Category Archives: pop culture

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: 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: I Am Legend

I’m taking a course on monsters in horror fiction, and over the next few months will be blogging about responses to some classic and contemporary works. This week it’s Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which if you’ve only seen the Will Smith film is worth a read. In fact, none of the many adaptations of this book are even remotely faithful to this piece, which is actually chilling in its subtlety. As a piece of modern horror, I enjoyed it, but I had serious issues with the protagonist.

The horror of I Am Legend is the horror of a man left alone with his own thoughts. The creatures assaulting his home every night–vampire, zombie…it almost doesn’t matter what they are so much as that they are, to him, inhuman, and therefore to be avoided in the nighttime and slain in the daytime–aren’t the true monster. The true monster is Robert Neville, a fact which of course is his final revelation before death.

Even in flashback, as kind as Neville appears to be to his wife (though not particularly his daughter, who is an absent, fleeting thought to him both in life and death), he’s not necessarily the most likable hero. He has an unremarkable job, has to rely on a neighbor for carpooling, and is so sentimental that he can’t bring himself to dispose of his vampire-infected wife in such a way that he’ll save himself a lot of agony down the road. This is not a forward-thinking, rational man, and yet he’s the last vestige of the uninfected human race.

During the worst of the plague years, as he holes up alone with his classical music and alcohol (so much alcohol!), Neville veers from rational researcher to maudlin drunk and back again, interspersed with sweeps to clear the vampires, both living and dead, from his neighborhood. That lack of distinction, of course, is his hubris, and his illogical failure to recognize the source of his own immunity until well late in the game is also frustrating. Since Neville is the character the reader is stuck with, it’s frustrating that we’re stuck with such a dud.

My complaints about him are not to say his motivations don’t make sense, if one takes the idea of forced solitude to its logical conclusion: madness. By reading Neville as completely bonkers by about mid-book (or even before the book’s start) is to forgive a lot of his failings, rantings, and bad decisions. Who wouldn’t go crazy if your family died, you had bloodsucking fiends pounding on your door every night, and you had no one to talk to? I can give Neville a little leeway, then, if he puts more effort into soundproofing his house, rigging up his stereo, and stocking up on booze than he finally gives into figuring out the nature of the bacteria causing the infection.

But I still can’t completely feel at ease with Neville, even forgiving his insanity, because I am a feminist critic. And as readable an author as Matheson is, this is very clearly both a first novel and a novel written in the 1950s. This is not the later Matheson who started to delve into romance territory (and rather beautifully) in the ’70s; this is a guy writing as a product of his era. Given that, the Ruth of the final chapter of I Am Legend is actually remarkably capable and impressive, but it’s Neville’s inherent assumptions and sexual attitudes that provide the source of much of the novel’s uncomfortable moments for me. This is a man having lustful thoughts about the zombie-esque female vampires assaulting his home, those whom Ruth describes as not being all there any longer. Neville seems to already know this, and yet he practically has to put himself in a straight jacket to avoid raping one of them. The vampires he experiments on, too, he has fleeting thoughts of assaulting. And finally even Ruth isn’t immune to these fleeting ideas when he first encounters her, despite entertaining the idea that he might be able to break his now-comfortable second bachelorhood to start a family with her…upon first meeting, he truly wondered if he might rape her.

Certainly in a post-apocalyptic novel there will be fears about rape. Even in the disaster comedy This is the End, the male characters worry that one of them might rape the lone woman in the house. The difference there is that film’s social commentary on the breakdown of society plays with wondering why that even comes up in a work about the end of the world. Must the men devolve so completely from civilized person to rapist? That film turns the idea ridiculous by having the characters begin to question that far quicker than we can assume Neville starts to, but the fact remains that his supposed “temptations” are extreme, shocking, and far more monstrous than the actions the bacteria causes the infected to commit. In the latter’s case, it’s driven by something out of the victim’s control, but Neville—though drunk and no longer completely sane—is still supposedly in control of his actions. The actions he is tempted to commit are violent, sexist power plays based on an apparent inability to direct his sexual drive into safer avenues. The actions, then, that he does commit without much thought—murder of both living and dead infection victims—fully cement him as the monster of the piece. Perhaps a better title would have been I Am Monster.

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Turning your book into a game

I just got back from Gen Con, the annual gaming convention in Indianapolis. I’m a casual gamer when it comes to RPGs—I like storyline, I like character, and I like hanging out with people, but I really hate rules and prefer them to be invisible and simple. On the other hand, when it comes to board games, I am an absolute fiend. I love all kinds, from political strategy to Trivial Pursuit to complicated role-playing hybrids based on movies and TV. My favorite RPG hybrid is A Touch of Evil, from Flying Frog Productions (and no, they’re not paying me; I just really dig the game). It has all the elements I appreciate: collaborative play, storyline, characters, and rules that are complicated enough to be a challenge but simple enough that they quickly become invisible once you master them. There are a lot of similar games out there, but most of them are needlessly complicated and often based too heavily on their source properties. The other cool things about ATOE are that it’s an all-original setting and premise, it comes with a soundtrack album, and the company is constantly putting out expansions, all of which enhance the game without breaking your budget.

