Monday, November 26, 2012

Issei Sagawa: Real Life Cannibal

(Long time readers: This is part of a class assignment on real life psychos. I've never really liked covering True Crime stuff because I have a very different emotional reaction to real world violence as opposed to fictitious violence. Still, I think it's an interesting story and I get to talk a little about how psychos work in fiction vs. in real life. Enjoy!)

            Issei Sagawa killed and consumed a woman and never went to jail for it. He lives in a small Japanese town writing books and making art and generally not bothering anyone. I don't know if he is actually insane and doubt he's much of a threat anymore but there's something both pitiable and monstrous about him.
Sagawa was born in 1949 to a wealthy family in Kobe, Japan. Despite the fact that he looked pretty much like a normal guy, he described himself as being frail, underformed, and sickly, which made me wonder if he had some sort of body dysmorphia issues at the root of all his psychosis. He grew fixated on western women as they represented an inversion of his self-image. As he said in his Vice interview, “I am weak and short. Western women are tall and beautiful.”
He also became sexually fixated on the idea of cannibalism. It's not apparently an unheard of fetish and there are videos out there of people eating human-shaped candies and describing devouring life and gaining strength from it. I suspect that Sagawa shares this fetish and he took it as far as a person can possibly go.
After a couple brushes with the law, including an attempted rape charge, Sagawa left Japan at 28 to study comparative literature at the Sorbonne. As I was putting my research material together, I found myself impressed by the man as I flipped through his photos from his time in Paris. He looked like the kind of smart, well-dressed, confident young man who would wind up in Paris studying Truth and Beauty. I was impressed and a little bit jealous of the romanticism of his life at that point.
On June 11th 1981, Sagawa invited a Dutch student named Renée Hartevelt to his apartment under the pretext of translating some German poems. As she was seated in a chair, Sagawa shot her in the back of the head with a small-caliber rifle. After she died, Sagawa raped her and began eating her body.
The thing that trips me out about the scenario is that it sounds like he had a shot with her. Come on, son. No one goes to some dude's house just to translate poetry. The point where cognitive dissonance kicks in for me is here. Sagawa was clearly into her and it seems like he had a shot. At that point my instinct would be to pour a couple drinks and ask about her major but his thought process was all "kill, fuck, eat."
That, my friends, is messed up.
Anyway, he carves and eats parts of her body. It's pretty gross and I'll spare y'all the details, but suffice to say he gets worried that the smell of rotting meat will be noticed so he carves the body up, packs it in a couple suitcases, and take them to a nearby lake for disposal. He's caught, the police arrest him, and he's quickly ruled insane. The French populace are outraged at the case and there's some debate about what to do with Sagawa. Before treatment even starts for Sagawa, the Japanese government step in and extradite him back to Japan. For reasons I'm not entirely clear on, the Japanese psychologists assigned to his case declare him "sane but evil" and let him go. Aside from a couple kerfluffles, he's been a free man ever since.
Sagawa has created a sort of cottage industry out of being a celebrity cannibal. During the interview I watched with him, the camera cut between whimsical drawings he drew to recreate the crime with photos of Hartevelt's dismembered body. He's written books, acted in bizarre films, created a repellent manga, and appears to have exploited his behavior into a tidy living.
The structure of the interview both demonizes and humanizes him. On one hand, he's a creepy little troll who ate a woman, makes money off the crime, holds no real regret, and works out of an office where he keeps photos of Hartevelt's body in cute little frames on his desk. On the other hand, he's a lonely little outcast who longs for death, has no self-esteem, and has been pretty ruthlessly exploited by the people who've come into his life since he returned to Japan. The few TV shows he's done make him look less like a monster and more as a man uncomfortable in his own skin and desperately seeking approval. A couple of cute German backpackers traveled around the world on Sagawa's dime, likely by exploiting his obvious attraction to them. The weirdest moment in Sagawa's post-cannibal life is his turn as a pornographic star. Some dirtbag pornographer hired a porn starlet to sleep with Sagawa on film The girl had no idea who Sagawa was before performing on-camera. After the act was over, the pornographer had Sagawa show her the photos from his crime and explain what he'd done. You can see the girl crumbling in horror at the revelation. The pornographer interviews the tearful girl in the car afterward and she says “I understand that he’s full of insecurities. I think it’s selfish to let his fantasies grow so wild. Or it’s like he’s lacking something.”
I chose Issei Sagawa for a couple reasons. Leaving aside the obvious fact that I'm a total weeaboo geek, I was fascinated by a guy who committed probably the biggest taboo in modern culture and suffered no real punishment.
I also chose Sagawa because of how candid he is with his internal life. Because he has his liberty and because so much of his life involves fixating on himself, he hasn't developed all those weird power fantasies other killers develop when they're left to rot in prison. He's intelligent and articulate and more than a little bit sad, but when I found myself being lulled into sympathy for him he would say or show something horrible and remind you that the would would probably best be rid of him. In other words, he's not a cardboard cut out fictional psycho but a nuanced and deeply broken human being.
I also chose him because of the overtly sexual nature of his crimes. Maybe it's my own prejudices but I tend to see almost all serial murder as behavior of a corrupted sexuality. There's a reason killers target people they're attracted to and a reason that most of the crime involve either dominance or rape. People destroy what they want to fuck because they hate anything that makes them feel lust because they hate themselves for being unable to approach the person in a meaningful way. It's really just the logical extreme extension of the typical misogyny you see every time some dude talks shit about some girl.
Serial killers who kill just because are slasher movie villains. That's fine, I like a good slasher flick as much as the next malformed child of the 80s, but they aren't proper psychos. I believe that in a healthy, socially supportive society, people who kill other people for reasons other than profit or temporary rage are fundamentally aberrant. They're broken, usually by a combination of chemistry and circumstance. It's easy and perhaps morally correct to simply want to toss them down a deep dark hole and forget about them, but I tend to see psychos as extreme extensions of toxic social attitudes we all buy into. A sad little fetishist who fixates his sexuality on cannibalism the way that Sagawa does is an interesting, if depressing, mirror held up to the darker sides of human sexuality.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

I found my copy of The Killing Joke among my dead brother's things.

I don't know if I loaned it to him and never asked for it back or if it was a copy he bought during one of the comic cons I dragged him to. It was one of the few things I gave him to try that he liked. He was never going to be the pop culture junkie I was....pop geekdom requires a certain level of uninhibited enthusiasm and Dominic Borrelli was an eye-roller if ever there was one....but V For Vendetta resonated with his mid-college angry Green party mentality. Burn down this corrupt world and the poisoned systems that supported it! I loaned him my copy of V For Vendetta and when he was done with it I said hey, you liked that one. Well, Alan Moore wrote another story about a maniac. Maybe you'd enjoy it. 

He didn't have many other graphic novels. He didn't have much of anything. They say that suicides give away things they own before they kill themselves but my brother never exactly hoarded the way I did. I have a comic collection that's thousands deep, folios full of obscure yakuza/kung-fu/horror movies, artwork, posters, toys, collectibles, and all the other petty crap of a guy with the attention span of a hummingbird. My brother liked big things. He pissed away a lot of money on a souped up car during his Import Tuner phase and his laptop could probably give navigation assistance to space ships. Beyond that, he owned very little. He had an almost Buddhalike detachment from the material world. Had his story not shaken out the way it did, I would have found that trait admirable.

It's corny to say this but I was into the Joker long before he got popular.

I'm writing this while looking at a tiny Joker statue that sits on my desk. He's got his hands up in a ta-daa pose, the consummate showman. We've spent an entire semester talking about maniacs and their grubby little neuroses and the petty ugliness of the horrors they inflict. The Joker is all of those things, but he's also a showman. That dichotomy always drew me to him. Yes, it's probably forced and way too manic-slash-needy, but the guy seems like he's really having a good time.

