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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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Random new interesting steampunk thoughts…

Just had some fabulous comments on one of my older steampunk-related posts, “Is Doctor Who Steampunk?” (10/22/12). I encourage you to check out the new comment thread.

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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.

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