Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Yuletide Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction: Blaylock, Brom, and Willis

I grew up Baptist, and Christmas was a big deal in my parents' home. I continue to carry on many Christmas traditions even after leaving those Baptist roots behind, while seeking new, less traditional ways to celebrate the season. One of my new traditions has been to seek out Christmas readings that follow in the footsteps of the writer most responsible for the modern revitalization of Holiday spirit, Charles Dickens, in his A Christmas Carol. For that short book encouraged its readers to follow in Scrooge's footsteps to honour the spirit of Christmas by offering four spirits of its own, the very dead Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, who for all of their metaphorical significance were very real to their fictional world. In short, Dickens kicked off modern Christmas with a ghost story, a mix of horror and fantasy. So I took up Dickens' torch and began looking for great speculative fiction reads for the Christmas season, and plan to share my finds each year. I begin this tradition with three outstanding books I can heartily recommend: All the Bells on Earth by James Blaylock, Krampus by Brom, and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

I first read All the Bells on Earth over Christmas of 2010, while studying steampunk for my PhD; while one might expect steampunk, given its ostensibly Dickensian roots, to be a prolific source of Holiday fantasies, there are markedly few steampunk works that mention Christmas at all, let alone focus their narratives upon it. And while Blaylock is one of the seminal writers of steampunk, All the Bells on Earth is not steampunk. Instead, it is one of Blaylock's many urban fantasies set in modern California, and the first I read of an unofficial series Wikipedia labels "The Christian Trilogy." Blaylock himself denies any overt connection, though he admits the influence of Inkling Charles Williams on those books. But don't make the mistake of thinking that means Blaylock is writing fiction for the modern evangelical ghetto where one finds the likes of Ted Dekker. All the Bells on Earth simply uses Christian concepts to drive the wonder of its fiction because it is set at Christmas.

The Christian conflict of heaven and hell is clearly the business of the characters in All the Bells on Earth, though not a one is a regular churchgoer. Some are more aware of this than others. Three powerful businessmen who sold their souls to the devil are keenly aware, as one by one the infernal price of their success comes due. In an attempt to thwart the Faustian bargain, one of these men buys a literal Bluebird of Happiness, which is delivered wrongly to the house of Walt Stebbins, a very ordinary mail-order businessman. Like so many Blaylock protagonists, Walt's a bit of a loser: he's never succeeded financially, and relies upon his wife's income. He's about as normal a protagonist as one could find, and with the arrival of the Dead Bluebird of Happiness in a Jar, he's thrust into the midst of the conflict between darkness and light, good and evil, hell and heaven.

We've seen that story before. However, instead of setting off on a quest for Mount Doom, or protecting the Virgin who is to be Satan's consort, or finding all Seven Seals and Bowls of God's apocalyptic wrath, Walt Stebbins is faced with a very simple problem. The Bluebird will grant any wish he makes. To thwart evil, he merely needs to throw the damn thing away.

But Walt doesn't throw it away, and while he makes up his mind about what to do with it, the struggle between good and evil goes on in very normal ways, in the inconvenience of family visiting for the holidays: his wife's Uncle Henry and Aunt Gladys, parked in their motorhome on Walt's driveway, evoking shades of Randy Quaid in Christmas Vacation. Gladys puts everyone on a nuts-and-grains diet at the time of the Turkey, and Uncle Henry doggedly tries to rope Walt into a get-rich-quick scheme involving a Pope-on-a-Rope, all the while carrying on adulterous liaisons with a woman who works the counter at a donut shop. Other family show up uninvited and nearly unannounced when Walt's wife brings her sister's kids home: the sister has gone off to find herself, and the father is an abusive alcoholic. While the struggle of All the Bells on Earth is ostensibly cosmic, it is worked out in everyday acts villainy and kindness, not a stand-off with a Balrog over the abyss.

