Tag Archives: horror

Walden: Escape to Zombie Mountain (a horror novel somebody really needs to write)

11 Oct

So, I was sitting in English class today, poring over Henry David Thoreau’s Transcendentalist classic Walden, when I had a brilliant idea.  It was the kind of brilliant idea that comes without warning, a bolt of electricity shocking the torpid mind of a college senior in a freshman English class at 8 am on a Tuesday.  That kind of idea.  You know what I mean.  And the idea was this:

Somebody needs to turn Walden into a horror-fantasy novel along the lines of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Think about it for a minute.

Genius, right?

He's halfway to zombiehood already. Look at those circles under the eyes.

Walden, for those of you whose minds and imaginations also occasionally drifted off during your 8 am English courses, is a book (nonfiction) about a man who lives in almost perfect solitude in the woods for two years, communing with nature, building rickety shelters for himself, and all around disappointing the parents who put him through Harvard.

But take this 19th-century intellectual, Henry David Thoreau, place him in a post-apocalyptic landscape of roving bands of hungry zombies, and you’ll never look at Transcendentalism the same way again (“I went to the woods to live free of the undead,” or something like that).

I can see Thoreau escaping his little Northeastern town, overrun by hungry corpses, and hiding out at Walden Pond for his survival.  But, being Thoreau, and feeling all at one with nature in his hermit-like life, he finds himself realizing that the zombies have it right: They suck all the juices and marrow out of life like real men (literally).  The following is an actual quote from the real Walden:

I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way.

Thoreau naturally grabs his buddies Emerson and Whitman, and joins the zombie hordes just long enough to get brutally dismembered and die screaming.  But they lived, you know?  They followed their own Truth.  They didn’t conform to the conventions of a society that told them to run from the undead parasites taking over the world.  That’s the path to a life of quiet desperation.

Anyway, I think Walden‘s in the public domain, so: somebody get on this.*

* 50% of royalties to me, goes without saying, amiright?

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You are now entering… the Twilight Zone (review: Beneath the Surface of Things)

23 Apr

Has your immersion in the mundane prepared you for the possibility that everything you’ve learned…is wrong?

That’s what horror author Kevin Wallis asks in his short story collection Beneath the Surface of Things, anyway.  It’s insight into the title of his book:

There are other worlds within our, fantastic and horrifying realms where vampires hold dominion, Heaven and Hell war in the dner down the street, and that dog who sits nightly at your feet dreams of snacks that taste more human.  Open the door to these worlds, and a phantasm might show you the secret to salvation, a corpse lying in the snow may sing a song of redemption, and the monsters of your childhood dreams plot their escape from your imagination…and into your backyard.

Because under the veneer of convention lies the truth.  And the truth might just devour those who look beneath the surface things.

Now I’m not usually one for extended author introductions, or author commentaries on their own stories.  It tends to strike me as affected and slightly pretentious.  But in this case, I’ll give Kevin Wallis a pass: that brief except from the intro gives a better picture of his short story collection than I ever could.  And besides, it reminds me of that classic tv series of horror and science fiction–The Twilight Zone.

I took a class called “Twilight Zone Culture” in American Studies last spring.  The basic academic premise of the course was that Rod Serling could slip social commentary under the McCarthy-era censorship radar by writing screenplays in the sf/fantasy genre.  And how could anything serious be hidden in something so frivolous as science fiction?

Well I don’t know how much social commentary’s lurking in the pages of Beneath the Surface of Things, but the story collection does echo another prominent feature of the famous 1950s/60s classic: like Serling, Kevin Wallis takes a scene or scenario from everyday life and turns it into something thoroughly twisted.

Wallis takes something as prosaic as a men’s camping trip and transforms it into an encounter with some horrible Cloverfield monster ripping off heads and  using skulls as gruesome jewelry boxes.  And yet, all throughout, the characters maintain total realism.  What would you do if your camping buddies were being decapitated by some Lovecraftian behemoth from beyond (or beneath)?   For our narrator: “I had to fight, not out of some suicidal notion of nobility, but for no other reason than because it’s what men do.”

And what’s more mundane than American masculinity?

