Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Killer in the Dark

After studying serial killers in popular fiction this semester, I am writing a story about one hiding in the wilderness. So for this final blog of the semester--a blog discussing a real psycho--I have taken a man from frontier times. Accessing this tale contributes to my story by illuminating what scares readers in a similar context. So, without further ado, Charles Kennedy is the psycho that contains several elements that can factor into my latest work.

Reports conflict slightly, but a few details tend to hold constant. Kennedy made his home near Taos, New Mexico. He lived in an isolated cabin with his family. When travelers passed by, he’d kill them. One night, his son informed a visitor that there were bodies under the house, which quickly sparked Kennedy into a murderous rage. His wife escaped, though, and found help. Kennedy was arrested, but instead of being given a proper trial, he was quickly executed (stories differ on how, though).

Kennedy’s tale terrifies for several reasons. The isolation creates an uneasy sense that even if victims escaped, they might not reach help and safety in time. Also, Kennedy knew the region, thrived in the seclusion, and could act as a trapdoor spider, tricking people in and hunting them as needed. He becomes the monster in the darkness of the wilderness, the evil that keeps people fearful of leaving the edge of town. Another detail that I’ve connected between different versions of this tale was the manner in which Kennedy handled the remains of his victims. Many agree that he burned and buried his victims. His place of residence thus becomes the heart of the evil. It’s a terrifying place to imagine, with bones strewed around the fire place, bodies waiting for cremation and rotting under the house, and Kennedy himself drinking and brooding about more victims. Animalistic in nature, his cabin becomes a lair of carnage.

My imaginings of his cabin correlated with at least one scene I’ve been planning for my own story: a cabin scene. Since my story has to do with an over-enthusiastic hunter, his cabin will similarly be a dwelling for his malevolence. He might have victims hanging upside down, some draining and some already skinned--but it would also be terrifying for the protagonists to gaze into a fire and see a charred skull staring back. These details are all pretty adaptable, yet very chilling.

On a final note, something else troublesome about Kennedy is that not all of his victims were accounted for. Some sources claim he may have had up to 100 victims. Fear stems from the unknown, and not knowing how many more bodies remain in the wilderness outside Taos is worrisome. Similarly, in my story, the killer may or may not be caught in the end, but bodies will certainly pop up from the cold earth for years to come after he’s through with the region.

Friday, November 9, 2012

That Joke's Not Too Funny

I'm a Marvel fanboy and have never cared much for the DC universe. Batman is my favorite hero from DC, though, especially considering The Dark Knight trilogy. The Killing Joke, however, did not live up to the stellar reviews and blurbs on the cover. It wasn't the worst read ever, but it felt generic, uneventful, and lackluster. I felt nothing while I read it, which is a bummer when I was expecting great things. The book does present some interesting ideas, though, and when being analyzed from the Joker's perspective, not Batman's, there are some fascinating issues to ponder.

This really was the Joker's tale, and one of the lines that stuck out to me was when the Joker tells Batman that he's not exactly sure what happened to make him lose touch with reality, that he remembers his story in different ways at different times. Admitting this nullifies the whole history readers are presented. Readers assume those scenes--the comedian looking for a job, the comedian working on a crime, the comedian's wife dying, the comedian falling into chemicals and becoming the Joker--are accurate. They make sense; the comedian's wife dies is a joke of an accident, which sets him off in the wrong direction, but being doused with the chemicals pushes him over the edge. However, since the Joker says he remembers his issues in different ways, readers can assume what they just read was a lie, too. Maybe it holds some truth, though. The point is, readers can understand that something tragic, yet absurd, happened to the Joker.

The goal of the Joker in this comic was to prove anyone can be driven insane. Although I think he's correct, one day isn't long enough. This reminded me of Stephen King's Pet Sematary, in which the wife of the protagonist fears and hates her sister who died when she was a child. The protagonist mentions that the sister was sick and in a lot of pain, so she was probably insane by the time of her death. And wouldn't being in pain for months on end, while a person watches his family slowly come to despise him, be enough to drive anyone insane? I think so. I think the Joker was right; it just takes longer than a day and more than a modified tunnel of love to do the trick.

And I can't leave off the finale: the joke. The Joker's last words tell the story of the patients who escape an asylum. While on the roof, one jumps to the next building, but the other is too nervous. Apparently planks connect the buildings, but the scared patient won't cross, claiming he's not crazy--he knows the other patient will turn his light off and leave him to die when he makes it halfway across. This is really a retelling of the tale of the frog and scorpion, in which the scorpion stings the frog while crossing a river, killing them both, because it's in his nature. The point is that if the Batman and the Joker tried to work together, it's in their natures to turn on each other. They're both pretty crazy--one just fights for good and the other for evil--but it's their nature to battle. They're not so crazy as to neglect their true natures. The premise is interesting and the joke works, but I couldn't help but feel it wasn't tied into the story enough. I was left struggling to apply meaning to it. Of course, I just analyzed it, so I must have found meaning in it, but I have to wonder if I forcibly applied that meaning or if the meaning was there to be found. I'm not sure.

Between not being a fan of DC superheroes and wishing there was a little more emotional impact and meaning filling the story, I didn't fall in love with The Killing Joke. I appreciated it, though, and admire the complex dynamics between the Batman and the Joker. I'd even recommend this book to fans of Batman, but I was left wanting a little more from it.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Two Minds Aren't Better Than One

Joyride was hit and miss for me. Between the extreme number of characters and the heavy use of passive voice, the story became very difficult to submerse myself in. Ketchum had reasons for these choices--experimenting with the pathos of characters being murdered and building massive amounts of backstory for those characters--but these issues still kept me away from really entering the world of chaos. At a certain point, also, Wayne goes from his joyride of murder to a killing spree of his neighborhood. I was so thrown out of the story by this change of pace, I had to reread the section several times. Not until the author's note at the end of my copy did I realize Ketchum took inspiration from multiple murderers and juxtaposed the madmen instead of interlacing them, which explained my confusion.

So, why didn't this juxtaposition work? Well, I suppose anything's possible, but it seems Ketchum has incorporated two different psychotics in this story. The first is set off by seeing a murder. He's charged (either sexually or with adrenaline) when he witnesses Carole and Lee murder Carole's husband; he can't control his fascination any longer. Wayne kidnaps them--after all, misery does love company--and goes on a random killing spree as he forces them to watch. This killer gets off on the act of murder.

The second murderer Ketchum combined into Wayne was a loner psychotic--a madman who sits alone at home, boiling about revenge. This murderer seemingly gets off on retaliating against those who have wronged him. The narration even mentions at a certain point that Wayne didn't want to hurt one victim, but he got in the way of Wayne's target. The killer Wayne started off as enjoyed killing everyone equally.

The second killer took up targets, he had a hit list, and his road to insanity included a past filled with incest, much like Psycho; the first was a stable character driven by the thrill of murder, always teetering on the edge until he realized he could take the leap. These two characters might work by themselves, but the book fragments because of their awkward combination. To be even more extensive, the second character came off as tacked on and almost two-dimensional as a cool idea or quick explanation for Wayne's murderous tendencies. The first killer's personality worked better. He was more interesting, and like John Doe from Se7en, he didn't even need a back story or motive to work as a man who just caves to his horrific desires.

The only character that really stood out to me as well rounded was the investigator, Rule. The author's note mentions him, too, and apparently, Ketchum started with an investigator who was too understanding of Carole and Lee, so Ketchum had to expand the character, give him some haunting backstory. His family leaving him and his counterbalance to Wayne worked very well, and his obsession with the dollhouse in the garage, a symbol of building rather than destroying, made him the most interesting character in the book.

I respect Ketchum and enjoy other tales by him, but this one was too sporadic and fragmented. However, in analyzing its faults, and taking the author's note into consideration, Joyride offers some good lessons in writing: by understanding how and why Ketchum worked the story the way he did helps me figure out how to keep my own stories active and coherent--a feat easier said than done.

