Monthly Archives: October 2013

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.

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Reflections on Horror Literature: The Wolfman

The Wolfman, by Jonathan Maberry, is not your typical horror novel. It’s actually a novelization of the 2010 remake of the 1941 Lon Chaney, Jr. vehicle The Wolf Man. Having seen neither film (yes, yes, I know), I was interested in taking this novelization on its own merits. However, the cinematic source material is fairly obvious in the novel’s focus on describing things very visually, as well as having occasionally-awkward scene and chapter breaks, which I believe is the result of needing to shift a point of view or do a dissolve between locations. Still, even with this small amount of clunkiness, the novel does work on its own as a decent example of the werewolf genre in horror fiction.

Werewolves have never been as iconic as vampires, perhaps because their “curse” seems fairly easy to circumvent—lock yourself in an impenetrable cell once a month and you should be able to avoid eating the villagers. However, the titular wolfman here—Lawrence Talbot, a prodigal son returning to his family’s English estate from a tenure as a traveling actor—is prevented from exercising this option. Unbeknownst to him until late in the story, Talbot’s own father is the werewolf who bestows the curse upon his son, after killing Talbot’s mother and brother while in his furry form. It is Sir John Talbot’s belief that the beast within is a benefit, not a curse, a kind of letting loose one’s id, in a way. Talbot the Elder thwarts Lawrence’s attempts to lock himself up, cure himself, or even kill himself to end the rampages he commits while wolfed out, which I suppose is the only way to make a werewolf story really compelling.

The werewolf-as-sexual-metaphor is fairly common, but The Wolfman really seems bent on hitting this point home, equating Lawrence’s lycanthropy with his burgeoning desire for his dead brother’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe. Even while still human, Lawrence’s senses are heightened due to the curse, and he begins to experience his desire for Gwen in terms of hunger and animalistic need:

He saw her pupils dilate, the blush on her cheeks fade; he could hear each of her breaths as if her mouth were an inch from his ear. He could hear and separate the rustle of every bit of cloth that covered her body. It came at him in a rush, maddening, overwhelming […] Her eyes met his and the moment slammed to a stop, frozen in an impossibility of sensory inrush. He looked into her eyes and for a moment he felt as if he was falling forward and she toward him. Colliding with her, engulfing her, devouring her… (333-334)

This desire, described as hunger and a prevailing set of “appetites” (334) is a motif Maberry returns to again and again, and Lawrence is shown to be as equally repulsed by his murderous hungers (and his more overt sexual hungers) as John is fulfilled by them. The conflict, then, is not only between man-versus-himself but arguably man-versus-man or man-versus-nature, if we take John as fully animal.

And yet there are more psychological symbols at work here, too. The moon, which causes the change to wolf, is constantly referred to as feminine, specifically as “the Goddess of the Hunt” (15 and throughout), and that it is this Goddess who manifests the lupine desires:

[S]he comes again, bright, shining and newly hungry, to hunt among [the stars].

Eternally hungry.

Eternally hunting. (15)

In mythology, the goddess of hunting was alternately Diana or Artemis (Roman and Greek respectively), and this equating of the moon and therefore feminine desire thus eliciting lust, passion, and bestial nature in men continues the theme of sexuality. In the psychology of Carl Jung, the inner desires of men are described as the “anima,” or the inner feminine-oriented or desiring self, whereas the inner desires of women are described as the “animus,” or the inner masculine-oriented or desiring self. Linguistically, the terms originate from the classical Latin term for “soul” (OED), but the word’s root came to also generate the word “animal” (OED). That the soul, desire, and animals are conflated here is more evidence for the werewolf-as-expression-of-sexuality concept, and I contend that Maberry runs with this metaphor further in his prose than was likely explicit in either film. In the text, we get much of Lawrence’s feelings of guilt and shame over his desire for Gwen, which would be difficult to specifically translate to a purely visual medium. I believe this is a careful choice on the novelist’s part, and it helps entrench the notion of human feelings as being monstrous as the novel’s ultimate theme.

Maberry, Jonathan. The Wolfman. New York: TOR, 2010.

anima, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 25 October 2013.

animal, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 25 October 2013.

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Reflections on Horror Literature: Alien

Full disclosure: I’ve never seen Alien before this week.