I've been collecting Joker memorabilia for years. I had a shelf in my old apartment dedicated to all the statues and figures I could collect of him. My ex-girlfriend and my mother used to add little pieces to my collection. It was one of those tiny signs that showed they were paying attention and that they loved me. Give me those small gestures over the operatic melodrama of fictitious love any day.

The Joker is the avatar for my id. I'm drawn to trickster figures, whether they are Coyote or Anansi or kitsune or Bacchus or Dionysus or Bugs Bunny. I like funny, chaotic, life-of-the-party types. Given a choice, I prefer not to live in silence. For me, heaven is an endless party with really good music and hot chicks and drinks on someone else's tab. Give me laughter over silence any day.

Just make sure they have a really good reading couch to nurse hangovers on and read.


I fell in love with the Joker specifically because of The Killing Joke. A junior high school teacher gave me a copy of the book and it sunk in with me.

I grew up during the iron age of comics. All the guys had muscles and knives, all the girls had porn-star breasts, no one wore any clothes, and everything was covered in blood. It was taboo and dramatic and fun and completely mind-blowingly stupid. Because we're a nation of repressed yokels, we equate "mature content" in our story telling with the sensational. People keep telling me that horror is all about the visceral, that everything in my genre is blood and tits. Mature storytelling can take all sorts of subject matter and apply depth and humanity to them

But I digress. Anyway.

The Joker became my avatar when I realized that the only sane response to the world was to laugh. We're stuck on a rock, nobody gives a shit about us, we go to wars over lies, people try to guard the fortress of a king they've never seen or met but all are trained to murder at the first sign of a threat.   

The Joker became my avatar when I started growing up, realized that life was unfair and uncaring, and I was going to die and there was nothing waiting for me afterward.

After you figure that stuff out, you've got three options. One, you find a system of lies and you believe in so hard that you ignore that nagging little voice in the back of your mind. Two, you shut down and become a French film student.

Or three, you throw a really good party and keep laughing until the lights go out.

I talk about my brother a lot.

I go to a siblings of suicide support group. I participate in suicide prevention walks. I slip it into casual conversation. I've had a hard time filtering out the information when I talk to people. It makes people uncomfortable and it tends to dominate the conversation and casts me in the role of Grieving Person but it's hard for me to stop myself. I want to talk about it. If I keep it up, it will become my identity.

I received the class syllabus while I was back in San Francisco, watching him go. I bought all my books at my favorite sci-fi/fantasy/horror bookstore (Dark Carnival in Berkeley, CA. If you're reading this, you should go there. It is to readers what Santa's workshop is to greedy children) and I started hacking through them as quickly as I could. When I saw The Killing Joke among my brother's things, I knew I had some shit to say on it. It was such an important part of my upbringing and I'd had the opportunity to see the work with fresh eyes.

Here's my take on the story: it's not a tale of madness but a tale of mourning.

Both Batman and the Joker are creatures created by grief. Something terrible happened to both of them and they dealt with it different ways. Batman turned his grief inward and turned broody. The Joker projected outward. I don't even think the Joker is particularly crazy. He's flamboyant and evil and comic-book crazy, but the things he done is a natural continuation of the things that happened to him. 


My brother was a brooder.

He was introverted and kept to himself, which always mystified me because he was a very handsome young man. I once took him to a friend's party and all these cute hipster girls kept asking me about him. "He's so cute!" they'd tell me and I'd seethe with jealousy and he wouldn't move an inch from the couch and not talk with anyone.

Our relationship was somewhat adversarial. I tortured him throughout his childhood and I spent my adulthood trying to make it up to him. We had a pretty good adult relationship but there was always tension between us. It didn't help that my brother got the bulk of attention. He needed it, obviously, but it felt like I was trusted to just be fine.

I contextualized my relationship using pop culture characters. If he were the selfish, destructive Loki, I was the noble idiot Thor. If he was the too-serious, brooding Batman then I was the loud party boy Joker. 

When my brother was in his hospital bed, they encouraged us to play his favorite songs and talk to him. "You never know what they can hear and music helps." So, after a bunch of pandora stations and Hawaiian music and stuff like that, I found one of the cut scenes from the video game Metal Gear Solid. It's about two brothers at war with each other. The dark one is the hero and the loud vibrant one is trying to resurrect the apocalyptic dream of his dead father.

One lived and one died. What does the Joker do without Batman?

The Killing Joke was the first real attempt (as far as I'm aware of) to humanize the Joker.

A lot of smart, serious comic fans complain about the Joker. He's one note. He's an atrocity factory. There's no rhyme or reason to what he does and the trails of bodies that he leaves in his wake is proof-positive that Batman is completely impotent. The best example of this point of view is below:

The Killing Joke is the first and pretty much only attempt to make him anything approaching a real character. Other writers have built on little aspects of this story, but most of their efforts slip into campy angst. During the one moment of lucidity that the Joker has, after he plays the popgun prank on Batman, he's not bemoaning his fate or weeping for the man he once was. He just stands before Batman, resigned and exhausted, asking why Batman doesn't kick the hell out of him for all the things he's done.

The entire scene of Batman reaching out to the Joker takes all of a page and a half. It's short and there's a tremendous amount left unsaid, but it feels authentic and natural in a way that longer speeches would have felt artificial. There's a lot of weariness and dull pain between the two of them and it fills the scene.

Brevity is often the best choice. 


There's a lot of people who think that the final pages of the story, where the Joker and Batman are laughing at the same joke about two lunatics striving for salvation, means that Batman is just as crazy as his nemesis. I hate that interpretation. Batman isn't crazy, or at least not in the same way. But he has felt tremendous loss in his own life. That moment of shared humanity allows them to laugh at the absurdity of their situation.

Plus, okay, maybe they're a little nuts. 

That, to me, is a better ending to The Killing Joke. We deal with our grief in our own ways. Some brood and go inward, some project and go outward, but either way it changes you.


No disrespectful comments please.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Joyride by Jack Ketchum