Friday, October 26, 2012

It's Never Going Away

This movie is a hefty chunk of meat. It was made in 1995, but it’s held up and will probably continue to hold up as one of the scariest crime movies ever made. But why is it timeless? Well, even though the characters talk on phones with cords and the cars resemble artifacts from a film noir, the ambiguity of the story’s details makes the movie universal and timeless.

The city, for instance, takes on the qualities of Superman’s Metropolis. It’s never given a name, and it hold ties to most cities in the United States. I always assumed it was Philadelphia, but arguments could be made that it’s New York or LA. I’ve read it might be Seattle because of the rain, but it doesn’t usually rain hard like that in Seattle, and the fields at the end indicated it’s a midwestern town. A piece of trivia found on IMDB suggests a book spine only seen in the fullscreen version hints that the city is supposed to be Omaha. That makes sense with the fields, but Omaha doesn’t have such dense, aged urban areas. The point the indecisive location makes is that the vile characteristics that corrupt humanity are everywhere.

Details relating to John Doe are scarce, too. Obviously, he has no name. He has money, but the origin of that money is never declared. He is educated, but the movie never clarifies what schools he might have attended or what jobs he’s held. He cuts his fingers so he doesn’t leave prints. He is everyone and yet no one at all. John Doe is a placeholder for the evil and corruption within society, a wicked conglomeration made into a man. Again referencing a piece of trivia on IMDB, statements have been made claiming a version of the script ended the movie in a church after Somerset learns John Doe was abused by a priest. This detail would have ruined the universal nature of the movie; not knowing why John Doe became the man he is forces viewers to confront the notion that there’s inexplicable evil in the world.

The infamous ending also adds to the enduring nature of the film. While watching, I wondered what the film would be like if Somerset killed John Doe, and I’ve since read that was a consideration for the end of the movie. That version would have worked as an ending because Somerset became a protector of Mills, and it would be martyr-like for him to take the crime on his shoulders instead of allowing Mills to take that burden. But that would have been a happy ending and clashed with the theme of the movie. The unwavering message this movie sends through its duration is that sins are unrelenting and everywhere--no one can escape. It’s a hopeless message; however, this message means the only ending that really works is what the movie came to theaters with. Sin will never go away or be beaten, and when viewers watch this movie decades from now, they’ll related to that same timeless plight.

Se7en is one of the most disturbing films I’ve seen. It transcends the crime and mystery genres and is elevated to higher levels. It’s horror at its heart, but it’s more than just a psychological drama or suspense. This movie holds the essence of what’s wrong with humanity in a way I’ve only seen managed by a handful of other films. In short, it rocks.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Why I Hate Closing my Eyes

I wasn’t enamored of The Sculptor, but who was? Let me rant about why the book didn’t work, then I’ll move onto something productive--it’s best to vent instead of hold negativity in. Funaro spends the majority of this tale telling a series of events. At times, I can accept telling, but the impact of the narrative is lost as it tells the most important elements of characterization. Some examples include the attraction and sexual relationship between Cathy and Sam (“...when Markham saw the tears in her eyes, he finally gave over to his heart and kissed her. There, into the evening, they made love....”) and the history behind the Sculptor, which supposed to explain is current bloodlust (“But one thing he could never wrap his mind around was his mother’s love.”)--show use how he gave her his heart, show use that climactic love scene that’s been building through the book, and show us the Sculptors slow mental degradation as the enigma of his mother’s abuse torments him. By the end of all this telling, most characters were forgettable because of this and I lost emotional ties to all of them.

I’m no expert, but I think there were problems with the way the crime was handled. First, since murderers are usually connected to the victims, Cathy should have been treated more as a suspect or target from the start since her name was brought up in the case. I’m not sure they’d divulge confidential information to her as they did. Also, the scene where the local cops find the Sculptor but think he’s part of a news crew seemed problematic. Although it’s probable that errors can happen in the field, if a pair of police were sent to keep watch in the wake of a series of murders, they’d be prepared to handle each trespasser as a suspect. This means they would have called in and reported the van and plates. They’d probably have their weapons drawn or prepared to be drawn, they’d and be prepared to make an arrest due to the danger of the situation. Again, errors can be made, but after reading about how crime scenes are handled, this section seemed too problematic.

Books like The Sculptor encourage me, though, because I believe if I try my very hardest, I can get something as good, if not better (probably better), published someday. There is hope. And whatever its shortcomings, The Sculptor did have strengths worth analyzing. Where a serial killer story should shine--the murder scenes-- The Sculptor does shine. These scenes came to life for me, and the horrific sculptures created from the corpses really got under my skin. But why?

Everyone has there own fears and anxieties, and mine include losing free will. I always have trouble falling asleep--and even when I do, I’m a light sleeper--because I’m paranoid of what might happen while I’m unconscious. When I’m sedated, I’m constantly fighting the drugs. When I got my wisdom teeth removed, I remember waking up two times during the procedure and fighting to keep my eyes open. So, when the victims awaken to find they’ve been mutilated and decorated like a statue, I’m reminded of the reasons I hate closing my eyes at night. To top off the situation, the victims are administered a dose of epinephrine to induce a heart attack. This action demonstrates the complete control the Sculptor is taking over his victims; he’s saying that his victims’ bodies are his to control and reshape as he sees fit. The victims are tortured and degraded in some of the worst ways I can imagine--except the boy, which the narrator states escaped the torture that would have followed at the Sculptors lair.

I can’t even imagine my body being pumped full of formaldehyde, buried six feet under, and having worms crawl in and out of my ears. When I die, I expect my body to be cremated immediately to prevent something so terrifying. I know I won’t be around to care, but I sleep easier now knowing my body is safe from future Sculptors digging up graves for their next masterpieces.

While in Dallas, I had the opportunity to tour an accidental mummies exhibit. Apparently, people who couldn’t offered to buy funeral plots, rented spaces in tombs where their bodies withered and were preserved due to some coincidental, natural occurrence. Now, the bodies have been exhumed, and are being studied by scientist and displayed for the masses. I felt the same way touring those bodies as I did reading the Sculptor. Human body don’t need to be the most sacred of vessels to still deserve respect and dignity. I’m not sure those mummies got their share, and I know the Sculptor didn’t give his victims any, which is what made an otherwise lackluster read a little more interesting.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Contagion of the Mind

Stephen King is a master of the craft. Misery, although not my favorite book of his, demonstrates his talent as a suspense writer, pulling him away from some of his supernatural and Lovecraftian roots. I've seen the movie before, and although Kathy Bates has solidified her face in her portrayal of Annie, the book redeveloped the rest of the story in my mind. What might be one of the most fascinating elements in this book that I didn't pick up in the film was that even though Annie was the psycho in this tale, Paul's narration illustrates how a mind can be manipulated, damaged, and fragmented into psychosis, as if psychosis were a contagion (a theme King revisits in other tales, such as "N"). King succeeds in demonstrating Paul's mental deterioration as the tension builds through Misery.

By the way, there are some spoilers in here.

As the novel begins, a physical calamity kick-starts Paul's traumatization. Shortly after, he's forced to burn the only copy of his latest novel, the work he's most proud of. This situation is a bit farfetched these days because with computers backups are almost mandatory; however, given the time period, and the use of typewriters, the situation works. And the situation is important because by incinerating his beloved work, Paul's starting to let go of his old life, of his normalcy. To build upon this insulting experience, Paul is forced to drink dirty, soapy water, sealing the ordeal.

Another step Annie takes in obliterating Paul's psyche is always knowing what he does. She knows that he's gotten out of his room but does not divulge her knowledge to him. He continues under the assumption he has his own secret, a little private room of safety in his mind that he can keep away from his tormentor. But when she reveals she knew of his breakouts the whole time, Paul's little mental sanctuary is decimated. I've heard this is a method used during interrogations, too--interrogators work as if they already know the answers to the questions they're asking and the captive loses the sense of privacy and having secrets.

Of course, the major component in shattering Paul's mind is when Annie chops his foot off. King also manipulates plot at this point, inverting time and connecting the amputation with the removal of Paul's thumb, which happened days later. This physical torture is a manifestation of Paul's vulnerability. He's powerless, and if he ever questions that, he can look down at his missing body parts.

