Monthly Archives: November 2013

Reflections on Horror Literature: Snow

The first snow of the season was falling as I began reading Ronald Malfi’s Snow. As local radio stations started transitioning to their holiday playlists, Todd Curry strove to get to his son in time for Christmas. Blizzards, zombies, explosions, and shootings followed, not to mention the novel’s most upsetting element:

Children with no faces.

Can we let that sink in for a moment? Malfi crafted a really action-packed and entertaining narrative, and the concept of semi-sentient zombies created by snow-bodied aliens invading human bodies is, by itself, pretty rad. But the added side element of faceless children really sent this into terror territory for me.

I’m a nervous winter driver. I hate snow-slick streets, black ice, blowing snow, all of it. I’ve had a few scary slide-offs over the years living in a midwestern city that gets just enough snow to be annoying but not enough that we’ve ever quite learned to cope with it properly. The scariest winter driving situation I ever had was getting a tire blow-out during a snowstorm that left me stranded on the side of a highway at night for several hours, freezing and stressed, waiting for the cavalry. I’ve written several stories of my own where characters die in winter-driving accidents. And so pretty much everything about Todd’s harrowing trip–particularly early on, as he and the strangers with whom he rents a car get into an accident and encounter the first of the quasi-zombies–made me flash back to sitting in the cold watching the snow fall around me. I was so terribly vulnerable, which is something interesting and terrifying about winter. Unlike the dangers associated with other seasons, winter conditions can turn a normal moment into a deadly one with just one tire skid, one foot put in the wrong place. Malfi has done wonderfully at expanding upon this idea and making the threat even more tangible.

It’s no mistake that the towns affected by the phenomenon are scattered throughout the midwest and are somewhat isolated. Blizzards–even ones without zombifying aliens swirling around amidst the normal snowflakes–cut people off. While I was barely too young to quite remember the epic blizzard of 1978, I’ve heard plenty of stories of its effects and seen the pictures of snow packed up to the tops of front doors and the tunnels people dug just to walk to the store. A blizzard combined with a zombie apocalypse is pretty much the craziest combination of fear and isolation that it absolutely worked for me on every page.

The monsters themselves–going through every stage of traditional and non-traditional zombieness–are pretty scary. But as I hinted earlier, the real horror for me were the kids. As many characters theorize throughout the book, the snow alien things can’t quite get a good hold on children when they attempt to take them over, and thus they come out “wrong,” with the tangible evidence of this wrongness erasing their facial features. Late in the book, Todd’s traveling companion Kate Jansen goes to the sheriff station garage to find Cody and Charlie, a young brother and sister hiding out with them. The kids turn to her, kids she has mere minutes and hours ago been tending to and playing board games with…and their faces are gone, turned into masks of smooth, featureless flesh. She tries to shoot them but can’t, instead deadbolting the garage up and leaving them to some other fate, which we never learn.

The idea of these children, faceless, wandering around without sight or breath in this dark and freezing garage made me both afraid and sad, and I think that’s Malfi’s strength as a writer. He makes us care about characters over and over again over the course of just a few pages, then breaks our hearts as circumstances unravel and they die–or at least suffer–horribly. Good monster fiction, as I’ve learned in the readings and films for this class, destabilize our expectations of normalcy and leave quivering, damaged people to make a new life out of ruins. A monster’s job in horror is to be the chaotic element that brings forth such emotion that we see what people are really made of in a crisis situation. I loved that in this book we saw the full range of reaction to crisis, from the relatively capable and strong (Todd, Kate, Shawna, and others) to the nobly sacrificial (Bruce), to the crazy and spiteful (Molly and others). But what also struck me is how much most people really tried to help each other rather than exploit the situation and how even strangers can come together to solve a problem when necessary.

But somebody please invent a flying car so I never have to drive in the snow again.

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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.

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