This was the one review I didn’t want to write.
It’s not that I’m going to shit all over Joyride. I can’t say that the book was a pleasant reading experience but it was undeniably well done. It’s got prose like a British sitcom, where the camera just stays at one place and unflinchingly describes the ugliness placed in front of it.
I think I’ve been twitchy about writing this one because Jack Ketchum is part of the horror orthodoxy. He’s one of those dudes people just get behind and if I say anything negative I’m afraid I’ll lose my horror bonafides. It’s not that I have anything particularly negative to say about the guy other than his work is nearly the textbook definition of a crapsack world.
Crapsack worlds, as defined by, is a fictional universe where everything is absolutely miserable. Usually it refers to a post-apocalyptic setting and often there are either zombies or robots or something running around, but Joyride takes place in a crapsack version of the human condition. Everyone sucks, everyone is poisoned by hate or madness, and you can murder your abusive husband in cold blood with your lover and still remain the “hero” of the story.
A lot of horror fiction, especially horror fiction without any overt supernatural elements, takes place in crapsack worlds. I can’t stand the tone of these stories. They feel like thinly veiled misanthropy. I don’t know Jack Ketchum in the way that a lot of people in the program do. For all I know, he’s a lovely human being who is kind to puppies and dotes over little old ladies in their hour of need. But it feels like writing from someone who sees very little light in the human condition.
Which, of course, means that he writes the best overtly vicious psychopath we’ve encountered in the course of the semester. Up until this point Francis Dolarhyde has been my favorite looney. He’s kind of a cop out. He’s easy to like. We feel sad for him, we hope he’s successful in fighting off the urges of the Red Dragon, and his murders aren’t jammed in our faces.
Wayne Lock’s mania is jammed right into our faces. We’re not meant to like him. But he’s brilliantly constructed.
Joyride feels like one of those old EC Comics morality tales where the scheming couple bumps off the husband, only to have him riiiiiiise up from the grave to seek vengeance. The story has been updated and the husband really does have it coming (though, frankly, I saw a million different ways she could have gotten away without killing the guy) but instead of the shambling drippy skeleton we get some misogynistic loon with a grudge against everyone. The basic message remains the same: if you step out of line, there will be horrible consequences.
Wayne Lock feels less grandiose than Dolarhyde. He’s less intelligent and a whole lot more petty and a whole lot more believable. As I recognized my insecurities in Dolarhyde, I recognize my idiot rages in Lock. It’s not hard at times to feel like people are against you and there’s reason to keep track of those grievances. But most of us shrug our shoulders and get over it. Lock seems like rage writ large, the kind of person with a permanent ‘fuck you’ mentality. It makes sense that he’d become entranced with the violence he sees. A guy like him builds kill lists as a way to vent, then discovers how easy it actually is to hurt people if you have no conscious and a whole lot of entitlement issues.
So he’s a well-designed psycho, but he’s really the only compelling character in the book. I read it months ago and I don’t remember anything about the couple, other than the fact that I wasn’t sympathetic toward them. It’s hard to sell me on cold blooded murderers, no matter how righteous their cause.
I also thought that the book was really centered around the climactic massacre. The back cover of the book sold it as a story of two ‘righteous’ murderers who find themselves trapped in a rolling massacre with a nutjob. That stuff is scary. Some of my favorite tense scenes in movies are the bits where a crazy person is in the back seat of a car, being half-playful and half-threatening to the scared people driving. It’s the ultimate hitchhiker story. That whole hook feels discarded midway through and the story ends in a gigantic setpiece where the wackadoo goes blasting through the neighborhood only to get gunned down by Johnny Law. It’s incredibly well-executed (har de har harrrr….) but it feels like it could be a short story in its own. It fits what came before but doesn’t necessarily follow, if that makes sense.
Before I finish this post, I want to stress that I don’t think this was a bad book. Jack Ketchum is a really, really good writer and I’ve enjoyed other things he’s written tremendously. I even “enjoyed” reading Joyride. If just feels like a world view I can’t particularly subscribe to.
I’ve been grinding through Silent Hill 2 over the past week as I’ve written this. It’s a supernatural story and it’s one of the scariest things I’ve every encountered, but it’s also a lovely story of grief and guilt and it takes place in a world where the horror of the supernatural contrasts the mundane joys and awfulness of regular life.
The crapsack world of a lot of horror fiction is a place where everything is terrible. Every family is dysfunctional behind closed doors, the mildest mouse can turn into the biggest monster, and everything is two hours and a hot meal away from falling apart. It’s the kind of attitude that feels immature to me. It’s myopic and limited, the world of heavy metal album covers and sullen teenagers. It’s probably not the effect Ketchum wanted the reader to take away from the story, but it’s what I pulled from it. Maybe I’m more interested in what I had to say rather than what the book did.  

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Sculptor by Gregory Funaro

I'm writing this one in adverse conditions.

Normally I write my assigned reading reviews waaaaaaay in advance, right after I read the book. I like to get things finished early and come back as discussions occur between my classmates and I find ideas worth stealing. I read The Sculptor months ago and couldn't quite get my mind around it. I knew it had a lot of problems and there were a lot of sour notes, but I couldn't quite a handhold into the discussion.

I haven't really dug into my classmate's opinions on this one, but I gather from the murmurings that this wasn't a popular read. I can't wait to get into their opinions but for now I have to grind out my own. This blog post is due by the end of today and I'm on a train to Albany in three hours. Bad, bad Joe.

Anyway, here's my hook: The Sculptor isn't really a psycho.


It's impossible to do what The Sculptor does if he was actually psychologically disabled.

Dude was organized, efficient, and he had no internal monologue that contradicted with reality. He was sane. He was evil, but he was sane.

He was supernatural. No one can move a 1000 pound murder tableau surreptitiously in the dark, I don't give a shit how big their lats are.

He was kinda like a fan-fic psycho. He had a token ka-raaaaazy back story but he was also obscenely rich and had a gigantic workspace and everything he needed for his kookadook murder parties. And he had perfect "sculpting" technique and medical knowledge and art knowledge and....yeah.

Professor Boss Man said something that stuck with me. This dude is a Batman villain. That's cool. I like Batman, but I recognize that "comic book reality" doesn't really cross over into our own. A character like The Sculptor would make a great Miller-era puzzle for the Dark Knight to solve. He doesn't work in a book attempting to ape the "real world."


What else?

Markham reads less like an FBI agent and more like what a sensitive artist would THINK that a smart FBI agent would be like. Also, his love affair with Cathy Hildebrant would have gotten his ass deservedly fired AND feels like it belongs in one of those corny romance novels where time traveling vikings join the Navy SEALS and fall in love with a woman in the Navy WEALS.

Look it up. It's totally a thing.

Oh, and Cathy Hildebrant. Man, she was kind of an asshole, wasn't she? I mean, dude, it sounds like your husband really was trying make amends and you were merciless towards him. Also, for an art historian, you sound a lot like a male was writing you and changed your character from an angry teamster at the last moment. It didn't help that your husband was the great squandered opportunity of the novel. The author could have said something interesting about marriage and fidelity and forgiveness. It really, really seemed like the dude was trying and the writer undercut it by making him a cad when we got into his point of view.

Also, as a side note. Half Korean, half German? Haaaaawwt. May certain exes of mine never read this post.

Anyway, I did like all the art stuff. I didn't know anything about the art of Michelangelo and he made that shit come alive. Lot of troubles around the edges, though.

Anyway, I'm out.


Monday, October 8, 2012

Misery by Stephen King

Of all the books I had to read for class, Misery is the one I felt the most apprehension about.

A story about a psycho running at me with a knife doesn't really rattle my cage. It's a situation that (thankfully) seems so far-fetched to me that I don't get a lot of anxiety over it. Having a conversation with a crazy person who is responsible for your safety is much more frightening.

Reading Misery was an intense experience.

Most of the people who read this blog know me in real life. I have a fairly over-the-top vibe and a big flapping mouth, but I don't actually deal with conflict well. Blame the screaming matches my parents got into as a kid or whatever cheap pop-psychology explanation fits best, but the long and short is that I prefer things to be peaceful. I want to be liked. I try to please. Sometimes that means rolling over and showing my belly.

The reason that I found Misery so stressful was because, if it were me in Paul Sheldon's chair, I would have done everything I could to make Annie Wilkes happy. I would have told her that Misery's death was simply a lead-up to a sequel where she comes back triumphant. I would have shmoozed her, gushed at her enthusiasm, and answered every one of her fan-girl questions with the answers that she wants to hear. Yes, Misery eventually chooses handsome Edward but keeps a special place in her heart for brooding, passionate Jacob. Yes, I will be writing these stories forever (although, come on, what kinda dude's dude writes Regency romances? The way Sheldon comes off, he should have been writing stories with .45s and tits) and I'm sorry that you found the swearing in my new novel so offensive. I'm trying to capture the streets my character comes from. In my next draft I will tone it down and add a modern Misery. Agony Velasquez, maybe.

As I was reading the book, I kept roleplaying what I would have said and how I would have placated her, but the simple answer is that she's unpredictable and crazy and sooner or later I'd have to stop placating her and start being assertive. The threat of death, mixed in with the threat of disappointing a domineering mother figure, rattled me in ways that I'm kind of embarrassed about.