That’s just one example (from one of my favorite shorts in the collection).  But it illustrates exactly where Wallis excels as a horror author: believability.  His mastery of suspending this reader’s disbelief is as developed as any giant of the genre.  I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for a full-length novel sometime in the near future… as well as checking under my bed before I go to sleep for the next couple weeks.

Final Verdict

Reading time: Short story collections are great for the simple reason that they don’t require long periods of downtime to enjoy.  Read one or two on your lunch break, between classes, or waiting for your name to be called at the Student Health Center.  That’s my experience, anyway.

Recommendation: I’m not much of a stickler for strict genre distinctions.  When I put Beneath the Surface of Things in horror and not some horror/sci-fi mix, I use the H.P. Lovecraft litmus test.  When Charles Stross writes about monsters from the cosmic abyss, they’re summoned by arcane mathematic equations and computer programs.  That’s sci-fi.  Kevin Wallis doesn’t give complex explanations for his monsters.  That’s not a criticism, just a distinction–and it means you can feel safe giving this book to new sf initiations.  SF for speculative fiction, not sci-fi.

Availability: $4.99 for an ebook’s a little steep, I’ll admit.  As usual, I’ll recommend getting a free sample first for a taste test.  Here’s the book on Amazon.

You might also like: The Passage, by Justin Cronin; The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft; The Atrocity Archive, by Charles Stross; The Stand, by Stephen King

Oh the horror! Now Reading: Beneath the Surface of Things

19 Apr

I’m 300 Kindle locations into Kevin Wallis’s short story collection, Beneath the Surface of Things, and, if I’m going to be honest, I’m both appalled and disgusted.

Which is all for the best in the horror genre.

Here’s what they’re saying on the Nets:

“An impressive, often unnerving, and always gutsy collection, Beneath the Surface of Things easily marks Kevin Wallis as a writer to Beware of with such stories as Redemption Song and No Monsters Came That Night. Every story showcases Wallis’ determination to break through the so-called boundaries of dark fiction and explore disturbing and sometimes even eye-opening new worlds, some without, but most within.  You owe it to yourself to look Beneath the Surface of Things.”

Gary A. Braunbeck
Bram Stoker and World Horror Guild Award winning author
of To Each Their Darkness and A Cracked and Broken Path.

Wallis currently has seven 5-star reviews on Amazon, with a low of one 4-star review (oh, the shame!).  I’ll get you my final verdict shortly, but if you my opinion doesn’t carry that much weight (and really, it probably shouldn’t), here’s Beneath the Surface of Things on Amazon.  Check out the customer reviews if you dare.

History of Science Fiction by a Really Meticulous Artist

10 Mar

This may be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen–even if it wipes the table with my rag of a blog.  Ward Shelley must be brilliant, crazy well-read, and a bit of a digital humanist to make this:

Click here for the complete version. Also, someone let me know if this is for sale as a print.

Branching from the Gothic novel’s fine, but personally, I’m not sure that Gormenghast belongs so very close to “Sword and Sorcery” tales.  Anyway, see Flowing Data for more really intense data visualization projects.

Update: This has been the 185th post of the Scattering.  There will be more, soon–it’s Spring Break!  And because I’m kind of ridiculous, I’ll be spending it reading SF.  Up next: The Doom Guardian, by Julie Ann Dawson.

Literature in a Facebook Note (review: Isobel, by Darren Scothern)

7 Jan

Let’s talk about Facebook.

Like most people, my list of friends includes the requisite number of half-remembered acquaintances who managed to creepily track me down despite the fact that my profile picture is Ben Linus’s face and I’m pretty sure I never gave them my name anyway.  They’re the people whose statii overflow with cliched observations about the transient nature of love or heartache or whatever.  They’re the kind of people who post their terrible rambling poetry on their profile as notes and get comments like “omg i know exactly what u mean!!!1!!1” or “you’re so brave!” or “UGH get over yourself” (and before you ask, no, that last one isn’t my comment… not to say that I don’t like it).

I’m not a fan of those people.  I’d even come to the conclusion that Facebook notes were useless and pathetic by their very nature until yesterday, when I read Darren Scothern’s novella Isobel. Darren Scothern is an award-winning horror/science fiction writer who’s bringing back the Facebook note in a big way–posting Isobel in serial installments on his wall before publishing on the Kindle platform in November 2010.  I still don’t quite know what’s going on–but whatever it is, it’s freaky and fantastic.  As the book description on Amazon says: “Take a trip into insanity.”

