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.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Rawhead Rex by Clive Barker

This is not a commentary.

This is me planting my standard in the ground and declaring war.

Come at me, motherfuckers.

Recently I got into a conversation with someone else in my program about why people deride genre fiction over literary fiction. I usually hate this conversation. My MFA program is geared toward writing popular fiction and I hear people bitching about literary fiction, claiming literary fiction is just as formulaic as genre fiction, and proudly claiming that they never read anything that crosses the gaze of the elitist literati that snub their noses at our lovingly crafted tales of wizards and robots and vampires and little old ladies snooping around the hedgerows. These sorts of sentiments reek of insecurity but recently I've been asking myself about those lines and how I'm going to define those terms for myself.

Part of me feels that the terms are ultimately meaningless. Good writing is good writing. Good writing is about ideas. It challenges the mind, it has something interesting to say and an engaging way of saying it. It challenges the heart. The lyricism of the words move the spirit and affect the emotions deeply. Good writing changes the perception of the reader. I've been deeply affected by stories of families in small towns and in stories of people fighting off zombies.

I will say that most genre fiction tends to aim low. I will say that most genre fiction tends to be unambitious in conception and execution. Sometimes that's fine. The general stereotype of genre fiction is that it's more focused on plot than on psychological depth. Sometimes I like that. I can bitch about the construction of the Drizzt books 'till the cows come home, but there's a reason my Skyrim character is a two sword-wielding drow ranger.

In short, I think people read their genre fiction to get their guilty pleasure kicks, then they read their Jonathan Safran Foers and Dave Eggers for their high minded stuff.

But there are some writers who work within genre conventions and create works of deep emotional resonance, whose writing leaves me staring out into space. It's a real pleasure to discover their work.

Long and the short, I love Clive Barker. He's my hero, he's the reason I do what I do, and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. Plain and simple.

There is nothing original about Rawhead Rex but, as any good comedian will tell you, it's not about the joke but how you deliver it.

I can't help but notice that a lot of the books assigned to the monsters in literature class deal with monsters as a thinly disguised gender metaphor. The widows of Breeding Ground were....I guess....supposed to be the wrath of women, the werewolves of The Wolfman are a couple of Oedipal figures fighting to see who gets to fuck the pretty girl. The symbols aren't directly addressed, but they're there. Barker states it up front: Rawhead Rex is a symbol of destructive masculine energy. He wrecks shit, degrades his acolytes through peeing on them, feels surges of sexual energy, masturbates on things, and generally acts unbound. He mocks the virgin shepherd because the fear of sexuality inherit in all Christianity lacks the vigor to defeat him but he's subdued and beaten by the symbol of femininity, which negates his virility and allows him to be smashed by the townsfolk.

He's also not an idiot. Most of the monsters are pure id. They wreck shit and get angry but they aren't much more than wild animals with a couple of superpowers and a scary mask. Rawhead wrecked shit too, but he acted like he was entitled to it. He's an old thing, bound by old rules and governed by primal symbolism but he's a king. It's a refreshingly new angle to see an ancient evil and it works astonishingly well.

I'm betting the two things that freaked people out in the story was all the descriptions of male erections and the child eating stuff.

Barker is aware and actively engaged in the symbolism behind his monster. As Rawhead smashes through a farmhouse in pursuit of a mother, Barker calls it exactly what it is: thinly disguised rape scenes. Most horror violence is deeply sexual, but most horror writers, frankly, suck at writing sexuality. Ask 'em to write a bloody murder and they're fine, but when they do a sex scene their stuff falls in a spectrum between scared little boy and mean-spirited little boy. Personally, I blame our religiously repressed, messed-up culture that gives violent movies and 'R' rating but if Michael Fassbender shows his penis the movie gets an 'NC-17.'

The horror in this story has teeth. It has sexuality. It's not coy about the human body and it doesn't treat it as something divorces from our sense of fear. As for the eaten kids, is there anything more terrifying to an adult?

Rawhead Rex is a great story.

I like the artistry and the nuances behind it. Clive Barker does this stuff correctly.

Now I'm gonna troll my fellow student's pages and pick fights.

It's on.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Breeding Ground by Sarah Pinborough

The disease is carried in male sperm.

We presume that Matt and Chloe are in a sexual relationship and Katie is untouched by the diesase until after she makes love to Matt. Once they have sex, she starts to change. The poison in his system begins to affect her and it's a slow descent into....

No. Matt also hooks up with Rebecca, she doesn't become infected, and they suddenly decide they're in love and their baby is going to breathe new human life into a spider-ravaged world.

Okay, scratch that.

It's about the fear of pregnancy. The creatures are birthed from women, their gestation uses a lot of squicky imagery we associate with pregnancy: there's a life growing inside me, it's making me nuts, and it will kill me once it comes out. These are powerful fears that are often difficult for a male reader to wrap my head around.

Except...not really. The creation of these creatures don't really go past the gory dynamics of their birth. Aside from a few "there's something wrong with my baby" riffs, it's not much more than a gross image. Sure, it's tapping some psychological buttons that a lot of readers are likely to have, but it doesn't seem to go beyond "everyone's freaked out about this stuff on some level, let's go with pregnant women birthing spiders." It reminds me of those jump scares in horror movies: everyone can be started by loud noises in dark rooms, but it ultimately doesn't mean much.