It's no surprise that he finds it hard to call for help when a policeman comes, and no surprise he starts to connect Annie to being a goddess when she murders the cop. She is all knowing and invulnerable. In the end, Paul has come to terms with not surviving. He has turned into a vicious animal, wanting to instill pain just as Annie has instilled pain in him. He's ready to die, just as long as Annie is tortured, too.


After Paul escapes, the narrator leaves much ambiguity whether Annie lived. At one point, it appears that she's hunted Paul down and finally murders him. This narration is successful because it displays how Paul's so traumatized he's constantly terrified of Annie's return. Finally, readers learn Annie died, but they only learn that after they've felt the fear Paul experiences--if readers knew Annie is dead, they'd feel no sense of danger knowing Paul just dreams her return. The story ends on a positive note, Paul returning to a new normal, but he's only able to do so after a long battle and by escaping into the world his writing provides.

Misery is violent and full of tension. On the outside, it's a tale of a crazed fan having her way with her favorite author. But beneath the surface, King has delved deeply into how the human mind and psychosis work. Annie is an interesting villain, but Paul's character development is what makes this novel so fascinating.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Monsters of Their Former Selfs

Silence of the Lambs has become one of the most famous horror movies ever, and Hannibal one of the greatest villains. But is it really a horror movie? I found it in the suspense section, but I’ve also heard it referred to as a psychological thriller. What really interests me about this whole series is that the killers take on almost superhuman characteristics; they become monsters of their human selfs, which dig under my skin, and for me, these traits make these stories belong in the horror section just like the older tales about the monsters that influence these characters.

Let’s start with the Dragon from Red Dragon. Comparing the killers in these tales to horror-movie monsters, I see Dolarhyde was essentially being possessed by a ghost: the demon of the Dragon or even the ghost of his grandma, both of which shared similar qualities and connections. This possession gave him uncanny strength and a high level of intelligence. To reinforce the notion of a ghost, he lives in a creepy house that lends itself to being haunted. After reading the book, I watched the movie, and in the movie Dolarhyde hears the voice of the Dragon but the viewer does not. In the book, the reader sees what the Dragon says. Both approaches work, but something about the movie reinforces the ghost idea when Dolarhyde tells Reba that “He” is upstairs and will hear them. Dolarhyde says this with such conviction that viewers have to wonder if maybe there is an invisible entity in the house manipulating things. Of course these stories are all grounded in reality; no supernatural events occur, so viewers know better, but still they wonder about the possibility of a ghost.

Buffalo Bill might hold closer resemblance to Frankenstein and his monster. Consider his domicile. It’s decrepit, but not in a fashion like a haunted manor such as the one in Red Dragon. Buffalo Bill’s basement is brick like Frankenstein’s laboratory. His house and basement are also cluttered like Frankenstein’s lab. Buffalo Bill’s makeup and textiles hold similarities to the lab equipment, too; for example, they’re laid out to be used for morbid creation opposed to just being useless clutter. Also in Frankenstein’s lab, his creation was raised through a hole into the dark sky, which contrasts with the dark hole Buffalo Bill lowers and keeps his victims in. Although there are connections between Buffalo Bill and Ed Gein, I think the grave robbing in Frankenstein ties in here, too. Buffalo Bill goes out at night to find victims to further his creations just as Frankenstein and Fritz (Igor) did, except Buffalo Bill catches live bodies. Of course, the grand finally of the similarities is the tapestry of flesh Buffalo Bill creates to cover his own and its connection to the sutured up, necro-skin of Frankenstein’s monster.

Then there’s Hannibal. Even though it’s not a new concept, the idea that Hannibal is a contemporary and realistic Dracula is an interesting one. He lives in a prison that holds ties to Dracula’s castle, he shows very little emotion like the undead, and he even has the slicked-back hair like Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the Count. But what I want to point out is his need to feed. His hunger is more than just physical, although he does eat people. His game of quid pro quo and his need to psycho analyze others stems from his hunger to feed off their pain. Just as he offends the senator (like the troll he is), he devours Clarice’s painful memories. He’s an emotion vampire. So, if he enjoyed Clarice’s memories, why didn’t he want to kill and eat her too? Well, even Dracula fell in love. Clarice relates to the innocence of the world, the willingness to sacrifice herself to save others; she’s the opposite of Hannibal and Dracula. Clarice is Mina, and Mina is the reincarnation of Dracula’s love. Dracula wants to pull Mina into the dark side, which Hannibal attempts in his own story. The movie adaptation of Hannibal was changed from the book, but in the book Hannibal succeeds in changing Clarice--they become creatures of the night together.

So, why is it Harris’s characters send shivers down my back while other killers in the same genre (whichever that might be) do not? It’s because they share so many characteristics with the old-fashioned, supernatural monsters I’ve always loved--the ones that gave me bad dreams as a kid. I know I talked Harris up in my last blog, but again, I have to say he’s very talented and has ingeniously taken something old, updated it, and made it something unique and personal.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Unwinding the Tension in Red Dragon

Red Dragon is intense. It's the type of book that reaches out with gloved hands and a hanky doused in chloroform to kidnap readers from all other genres. There were things about it that I didn't enjoy, such as the shifting from past tense to present tense at times, but they were minor quibbles, and I assume probably completely personal issues. For the most part, Red Dragon is a shining example of why I need to put down my dark fantasy books for a while and appreciate other forms of fiction.

This was my first experience reading a Hannibal book, and that's mostly due to the fact that serial killers with motivations, Hannibal included, do not usually scare me. I've also seen the movies, which I enjoyed, but they didn't drive me out to read the books. Despite my tardiness in reading any of this collection, I have to say, the story builds and handles tension terrifically, making Red Dragon a fine example to analyze for developing such skills. The majority of the tension wasn't created with horror or gore, either; the tension came from character interactions, and mainly from Hannibal, Graham, and Dolarhyde/the Dragon.

Hannibal and Graham are my favorites, so they'll be first. Graham considers himself, along with most of the world, to be psychotic. He's faced traumatic events, which have injured his perception of life, and he is now able to get into the minds of serial killers. So, he's a good guy, bordering on the darkness. Hannibal mirrors his darkness, and through the book you see Graham struggle with the darkness and the light inside himself, which is represented by his family. Hannibal loves Graham for the similarities they share. He is in awe of Graham for catching him; however, Hannibal also hates Graham for catching him. There's also tension between the two due to the coincidental events that led Graham to reveal Hannibal as a murderer: Graham did not outsmart Hannibal, only got lucky by connecting a few clues.

Hannibal and the Tooth Fairy interacted very little, but their correlation should be mentioned. I call the Dragon by the name Tooth Fairy here because when he communicated with Hannibal, he was known by that name. And since little was known about him at that time, the reader is left unsure which persona wrote the toilet-paper letter--the Dragon or Dolarhyde. Anyway, Hannibal appreciates the Tooth Fairy's accolades, but I also got the feeling he held himself higher than the Tooth Fairy, considers the Tooth Fairy to be lesser of a person and a killer. Tension is also created as their very interaction was prohibited, written on toilet paper and then via personal ads. To top it off, when the police found out about the communication, a second level of tension was added because the police covered up the fact they knew of the correspondence. They then played on it in an attempt to catch the Tooth Fairy, who then proclaims himself to be the Dragon.

The Dragon and Dolarhyde are essentially the same character for Graham. He's hunting one killer and that killer bites back. When the killer strikes back, essentially both the Dragon and Dolarhyde are releasing their anger of the world on Graham because they both hate him. When Freddy Lounds is tortured and set ablaze, the Dragon and Dolarhyde do so to taunt Graham. In the end, their goal becomes Graham and his family. In this book, these two characters become the two kings on the chess board, playing games to trap eachother. The tension for the rest of the tale spirals from their interactions.

Dolarhyde and the Dragon are important to distinguish because their goals do not always align. The Dragon wants to kill, and Dolarhyde wants to become the Dragon. Dolarhyde tries to control the Dragon by ingesting the artwork of the beast and does so because his goal becomes living a normal life with Reba McClane. When this dream collapses, his goals shift to those of the Dragon; in other words, Dolarhyde fails to achieve his goal and becomes the Dragon. Since the differentiation of their goals is whether Reba McClane lives or dies, the tension between these two characters is the greatest for me as the stakes are the most real, brought the most to life, in the story--the fate of McClane’s life depended on how Dolarhyde and the Dragon interacted.