Isobel follows our narrator on his confused quest to research a peculiar rock band–but that quickly gives way to hallucination, madness, blood, psychosis, blood, sex, and a mysterious woman named Isobel powering a wheelchair (or is she?) and grinning from under her copper hair.

And that’s as coherent as I can get.  The fact that the narrator’s a horror writer writing in first person doesn’t clear anything up either.  As he writes in the intro:

How much of what follows in what you are about to read is true, and how much is just fantasy, I can’t tell you.  But, there is some of each.

That’s all.

And therein lies the genius.  Like Mark Z. Danielewski’s famous House of Leaves, Isobel is a highly stylized piece of writing less about the plot than the literary effect: surreal, confusing, dissonant, dark, dreamlike (or druglike), and utterly, utterly disturbing.  It’s the perfect example of cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling’s definition of “slipstream”–a quote, by the way, I have on my Facebook page:

“This is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.”

When done wrong, you get the worst type of postmodernist fiction.  When done right, you get the horror/SF amalgamation of Danielewski or Scothern.  And needless to say, it’s not easy to do right.  I don’t throw around the word “brilliant” very often (unless I’m talking about myself, naturally), and I almost never call something I review “literature,” but Darren Scothern’s writing fully deserves both descriptors.

I’ve heard it said somewhere that you know a book or a story is “literature” when you walk away from it feeling changed.  Isobel does that–in the most disturbing way.  Who’d have thought you could get that from a Facebook note?

Reading time: An hour… two hours… It took me longer, but then, I felt compelled to read the story twice.

Recommendation: This is one of the best (if not the best) piece of indie fiction I’ve reviewed on this blog, ever.  This post (if you couldn’t tell already) is an unqualified recommendation.

Availability: Isobel, along with Scotthern’s other short story collections, are available as Amazon ebooks (Isobel for $2.99).

Also Reading: Bedtime Stories for the Apocalypse

30 Oct

Zombies, Vampires, and all sundry undead creatures are perennial Halloween staples.  This year, of course, we might be seeing a whole lot of Lady Gagas and Iron Men, along with sparkly Edward Cullens and shirtless Jacobs, but everyone knows that post-apocalyptic scenarios are classic October 31.

Hence, as I finish up The Quest for Nobility, the Scattering is also reading Bedtime Stories for the Apocalypse (2009), a collection of short stories by Minnesotan horror/sci-fi writer Joel Arnold.  From Amazon:

Got your nightlight on?
– A man journeys with a pregnant stranger, while unseen aliens deal out punishment from above.
– A phone call in the middle of the night reminds someone of a chilling mission.
– A priest’s skin oozes a healing elixir.
– A self-absorbed husband monitors the end of his existence over the internet.
– A teenager digs through a deep crust of waste and bone to win his freedom.
– A school field trip reveals a disturbing method for protecting our children.

We’ll be into the happy holiday season all too soon, so for a few days this year, at least, let’s consider some of the myriad horrible possibilities of eschatology.  Cthulhu fhtagn, everyone, and Happy Halloween!

Mommy’s Little Monster (Splice review)

30 Jun

In the movies, horror and science fiction go hand in hand—or maybe just horror and science.

Think Gattaca, Serenity, even I Am Legend with its cancer-curing, zombie-creating virus.  The message tends to be: Don’t mess with Mother Nature.  And while Will Smith makes a pretty badass scientist trying to save humanity, in a lot (dare I say most?) of these cinematic case studies, the labcoat is code for creepy.

Splice seems pretty conventional in that way.  Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are the power couple of genetic engineering.  Getting the cover of Wired in the first five minutes of the film, they run a pharmaceutical lab called N.E.R.D. (Nucleic Exchange Research and Development—awesome acronym, right?) and blast rock music while synthesizing proteins.  Not to mention their boss introduces them at a major research conference as “Splicemasters extraordinaire”—which sounds like a bad DJ name, but ties in pretty well with Clive’s tricked-out labcoat (see above).