OOOOH! I got it! It's about gender dynamics. The creatures in the book are unquestionably human-level sentient. They have plans, they have an agenda, and they're not very nice. When the story starts, it seems like the poor beleagured menfolk are under siege. Their formerly domesticated partners have "died" metaphorically, shedding the trappings of domesticity and subservience under their male partners. The book begins with a bunch of befuddled men from different parts of society watching their patriarchal structures dissolve around them. Oooh, and here come some uninfected females! Better watch out, they might look like they're on our side now, but pretty soon they're going to become spider lesbian feminazis reading Steinem and Anais Nin and listening to Ani DiFranco while they open up vegan cafes in Boulder Colorado with their life partner Dillon...

Nope. Eventually, the males start turning into spiders. It's just a plain-old extinction event.

Time to scratch my head. Disease? Oh god, I got lumps. I'm gaining weight in weird places. I'm becoming angry. Powerful stuff, but there's not much beyond the symptoms. People get freaked out, then they die.

Hm. Is it about humanity with our backs against the wall? Could be. Those stories are popular these days. They appeal to people's hysteria and bizarre narcissism (I'm in agreement with Jon Hodgman on this one: post-apocalypse stories are ultimately wish fulfillment). Yeah, everything is fucked. Look how it all falls apart when the lights go out and spider things skitter towards us in the darkness..'s really badly thought out apocalypse. Like, really, really bad.

Okay, that's dramatic. It's a fine enough yarn. Things happen, people get eaten, it's in the British countryside so everyone calls each other "mate" and there are no handguns and there are Tescos instead of Walgreens. But it's waaaaay too aware of other post-apocalypse stories. Pinborough bypasses that whole oh-my-god-what's-happening-here-are-the-evacuation-plans-oh-wait-they-don't-work. We go straight into desolate Road Warrior country. The only hint we have that there is any sort of formal inquiry into the odd happenings is a completely illogical scene where a doctor gives Chloe a perfunctory examination, blows her off, then goes and gets drunk. No radio broadcast, no "keep calm and carry on." Matt escapes from Chloe and everything and everyone is gone. Ghost town. Boom. Granted, England is a sad, desolate place where all hope dies under the crushing weight of gray skies, good conduct, and sexual repression, but at least have a humvee or two drive by. Drop leaflets from a plane. SOMEONE WOULD HAVE DONE SOMETHING!

Oh god. Does that Sara Pinborough only trying to tell another goddamned SCIENCE GONE MAD!!!! story?

Sure seems like it. "You faaaacking daft scientists, always messing with things and offending the natural order! I've 'alf a mind to give you a right kicking, so I do!"

"Oh you're bloody right! I'm so concerned by what I can do that I don't ever think of the ramifications of genetically engineering foods so that they will last longer and can therefore feed more people. My word and I daresay, this whole spider plague is my fault. Oh by jove I'm being devoured. What a sticky wicket!"


I've gone on a rant about this before, but I HATE science-gone-mad stories. They're simplistic and regressive and reductive and remind me of why I hate horror.

Yep. You read that right. I hate horror.

Grain of salt, obvious. I'm getting a master's degree in horror fiction, I host a horror podcast, I've been to Transylvania, I started my high school horror club, I worked four seasons in a Halloween store and I've been to the Fangoria weekend of horrors a few times. I've earned my stripes. Having said that, fuck horror.

Horror is predominantly a conservative genre. While sci-fi looks to the future and imagines a world of possibilities and fantasy kills hours of my productivity (damn you, Skyrim!), horror is the sad-sack Strong Sad bemoaning change. Horror is the guy from the cornfield town with the religious upbringing and limited sexual experience who sorts out all his pissy little fears and seething sexual inadequacies in formulaic tales that remind us all to stay in our place because the big wide world is super-duper scary. Horror is Chucky Finster from Rugrats: "I don't know, guys. It looks scary. And we'll get in trouble."

Since starting my MFA program, I've come to appreciate the amount of effort that goes into writing a novel. It's hard. You gotta sit down and grind every. fucking. word. out. over the course of MONTHS. You miss things, it's lonely, and you fight a long internal battle with yourself to get something of merit down. Any book, successfully written is a herculean effort and I applaud Pinborough for the effort she put it. It is a failure, but it's a failure of ideas, not craftsmenwomanspidership.

I don't have much patience for this sort of book and I'm probably never going to pick up anything by Pinborough again.

It's unambitious. It's not trying say anything. It's not trying to do anything. It doesn't mean anything. There are a lot of other flaws to it that my fellow Setonians (Hillians?) covered. Who gives a shit about Matt? Nigel is set up to be a straw man jerk and I didn't care about his conflict with the group and the ultimately horrible and immoral way they let him die.

Spiders are scary. Here's a spider.

Post apocalypses are fun. Here's a post apocalypse.

Here's a bit of internal conflict.

Here's a couple relationships (to her credit, I did like the sex scene between Matt and Katie. I love reading female writers writing about sex from the male perspective and I thought she did a good job.)

Here's an ending where the book just....stops. We're done. Lights out. First round at the pub's on me, gents!


(Post Script: I found an interview with Pinborough where she talks about Breeding Ground as a book full of interesting ideas. I'd read the HELL out of that version.)