Like so many Blaylock books, it's an entertaining blend of dark and light, humour and horror, whimsy and wonder. Just the other night I was introduced to Canadian storyteller Stuart McLean by some friends, and as I listened to the tale of "Dave Cooks the Turkey," I kept thinking, "This is a Blaylock story without fantasy elements." Think The 'Burbs crossed with The Devil's Advocate, and you'll be in the right ballpark. I've read it twice since I first read it over Christmas of 2010, and every year I consider reading it again. Once you've read it, I encourage you to read my deeper analysis of it at Steampunk Scholar.
My second recommendation is for the horror fans. Brom's Krampus is another book I consider reading each Christmas, and that's amazing given that it's about a creature hell-bent for revenge on Santa Claus. I'm a huge fan of Santa, but in Brom's fictional universe, he's the enemy. And don't confuse Brom's Krampus with the horror flick coming out this Christmas season - but it is the story I was hoping someone had adapted for screen when I heard about that movie. Krampus is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's American Gods or Charles de Lint's urban fantasy, if either of those writers had a much darker inclination. Insofar as it is horror, to use Stephen King's breakdown of approaches to horror in Danse Macabre, it's not really terrifying. But there are certainly moments of horror and definitely a few gross-outs.

It's the story of a Jesse Walker, a wannabe country singer who, estranged from his wife and daughter on Christmas Eve, is ready to end it all. Suddenly, a man dressed as Santa runs by, fleeing strangely dressed pursuers intent on doing him harm. He finally evades them in his sleigh, but not before his sack falls out of the sky and through the roof of Jesse's trailer. Like the Bluebird of Happiness in All the Bells on Earth, Santa's sack seems poised to give Jesse whatever he needs, though initially all he can get out it are toys. What Brom does with the sack later in the novel ranges from bloody carnage to genuine Yuletide fun, once Krampus enters the story proper.

Krampus is mostly known for being a satyr-like sidekick to Santa who punishes children on Christmas, but Brom's Krampus promises from the start of the novel to set us straight on the true story of what happened between him and Kris Kringle, to tell us Father Christmas' true name and expose his lies, and to end Sinterklaas's life: "I Krampus, Lord of Yule, son of Hel, bloodline of the great Loki, swear to cut your lying tongue from your mouth, your thieving hands from your wrists, and your jolly head from your neck." He's much more than a Christmas bogeyman in Brom's hands. He's a lesser Norse deity who hopes to restore Yuletide in place of the debased Christmas his enemy has promulgated.

But neither Krampus or Santa prove to be the real monsters in Krampus. That diabolical honour goes to the humans of Boone County, West Virginia, particularly the local sheriff, who is so despicable you'll be hoping someone does something awful to him the first time he steps onto the page. And speaking of pages, there are a number filled with Brom's gorgeous artwork of the main characters, which is good reason to get the physical book or Kindle version, even if you only listen to the text via the excellent audiobook narrated by Kirby Heyborne. Heyborne does a great job with the range of voices, especially Krampus and the evil sheriff.
Finally, for those who need some seasonal Science Fiction, I recommend Connie Willis' Doomsday Book. Really, on any given day, I'll recommend a Connie Willis book to you, but for Christmas, you need to read Doomsday Book. Unlike the two aforementioned books, I can't give much in the way of plot details, because Doomsday is all about its secrets and surprises. Let it suffice to say that it is a brilliant mashup of time travel SF, medieval historical fiction, and medical thriller. Oh, and it takes place at Christmas, both in the past and the future. Willis does an amazing job of blending her page-turning fiction with references to Christmas traditions religious and secular through very convincing character voices. Since it's a medical thriller, it should be no surprise to learn that some of those character voices will go silent (with a title like Doomsday Book, what else would you expect?), and when they do, it's heartbreaking. It's one of my best reads of 2015.