Yes, I know, I know. I’m a member of Gen X, a Sigourney Weaver fan, and an afficianado of both science fiction and horror (not to mention the artwork of H.R. Giger) and I’ve never seen this movie until now.

Take a deep breath and let’s get over this travesty together, shall we?

This is not the time or place to discuss how much this film was built up to me and what I ultimately thought of its effectiveness when I finally watched it. What I want to discuss instead is a reading of the work that even one of its screenwriters acknowledges was one of his purposes.

The monster in Alien is the anxiety of threatened sexual assault.

In a documentary on the film, Dan O’Bannon stated explicitly that his goal with writing Alien was to write sexual horror, but with a twist:

I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number. (Dietle)

There’s a lot to support this, of course, in the story of what happens to Officer Kane (John Hurt). He’s the first to awake from his sleep pod, he’s the first to encounter the alien’s first victim, first to try to assess and make contact with the living creature inside the alien egg, and the first to then be killed by the alien. However, he’s also the only victim to die from the reproductive process, and his death is the most horrific of any of Alien’s many death scenes (arguably the second most brutal is that of Science Officer Ash, but as he’s revealed to be a liquid-filled android instead of a human, it’s not really “death” and it’s not at the hand of the alien).

But it’s important to mark Kane as the first to encounter the species because he’s then the one to, essentially, get raped. Kane is an explorer, then, a kind of curious visionary who seeks more knowledge than is advisable to have. Like his (differently spelled) Biblical namesake, he is among the first humans. But the Biblical Cain, having been born after his parents’ expulsion from Eden for the acquisition of verboten knowledge, also commits the first murder. Various mythologies have sprung up about Cain over the centuries, from his literary use as the first vampire to the source of boogeyman folklore. Officer Kane doesn’t appear to have been a bad guy before his attack, but if he’s to be taken as a symbol more than a flesh-and-blood character, we have him being raped, impregnated, and murdered—perhaps as symbolic retaliation for both Adam and Eve’s over-curious nature as well as Cain’s murder of his own brother.

Because it isn’t just rape. It’s rape in the pursuit of knowledge, knowledge that man (or human) is better off not having. It is Officer Ripley (Weaver) who first advises the returning crew from the planet’s surface to stay in quarantine. If the film is about men’s sexual anxiety, it’s important that the only correct directives continue to come from the female characters, particularly Ripley. Though she is overridden by Ash (male), Ash is also inhuman, so the problem isn’t merely men-versus-women but women-versus-inhuman. The only other female character (Lambert, played by Veronica Cartwright) is the only other human character to live nearly as long as Ripley. The only other survivor of the carnage is the ship’s cat, Jones, and though Jones’ sex is not revealed, cats are often taken as feminine symbols due to their temperament and physiological traits.

Ripley avoids being consumed by the alien due to her sheer determination and intelligence. When female characters in the film pursue knowledge, they are rewarded by getting to live longer or ultimately triumphing. When male characters pursue knowledge (Kane, Dallas, Brett, and Parker), each one of them is systematically killed by the creature. Lambert’s death only comes becomes she was following Parker’s orders, and Dallas’ death comes when he fails to heed Lambert’s warnings to him about the creature’s location.

What makes the alien ultimately so terrifying, however, is its ability to deal death in multiple ways. Its embryo killed through rape and impregnation. Its infant form killed through a sort of “childbirth,” and its adult form killed presumably through hunting and consumption of its prey, yet each victim is found (or not found) in a slightly different state. This unpredictability makes it particularly difficult for the humans to locate and kill, and yet again it’s Ripley’s role as a woman masterful in human-based science and technology usage who is ultimately able to outwit and destroy it. The film’s argument here could be that women are the ones who typically must be more mindful of danger than men, due to the threat of violence from more sectors than merely the inhuman. This vigilance, when inherent in someone with Ripley’s intelligence, makes her the most able to adapt to the creature’s unpredictability without (much) panic.

Dietle, Dan. “Alien: A Film Franchise Based Entirely on Rape.” Cracked. 02 Jan 2011: n. page. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.

Scott, Ridley, dir. Alien. 20th Century Fox, 1979. DVD.