King is a good writer.

It's trendy to trash King for his weird period in the 90s when his books were at the same time too personal and too bloated. It's trendy to talk down about him because the Uneducated Masses really dig him. When I first got to New York City and was struggling to get by, I knew that I could go to any Salvation Army, slap down a dollar, and have entertainment for hours. His stuff is ubiquitous and that means it's taken for granted. He writes about podunk towns and podunk people (snotty snort, eats some cheese), but the man knows how to capture humanity and human weakness. His images stick in the mind.

Having said that, his pulpy Tales From The Crypt roots sometimes work against him.

I gotta lay out the one petty issue I had with the book. It's the same problem I had with Apt Pupil, where the villain went from a small, believable sort of banal evil to an obnoxiously grandiose cackling lunatic. Todd in Apt Pupil starts off as just a teenager taking lessons in sociopathy from an old kook, then goes off and starts hacking up homeless people? No. Annie Wilkes is a mass murderer living in isolation? No.

There's a scene where trapped novelist Paul Sheldon finds Annie Wilkes' scrapbook locked up somewhere. He flips through it and it turns out that she killed enough people to fill a city. It stretches credibility and takes the character to a farcical territory. Given that the horror is so close and intimate, it would have worked better if she was just a lonely woman out in the woods whose identity was so wrapped up in her fictional avatar that she goes nuts.

I understand that people feel Annie Wilkes is a mean-spirited stereotype of the crazy woman or romance readers or obsessive fans of anything in general. Yeah, maybe. But people get weird about the fictitious characters they empathize with.


I gotta close this one out by discussing the circumstances I read this book in.

I'd been hearing about Misery for a long time. Everyone knows about the movie, which I tried to watch but just couldn't finish, and everyone says it's one of King's best tales. It's supposed to be of special significance to writers, too. A hundred years ago, I read an interview with Gothy horror writer Poppy Z. Brite and she said that Misery was one of the best how-to-write manuals she'd ever encountered. I was really looking forward to that aspect of the book. I HATE books on writing but making the mechanics of storytelling a part of the story weaves how writing actually works and impacts a human life. It's a Scheherazade piece and there's something weird about how thrilling the idea of keeping yourself alive by telling stories is. 

Telling stories keeps you going. I read Misery right after I lost someone I loved. I didn't want to write. I didn't want to love or fuck or dance or drink or do any of the things that defined my life. I wanted to lash out. I sometimes do, and I sometimes go dancing. Reading Paul Sheldon's story helps me work through my own.  

I doubt I'll read this again anytime soon. It was easily the most hairy book I read this semester. I like a good psycho story but I think I'll stick to nice, safe stalk-stalk-knife-knife-misogyny-religion-daddy issues stories. But it was the right thing for me to read at the right time. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Red Dragon By Thomas Harris

This isn't the first time I'd read Red Dragon.

I got it in my head at age 19 to get a big-ass dragon tattooed on my back. It was my first tattoo and it promised to be a doozy, so I took my entire rent check and wandered down to Telegraph avenue in Berkeley, CA. I walked in, paid my money, and sat in the chair.

Getting poked for seven hours isn't exactly a lot of fun but somehow I endured. In between the controlled karate breathing and occasional reminders to myself to uncleeeeench, I finished the book. The story of a man who believes himself to be ugly and reinvents himself as a dark, majestic god deeply resonated with me then and it still does now.

As a wanna-be writer, re-reading Red Dragon deeply intimidated me.

Sooner or later, all modern psycho stories become police procedurals. You have to have some reasonable grasp on how law enforcement works. I'm a research monkey in general, but if a serial killer was operating on the scale and violence of Francis Dolarhyde, then a writer would have to account for the massive amounts of resources and expertise that would be turned toward his capture. Harris has a background in crime reporting and, like The Wire's David Simon, he uses that insider knowledge to enrich his story. When I think about replicating it, I imagine having to know the structures and methodologies of federal agencies, the science of forensic pathology, and all the other details that make these sorts of stories work.

Granted, audiences are pretty forgiving. Cop shows on TV aren't particularly accurate, but people eat them up. But the smallest screw-up kills all that built up suspension of disbelief and I care about the small details. A good, effective, authentic police procedural is like a finely made watch and I don't know if I am a good enough watchmaker.

I'm going to get this out the way because I cover a lot of this ground in my Silence of the Lambs podcast, but I am kinda over Hannibal Lecter.

First, he's not really an authentic psychopath. He's too clever, too controlled, he lives in a creepy dungeon, and his abilities verge on the paranormal. He's basically a modern-day Dracula.

I like Dracula and Hannibal Lecter is one of the best monsters that has been created in the last 30 years, but I'm more interested in the psychological nuances of the other villains in Harris' work, both Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs and the Dolarhyde from Red Dragon

Plus, frankly, for all the bluster about how clever Hannibal Lecter is, he always seems to be undone by his own arrogance. In their first encounter, he screws with Will Graham but immediately capitulates when Graham prepares to leave. He receives a letter from Dolarhyde and, rather than destroy the whole thing, he keeps the part that strokes his ego. Lecter is terrifying, but he's got a pretty significant achilles heel. It's the kind of thing comic book villains get tripped up on all the time.

Please don't tell him I said that. 

On to Dolarhyde.

I sort of live by the philosophy of "fake it until you make it." If it were up to me, I'd spend my free time in blissful bookish solitude. But having friends and building a life and being popular has taught me savoir-faire and social adaptability. Those who know me (and I'm assuming most of the people who read this know me personally) can attest to my massive personal charisma, but it was a learned skill, not something that came naturally.

I cannot tell you how many times I've stared at my own reflection in the mirrors of nightclubs and douchey bars, looking at the fear in my eyes, and telling myself to put my game face on. The shortcut I used to developing a social persona was to copy the behavior of brighter, more charismatic people.

In other words, I created an avatar of the person I wanted to be. It's a much more minor version of what Dolarhyde did. I suspect every bullied, tormented, and angry kid does the same thing. When I was little, Jason Voorhees was my anger avatar. Dolarhyde's avatar is the Dragon. I sympathized with him, and it disturbed me.

Plus....sigh...let's just say I can empathize with Dolarhyde's body image issue. More than I'd like to admit. 

If Dolarhyde simply remained a well-designed maniac then Thomas Harris would already be ahead of the game. But the thing that makes Red Dragon special for me is that he starts redeeming himself from his own madness.

Okay, Reba McClane is a little bit too perfect for the circumstances. She's blind, so Dolarhyde's body image issues aren't a problem. She was a trained speech expert so she knows exactly what to say to alleviate his fears. And, of course, she's sexually confident enough to break through his barriers. Suddenly he's fighting his psychosis and trying to make deals with the Dragon. It made him a deeply tragic figure and one of my favorite psychos. Most psychopaths in horror fiction aren't really crazy but are instead cookie-cutter pulp fiction cackling evil. They do terrible things because it's fun. Dolarhyde's actions come from human weakness and insanity. I don't know if I buy that Dolarhyde would backslide so far as to attack Graham in his home, though. He was too confused and conflicted by Reba to suddenly turn into a third act monster movie villain.

Still, Dolarhyde has the one thing that most fictional psychos lack: authenticity. 

It probably is clear now that I really enjoyed this book, probably more now than when I first read it. Harris is a helluva writer and I enjoy it more now than I did when I first read it.