So there you go, just in time for Christmas! I hope you can find copies of these at your local new or used bookstore. And remember - the twelve days of Christmas end on January 6, not Christmas day, so you've got a few weeks to get through at least one of these Yuletide Speculations. Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it, and happy holidays to the rest! See you all in 2016 for my "Best of 2015" list! (And please give me some recommendations in the comments for more yuletide horror, fantasy, and science fiction for 2016!) 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Gareth Edward's Monsters: The Inadquate Response of Giant Monster Movies

A few years ago, shortly after my wife and I purchased an Apple TV as a solution to the death of video rental outlets like Blockbuster, I had the exceedingly rare pleasure, in a home shared with two small children, of having the TV to myself. For those who do not own an Apple TV, or have any idea what it does, understand that is like having a Blockbuster Video in your home, without the frustration of standing in a lineup waiting to check out, and the accompanying temptation to purchase special deals on junk-food while waiting in that same line. While this might sound like a recipe for indecision, it was relatively simple for me to make my choice, given a simple set of criteria:
  1. It would be a film I could not watch with my children, and 
  2. It would be a film my wife would have absolutely no interest in ever seeing. 
So on this rare occasion, I quickly reduced my viewing choices to two films: Zach Snyder’s 2004 remake of zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, and Norwegian director André Øvredal’s dark fantasy mockumentary, Trollhunter. Over the past year, I’ve reflected on my privileging of giant trolls over zombies, wondering if giant monsters will soon crush the zombie hordes which have dominated cinematic horror for a decade beneath their enormous feet.

It might be ridiculous to suggest that movie audiences might trade the grit and gore of zombies for the absurdity of giant monsters, WWE in rubber-suits, since SF films depicting large scale, spectacular destruction are largely read as B-movie garbage, and in many cases, deservedly so. In 1965, Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster” pronounced such films “inadequate responses” to the “most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation,” potentially normalizing the “psychologically unbearable” nightmares of natural disasters, nuclear holocaust, and we might add, carrying Sontag’s torch into the twenty-first century, pandemics, fuel shortages, and eco-disasters. Susan Napier built upon Sontag’s ideas in “Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster,” declaring the somber ending of Gojira a moment of secure horror, given how, despite hinting at the potential of another atomic monster rising from the ocean depths, the film ends on a positive note: the threat neutralized, the monster defeated, security restored. To better understand the difference between secure and insecure horror, consider Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s introduction to Monster Theory, where he states that “Jurassic Park would have been a far superior piece of cinema if its computer-animated velociraptors had in fact ingested the kids they merely threaten,” suggesting that “these monsters arrive at a time when traditional nuclear families perhaps need to be troubled” (vii). That was in 1996, indicating that perhaps Sontag's message still held true.

Since then, giant monster movies such as Gamera 3: Awakening of Irys (1999), J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield (2008), Gareth Edwards’ independent film Monsters (2010), and the aforementioned and critically acclaimed Trollhunter all featured ambiguous endings. Gamera 3’s credits roll with its climactic, but ultimately doomed, battle yet to occur, while Cloverfield, Monsters, and Trollhunter kill off their main characters, leaving the monster(s) still at large. In addition to unresolved endings, these films all share a greater sophistication of special effects with the goal of a greater sense of verisimilitude. Abrams’ Cloverfield in particularly demonstrates what the Japanese have known since the release of Gojira/Godzilla in 1954: if you conflate your impossible beast with real-world images of modern day atrocity, a giant monster movie can be at the very least, if not necessarily horror, unsettling commentary on real-world atrocity.