In any case, Elsa and Clive are the best in the field, and determined to go further than anyone else—quoth Dr. Kast: “If we don’t use human DNA, someone else will.”

That’s right, human cloning.  Well… not exactly.

I’m not sure exactly what it is about genetic engineering that gives people the heebie jeebies.  And I’m not just talking the Right to Life, tape-over-the-mouth-at-rallies set—there’s simply something shiver-inducing about anemic nerds snapping on blue latex gloves in a laboratory (pronunciation: luh-BOR-uh-tor-ee).

Maybe it’s the fact that a movie like Splice might not be science fiction for long—heck, we cloned Dolly in 1996.  For all we know, someone decanted an amphibious, winged human hybrid with a spiky tail even as you sat in the theater and lost your lunch.  Or maybe not.  But whoever wins the stem cell debate, there’s one thing I’m convinced of: eventually, whatever can be done, will be done.

And here’s the twist: I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.  In fact, I’m not sure that the Splice subtext says it’s a bad thing either.

Spoilers ahead; if you haven’t seen it and want to, here’s my review in a nutshell– Splice gets five stars for creepiness, five stars for moral conundrums, and five stars for being flat-our bizarre.  I loved it.

For me, the creepiest thing about the movie wasn’t the Clive-Dren sex scene, nor even the Dren-Elsa rape scene—it was Elsa, in the barn, with a tape recorder.

But let’s back up.

While I was away in Greece, my dear Charlie and her boyfriend drove out to Edwards Cinema in Brea to see Splice.  Charlie likes scary movies—even if The Ring did turn her into a skittish mess for about six months of 2002.  Doubtless, they went in expecting something along the lines of Pan’s Labyrinth in terms of atmosphere and creepiness level (Splice was produced, after all, by the twisted mind of Guillermo del Toro himself, and there’s not much more disturbing than Goya’s “dark paintings”).  According to Charlie, they slunk out absolutely disgusted, asking themselves exactly what Brody/Clive exclaims at the climax of the film: “What the fuck is going on?”

When I came home, Charlie discouraged me from seeing it, telling me I’d be “embarrassed” if I did.  I, having no shame and having promised myself to be a faithful follower of all disturbing science fiction, whatever the format or genre, didn’t listen to her.  Of course, because she wouldn’t come to the theater with me, I had to watch the movie on Watch-Movies on my laptop, which was well enough.  I’ve always thought Top Ramen’s a much better movie snack than popcorn.

And so the buffering ended, and I hit play.

Splice started off conventionally, with the conventionally self-confident scientist couple saying things like “What’s the point if you can’t publish?” and “Are you telling me you don’t need to know?” and best of all, “If God doesn’t want us to explore his domain, why would he give us the map?”  Clive shares a “double-helix high five” with his brother, and Elsa indirectly compares herself to God by calling Fred and Ginger (her first new species, two slug-like masses of puckered white flesh) “Adam and Eve.”  Nothing terribly unexpected.

Things start to get weird during what I call the “birth scene”—Dren’s dramatic entrance into the human world.  Having developed from a baby blastocyst to a real monster in a much shorter amount of time than either Clive or Elsa anticipated, little Dren (Nerd backwards, btw) has to be blasted out of her amniotic tank.  Elsa, trying to feel for the creature through an opening in the decanter, gets her arm stuck—stuck as in stabbed—by the fetus’s noodly appendange.  Stabbed repeatedly as Clive smashes the tank, Elsa pants and screams and cries out throughout the entire birth scene.  Symbolism, much?

Clive and Elsa’s journey into parenthood doesn’t stop there—actually, besides the fact that their baby has strange double-jointed legs, a seam down the top of her head, and a fencing foil for a tail, raising Dren seems eerily familiar.  Always crying, Dren has a fit over her gooey green meals of “bean curd, roughage, and starch,” craving instead, as the scientists note, “high-sucrose foodstuffs.”  In English: Dren won’t eat her vegetables, but she sure likes sugar.

And to Elsa, Dren can do no wrong.  In a moment of pure parental adoration, she suggests revealing Dren’s existence to the scientific world (Clive, understandably, is horrified).  Elsa’s only argument?  “Do you think they could really look at this face and see anything less than a miracle?”  It’s the proverbial face only a mother could love.

