Monday, January 30, 2012

They Do Exist!

While in Japan, I came across crab creatures that, besides their coloring, seemed identical to the spiders in Breeding Ground. I didn’t stick my arm in to experiment with the consequences of a bite, but check the video out and decide for yourself whether a bite might have inflicted as much detriment as the web-slinging menaces in the book. I think it might have.

As for the story, there’s plenty to talk about, and overall I enjoyed it. I did have problems with the ambiguity of the ending, the blatant misogyny occurring (I think if a guy wrote this, he’d be in trouble), and the fact that the protagonist had more action in a post-apocalyptic world than normal guys get during their best months in a world where women haven’t all exploded. Those problems didn’t stop me from enjoying the ride of this tale, though, and that was what mattered.
So, instead, I’ll spend some time analyzing the monster. The spiders worked. I won’t argue that they were original (they reminded me of the spiders in King’s “The Mist,” which themselves reminded me of actual spiders, grotesque and maniacal), but instead that they were a creative new spin on a horror-inspiring monster. Think of it this way, these spiders incorporate mystery, are unpredictable, and possess a pleasure that spawns from human pain. Readers keep turning the pages to learn more as well as to find out how the protagonist will overcome the fiends.
Just the right amount of mystery keeps readers turning pages. Too much mystery causes me to put the book down in frustration, but just enough, balanced with answers and new questions, keeps me from sitting the book down ever. In this book, readers guess about a plague, are introduced to the monster, are exposed to the monsters habits, are given a likely explanation for the monster, are handed a way of exterminating the monster, and finally introduced to a second monster. This cycle works. Readers never have to wonder about any particular puzzle for too long. They are given an answer and handed the next puzzle.
Besides mystery, the spiders habits are unpredictable and three dimensional. Although they look like an overgrown house spider, on the inside, they are so much more. From the beginning, hints are given, and later elaborated on, that the spiders are telepathic. Instead of dealing with a bunch of pipsqueaks, the heroes find themselves fighting a collective--a more daunting task. Then there’s the bite. I was happy to see an amputation after one hero was bitten because, realistically, my mind would instantly think, Cut it off! Maybe I’ve seen too many zombie movies, though. The bites do act like zombie bites, too, and an amputation isn’t ever enough, so readers get to see another aspect of the collective-type spider: reverse cocooning, which allows one spider to bite a pray and ensures another will get the meal. Readers keep reading just to see what else these spiders are capable of.
Possibly, the most terrifying aspect of the spiders is that they find pleasure in human terror. Maybe that’s what truly makes them monstrosities: they enjoy our pain. Antagonists aren’t necessarily monsters, and maybe that’s because they don’t necessarily enjoy hurting the protagonist or even interfering in the quest. Monsters enjoy this part of their nature, though. Maybe not in every story, and this definitely isn’t the only characteristic that identifies a monster, but it’s usually there, tipping the scales from humane to monstrous. And these spiders have definitely tipped the scales; I’m pretty sure they’ve cocooned the scales and may be feeding on them as we speak, because that’s just how these spiders roll.
So, yes, the book was enjoyable. Was it as tactfully written as Matheson’s works? No. Did it keep me entertained and make me giggle a little? Yes. It had problems. I don’t think anyone will deny that, but it was a fun read and the monsters worked.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

I'm going to a funeral, and I'm taking...