My final thought is something Hannibal says to Will Graham. Graham's big secret superpower is his uncanny ability to empathize with a killer's point of view and anticipate their behavior. Maybe it's the fact that I've always had a big imagination and it mostly turned to darker places, but the line "Fear is the price we pay for imagination" stuck with me.  It's true, or at least it's true for my imagination. The upside? Fireworks behind my eyes. The downside? Lots and lots of sleepless nights with monsters under the bed.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Church Of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns

True story.

I grind out the books for and knock out the blogs for this way in advance. I like to have something ready to go, I like to get a thought on paper early and let it percolate for awhile and I hate rushing through things at the last minute. I carry my books with me where ever I go, but when you're studying horror fiction you're going to get a lot of strange looks over your reading material.

Anyway, midway through the book, I decided to take in a burlesque show from the fine people at D20 Burlesque for their WTF Japan anime-themed costumed night. I had bought the tickets well in advance but I wasn't able to convince anyone else to go, my personal life turned into a hot mess, and I found myself in the front row seat, alone, in a bad mood, and with a bunch of naked girls wondering what kind of aspiring serial killer brings a copy of The Church of Dead Girls to a burlesque show. 

Clever, clever me...

Anyway, I was midway through The Church of Dead Girls and I wasn't really feeling it. Dobyns is a really good writer, but the framing device of having a withdrawn, intellectual townsperson narrate it drained any sense of tension from the story. I see why Stephen King liked it, as his blurb is prominent on the cover. King does the folksy narrator unspooling a yarn very well, but this story takes the voice of an uptight closet case middle school teacher and therefore feels cold. Midway through the book, I felt like I was reading a wikipedia page summarizing events rather than actually engaging in the storyline.

It doesn't help that the narrator has no way of knowing some of the details in the story while being maddeningly coy with others ("Who's the 'professional man'?" "I'm not telling yoooooooouuuu."). I kept waiting for the big tweest to be revealed where the narrator was the killer (in retrospect, he probably was) or the narrator was secretly dead or something. It was an odd mix of omniscient and focused narrative.

It strikes me that this is an interesting selection for my Psychos In Literature course. We don't discover who the killer is until the end of the book, when an otherwise lucid major character starts speaking in psycho-child-religious speak. Instead this story is about a town tearing itself apart out of fear of the predators inside their midst.

For all the complaints I had about the way the story is written, I have to admit it's an absolutely engrossing tale. I've read a million zillion stories about the big scary wolf bringing chaos to the sleepy little bedroom community of sheep but I rarely see a serial killer story where the serial killer is almost an afterthought. Really, this novel is more of a "Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" type of story, where the real enemy is fear and mistrust. You see this a lot in horror fiction but it's usually more garish and overt. I like the subtlety and slow-burn of this book.

I felt a tremendous degree of sympathy for the town scapegoat, the mysterious college study group Inquiries Into The Right. Yeah, most of the people in the group sound like assholes, but they don't seem that far off from the kind of radicals that were common in San Francisco State University: factually correct in the grand scheme of things, but so socially maladjusted and myopic that they are unlikable. If the idea behind this nice small town is that it only works because no one upsets the apple cart then it's easy to figure out why the town singles them out.

It doesn't help that some of their members plant fake bombs and ransack cemetaries.

Like all good towns-with-a-secret, this place has a dark past, specifically the murder of the....god, I feel terrible for thinking this, because for all my pro-sex/pro-feminist empowerment sensibilities, my first thought was "...murder of the town bike."

I don't like what that says about me. 

The book is obviously about the secrets we all keep and how they conflict with our public persona. Horror tales are full of towns like these, where every house has an adulterer or a pedophile or a hypocrite or a pervert or something. I can't help but feel like this sort of outlook is something people who grew up in small towns develop after dealing with a bunch of two-faced hypocrisy. I didn't grow up in a small town and I'm accustomed to being surrounded by strangers. I assume that everyone is disgusting behind closed doors. The only difference is that no one else gives a shit here.   

Monday, August 27, 2012

Psycho by Robert Bloch

So does Norman Bates work better as an effeminate, boyishly handsome young man or as a baby faced, portly, forgettable mama's boy?

That's the big difference, innit? The storyline is basically the same. The structure is a bit different, too. Instead of starting with poor doomed Marion Crane and her lover, we crawl right into Norman Bates' life. Reading it, I kinda wonder how many of the original readers figured out what the big twist ending was. You can do a lot of tricks with visuals that you can't do with the written word and it's pretty obvious that Norman is shadowboxing in empty rooms.

Then again, I came to Psycho, both the film and the novel, knowing all the twists and turns. It feels like a fairy tale someone told me when I was really young and remained imprinted on my psyche. Reading it was still very rewarding. When you watch the movie version of a story, it's like you're observing it in real life. You can see the visuals, pick up the non-verbal cues, and interact with a story as a passive observer in the characters' lives. Reading the book lets you climb into people's heads. What you lose in "objective" visual clarity, you gain in intimacy.

Having climbed directly into Norman Bates' head, I gotta say it's a pretty fucked up place.

It's hard to feel sympathy for him, in that mama's boys seldom elicit sympathy in this culture. I feel a bit of pity for him, though it's easier to pity Anthony Perkins' version than the novel's version, if for no other reason than the superficial. The Norman I imagine from the book is shlubby and unappealing. People who encounter him seem to think he's harmless, but the way he carries himself and the stuff he says would set off my creeper alarm. Maybe the late fifties/early sixties were a more innocent charms, but I buy the version of Marion Crane from the movie, sitting in the parlor with Norman and being frightened by the things he tells her.

Blah blah Ed Gein blah blah Texas Chainsaw Massacre blah blah.

The big thing I took away from this book is the idea that no one really understands themselves or the people around them. Norman Bates really believes that he's covering up for his demented mother, Sam Loomis is shocked that the woman he was considering marrying could have stolen $40,000, and Lila Crane has to come to terms with a sister she barely knew. It's an idea that has some resonance with me these days.

I don't really have much to say beyond the fact that Norman Bates is the ur-psycho of pop culture. His weakness, his vulnerability, his dementia, and his mother issues have become what people think of whenever people use the word "psycho." No other madman has captured the public imagination the way that Bates has.

At least not until Hannibal Lecter came along.    

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

You ever met a person on a date and there was nothing really wrong with them but the conversation never really sparked? Like, the conversation was pleasant and they were attractive and they laughed at your jokes, but a day or so later you look at your cell phone, consider texting them, and go "meh"?

That was my relationship with Relic.

I don't get along well with science.

I really wish I did. I champion reason and logic over superstition and servitude, I love when Neil deGrasse Tyson shows up on The Daily Show, and I have worked in the tech industry for years. You'd think I'd be better at this stuff but when anyone tries to explain anything math or science-y my brain takes a little ADHD journey to the magical land of unicorns and rainbows, where my poet's soul traipses through fields of gilly flowers and there are no scaaaaaary numbers.

Oh hell, I might as well post the whole damned Patton Oswalt bit.

So I wasn't really ready for the whole techno-thriller explosion of the 90s. I did read and love Jurassic Park but that novel had dinosaurs. DINOSAURS! Otherwise, all the books pretty much read the same. There are pages and pages of some expert explaining shit to me, a bunch of non-characters reinforcing whatever the expert explained, some one-off chapters of a dumb ass security guard getting slaughtered, and a bunch of interesting but over-explained action scenes at the end of the novel.

People I know who love science stuff love this book. One of them recommended it to me when we were teenagers (hi, Erica) and I really liked it then, but I couldn't quite seem to get back into it. If it's the sort of book that's right for you, have at it. It's not really my scene.