Of all these examples, Gareth Edwards’ independent breakthrough Monsters best illustrates how the so-called "inadequate response" of the giant monster movie enables viewers to engage with Sontag’s psychologically unbearable nightmares of the modern world. The movie relates the journey of two Americans, photojournalist Andrew Calder (Calder) and his employer’s daughter, Samantha Wynden (Sam), through the Infected Zone, an area where colossal squid-like aliens have been nesting and breeding since their arrival on earth six years earlier. 
That period of six years is crucial to the film's technique: Edwards relates how the producers of the film were worried about how the locals wouldn’t be reacting properly to the monsters, but simply going about their business. This was precisely Edwards’ hope: while we might initially react to a giant monster as the Japanese extras do in Godzilla films, evacuating in terrified hordes, sooner or later people would do what people always do when they live in the shadow of a volcano, along Tornado Alley, in war zones, or in the frozen north of Canada where exposure to the elements can kill you: they get on with their lives. They work around living in the Infected Zone. “Do you feel safe living here?” Sam asks her taxi driver. “Where would go?” he replies. “My work, my family is all here. This happens every year. We just take our chances.” The genesis of Monsters occurred when Edwards watched fishermen pulling a net out of the water, speculating how that scene would play out if it were a giant monster the workers were fishing from the water, all the while maintaining their dispassion. He realized such a reaction wouldn’t be terribly different from Western reactions to atrocity on television. When the War on Terror began, it was front page news. Within weeks or even months, we became bored with it. We regularly catch monsters in our metaphoric nets, or perhaps literal Internets, and think nothing of it.
We don’t think much about populations in the path of seasonal tempests until a hurricane rolls up onto shore and, like Godzilla, who often arrives shrouded in such storms, causes massive damage. Once the Awful Event has occurred, the people who live in the shadow of monsters become front page news, as with the War on Terror. Within days, we have forgotten them. Edwards’ stated thematic intent with Monsters was to parallel how North America viewed the War on Terror. Calder and Sam have a conversation that underscores our propensity for Entertainment News: “Do you know how much money your Father’s company pays for a picture of a child killed by a Creature? $50,000. You know how much money I get paid for a picture of a happy child? Nothing. You know where that puts me? Photographing tragedy.” 
While this was Edwards’ stated thematic intent with Monsters, critics identified another--perhaps more obvious--theme concerning the controversial relationship between the United States and Mexico in film about two Americans trying to return home through a Creature-infested “Infected Zone,” taking the same path many illegal immigrants do in hopes of crossing the border. A number of film critics read the movie in this manner: Lisa Kennedy of the Denver Post called it “part immigration parable, part war allegory,” while Ted Fry of the Seattle Times derisively stated that “‘Illegal Aliens’ might be a more fitting title in disabusing anyone of the notion that this is a monster movie — and in revealing the central irony of a great wall's failure to prevent the northward contamination of undesirable invaders.” The late Roger Ebert stated that “There's an obvious parallel with our current border situation and the controversy over undocumented aliens. And another one with our recent wars, where expensive and advanced aircraft are used to fire missiles at enemies who are mostly invisible.” The 2013 Eaton Science Fiction conference opened with a panel on the apocalyptic, in which Simon Lee encouraged academic scrutiny of films like Monsters because of how the film was marginalized for this message of marginalization. In short, whether they panned or praised it, film critics saw both the Edwards’ intended message, as well as his ostensibly unintentional one. When Calder and Sam attempt to purchase Ferry Tickets from Mexico, “the Infected Zone,” to America, they must pay a high premium of $5,000. The next day, the price is escalated by a corrupt official to $10,000. When Sam’s ticket is stolen, they are forced to take an overland journey through the infected zone: “You have the money, you go by ferry. You don’t have the money, you take the risk.” When Calder protests, “But we’re Americans!” the critical viewer cannot help but assume the rest of their journey into and through the Creature-Infected-Zone is some allegory of illegal immigration.

Edwards has denied that there was any conscious effort on the film crew’s part to generate this reading of the film. Arguably, such a reading might be incidental, the latent byproduct of filming in Central America. Nevertheless, I find Edwards’ protests dubious in light of a scene where Calder and Sam gaze from atop Mayan ruins at a massive concrete containment wall separating the Infected Zone—Mexico—from the United States. When Sam first discovers the ruins, Calder asks, “What’d you find, Cortez?” Postcolonial readings loom as large as the containment wall or the Creatures it is built to keep out, a Containment Wall Edwards had to insert digitally, looked at from ruins that exist nowhere near the real Mexican American border. Monsters’ map is certainly not the territory. This reading is made all the stronger by the moment when Sam and Calder cross over from the Infected Zone into the United States: no one stops them. After all, they are Americans. They are not Creatures, illegal “aliens.” They are true residents.