Thinking about ATOE in particular got me interested in the idea of turning something I’ve written into a game, or simply writing a game from scratch. The pitfall of the former, however, is that it should still be a fun game unto itself regardless of its ties to its source material. A board game I really dig is actually based on Star Trek, and I’m barely interested in any variations of that property. But I like the game because it pings all the same things I like about ATOE: it’s straightforward, character-driven, and collaborative. (Side note: it has fun playing pieces. I also like games with lots of little moving parts, tokens, and weirdly-shaped pawns, and all my favorites tend to have those elements. I think I just like playing with toys without having to call it that.)

So as I contemplate what it would mean to write and design a game based on my writing, I would need to investigate how to let players in who are both unfamiliar with the source material, potentially reluctant/beginner gamers in general, while also being challenging enough to satisfy the more serious gamers. One concept a lot of the board/RPG hybrids employ is multiple layers of rules based on the level of your players, as well as using expansion packs to enhance existing rules.

Game production itself can be as basic or as complicated as you want to get. Some of the most complex games use only decks of cards or a small set of dice, whereas some of the simplest have twenty-pound boxes full of accoutrements. You’ll probably want to stay small and simple to start, gradually expanding as you play test.

And play test you must. Get friends together, teach them the rules, and get feedback from them, fix what doesn’t work and add more of what does.

Look at your game as an additional piece of promo for your source work, if it’s a spinoff, but do treat it as its own property, too. This isn’t merely advertising. A good tie-in game should be relevant and engaging in its own right.

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Orange is the New Black: What makes a story fiction?

Orange is the New Black, the new Netflix series, has garnered critical acclaim this summer for its feminism, diversity, compelling storylines, and winning combination of raw and shocking comedy and drama. But this series began life as a memoir, and in comparing the true story to the screen story, it’s interesting to see just how much is different.

In Piper Kerman’s account of her time in a women’s federal prison, she already had to take dramatic license to protect those involved. When dealing with such a sensitive subject as a term of incarceration, you would certainly need to change identifying details and names. Thus, we’re already at one step removed from reality, not to mention that a memoir is seldom a verbatim account of every conversation and moment, unless these events were recorded for verification. A memoir captures the spirit of reality—events should be accurate, even if the words spoken by those involved are not precise.

Adapting a memoir for the screen is trickier. Film has the ability to merely condense events, as in Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, for example. But to sustain an ongoing television series, unless you’re making a documentary in real time, you have a much more difficult task. Thus, the television adaptation of Orange is the New Black is definitely fiction. Characters already slightly changed are changed even further, to the point where Kerman’s real-life ex Nora bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to fictional Piper Chapman’s ex Alex. Where Kerman’s fiancé Larry visited every weekend and was a constant and positive presence in her prison life, Chapman’s fiancé Larry is real-life Larry in name only. Not only is he not a constant, but he flails about cluelessly, undermining Piper’s rehabilitation efforts and driving her back into Alex’s eager arms.

But this isn’t to just enumerate the differences. What I’m really getting at here is to question at what point things stop being real and what is it about memoir that we expect to be sacrosanct. James Frey’s Million Little Pieces debacle made the literary world suspicious, and rightly so. However, if Frey had released his book as a novel, no one would have batted an eye, and any resemblance to real life would have simply lent the book an air of verisimilitude. The problem is that we live in an age where reality sells. Reality is cheap, and it’s what we’re used to from endless reams of bad cable programming (Kardashian et al). When a book purports to be real, we have been trained in the last few decades to invest more, feel more because it happened to real people.

And yet the craft of designing stories that feel true but are not, stories about characters we care about—even if they only began life as ink on a page—is definitely more difficult. As I read Kerman’s memoir, I enjoyed it because of the points she made about the failings of the American prison system, but it’s not the same enjoyment I felt at the TV flashbacks to Sophia or Red or Alex’s life before they became criminals. These people were absent from the memoir, and yet it’s the show’s inmates I cared about more. Kerman’s book is all Piper (a much more likable and regular girl than Piper Chapman, who is Flawed with a capital F); other players in her life are mere shadows seen only through her eyes. The TV series allows for the POV shifts impossible in memoir, which is always first person. This is how we’re able to care not just about our protagonist but the supporting characters as well.

I definitely recommend both versions of this title, but I hesitate to call it two versions of the same story. They’re two vastly different ways of telling a similar story at two different points on the fact/fiction spectrum.

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