I did like the bit in the Amazon with all the adventure-scientist cliches. And I loved how ridiculous Agent Pendergast was. He's goddamned clown shoes. I kept forgetting that he was from the Deep South and probably talks like Andy Bernard doing a Southern Accent, because with his highly mannered turn of phrase and unflappability it read like he was one of those stick-in-the-butt British detectives. "I daresay, a lizardman is eating my brain! What a sticky wicket!" Also, he's a goddamned ex-Green Beret! EVERY HERO IN BOOKS IS GODDAMNED SPECIAL FORCES! Is the only career options for former special forces soldiers to star in trashy novels? Romance novels get Navy SEALS and thrillers get Rambo. What ever happened to the poor, unloved infantry? Don't they get cool stories? Or in the wonderful world of fiction everyone who joins the military become forced to take a turn sniping Somali pirates from the back of a Navy ship?

I say this with love. Pendergast and his sidekick D'Agosta were the best parts of the book. They defied authority, strove to protect people, and were fun to watch bumble around failing to find anything.

For all the science in the book, the logic ultimately falls short.

There's a killer in your museum and you continue with the opening? No.

You hire a guy to write a book and you get anal about the very, very minor indiscretions he finds? No.

I'm getting better at spotting the mechanics behind constructing a story and I know when roadblocks are artificially laid down to add conflict to the story. The amount of hostility that the characters encountered from their superiors seemed inflated and artificial. I get that careers are in jeopardy, but there's something in the museum eating people's brains. Come on!

Good story, not my thing.

Also, kothoga is a better name for the monster and Mbwun is a better name for the tribe.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Snow by Ronald Malfi

Before we get started, a couple quick rants.

When a character in a book starts ranting about how bad ass and shocking and not politically correct they are, like Kate Jansen does in her first scene, I get turned off. "Politically correct" is to conservatives what "dive bar" is to hipsters: a meaningless buzzword denoting...I dunno, authenticity? How cool you are?

Whatever, son. My people don't even say that shit anymore. Besides, Kate Jansen is a terrible character. She's one of those female characters that male horror writers constantly create: boorish, abrasive, overly pleased with herself, and probably into obnoxious 80s hair metal. She's set up to be the love interest because...I guess every story needs one? but I can't really say I was rooting for her to make it out of Woodson alive. And, of course, there's a scene where the male characters are trying to convince her to listen to them even as she tries to assert herself. One of 'em says something to the effect of "We'll worry about women's lib later. This is about survival!"

First off, who in this day and age says women's lib? Second, ugh, get over yourself. I have a feeling that, if I were to meet Ronald Malfi, we wouldn't get along. Which is a shame. He's got more game than most genre writers.

Anyway, on to the show.

So, snow, huh? Ever get the feeling that horror is running out of ideas?

Maybe that's harsh. I mean, there's meat on them bones. Part of the reason The Thing is so effective is that snow isolates and entraps. You can't move around easily, cars break down and get buried, and between the howling wind and the whirling snow you can't see a damned thing. I once hiked through a freak snowstorm heading for a date and it was like walking through an empty apocalyptic world.

So, snow can be scary. And there's some really scary stuff at the beginning of the book. The poor doomed quartet pick up a wandering man lost in the snow. He's out of his head, distant and babbling about his missing daughter. As they're driving along and the man's behavior becomes more erratic, the others begin to doubt there is a daughter at all, until the protagonist sees her in passing only to discover she has no face...

Woo! That's some good stuff! I was really excited about this book until it turned into another damn zombie novel.

That's right. It's another damned zombie novel.

More to the point, it's a story that feels like someone wanted to write a zombie story but knew they were played out. It's still a siege story where people struggle to get what they need while hordes of dead people try to eat their flesh. There's guns a'blazin' and people a'dyin' and all you need to do is switch the travelers for homesteaders and the skin-suits for Apaches and you have the original siege western.

American paperback horror novels read more or less the same. It's like a recipe. Insert:
1) Monster or killer with a strong visual description. Check. Snow flurries with lights at their core, scythes for hands, and the broken meat puppets the control.
2) A bunch of people who might as well have "future victim" tattooed on their heads? Check. Nan, Fred, the poor doomed Shawna.
3) Religious weirdo screaming like a schizophrenic Baptist and who is likely more dangerous than the monsters? Check. The fat kid in the church whose name currently escapes me.
4) Guns, guns, guns! Plus the ability to pick up a firearm without any training and instantly shoot like Chow Yun Fat in The Killer? Check. They raid a gun store, grab pistols, and the rest of the book turns into runny runny, shooty shooty.
5) A big fucking explosion at the end? Check. The last remaining sheriff's deputy, who I kept picturing as looking like a bald Henry Rollins, takes out a bunch of the monsters by opening up a gas tank and shooting a flamethrower into it. This ain't no gothic horror, people! This is 'murrican horror! With guitars and people who swear and explosions and cannibals! Fuck yeah!
6)Characters in the middle of a crisis taking a moment to flash back to their personal issues? Check. Kate pauses the story to talk about her non-engagement and Todd talks about the time he had a problem with gambling but was able to pay the guy, who beat him up anyway, which makes good business sense for a loanshark.

A friend of mine who happens to be a proper southern lady (hi Lauren) has a theory about women: they're either ladies or broads.

I think stories are the same way. Stories can be divided roughly into high-falutin' tales and roughneck blue-collar yarns. It's sometimes tricky to separate the two. I'd argue that Joe R. Lansdale's work is tales disguised as yarns and The Yattering and Jack is a yarn told by a guy who usually tells tales.

Snow is definitely a yarn. It is definitely better than most, but it's still a type. You can quantify it, dissect it, and tune it. I've read a bunch of novels very similar to this one and it's sorta like comfort food. I try to keep to my healthy diet and big-city pretensions, but sometimes homeboy just wants a bacon cheeseburger.

I would definitely come back to Malfi. I think he's a good writer. Every now and again he'd come up with a simile or description that took my breath away. The dude has a bit of a poet to him and I respect poets.

I think he's a good writer. I'm betting this isn't his best book.

Also, I have a bad habit of writing fanfic and as I was going through the novel, I kept thinking "this could be improved with Jedi."

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Human Remains by Clive Barker

Human Remains taps into some hot button issues with me.

I'm obsessed with physical beauty. There's an argument to be made that I am deeply shallow. I do believe that people who are beautiful lead better lives, which makes me deeply jealous of them. I do also believe that people who are beautiful become commodities to other people. They can never be entirely invisible and they stop entirely belonging to themselves. It's one of the themes in Natsuo Kirino's novel Grotesque, which is a source of heavy inspiration to me.

Gavin, the amoral hustler from Human Remains, is defined by his beauty. He's aware of it, he revels in it, and he is terrified of letting it slip away. There's a lot of fear of aging going on underneath the skin of the story. The people I know who are the most afraid of aging are athletes and the beautiful; the athletic fear losing their abilities and the beautiful fear losing their identities. In the back of my brain, where all my nasty ideas live, I like to think that all aging does is even out the playing field.

This is a doppelganger story that starts out about fucking and ends with identity.

It's not sex. In the immortal words of Dear Coke Talk, the difference between fucking and making love is Hallmark. There's something incredibly narcissistic about the way Gavin approaches his work. Most prostitution stories in the horror genre paint prostitutes as victims, but Gavin isn't really about sex. He commodifies his beauty, and looks down on the people he deigns to share himself with. He's not even particularly straight or gay or bi. He's just an object to be desired.

So, of course, he picks up a man outside an art house cinema. There's something off about the man. He's nervous and the nervousness never lets up even on safe ground. He doesn't give the usual tells. While he's admiring the beautiful but odd collection of antiquities, the mark gets attacked by something. Gavin investigates the bathroom rather stupidly and discovers a statue in a bathtub. Things go pretty wrong for him after that.