So, those are the main characters of Hannibal and how they interact with each other to cram this book full of tension. They, of course, interact with secondary characters to build a three-dimensional story, but it is still the interactions between Hannibal, Graham, and Dolarhyde/the Dragon who make this story so exciting and fascinating.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Terrible Tuesdays: And It Turned Out Fine

Vincent_AF / Free Photos

Today, as part of an introduction and example of memoir writing, I told my class an intense but ultimately positive story about myself. Today was my first day of class, and I've been in a optimistic mood, so today's Terrible Tuesday theme is worst case scenarios that turn out fine.

The story I shared took place in Japan. My parents, my ex-wife, and I were in Hiroshima, and wanted to visit a floating shrine. We were running late because of extra time we took at the A-Bomb Dome and surrounding museums, so we faced missing the last ferry to the shrine of interest. We weren't fluent, and it wasn't to surprising when we boarded the wrong train. We wanted the express but wound up on a ride that would detour, getting us to the ferry after closing. We disembarked and paid the extra for the thirty-minute cab ride to the dock.

A ferry pulled away right as we arrived, but we learned there was still one more for the evening. We were in luck! At least until my ex realized she lost her brand-new camera. So, we ventured to a police box to file a missing camera report while my mom stayed to head on the the shrine, and my dad waited at the dock.

After filling out the report with the police we waited with my dad at the dock. Time passed. A boat pulled up, let people off, and pulled away. When the dock lights shut off, we realized my mom probably wasn't coming back.

We pounded on the ticket window, and the frightened salesman informed us, after a drawn-out translating conversation, that no more ferries would be coming. My mom was stuck on the island.

A taxi driver approached us and tried to get a hold of a sea taxi to pick my mother up, which would have been costly, but we couldn't just leave her on the island alone all night. Plus, our flight left for Sapporo early the next morning. However, the sea taxi guy never answered.

We had no more options.

After standing around for an hour, cops showed up--the same ones we reported the missing camera to. They asked for my ex, then took us back to the police box where they had my mother on the phone. Apparently, when she missed the return ferry, she broke down crying and security took her to a hotel where someone spoke English.

She was fine and stayed the night on the island. In the morning, she woke up, took a return ferry, and caught the express train back to our original hotel just in time to get in a cab with us heading for the airport.

A few weeks later, after my parents had returned to the states, a report of a camera turned up. A taxi cab driver found the camera, turned it in, and upon getting a hold of us, the company mailed it from Hiroshima to Sapporo in a COD package.

So, it was a rough night. We could have lost a several-hundred-dollar camera, could have paid hundreds for a sea taxi, or could have missed our flight the net morning and needed to buy four new tickets. Or my mom could have been abandoned and forever traumatized by an overnight in a creepy, deteriorated boat house. Things were bleak. I'm not sure it was a Tuesday, but it was terrible, but everything turned out fine. I even got a cheery little yarn to tell.

So, what are your yarns that turn out fine. Anything push the breaking point just in time for things to take a turn for the best? I look forward to those stories.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Terrifying Tuesdays: Death Cars

Albert Edwin Roberts / Free Photos

In an attempt to make this blog a little more interesting, and since I am a horror writer, I've decided to start a new weekly post: Terrifying Tuesdays. Each Tuesday, I will post a blog concerning something spooky on my mind. Please comment on and discuss the topic because I want to hear your scary stories, too. To start, I've decided to write a post on cars.

In our culture, cars are extensions of their drivers. We care for them as we would our homes, and like houses, cars can become twisted and spooky. From Stephen King's story Christine to the infamous Truckasaurus Rex, cars easily become monsters. So, I want to hold a discussion on some personal terrifying cars that have haunted me.

I drive a Toyota Highlander and have received mail suggesting I could experience sudden acceleration. Though I'm prepared for such an occasion, I've never experienced it. The scariest driving experience I've ridden through took place one brisk October night years ago while I was driving my ex-wife's Pontiac Grand Prix. It was around 9 pm. Dark clouds filled the sky, and I was cruising at 60 miles per hour, heading north on Nebraska Highway 10 toward Kearney. I was supposed to be meeting up for a Halloween party. The stereo blared and the heater blasted, but when I hit the rear defroster to take care of some fogging, the the Grand Prix shut off.

Speeding along at 60 MPH, I was left in the dark. No traffic, no street light, just total darkness. The power steering abandoned me. I beat at the dash until I hit the emergency blinkers--they turned on giving me a strobing light to guide the car by. I pulled onto the shoulder and let the car slow to a stop.

The car started up fine after that, and it never gave any other problems. Still, I never forgave it for trying to kill me. I also didn't feel too nostalgic when some idiot turned in front of my ex-wife and totaled that Grand Prix--of course, my ex came away without a scratch.

It's my understanding that had I panicked, overcorrected, and wrecked, this problem would likely never be replicated, and I'd be left saying, "The car! The car did this!" So yeah, that car scared me.

I need to give an honorable mentioned to a hearse I saw one night in Pennsylvania. I had been picking up some groceries at Wegmans around eleven and came out to find a decked-out hearse parked next to me. The thing glimmered with a new coat and pristine hubcaps. Purple neon lights illuminated the undercarriage and interior. Decorative skull(I hope decorative, at least) dangled from the rearview mirror. If I'd seen the thing in broad day light, I'd probably shrug it off as some goth teen trying too hard, but being next to my car in an empty lot in the middle of the night got my skin tingling.

So, there's my car stories. What experiences have you had in cars that you'd like to terrify us with? What cars have you seen that gave you the willies?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Everyone Has Problems

Church of Dead Girls was a struggle to get through. The majority of the book could be used as an example for what new writers are taught not to do: the majority of the book is telling, head hopping occurs on numerous occasions, and an overload of names muddles characters up, creating shallow outlines of what they could be. Dobyns can write, and when he gets going, he can suck readers into the story, but then he breaks up the narrative with more bland telling.

Dobyns is a talented writer and tried to achieve something very difficult (illuminating the mentality of an entire town under tragic hardship) in this work; however, in this ambitious attempt, the book suffers.

I read this book as an examination of psychopaths in fiction for class, so when analyzing it, a suitable question I asked was "who is the psychopath?" The initial response would be the murderer (I won't give any spoilers as to whom he or she is), but upon further contemplation, Dobyns wasn't writing a book about a psychopathic serial killer; he was writing a book about how communities respond under stressful situations in psychopathic ways. Under stress, tensions build and eventually explode. Neighbors turn on neighbors as everyone looks to segregate those with differences, such as looks, religion, or philosophy. In doing so, some characters become parasitic, manipulative, superficial, egocentric, and even criminal.

This book could be compared to Lord of the Flies. Consider the monster in Lord of the Flies, how fear creates stress on the tribe of boys, eats away at the society they brought with them to the island. The boys disintegrate and begin murdering each other. Society is a structure humans create to sustain order, but stress is the downfall of that structure. When it collapses, psychopathic tendencies grasp all of us. And I think Church of Dead Girls does a great job of illustrating how everyone harbors some psychopathic characteristics that wait to surface. The narrator is untrustworthy and hints that he might even be the killer when he discusses some of his morbid and voyeuristic fascinations. The narrator hears a lot of gossip, too, which further illustrates how everyone in town has similar tendencies and the need to live vicariously. No one should be trusted, and even if a neighbor isn't a killer, he or she might be just as guilty of having problems.

I loved the ending scene as the murderer is chased through a park and into the woods. By this point, many people in town have purchased guns, and they all run around shooting at anything that moves. This is a climatic demonstration of what humans become when they're terrified. I think it's also a bold statement on gun control: maybe guns serve to protect, but if everyone owns one, the very fear guns are created to protect against is the stress that will wound or even kill innocent people. This book suggests our society is not sane enough to responsibly bear arms. Imagine what would have happened on the island in Lord of the Flies had there been guns amongst the boys.