Matheson's works seem to hit or miss completely with me. Although I Am Legend failed in my opinion, "The Funeral" succeeded. Where Matheson's unique style fell apart in the pseudoscience of I Am Legend, his writing flares with stoicism and the macabre in “The Funeral,” which fit exquisitely with the subject of death and funeral services.
Morton Silkline starts the story offering solace for a price, keeping only profit in mind, and never truly taking to heart the deceased. After his initial encounter with the vampire planning his own funeral, though, the narration becomes more disconnected from Silkline’s viewpoint. The question is presented to Silkline whether the job is still worth the profit if the task were even more ghastly, and even a little life threatening. During this disconnected narration, the world spins out of control around Silkline, and he barely interacts with it.
In the third section, the narration shifts back into a close POV of Silkline’s mindset as he decides if his experience changed his mind at all about his job. In the end, his character grows even grimmer when he welcomes a new monster into his office and fondles the gold coins his former client left as payment.
There were two mental notes I made about this piece while reading. The first--this story holds the right amount of spookiness to make me consider it a horror piece; however, it also works as a humorous tale, too. I admire writers who interweave fright and laughter. The two are connected, but I haven't found the fine line that separates them in my own work. I'm also afraid that my morbid sense of humor may influence whether I find something funny when it is really horrific.
The second mental note I made relates more to the stereotype Matheson works with: the uncaring undertaker. This is a short piece, so I think it works, and the story works because the stereotypical character is still challenged and grows accordingly. However, in my experience, undertakers have always been very sincere and warm. It takes a strong person for that position, and if this story had been a longer piece, I think the character would have been more interesting altered in that direction. Again, that's not a flaw in this story. It’s just an element that made me question why this piece worked while I Am Legend did not. I think part of my dislike for I Am Legend stems from finding Neville’s character to be melodramatic and a stereotypical man’s man. Now that I think about it, while I read I Am Legend, I actually pictured the guy from the Dos Equis commercials.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Body Glue!

On very few occasions, I am able to say, "I enjoyed the movie more than the book." I Am Legend is one of those few exceptions. Maybe it's because the Will Smith version was not the first attempt to get the story right on the silver screen. Honestly, I don't remember The Omega Man enough to offer a fair comparison, but just comparing the Will Smith version to the text--the movie kept the monsters scary.
So, after reading I Am Legend, I wondered why I never felt afraid while I read. Certainly, Matheson wanted to create a creature that was realistic and terrifying, a mix of new and old, a combination of science and legend. So, where did he fall short? The phrase that keeps bouncing back into my mind is "body glue." This strange biological manipulation of the fictional bacteria within the host organism sounds more like a child's toy slime than a terrifying feature of an unstoppable demon.
Matheson's pseudo-scientific explanation for the vampires in his story is reflected in the phrase "body glue." By mixing creatures of lore with science, Matheson loses the mystery of the fiend and leaves a story full of gobbledygook that is either too unrealistic or too outdated to take seriously.  I think the hardest pill to swallow was trying to accept that vampirism was created by bacteria. Bacteria is a simplistic species, and as far as I know, not capable of much more than reproducing; altering the characteristics of  larger species seems impractical. Viruses, however, do alter larger species on a DNA level, and even today little is known about viruses (origins, why they exist, if they're living or dead...). I'm not sure why Matheson settled on bacteria over viral infections, but the story lost a lot of potential in that decision.
The scene with the dog is also important to point out. The film version uses pathos to connect the audience to Will Smith and his heroic canine. The written version leaves readers ambivalent. In the movie, Will Smith has the dog from puppyhood; in the text, the dog appears rather late and leaves rather quickly. Readers do not have the emotional connection as the disease consumes him. The text doesn't even show the disease consuming him. The story has Neville abducting the dog, whispering sweet nothings into its ear, and then the story leaves off with a passive sentence: "In a week the dog was dead" (100). Matheson's decision to cut off the dog's life with a passive line leaves readers feeling passive toward the dog, seeing him only as a means to foreshadow that living vampires are able to walk around in sunlight.
And then there's the ending. Although I  didn't completely appreciate the religious undertones the film version offered regarding faith and survival (and butterflies), the slightly optimistic end worked better than Matheson's mutation into another genre. The novel ends with Neville being brought into a new world order to be executed. Out with the old, in with the new, apparently. I believe Matheson was toying with the concepts of alteration and the reversal of mankind being the monster, but I think his theme changed too drastically.  I suppose this portion also reflects the omnipresent fears of the Cold War at the time of publication (the war that brings the disease about also hints at these fears), but they did not mesh with the fears found through the rest of the story. Although Matheson has an interesting story regarding Cold War fears, it's a story for another book. He lost sight of what I Am Legend was really about: the definition of a monster.
I don't want to end with anyone thinking I hated the story. There were several parts that worked very well (when Neville buries his wife and she comes back from the dead), and the premise is genius. If it weren't, the movie wouldn't have worked as well as it did. Still, I expected more.