The rest of the tale is a fairly simple doppelganger tale, but with one twist. There's not a lot of active malevolence between Gavin and his shadow. He almost embraces the idea of having something else deal with all the sloppy work of presenting his face to the world. He becomes hollowed out, turns to junk, and watches as his twin become a better version of him than he could ever be. Barker has a real gift for creating fine lines between enmity and love, and this story blows me away every time. It's more rich and emotionally complex than the two other stories we've read this semester.

In an interview on his work, Barker echoes a lot of views I have about the horror genre. It's very conservative. It's obsessed with the status quo. It's about destroying the monster. People who've delved deeper into the genre (I'm looking at you, Chris) are there any other writers who successfully celebrate the supernatural with the same intelligence and beauty as Barker?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Wolfman by Jonathan Maberry

Oh my god I am so friggin' pretentious.

I do most of my course reading on the M-train commute to work. I live in Bushwick and pass through Williamsburg, heart of the Brooklyn hipster universe. Every morning I see the same familiar flannel shirt-tight jeans-ironic facial hair crowd reading Murakami and listening to Animal Collective or Das Racist or whatever. They're a pretty literate bunch, too. There are all sorts of tiny rituals involved in riding the subways and one of them involves sizing up what people are reading. When I first came to NYC, everyone was reading the Dragon Tattoo series. These days it's mostly the Game of Throne books.

Nobody's reading a novelization of a failed horror flick.

I'd see people give my book the once-over and I could almost hear that checkout counter this-does-not-compute WONK sound. For the first few rides I just wanted to plead with people: "No, you don't understand! Maberry is a really good writer! And I have to read this cuz the madman I'm taking the class from assigned this to us!"

Eventually I took to covering the cover with my bookmark while I read. It was just easier.

I really, really didn't get this assignment.

I saw the movie back in the day and I can't remember any of the plot. It was one of those 'meh' films, instantly forgotten immediately after consumption. I remember that Benicio Del Toro was miscast, Anthony Hopkins was in high camp mode, and the movie's attempt to recapture the feel of classic Universal Horror was crushed under the curdling weight of studio mediocrity.

I had zero interest in reading this book and, frankly, I thought you were nuts to assign it.

Turns out the novelization was a zillion times better.

I like werewolves okay. They make a strong metaphor for our unchained animalistic desires and they fit in extraordinarily well in straight-laced, repressive Victorian England. During the residency, I pushed forward the theory that monsters are ultimately about our polarizing desires between freedom and conformity. There's a part of us that wants to be free, even if it is completely damaging to the world around us, and there's a part of us that wants to be safe and cheers when the free thing is destroyed. I found the chapters of the wolf's rampages exhilarating. In the really-real world, I'd hate to be responsible for the violent death of dozens of people, but there's something primal in my psyche that had a lot of fun with the wolfman's gory exultation.

I like gothic stories. I like crumbing old manors full of mysteries, crazy children, mysterious deaths, and dark secrets slowly unfurling in the foggy moors.

I like stories where the werewolves are barely-disguised Oedipal complex figures battling it out to have sex with their in-law. It's so squicky!

I like the whole Goddess of the Hunt thing. It's a clever way for the characters to conceptualize the full moon.

I like decadent actors. They made living in Astoria fun. They break out into song in the middle of Two Boots, they're flirts because they're needy and they're pretty because it's part of the job. I like the world Lawrence inhabits, even if he is kind of a wet blanket.

I recently chewed apart Breeding Ground for its lack of ambition and I kind of feel like a hypocrite for not attacking The Wolfman in the same way. The difference is, I feel, style and missed opportunity. Every aspect of Breeding Ground lead me to believe it was going to say something deeper and more interesting about gender products. Even ignoring the shaky plotting, too many opportunities were missed.

The Wolfman set out to tell a gothic werewolf story and Maberry told it well. It ain't perfect, it didn't change my perspective of werewolves the way Alan Moore did with "The Curse" or the way the film Ginger Snaps did, but I liked the story. Werewolf stories are often ultimately terminal disease stories and I felt sad to see Talbot go.

It was, of course, better than the movie.

Monday, February 27, 2012

World War Z by Max Brooks

Awright. I think we've hit the high point of the whole zombie apocalypse thing. Time to pack it up and move on, because it ain't gonna get much better than this and everything else is either a poor imitation or just wasting our time.

This article has been stewing in the cooker for a long time, but I never had the guts to write it. Aside from the fact that I really like this book and its predecessor The Zombie Survival Guide, I feel that this takes the Romero zombie as far as it can possibly go. So, talking about this means talking about the whole zombie sub-genre and that's a loooooong conversation.

Deep breath. This is a day for decisive action.

Here we go.

Okay, so everyone calls The Zombie Survival Guide a comedy, but aside from the absurdity inherent in the idea of an Army-style survival guide for a completely absurd apocalypse the material is played straight. I don't know much about wilderness survival or military maneuvers, but the advice seems legit enough. It also appeals directly to the darkly pleasant side of the zombie fantasy: you've survived in a war-torn wasteland. You're hardy and self-sufficient, cool in a crisis and skilled at war. Post apocalyptic stories are one or two steps away from westerns, and to understand the western is to understand America.

It makes sense that the zombie came back into popularity around the same time as new millennium panic kicked off. There's something about our cultural mentality that has a dark fascination with apocalypses. Personally, I think it has something to do with our parents growing up during the A-bomb crisis and the Vietnam war, my generation growing up with 9/11, and the overall crazy Four Horsemen fundie Bible Belt bullshit that sits at the center of our nation.

Plus, at their heart, the zombies are us. They are everywhere we are, they wear our costumes, they suffer our death, and the relentlessly approach us with soulless eyes. And if they catch you, they'll eat you alive.

So zombies do what a good horror critter is supposed to do. It gets under your skin. The rules are simple, the images are grostesque, and death at their hands is ghastly. But there's only so much you can do with them.

The vast majority of zombie stories are siege stories. People are under assault, people barricade themselves in, the stress gets to the survivors, and shit eventually goes wrong. It's a fine story but it's very overdone. There's also an aspect of zombie tales that appeal to a very American Libertarianism sense of self-reliance and individualism. I got my gun, I got my dog, and I can carve a place for myself out of this hostile land.

Some people take that shit really, really seriously. Meet someone who claims to be a zombie nut and ninety nine percent of the time you're meeting with someone who secretly wants a zombie uprising. I have a sneaking suspicion that the vast majority of actual survivors would be in military bases or living in isolated communities. I'm a creature of cities. My ass would be grass.

Anyway, there are only so many stories that you can tell with zombies. People keep trying, and when they don't actually want to do zombies, they do spider critters or creatures made of snow. If the apocalypse has already been tackled on an intimate level, the only way to go is to go bigger. Make it about humanity. How do different people, different cultures, different value systems deal with the rise of the dead?

In a lot of ways, World War Z is pretty much the final word on zombie apocalypses. Rather than focusing on one group of knuckleheads, Brooks tells the story from dozens of different angles. How would celebrities deal with this? How would soldiers? How would pharmaceutical companies try to cash in? What would a major evacuation at the mouth of the Ganges be like? All of these stories could probably make individual novels, but Brooks threads them all together into a Ken Burns-style documentary of the event as survivors tell the story of society trying to rebuild itself.

It's brilliant. It's one of the best horror novels of the last ten years.

The thing that rugged apocalypse stories don't really get is that if the zombies arise, the individual is ultimately meaningless. Some random tough guy asshole may make it through the narrative, but then what? He continues on until he falls off a cliff or his luck fails and he's monster food.