So, Dobyns attempted to write about the psychoses of a whole town, but in doing so, he resorted to overwhelming readers with characters and telling the majority of the details and backstory, which may have achieved his goal but did so in a way that made this book difficult to get through.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Revealing the Truth in Psycho

Psycho may have been a short book, and I may have seen the movie a few times before, but the reading experience added to my conceptualization of this tale. I'll be honest: it's been years since I've seen the film. So, although I knew the story and remembered the two famous scenes (the shower murder and the dead mother revelation), the gooey goodness that holds this work together had been lost in me memory. That forgotten goodness, however, was pretty delicious upon revisitation.

A major contributor to why Psycho works well is because of how it handles revelation. I can't imagine picking this book up and not knowing Bates has a multiple personality disorder, he's the murderer dressing up as his mother, and his mother is actually a corpse--I think babies come out of the womb these days knowing the spoilers to this story--but let's try to look at how the story works if I had known nothing relating to it.

Bates admits he has problems from the get go: he mentions the possibility of having a Freudian complex and mentions he and his mother both might be in danger of being institutionalized. Readers are not given any reason to doubt the narration covering Bates’s POV because he admits he's a little less than sane. Isn’t admitting you’re not sane one of the first steps in being sane?

During the shower scene, the murderer is described as being a crazy old lady. This second POV, from the eyes of trusty Mary, gives readers every reason to believe the mother is alive and on a murderer spree. After the shower murder, Bates has a conversation with his mother. The dialogue is handled like regular dialogue, so readers assume someone is actually speaking, that the words aren't just in Bates's mind. A tricky deception, but it works because no one else is present in the room and the conversation is real for Bates.

The first revelation of Bates’s psychosis comes from the sheriff. While discussing the missing investigator, the sheriff mentions the investigator lied about going to talk to Bates’s mother because Bates’s mother killed herself years before. Readers are flabbergasted by this revelation. The story has articulated the mother's presence so well that the assumption is made that the sheriff must be wrong; the mother spoke a direct quote for crying out loud. However, Bates has hinted to the fact of his mental instability, so readers gather that maybe the narration has played a few tricks.

A bit later, Bates admits to Sam that he dug up his mother, but this conversation happens so quickly, readers are left wondering if Bates is out of his mind or if some form of black magic is taking place, since so much foreshadowing has been given to the occultist books Bates has read over the years. This book is called Psycho, though, so readers assume the explanation is not supernatural. However, at this point, the complexity of the mystery leaves readers skewed, fragmented on the truth behind the situation: readers have gotten into the confused mind of Norman Bates, unsure what’s really happening, because the story is working so well.

The final revelation coincides with the end. Lila finds the stuffed body of Bates's mother. That solidifies the idea that she's a goner and that Bates is psychotic. The final pages quickly wrap up the story, giving a layman's-termed explanation through Sam so that readers are not overwhelmed or confused by psychological jargon. Although a few issues are not fully explained, the ending works in solidifying Bates’s mental state. And, of course, the most sane personality inside Bates is lost, giving way to the mother personality, which has prepared to be institutionalized, as long as they don't execute her. Her sanity is further clarified when her final thoughts illustrate that how she treats a fly really might determine the judgment she receives. Sorry, Ms. Bates, but not so much luck there.

I must also mention that I have referred to one of the fragmented personalities as a she and mother. Psycho works well in characterizing the distinct personality of the mother, differentiating it from Bates. The separate personalities are clear enough to have separate pronouns, a sign that this book succeeded in illustrating the complexity of the problems inside Norman Bates’s mind; the book does not reduce Bates to a shallow, two-dimensional representation of a murderer. Well done, Bloch. Well done.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lycanthropic Lizards, Oh My!

On the jacket of my copy of Relic, there’s a quote from the Hartford Courant that says, “Relic is as good as this type of novel gets.” Above that, another quote claims it’s a thriller, but I think it successfully incorporates several genres--yet, at its core, it’s a mystery. Of course, in this mystery, the murderer just happens to be a monster.
Readers aren’t left guessing who the murderer is. Instead, they wonder why the murderer is in the museum and what the motives are of the numerous characters in the story. Since I consider this a mystery, and I will be discussing the entire story, I would like to give a fair warning that there will be spoilers in this blog.
Okay, that’s a fair warning. So, back to the monster. Until the prologue, readers assume the creature is an environmental abomination, but the prologue suggests the monster is a hybrid, a lycanthropic lizard. Although it took me until the end to realize who the beast turned out to be, I had my suspicions, for a long while, that the creature was originally human.
What gave me my suspicion was one of the factors that qualified this novel as a mystery: elusive details. Relic is filled with scientific details, which mirror the qualities of human interrogations. At one point, a computer program even resorts to witty dialogue as the scientists try to determine DNA matches. Through the book, details are given and details are left out; readers are never given a complete picture, but a picture is painted. That picture included an unstable virus that mutated a plant that this monster fed upon. The picture also included a suspension of disbelief that this creature miraculously evolved and was a sole survivor in an isolated jungle. One plus one equals.... Realizing the suspension of disbelief was too far fetched and considering the possibility that the virus might mutate humans spun the solution in my mind--as I’m sure it did for others because mysteries are set up to keep readers thinking, trying to solve the case, and feel proud of themselves when they do.
As a hybrid, the monster held more of a punch for me. Thinking of a person morphing, becoming addicted to drugs, losing their humanity, and turning murderous--this all made the creature more horrifying to me than a jungle monster on the loose (and for the record I hated both versions of King Kong). I also found the mystery of how Whittlesey ingested the plants disturbing. There was a suggestion that he was force fed them, and that made me cringe with delight. However, I found that to be improbable. The monster was intelligent and apparently kept some parts of his human memories if he decided to come back and stay in New York; if he would have been tortured into becoming a monster, I think he would have just ripped the skulls off every Kothoga in the world before catching a ride by to the Big Apple. But this is just a guess.
The second concept in the book that sent shivers up my spine was the monsters larder. Thinking of a monster hoarding bodies of people and pets for years in tunnels just beneath my feet is quite disturbing. Also, the idea is solidified by including two victims who had taken part in the story prior to their decapitated bodies being discovered.
From what I’ve said, it should be obvious that Relic was worth reading and it did have chilling moments, but I must say; I was not enthralled by it. I imagine part of this was the characterization of the protagonist. There were many characters, but Margo was arguably the main protagonist, and her character came across as pretty blank. At times, I thought her character could be taken out, her interactions could be changed to inner dialogue, and the story would not be altered in the least. Although, she’s set up as having some complicated issues (her father’s passing and her career decision), her struggles with those are ignored. She tends to sleep walk through the whole story on a crutch. That crutch is always a male counterpart: Moriarty, Kawakita, and Frock. With Frock, I always pictured her standing behind him, holding herself up with his wheelchair--as if it were a crutch--as opposed to just pushing him. Pendergast, although arguably not the main protagonist, was the hero of the story and had a much more interesting back story that played into his character. Too bad none of the other characters shared such gifts. I enjoyed Pendergast’s character and can see how he’s being setup to be a hero in one of the other books, which is one of the main reasons I’m interested in picking them up.
I’m torn up about the epilogue. Although I did enjoy the twist, I couldn’t buy it. I know Kawakita thought he had manipulated the virus, but selling it as a drug seemed a bit silly (did Kawakita have party prescription connections the entire time?), and I can’t help but believe he would adjust his work or give it up if he started noticing significant changes in his sleeping habits. On a side note, if the government is willing to keep a small batch of Smallpox around for whatever reason, there’s no way they’d just burn all of this plant--which didn’t matter for this story, but I wondered if it will play more into the sequels.
On a final note, I loved the setting. The gothic and decrepit images I pictured were beautiful for a horror story. My only concern was--how can a building stay supported when its foundation floods every time rain hits. Most houses that flood will have collapsed foundations within a few years, which can lead to condemned properties or complete destruction. Again, I’ve heard that in Europe cities are built on top of other cities, so maybe there’s a construction style that doesn’t need to worry about severe flooding. I just don’t understand how it’s possible.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Little Ride Through the Snow