Elsa gives Dren her old Barbie to sleep with, teaches her how to put on make-up, and tries—it seems—to be the mother she never had.  We get hints throughout the movie that Elsa didn’t have the most idyllic family life.  Not only did she live on a creepy farm in the woods, she had a monster for a mother.  What exactly her mother did is never explained (which bothers Clive as much as it does me), but as Elsa says: “If you could understand crazy, it wouldn’t be crazy.”

Which begs the question—is Elsa crazy?

Bizarre as it may seem to raise a hybrid baby made from your own DNA (another thing Clive didn’t know until very late, but which the audience could guess just from previews), Elsa was a good mom who brought out the human side in Dren—the girl who could disembowel a rabbit in the woods upon arrival at the farm but who, after playing dress-up with an old tiara of Elsa’s and looking at an old family picture of mom, can snuggle up with a kitty in the barn.  It says something about nature and nurture.

But about ninety minutes in, Elsa-as-mom snaps—or rather, Elsa turns into her own mother (a woman’s tragedy, as Oscar Wilde would say).  After an argument with Clive in which the still-wary dad shouts “When did you stop being a fucking scientist?” Elsa pulls out the labcoat.

Dren is back to “Subject H50,” strapped on a metal table and discussed, once more, like an experiment.  This, to me, is the most chilling scene—an indictment of human psychology, not Dren’s.

“Physically, H50 has evolved well,” Elsa says into a tape recorder, flat and clinical.  “However, recent violence behavior suggests dangerous psychological developments.”  The problem, Dr. Kast postulates, is “caused by a disproportionate species identification.”  In other words—Dren thinks she’s human, and she’s not.

Or maybe it’s Elsa having the dangerous psychological turnaround—she seems to have taken Clive’s question to heart… or brain, I guess.  When did she stop being a scientist?  My guess is, when she became a mother (that’s the answer to everything, right Jacob?)  And to remedy the problem—caused by Elsa’s disproportionate identification of Dren with the human species—Dr. Kast disowns her daughter.  Literally, she strips the human from Dren—wiping the make-up off her face, snapping the necklace off her neck, and cutting the dress off her shivering body.  And then, with a sinister syringe squirt and scalpel, she cuts the stinger and venomous glands out of Dren’s tail.

But Elsa’s not the only slightly disturbed member of the cast.  Clive, after some serious misgivings (shoor, he tried to drown Dren thirty minutes in), is the first to tell Dren that they need her, that they love her.  He is the subject of her first crayon sketches, and he is the one to introduce Dren to music.  Of course, things get creepy fast when he teaches her to dance in the barn, and sees Elsa in the shape of her lips and curve of her neck.

To make brief a disturbing climax (oh god, I really didn’t want that to be a pun):

Elsa walks in on Dren and Clive… doing it; Elsa freaks out; the Watch-Movies recorded audience laughs until some girl shouts “Shut up!”; Clive absolves himself by claiming that “We changed the rules”; Dren gets a fever and dies, and the grieving parents bury her; the N.E.R.D. boss figures out what’s going on back on the farm and demands to see Dren; he can, because it turns out she’s not dead—she just underwent a gender-switching metamorphosis.  Man-Dren rapes Elsa; Man-Dren kills Clive; Elsa kills Dren.  It’s like a Shakespearean tragedy.  Kind of.

And in the end, Elsa gets what she wants: a baby.  Too bad she had it with her clone instead of Adrien Brody.

As the credits rolled, I was stunned—but not embarrassed like Charlie had promised.  Splice was disturbing, sure, but not outrageous, and there’s an interesting subtext.

“Was this ever about science?” Clive demands of Elsa after realizing that Dren isn’t just a clone—it’s Elsa’s clone.  To answer his question, one would think not—Elsa had some mommy issues and passed them on to the next generation, and Clive’s libido is going places nobody wants to see.  In fact, the movie itself really isn’t about science about all, or the dangers of a new creation.

Like in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the “creature” is not inherently destructive or evil.  Frankenstein, which has become a byword for a monster, is the name of the doctor—who neglects to raise the child he made.

It’s all about the creators.  But really—what parent doesn’t mess up their kids?