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.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Templesmith Tells the Better Tale

My feelings are mixed concerning 30 Days of Night. I can never seem to quite decide if I love the art style or if I simply appreciate them. If I love it, I’d feel that the pictures add some necessary characteristic to the mood of the story. If I simply appreciate the art, then I respect the artist’s style, but I would feel that the art didn’t coincide well enough with the narration. The thing is, standalone, I think I love the art, but as part of this graphic novel, I simply just appreciate it. 

 Ben Templesmith also worked on the Silent Hill graphic novel, Dying Inside, which I also questioned my feelings toward; on one hand, the art was disturbing, but on the other hand, it did not match my perception of Silent Hill in any way, shape, or form. Although when I first read 30 Days of Night years ago, I had no precedent for what to expect, I still felt the art deviated too much from the actual story, but I still liked looking at the pictures. I compared Templesmith’s work to Kiki Smith’s, which always seems to tell me a story, but one so complex that it could not be put into words. After reading 30 Days of Night again, though, I wonder if, maybe, I just feel the artwork is too complex or intense, and the narrative is not elaborate enough for the graphic novel as a whole.

As for the story, and keep in mind this is the only volume in the series I’ve read, I did think it was too simple. Vampires decide to attack an Alaskan town. Although I can’t think of a story that’s done this, the concept does not seem original. Maybe it’s just too simplistic so it seems unoriginal. Where the story begins to shine, however, is where it does become original, when the elite vampire steps into town. His presence is the main reason I’ve given this novel more than just a passing glance, since I originally assumed it to be an overhyped graphic piece of pop culture.

The elite vampire represents the darkness beneath the darkness. It’s not enough for me to be scared of a villain or monster. I need something beneath them that is a worse scenario. In Hellbound Heart (or Hellraiser) the uncle is the primary serial-killer villain, but the Cenobites made the story interesting, kept me intrigued. They offered the scenario worse than being murder by the uncle, which was being dragged to a hell-like dimension of pleasure and pain. In 30 Days of Night, the elite vampire provides the worse-case scenario: no chance for escape, everyone burned alive, and eternal vampirism through maintaining secrecy. The initial vampires provided a monster to detest, but the hierarchy demonstrates the mystery regarding this vampire society. Humans have no idea what lurks in the shadows, how far the hierarchy extends--this idea is scarier than just knowing, “Oh, I can’t go to Alaska for one month out of the year.”

 I own the blu-ray of this movie, too, and there’s some differences and similarities I must mention. First, the vampires seem too alien in the movie. They speak a different language, and they can hardly speak at all. The dialogue in the book makes them more accessible so readers can connect to them on the human level, which keeps them scary for me as opposed to considering them large parasitic insects. As for similarities, the creatures looked pretty similar. The art was maintained well in the movie. The vampires looked partially human, but developed some disturbing deformities, mainly their mouths and teeth, which became more shark like than the commonplace overdeveloped canine teeth most vampires strut around with. The other consistency was tone, which the movie helped create with music. Although, the graphic novel has no music (it’s a book, of course), the movie’s music is heavy on bass, heavy to the point where it cause my speakers to pop. This unsettling sound causes viewers to feel disturbed and isolated in the frozen landscape much like the artwork does in the book. The artwork is intense and accomplishes a lot where the realistic imagery of the film falls short; however, the music does help to instill the same emotions.

Overall, I like the work, but I’m not sure if it meets its hype. The artwork is amazing, but I feel it’s lowering itself by associating itself with this almost too-simplistic tale, and I felt the same about Templesmith’s other work, Dying Inside. But when I see Templesmith’s work standing alone, I’m almost always struck with awe. He knows how to draw a picture that tells a frightening story, and in the end, that’s why 30 Days of Night succeeds.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Rah! Rah! Rah! For Rawhead!

Clive Barker’s works confuse me. While I read them, his language tends to lose me. He’s clever, and I appreciate his style; it just doesn’t work for me. Also, his works tend to be excessively sexual for me (except for The Thief of Always, which may be one of my all-time favorite YA novels), even though I can appreciate his fascination with the dichotomy of pleasure and pain. The problem isn’t just with his books, though. I even find it hard to focus on his video games (Jericho took me about two years to get through). However, what really confuses is me is that after finishing one of his works, I always find myself enjoying the it as a whole.
“Rawhead Rex” took me an unnecessarily long time to get through. In my copy of The Books of Blood, this tale is about forty pages long. Being the slow reader that I am, I read a page in between two and three minutes. Calculations suggest this tale should have taken me less than two hours to get through. Instead, I finished this around the five-hour mark. This embarrassing reading time has led me to two conclusions. 
The first is that British English is more difficult for me to follow, especially with the creative liberties Barker takes. These liberties are a double-edged sword. I take these liberties and tend to get criticized for the same issues I’m about to state. When I sit to read horror, I want to enjoy the ride, but having to constantly consider how the tracks are steering me opposed to just following a standard course keeps me from focusing on the story--where I want to be focused. On the other side of this sword, after getting through the writing, I tend to appreciate the story even more for the mind-expanding journey of punctuation. Like I said before, I respect Barker’s style, even enjoy it after the fact, but while I’m trying to sink myself into the story, I become frustrated.
The second conclusion I’ve come to is that Barker’s constant flipping of viewpoints kept me rereading pages to clarify perspectives. I can’t fault him for this because I believe I’ve been too conditioned to expect viewpoints segmented in separate sections, not flipped between paragraphs or, worse yet, between sentences. I was always able to pull together whose head I was in, but not until after I had been pulled out of the story.
So, in the end, I did enjoy the tale. As for Rawhead, the monster, I enjoyed him, too. I didn’t care for the sexual symbolism (would it even be considered symbolic at this point), and I wasn’t scared of Rawhead, but as a villain, I found him deviantly interesting. Good villains provide tough challenges in defeating but are not unstoppable. The reason I didn’t find him terrifying, I believe, rests in the lack of mystery. Readers were put directly in his head and exposed to all of his goals and shortcomings; nothing was left to surmise. Also, the sexuality became comical for me. It was just too over the top.
This blog reminds me, I need to finish Undying.