Imagine, if you will, you’re at an amusement park. Not a high-end park like Cedar Point but a traditional one that you might find in any smaller town. Maybe there’s a little Ferris wheel, maybe there’s a log flume, and if you’re lucky, there’s a beat up roller coaster that creaks too loudly as the carts turn a corner. Chances are you will also find a haunted house or Wacky Shack there. Picture that in your mind--the cheap carts grinding on their tracks, the rubber rats that pop out, the laughing witch with the wart on her nose.
Now compare that to the best seasonal haunted house you’ve ever been, too (mine would have to be Mystery Manor in Omaha, NE). Or better yet, compare the cheap amusement park ride to any actual haunted houses you’ve visited Which did you enjoy more?
I know you’re wondering what this has to do with Malfi’s Snow? Well, I look at Snow and similar horror books as I would an amusement park ghost ride. The thrills are cheap, nothing is exceptionally scary, these rides have their moments that I appreciate, and in the end, I hop on every time I visit the amusement park. I enjoy these rides. I’m reading The Relic now, and although I’ll provide a full blog soon, I can say it’s turning out to be more like a haunted house that is devoted to only being the scariest thing imaginable for one season of the whole year, or more authentic like the supposedly haunted places I’ve been. I suppose I still have to wait and see, but the characters in The Relic seem to have depth, the facts seem to have been checked and rechecked, and the story is dense and full of layers that my mind is constantly trying to grasp.
Although I enjoyed Snow, I have to admit it didn’t have layers. The characters were even so blank I have trouble remembering their names; however, the protagonist, Todd, is trying to get home for Christmas with his son, but a snowstorm gets him stuck in Chicago. Him and a team set out with a rental car, but find a stranded man and get stuck in a town being attacked by snow creatures. Eventually, after a few deaths, the team is able to access the internet with a laptop and call for help. While they wait, Bruce, the heroic martyr of the story, blows up a gas station, killing all the possessed citizens with him. The protagonist gets shot by a pregnant woman looking for a little vengeance, but that’s all right because Todd lives and sees his son once again.
The book had some twists, turns, and some unnecessary explosions, but it was a short read, and I enjoyed my time in it. The snow monsters worked for me in some ways, but failed in others. I initially pictured them as wraiths or angel-like incarnations, but later, they’re described as being similar to snakes; I preferred my original image. I found the monsters to be a revamped version of the wendigo myth--a creature that possess a person, commits evil deeds, partakes in cannibalism, and is sometimes a giant snow creature. The main difference to me was that the monsters in Snow are tangible when exposed to fire, but wendigos, the way I’ve heard of them, are an intangible evil that corrupts a person (maybe something similar to The First in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Still, all in all, I thought the monsters worked.
I liked the snow. There’s been mixed sentiments regarding the snow, but I love snow--partially because it’s beautiful yet freaky. I like cold weather. I love being inside, sitting next to a fire and reading a book, on a blustery day while the clouds cover the sun and sky and while I watch the snow sift to the ground or whirl in a fiendish dance. This book gave me the same feeling as such snowy days. I think specifically, I enjoyed the scenes that took place in private homes the most: the scene when Todd and Kate have breakfast, when Shawna is climbing the stairs, and even the memory Shawna has when she looks outside and sees her neighbor just standing out there, watching. Cozy and terrifying go together like sweet and spicy.
I liked Shawna. Although I loved her death scene (sticking her hand in her own vomit, climbing the staircase, the debate of waking up from the nightmare, and having the whole town race down to devour her), I was really sad to see her killed off. She worked so hard and was so memorable that I felt cheated, as though her effort was useless while Kate did very little and still lived. Plus, with one of the few tasks Kate was given, taking care of the kids, she failed horrifically.
The story ends with the revelation that this occurrence was not isolated to one town, then an epilogue elaborates on the idea of some of these creatures escaping. This concept was foreshadowed earlier when the town’s mutated children cause Todd to realize there might be monstrous kids roaming the hills for years to come--an image I thought was exceptionally creepy. In the epilogue, the man who caused the rental car to stop in the beginning of the story returns. He has his daughter, and they’re at a gas station. He buys a box of adhesive strips and claims they’re for later--I love this ending! The book leaves readers to speculate the next step for the escaped creatures, and it’s gruesome. I can only imagine their skin will eventually rot and fall apart, and they will need some bandages to keep themselves together.
So, even though Snow might not have been the best horror ride ever, it was fun. Maybe it doesn’t meet the standards of more-filling horror novels, but I didn’t regret reading it, and I never considered putting it down, which I’ve done with other horror books. From what I’ve heard, Malfi gets better from here, so I’ll look forward to diving into the next thrill ride he has in store for me--I’ve heard Floating Staircase is very good.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What Narcissism Teaches Us

     Clive Barker’s story, Human Remains, caught my attention in a few different ways, and I’m not exactly sure where to start. I think I’ll begin with what’s eating most at my mind. Recently, numerous Facebook friends reported reading, and concurring with, a article about how men are trained to hate women. I disagreed with a lot of what David Wong says in his article, but one segment stood out me as grossly unfair: in Wong’s final point, he mentions that men are only fascinated with the female body and believe women are, too. Wong uses the supportive example of male writers focusing on a female point of view--however, Barker disproves Wong’s theory.
     In his article, Wong brings up George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I’ll confess, I have not read the series, but I really needn’t have read the books to realize Wong as misjudged his quote and that many writers are unfairly criticized for their depiction on the opposite sex. Just because a male writer describes a female character’s breasts does not mean the character thinks only about breasts or that the writer believes women always think about breasts. Comparatively, just because a male writer describes a male erection does not mean the character only thinks about his penis or that the writer believes all men always think about their penises. Wong’s ideas are ridiculous and a bit fortifying of the stereotypes our society has worked to break free from over the years.
     More specifically, Wong quotes Martin writing, “When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest ...." Compare this to Barker’s line from Human Remains: “Keen for reunion, he slid out from his skin of sheet and duvet. His body turned to a column of gooseflesh as the cold air encased him, his sleep erection hid its head.” Most men don’t always think about their penises, but this detail helps the frigid cold of the story come to life for the reader, just as the nipple irritation of Martin’s quote spoke to me when I read it. As humans, we are all sexual beings, and from time to time, we (male or female) do think about our bodies. To try to pretend women never think about their breasts would be as ludicrous and sexist as thinking they only think about their breasts. Likewise, men only thinking with their penises is a stereotypical joke for a reason--it happens, but not all the time.
     I’ve read on other blogs that some readers have problems with the grotesque details in horror stories of urinating out of fear and soiling oneself out of pain. These details aren’t necessary. The story works without them. Not everyone thinks about how dead people defecate themselves. Some do, though. I do. The creators of South Park do. The little girl in the Showtime series Shameless does. The rationalization of the biological ramifications of expiration speaks levels for a character. Either the character is morbidly humorous or completely logical (possible something else, but those are the two character branches that spring to my mind). Similarly, having a character relate to a fascination with his or her sex should speak to that specific character. If the character isn’t one to ever consider his or her genitals, yet the character does, then that’s a fault with the writing--not men’s perception of women or vice versa. A character that admits to herself, if not others, that a wool sweater is killing her nipples will be a character much more outspoken than a character that just mentions she’s wearing a wool sweater. Also, a character that claims he has a “swamp down there” as he sticks his hand down his pants to scratch his festering case of jock itch will be a lot more cocky than a character who is too dignified to really consider the burning between his legs.
     Gavin’s character worked. He was as narcissistic of a character as I’ve ever read. He thought he was so beautiful that he humbly sacrificed himself to the creature that admired his looks and life so much. Barker’s homosexuality does not interfere with the almost asexual nature of this character, just as a male writer’s sexuality should not interfere with a female character’s sexuality. Barker sets a shinning example of how a character’s thoughts and concerns should relate to his or her own personality and desires. Gavin thinks about his penis because he’s fascinated with how his own body looks. Maybe if I read the rest of Martin’s work, I’ll find flaws with the characterization, but it’s unfair to criticize Martin’s writing because he is a male writer mentioning a female character thinking about her breasts. Every person and every character is different from everyone else, and as long as the rest of the character fits, Martin has not made any unrealistic assumptions of women or humankind in general.
     Okay, so with that rant out of the way, I’d also like to discuss the monster in Human Remains. Fundamentally, this living doll is a golem (forgive me if there’s folklore that predates the Jewish legend for I’m unaware of it). Barker takes a unique and creative spin on the golem. This creature not only protects but also feeds on its master--vampiric, really. To further the originality of this story, Barker has chosen a superficial character in a superficial career, prostitution. The master only cares about his body, and the golem cares only about the master’s body. Everything regards the same theme, so this story works well. I suppose the same story could have been done in Hollywood with supermodels, but the grunginess of a prostitution ring makes this tale so much more delightfully dirty.
     The story ends on an ironic tone as the monster becomes more human than the human because it learns how to mourn--how to feel. Ending included, I enjoyed the story thoroughly. I should also point out that I respected the informative scene where the golem describes itself. It claims that it is the only one of its kind that it’s aware of, that it’s done this numerous times before, that sometimes it’s challenged and defeated, that it never dies. This revealing was enough for me to feel satisfied with an explanation yet yearn for a just a bit more, which is a fantastic place to leave readers fixating over a story after reading it.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Oh, The Things You'll See