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Reflections on Horror Literature: World War Z

Reading World War Z, by Max Brooks, comes at an interesting time for me. I’m taking a course in qualitative research and learning how to conduct interviews for projects much like what the fictional interviewer does in this novel. I almost hesitate to call it that—a novel implies the work has a plot, even an episodic one, running through it, and WWZ does not. Still, it has much in common with composite novels (novels with short stories tied loosely together by common characters and setting), particularly Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a work about a real war (Vietnam). Though O’Brien’s book isn’t told in the form of interviews, it still has thematic and structural commonalities with what Brooks has done.

But to go back to my qualitative research, what World War Z has done is to fictionalize something like a series of testimonies, and on that front the book is extremely powerful. We learn of the war the same way citizens living long after its destruction would, through the voices of the people who lived it. Amazing stuff, almost as affecting as reading real testimonies of victims of war or genocide (which I have done as part of this other class). Some subjects’ interviews moved me to tears, others bored me, but the effect of the entire book is to feel as if the reader has been through this war through the lived experiences of people from many countries and cultures. The diversity of the book’s cast is to be commended as well; it’s refreshing to see both western and non-western perspectives on a zombie apocalypse, as so much zombie fiction we’re exposed to as American audiences focuses solely on the American experience. (I feel in particular this is what is lacking in The Walking Dead—there isn’t even any evidence of military control or news broadcasting anywhere, which seems sorely unrealistic given the smaller scope of that universe’s zombie outbreak.)

This non-western inclusion is what brings me to highlight what I feel is the actual monster of World War Z: not zombies (a.k.a. “Zacks” and a host of other colorful nicknames speaking to the tendencies of soldiers to give enemy combatants pithy labels), not humans or humanity broadly, and not necessarily even war itself, although it certainly portrays it with realistic gravitas and unpleasantness. The monster in World War Z is something subtle but present and, frighteningly, something all too real in the non-fictional world: political and cultural divisiveness.

Political divisiveness is everywhere throughout the book. Nations have trouble coming to consensus about how to tackle the threat, regimes rise and fall within nations, and individuals fight each other without logical reason to. The story of Australian astronaut Terry Knox, in the chapter “Around the World, and Above,” demonstrates this very well. Had his space station been able to confer and connect with the Chinese station, more of both groups might have survived. But political differences created a very different outcome.

We’d been trying to contact them for months. We weren’t even sure if there was a crew. All we got was a recorded message in perfect Hong Kong English to keep our distance lest we invite a response of “deadly force.” What an insane waste! We could have worked together, traded supplies, technical expertise. Who knows what we could have accomplished if we had only chucked the politics and come together as human bloody beings. (235)

I find it interesting that the British English profanity “bloody” can be interpreted quite literally in this passage. At essence, all the living humans on Earth have one thing in common that isn’t true of the zombies—they all still bleed red blood, and that unifying fact seems like it ought to be enough to keep the human infighting to a minimum. Unfortunately, it’s not sufficient.

In the interview with Ernesto Olguin, who had been a Chilean delegate to the UN, Olguin describes how talks between nations got ugly.

One of the delegates from a pre-war “developing” country suggested, rather hotly, that maybe [the outbreak] was their [the “First World”] punishment for raping and pillaging “the victim nations of the south.” Maybe, he said, by keeping the “white hegemony” distracted with their own problems, the undead invasion might allow the rest of the world to develop “without imperialist intervention.” (239)

War itself isn’t really the problem, it’s the symptom and the tool used to beat one another up. As General D’Ambrosia tells the interviewer, this isn’t a new problem, just a new enemy, and that “[t]he book of war” is one “we’ve been writing since one ape slapped another.” (242)

It’s humanity’s tendency to fail to understand one another, and though this problem is ubiquitous its consequences are borne out in situation after situation depicted in the book wherein lack of empathy exacerbates the warfare. Disabled warriors aren’t given their due by their ableist peers. Some humans go insane and begin to believe they’re zombies, which leads to debates and abuse of power. And nation after nation fails to unite to fight a common enemy until it’s too late. Nukes are set off. Fires rage across continents. And what’s left behind is a ravaged Earth bearing little resemblance to its pre-war self.

While World War Z is the grimmest book I’ve read this term, it does fill me with something like hope to know that authors like Brooks are at least using creative means to point out real problems. Still, I think if the zombie apocalypse were on us today, we would all be hard-pressed to behave much differently than this fictional world.

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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.

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