Therefore, the zombie apocalypse tale must be about humanity itself. This is the thing that pulls us together. We got our iphones and our youporn and our netflix and our Republican primaries and all the other crap we use to feather our nests. The cost in human life to scorch the earth would be catastrophic, but what if we rose up afterward and worked together in rebuilding what is hopefully a better world?

Idealistic? Sure. Stupid? Absolutely. But the secret appeal of the post-apocalypse story is that the world is scrubbed clean. To quote the great poet Billy Idol: "and there's nothin' pure in this world. Look for something left in this world...."

"Start again."

Brooks does something I want to do. He takes tropes that are getting pretty ragged and tells a story that isn't about monsters and mayhem, but our shared humanity. It ain't perfect. Too many of his voices sound interchangeable and, while the chapters centered around the hikkikomori in Japan touched my inner weeaboo, the blind woodsman with the sword lopping off heads was a little ridiculous. He mentioned a secret society of zombie hunters in his Survive A Zombie Apocalypse book, but it's something that belongs in a comic book. Still,

Quibbles. This really is one of the best horror books of the last ten years. It's also the final word on the zombie thing. There isn't much left to do with Romero zombies. Hell, Romero can't even do anything with them any more. Brooks nailed it. Time to find something new.

Oh, Brooks wrote a good comic featuring tales of the zombie war. Also, Brad Pitt is doing a movie version of this. Oy.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Yattering and Jack by Clive Barker

I really like this story, but I suspect I would have liked it more if I were British.

It's a really, really funny story, but it's the weird kind of comedy of manners stories that works best from Great Britain. In my gentleman's travels across the globe, I've had the opportunity to watch a lot of television. One of the more common themes that I saw on zany British television is the very polite catastrophe: a series of increasingly vile humiliations happens to a person who strives to remain dignified and unaffected by the chaos surrounding them. Subtextually, it's pretty clear that this is an effort by the British to make fun of the stiff upper lip that won them an empire, but it usually winds up looking like an uptight dude surrounded by naked butts and covered in mud.

Barker's story fits well into that genre of comedy but it has a very sharp twist; if poor Jack acknowledges the humiliation that the demon is subjecting him to, his soul will be lost to Hell. I have always liked the way Barker does Hell. It reminds me of a Bosch painting, all inhuman shapes and bitterness and longing for Heaven. It's also a very hidebound place, full of the kind of fussy little rules that fit in well with a Catholic worldview. It's a great battleground between the will of one man and the malevolence of one increasingly desperate demon.

Also, one of the greatest punchlines of any story I've ever read.

Image by Ashnkatt

Speaking from a writing perspective, the big lesson I'm taking from this is the benefits of shifting POVs within a scene.

Most of the complaints I read in other people's reviews of Rawhead Rex were due to Barker's tendency to switch perspectives mid-scene. The effect doesn't really bother me. I like jumping heads to get different perspectives on a scene without sacrificing immediacy. It's a trick I use to a much more amateurish degree in my own work.

Here, jumping heads quickly enhances the effect in the story. The tale opens from the Yattering's perspective, and chronicles his growing frustration at Jack's complete obliviousness. We assume, like the Yattering, that Jack is completely clueless until a single paragraph, told from Jack's perspective, shows the reader that Jack is not just aware of the Yattering's presence but is playing a very dangerous game with it. From there, the facade of a comedy of good manners conceals a deadly game of wills between the forces of demonic chaos and the forces of English politeness for the soul of an "innocent" man.

It's a great comedy and one of the most intense battle of wills I've ever read.


Apparently they did the entire story as an episode of Tales from the Darkside. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

30 Days of Night by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith

I love comic books.

Cartoon strips were the first stories I fell in love with. As a very small child my folks read picture books to me and it was a natural transition into the Calvin and Hobbes books that I still love and revere to this day.

One fine day, I was out grocery shopping with my mom and I saw and Archie's Digest on one of the spinner racks between the thing and the other thing. I loved the stories and will defend them to this day, and when my father came home from work that night I asked him if he would pick up another issue from the comic store next door.

He bought me an entire box of 70s-era Archie comics. My dad was that kind of guy.

When I hit age nine, give or take, Marvel released trading cards of their heroes. The images on the cards were crisp and vibrant and the character bios on the back were fascinating. Plus you got little sport-stat assessments of the character' intelligence and fighting ability. I left the clean, sexless, halcyon fields of Riverdale for the elaborate costume dramas of 616 Manhattan.

I kept reading comics throughout my childhood. I was not particularly bullied as a kid, but I had to eat shit a fair amount of shit for it. I like to think that the little bastards who teased me for loving Jim Lee-era X-Men books loved all the movies that came over the last ten years.

I've been going to comic book conventions ever since they were shady affairs held in church basements full of Comic Book Guys and pedophiles. Now they're somewhere between nerd Mardi Gras and heartless corporate marketing machines. Still, I love the medium. My pull list is about ten bucks a week, give or take.

I love them so much, I want to write comic books for a living.

Shhhh. It's a seeeeeecret.

Comic books have to be judged by a slightly different standard than prose. They are primarily a visual medium, they're often serialized so the story construction tends to be both longer form and paced in fits and starts.

They can be deep. Watchmen is deep. But Watchmen is probably the best American comic ever made. Most of the rest of the mainstream books are fight books between characters that have been teenagers and young adults for over fifty years.

The horror genre has a shaky history in the medium. It nearly killed comics during the panic in the fifties, the seventies saw the birth of the horror-themed superheroes, and the eighties saw the creation of the DC offshoot Vertigo and books like Alan Moore's Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman's Sandman, both of which are classics by any standard. Horror, however, is not a mainstream thing. Comics in America mean superheroes and savage cyber-killers, not monsters skulking in the dark.

I've seen it all. I've read it all. And I never got around to reading 30 Days of Night.

The reason I've never picked up 30 Days of Night is that I don't care for the art of Ben Templesmith.

I don't think it's bad art. It's definitely unique. It reminds me a lot of the fluid styles of David Mack, which borrows more from the fine art world than from the hidebound styles of comic draftspeople.

Experimentation is fine. Hell, I have a David Mack piece tattooed on my body. But I am not a particularly visual person and it's easy to lose me to overly clever artwork. Templesmith's style is too fluid. Frankly, I have no idea what the hell is going on most of the time. And it's also somewhat of a bad fit for Steve Niles, one of the only purely horror writers in the medium.

30 Days of Night is a fairly straightforward vampire yarn. There's a town in the arctic circle that stays dark for a month, so a bunch of vampires decide to throw a celebratory massacre and invite some of their big leaders. The rest of the story becomes a struggle between frightened survivors and the squabbling vampires.

It's....a'ight. A bit character-lite, not a lot of surprises, pretty to look at. Some of the vampires are nifty. Nice bittersweet ending but it ultimately feels a little bit hollow.

The one interesting thing that stood out was the conflict between the vampires. The younger vampires organized the whole party. The older vampires they invited to impress are furious with them for drawing attention to their existence and because the whole event is, by elitist snooty vampire standards, tacky. I love that stuff.

I've discussed in the blog how I learned my storytelling chops from running role playing games and the very first game I picked up was Vampire: the Masquerade. Long and the short, the Masquerade is the law in vampire society prohibiting its members from revealing their existence to humanity.

I love this stuff. It's the only way vampires work in modern society and I'm pretty sure that White Wolf Games' product line helped kick start the whole urban fantasy thing.

So, there ya go. It was pretty good for what it was. It was worth the four bucks I spent but I don't really see it shaking any new ground in my vision of vampires.

"Hey, vampires can't be out in daylight. Let's set it some place where night never comes."

And they did.