I had never seen The Thing before. I messed up and rented the new film and watched it before I watched my borrowed copy of the original. Apparently, the new one isn’t just a remake; it’s a prequel. Oh well, I know that now, but I wonder if that affected some of my viewing experience (i.e. Nauls’ earring and the mystery of whether he was human or alien).
For some reason, I have avoided these movies. I’m not sure why--maybe, I had the wrong impression of them. They seemed more like sci-fi, alien-with-tentacles movies, and although I suppose they were, the alien had demonic attributes. In fact, the creature that merges in the prequel and becomes the conjoined burned corpse in the original resembles twine guards that become cenobites in Hellraiser Bloodline. The alien in The Thing was extraterrestrial, but it did not necessarily behave in an animalistic or even general alien manner. This pleasantly surprised me, finding an alien that seemed to be branching off mutilated limbs and skinless skulls just for the sheer thrill of terrifying its victims.
The setting in The Thing is important, an isolated scientific command post in Antarctica. The isolation and cold create a sense of anxiety, helplessness in viewers. I immediately think of and compare this to Silent Hill, Storm of the Century, Phantoms, and The Shining. However, I liked those settings more. They seem more gothic--abandoned human structures shrouded in darkness (or in the Stanley Kubrick’s version, shrouded in an abundance of light). The command post in The Thing seems too remote and unfamiliar to me, so I don’t get the chills as much. In these other stories, venturing into an abandoned small town or a resort gives me something I’m familiar with but takes me out of my comfort zone. These examples are like being in a school after dark. During the day, students understand that setting, but at night, it’s unfamiliar and leaves itself open to numerous possibilities. On the subject of schools, Lady in White is one of my favorite examples of atmosphere--a dark, empty school on Halloween. This film takes place in the 60’s, but the details are right, the decorations feel authentic, and the air is filled with tension and stale dust. Even though it’s not surprising and the effects are cheesy when a ghost comes out to play, I still get chills every time the protagonist gets locked in the coat room of his classroom because I can imagine myself in that situation and feel the anticipation of what I might witness.
Both versions of The Thing offer a similar scene--everyone playing and drinking in a rec room--and I suppose that was enough to familiarize me with the whole location. And despite the settings I didn’t care for as much, the movie was done so well that I didn’t mind; I enjoyed investigating the abandoned Norwegian outpost (even though I’d seen the prequel), and discovering the mini spaceship under the storage room outside. However, this setting just doesn’t lend itself as well to horror as abandoned public areas. For another example, I think of the Resident Evil series. In most of the games, you start in a residential/public area (a mansion, a city, a police station, etc), but after some time, you progress to a scientific research facility. I suppose this relates to the story and the plot, but sometimes I wish things could just stay in the original settings because I like them more. Maybe that’s part of why I like Silent Hill more than Resident Evil, as you progress, you progress into even creepier, yet still familiar, areas (private homes, amusement parks, boardwalks). Regardless, I’m sorry I’ve waited so long to see The Thing. I think this probably would have inspired me had I seen it when I was younger.
Since I’ve mentioned video games, apparently there’s a The Thing video game sequel to the movie--has anyone tried it? Also, a new Silent Hill is out and another one is due out within the month. Downpour is getting mixed reviews, but I’ve never met a Silent Hill I didn’t love. As for the one that’s still due out, it’s for PS Vita, and although I love Silent Hill, I cannot justify handing over the bucks for a new system just for one game.

Friday, March 16, 2012

"...I am quite dead."

     Although werewolves are some of my favorite monsters, the movie version of The Wolfman has never been a favorite of mine. Even the remake seemed to be a let down. I think the Oedipal connotations didn’t work for me. The movie always seemed more about sending a message of sons dethroning fathers rather than presenting horror; the story was put second to the message, and the message wasn’t that clever. This novelization, however, seemed to steer away from that message, present more demonizing aspects of the werewolf curse, and focus on the insanity of the father. I enjoyed this novel, and it gave me more respect for the movie. Plus, I had forgotten how much I love the line “Look into my eyes, Lawrence, you’ll see that I am quite dead.”
     I suppose werewolves can represent the bestial Id within a person, but The Wolfman runs that idea further and delves into Freud’s theories. Lawrence and his father apparently fight for the mother’s love, and Sir John’s Id murders her. Then, Gwen enters the picture (whom I always related to a secondary mother figure), and the Oedipal problems arise again. This time Sir John’s Id kills his son. Everything spins out of control until the end when Lawrence and Sir John fight for supremacy. Although werewolves lend themselves to this story, I always felt the underlying messages cheapened the greatness of the tale.
     In this novel, as opposed to the films, Sir John’s insanity is brought out, or at least I didn’t notice it so much until this reading. Sir John never meant to kill his wife, and that drove him mad. In the films, I always felt he, at least halfway, killed her deliberately. The same with Lawrence’s brother. In this book, thoughts, actions, and details were drawn out more, so I got more of an impression that Sir John had lost his sanity, and reason to live and let his inner beast have control, compared to the movie where I felt he was fighting to be an alpha wolf.
     The religious descriptions given in this book worked well. Although I never felt that in the movie the werewolf curse was anything more than a disease spread by bite, the book made me think that although it may have been like a disease, the curse was demonic in nature. This made the werewolf even scarier. For an overdramatic comparison--there’s being chased by a rabid dog (maybe realistic and scary in its own way) and then there’s being chased by Cerberus (a bit unrealistic but mysterious and more terrifying). A werewolf bred from a biological issue is not as scary as one bred from ungodly energy, at least not to me. The movies do not use such religious undertones. Instead, they rely completely on the superstitions of the gypsies, and those superstitions even seem to be heresy compared to the actuality of the werewolf disease--they don’t really provide any insight or help in dealing with the problem. Making the wolfman demonic makes this story more terrifying.
     This story is a classic. The wolfman is a monster legend, and I love him. Even though I loved bits and pieces of the movies, those versions of this story never really satisfied me. Reading this book has reminded me why I like the wolfman and the potential monsters have. I look forward to rewatching the remake to see if I notice any more differences or if I have remembered the story incorrectly.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Hey, Alien, You've Got Something on Your Back

