and are most often discussed through the thoughts of Rawhead himself as being nothing but seed repositories for his hellish offspring from violent rapes (shades of Breeding Ground here), I can’t even begin to see Barker’s point as being anti-patriarchy.

Still, there’s some interesting stuff in the extant material and in the creature’s description. The 1986 film adaptation was largely disavowed by Barker because he was reportedly disappointed that Rawhead wound up looking like a nine-foot phallus. When reading the story, I pictured something more like a very dark, disturbing version of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas, but in this adaptation the creature is far more lupine and animalistic. Frankly, I think it works better to keep some level of humanity about him but his name certainly signifies that there is something deeply wrong with his head. “Raw” connotes meat, tearing, and the exposure of muscle and bone—a lack of skin which could be seen to symbolize a separateness from mortals, an ability to remain alive despite deep wounds and unprotected skull. But the film depiction is all power and fur and teeth, and I fail to see the connection with anything “raw” and exposed. It’s unfortunate, indeed, that Google image searches bring up solely versions of the film creature, rather than artistic renderings of the mythological one. Still, one thing the film did differently that I find intriguing is that it made better use of the matriarchal spirituality angle by needing the creature to be killed by a woman, and I wish the original story had used that ending.

As it is, the story is most powerful and disturbing when it dips into Rawhead’s mind, a feral and almost childlike place of confusion over modern technology (e.g. he thinks cars are animals and that gasoline is their blood). He is wholly consumed with the idea of eating and being reinstated to his kingly status, and with much of the story taking place in a church, there is a hint that perhaps Rawhead is more than just a hungry monster—perhaps there was a time he was construed to be a god. Ultimately, it’s not violence or gender at play here, then, it’s a deconstruction of religion, and I wish Barker had done more with this idea.

This story makes me want to read more Clive Barker, whose catalogue I’ve never explored before, but I hope some of his other pieces are a little bit better developed. Indeed, this story comes very early in his writing career, so I might tackle one of his more recent works to see how his style has changed.

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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.

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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.

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