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.