Alien is classic. It holds high ranks in popular culture, science fiction, and horror cannons. Although at times I wish the creature looked a little less human and wish the tongue-mouth was a bit more pragmatic, this monster is a star example of how monsters should be focused on in movies and books. Even though this movie was made over thirty years ago (causing effects to be a bit dated) the scarce attention drawn to the alien keeps the creature looking realistic and terrifying even today. Viewers are given a few split-second full shots of the alien and a few more quick close ups, but the camera is never focused on the monster long enough for viewers to find flaws. When shots are given of the monster, viewers are then too focused on the creature’s actions to spend any time dissecting for faults. 
I’ve heard the creature was partially influenced by insects, and I can see that. Besides the cocooning, eggs, and parasitical spiders, the movements and actions of the mature monster remind me of dealing with an insect. In the case of wasps and exceptionally large spiders, I always feel excessive anxiety because they are so unpredictable. The alien was similar. Take the end for an example--it’s on the escape vessel with Ripley, and it’s lying on its side, sticking its tongue in and out. At first, I thought that didn’t make any logical sense, but then I realized that crazy insects act the same way: running into walls over and over, crawling in circles, sitting still for hours. The alien successfully evoked the same anxiety as an insects, an anxiety that most monsters have not brought out in me because they incorporate too much human intelligence into the creature.
I need to mention H.R.Giger, his art, and the similarities between Alien and Rawhead Rex. At first, it’s difficult to see a connection; however, after looking at Giger’s uncensored art, the fact becomes obvious that he incorporates a lot of genitally into his creations. Regarding the alien, I’d like to point out the phallic shape of the head and the long hard rods extending from the back. These notions had me analyzing the film during this viewing more than I ever have before. 
Two scenes really stuck out to me: when the alien’s tail begins to fondle Lambert’s leg and when the robot dies. In regards to the first scene, check out this deleted scene. I think the positioning of the alien’s tail really says it all when comparing the alien to Rawhead.
The other scene, when the android dies, has always bothered me, but I’ve never grasped why. I knew it was something with the blood. For some reason, I related it to curdled milk and found it disgusting to see the gunk covering the robot’s face and the liquid spewing from out of its mouth. During this viewing, I could not help but think of something else, something that has stemmed from a Japanese term (ぶっかけはおいしいだよ)--definitely holds some similarities with Rawhead’s actions in the church and his baptizing of the priest.
I don’t know if Ridly Scott necessarily intended the sexual connotations throughout this movie, but after this viewing, I think it’s hard to deny their existence. Regardless of accepting or criticizing these connotations, the movie and the monster hold up even thirty years after the making. This film is a shinning example of what horror creators are out there to do.
On a final note, I look forward to Prometheus. I’ve read that even though it’s not a direct sequel, it will touch on the origins of the “Space Jockey,” which is something that has crossed my mind on more than a few occasions. Thirty years after the original, Ridley Scott returns, and I’m excited!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Zombie Appreciation: The New Standard

World War Z (WWZ) falls short in only one aspect: it's not a novel. Novels have character arcs, development, and differentiated voices. WWZ serves as a documented retelling of a zombie apocalypse, which leaves the novel-like characteristics at the wayside. I'd compare it to The Things They Carried, which was a collection of short war stories, but those short stories had a focal character that developed and grew from the experiences; WWZ has no such character (unless you consider humanity as a whole a character). However, the book succeeds in so many other aspects and makes no false promises of being a novel. From the start it declares itself to be a documented retelling of the zombie apocalypse, and those familiar with Max Brooks know the this book's predecessor, The Zombie Survival Guide, which was neither a novel nor a collection of stories. So, if readers don't expect a traditional novel and don't mind some monotony in character voices, they can expect one of the best zombie books ever from WWZ.
Brooks knows his stuff. Only a handful of times did I think to myself certain details seemed implausible. One tale I disagreed with spoke of the French trying to reclaim tunnels under cities. I've been in the tunnels under Paris, and they are extremely creepy, but I still cannot see any strategic advantage of reclaiming them. Much like the sentiments regarding the North Korean population disappearing into a mountain, I believe the general concept would be to seal up the caves and only open them after a hundred years, after the zombies had deteriorated to a more manageable state.  If reclaiming the caves was a necessary feat and they were filled with poisonous, explosive gas--I can't think of a reason to torch every inch of the caverns, incinerating all zombies quickly. Maybe it was a structure issue, but I never considered that as a worry.
While I read, a few important details really stuck out to me because I thought Brooks was ingenious to think of telling them. One regarded populations heading north, then freezing to death. Most modernized nation have grown to a stage that renders basic wilderness survival skills unnecessary. When modern humans attempt to jump back into a primal survival lifestyle, evolution and the survival of the fittest would spring into effect--most everyone would freeze and starve to death. It's truly terrifying to think if the world were to change tomorrow how few of us would be able to manage. I honestly don't think I could cut it. I'd give it a good shot, but I don't think I could pull my weight.
Two other ingenious details Brooks mentions include the zombies under the ocean and a global strategy of dealing with zombies. Ocean life freaks me out, so imagining naked zombies roaming the ocean floor side by side with giant squids really chills me. As for the battle plan, Brooks makes several great points that zombies are not the real problem. Survivors have to deal with ferals, mutants, crazed individuals, rebels, and the psychological battles of putting friends down that have turned. The problem isn't killing a zombie, it's convincing your neighbor it's time to kill his wife when she's ready to eat him. Or your husband when he's ready to eat you. It would take a slow, steady plan that consists of what could only be described as heartlessness to survive, but I agree that humanity would survive.
I appreciate that Brooks wrote a book in which humans survive because I really don't think humanity is so fragile to succumb to a plague. Although I'd probably die, I know that, in the very least, there are humans much more adept at living on nothing in the middle of nowhere, and they would keep the species alive, destroy all zombies, and repopulate the earth.
Although Brooks does not have a novel here, he tells one of the best zombie accounts I know of. His realistic details of politics, war, strategy, and global workings allows this  work to excel. His zombies work because even though they're explained realistically through pseudoscientific details, enough mystery allows them to remain unpredictable and scary. At the heart of is book, Brooks has the telling of a global plague, which just so happens to be a plague of zombies, and plague tales are one of the few things that terrify me. Even though this book has monstrous details of how zombies act, this story will stick with me because it gives such a realistic account of one of my greatest fears: a widespread epidemic. With WWZ, Brooks has set a new precedent for zombie stories, and it's a high bar to meet.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The monster is whom?

Barker’s a head hopper. This technique distracts me. But with that said, I love The Yattering and Jack. A terrifying view of hell, for me, consists of chaos, but adding in bureaucracy humanizes monsters and forces them into the confines of the mundane world of status, education, jobs, rules and structure--the world of humans--and creates comedy. However, Barker realizes this and uses the humor to add color and depth to his story.
Part of the depth presents the question, who was the monster? To answer this, I consider the idea of “the other,” which basically determines that the Yattering (which makes sense because he’s the demon and all) is the monster to Jack but also, inversely, Jack is a monster to the Yattering. Jack is a victim, but so is the Yattering. The Yattering doesn’t want to be there and hates Jack. Even though Jack is human, he’s in on the game, knows the rules, and puts up a fight. The Yattering, as demonic as he might seem, is presented with the same terms of defeat: the descent into madness. The Yattering loses, and in his moment of frenzy, breaks the rules of the game and becomes Jack’s servant.
Barker plays with notions of terrifying. Two clear examples spring to my mind from this story. The first regards the climax, in which I was laughing while I read. The Yattering makes a Christmas turkey dance around the kitchen, then proceeds to spin everything in the living room until each item combusts. Being assaulted by dead poultry and shrapnel from an explosive Christmas tree do no terrify me, and I don’t believe Barker intended to do so. He meant to make light of a terrifying situation, a poltergeist, to add a unique spin and interpretation to the subject. He succeeded.
The second example of Barker playing with the notion of what’s terrifying concerns the Yattering’s character change. At the beginning, the Yattering is a sexual deviant causing mayhem and wanting to be promoted in his career. After losing his temper, losing the battle, he quickly changes and gets described in innocent terms (tail between his legs and childlike eyes), as if he’s just misunderstood. I thought this was hysterical. Not only can humans beat monsters, but we present a fate worse than boring day jobs, literally, a fate worse than hell. Again, Barker succeeds in making readers question the norms of horror.
So, Jack suffered, fought back, and won, giving a hopeful message to readers. I appreciate that because without some structure, some basis for the protagonist to succeed, the story is pointless and hopeless--I feel as if I wasted my time reading along. On the other hand, too much structure can cause a piece to become comical, but Barker knew what he was doing and played up the comedy in the story, mixing it elegantly with the horror. Head hopping aside, this was a fun yarn. Well done, Mr. Barker. Well done.