Postcolonial and political readings aside, the film contains a third layer of meaning which I derived from Edwards’ guerilla-approach to filmmaking. This reading, unlike the obvious contrivance of the containment wall, may well be pure accident. By intentionally shooting the film in Central America, Edwards subtly weaves real-world atrocity with the giant Creatures: in Monsters, the real horror is not in the special effects, but the absence thereof. The aftermath of the Creatures, or engagement with the Creatures by the military, is not entirely a special effect. In the scene when Calder and Sam cross into the Infected Zone, the soldiers with guns are not actors, nor are their weapons plastic props. They were part of a small security force assigned to keep the film crew safe while they traveled on location. When Calder and Sam knock on the door of a ramshackle home in the middle of the night, the woman who greets them is not a professional actor: she is the owner of that home. The tortillas she cooks for Sam and Calder was a moment of very real hospitality, made all the more valuable for the contrast of her impoverished habitation. Admittedly, the gas-masks her children play with the next morning are props, but the barb-wire clothesline they swing upon is not. The images of children next to digital tanks, real guns, and other emblems of war are familiar to us, and the fantasy blurs into reality. We have seen them many times in pleas from aid societies. As with the night-vision television reports of the War on Terror, we became bored and changed our channel. 
Closer to home, the ruined town Calder and Sam walk through after crossing the Mexican/American border is not a set: it is Galveston, Texas after Hurricane Katrina devastated it. Whether the damage is explained by the Creatures or by the attacks upon them by the military, the idea of the giant monster as symbol for Sontag’s psychologically unbearable nightmares of the modern world becomes far more troubling when we understand that the damage we are seeing is real. In this case, the giant monsters, the Creatures, become a device whereby we face real world atrocity, not by gazing directly into the abyss, but by peering at it out of the corner of our eye. Through the device of giant monsters, real world horror can be held at a distance far enough for viewers to deal with, especially in instances where the direct gaze is too intense. As Keith Ferrell, editor of Omni said, “As thought experiment, SF gives readers an opportunity to step outside their own world, to see it reflected through a literary lens that is perhaps distorting but whose distortions are the deliberate work of serious artists and thinkers” (6). Furthermore, the distortions of reality Monsters deals with are the kind giant monsters are best equipped to represent: the real-world apocalyptic forces of so-called “Acts of God” such as flood or hurricane, Central American drug wars, and perhaps most poignantly, poverty. These problems are not solved with tank battalions, fighter jets, or fantastic technologies like the Maser of the Toho Godzilla films. They are perennial problems, ones that never go away, like Godzilla returning to Tokyo again and again. Sontag called the imagination of disaster an emblem of an inadequate response, but what would be an adequate artistic response to problems like these? Is any artistic response to the leviathan and behemoth sized problems our planet faces adequate?
One of the inadequacies Sontag identified about these spectacles of disaster was their focus on extensive views of destruction, not intensive. That is to say, the focus is on the building crumbling, not the people trapped inside. Edwards’ Monsters arguably used an intensive view and ended with a moment of insecure horror, forming an arguably adequate cinematic response to the issues it raises. I had higher hopes for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, last summer's daikaiju blockbuster, but had to enjoy it simply as a bombastic popcorn movie -- a grown up Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Consequently, I was cautiously optimistic about the Godzilla 2014 reboot, given that Gareth Edwards was the man in the director’s chair and the trailers seemed sufficiently connected to real-world concerns. Sadly, since blockbuster films demand extensive pyrotechnics and secure horror’s happy ending, we were only treated to a few intensive moments of insecure horror. So I'm still waiting for another Monsters, and I don't mean the critically panned sequel. I'm waiting for another giant monster movie that will cause us to see the real-world daikaiju: the psychologically unbearable nightmares beyond the apocalyptic fantasy of skyscraper-tall robots and monsters.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Recommended Horror Films

The following are the films I would choose (in no particular order) to view on a dark and blustery night, provided that my wife and kids were already tucked in bed, and I was looking for something to give me chills...or pause...or make me feel that delightful horror, that beautiful terror of the sublime. Happy Halloween everyone!

It Follows - If you are looking for a scary movie for Halloween, a genuinely scary movie, the kind that makes your heart rate go up and stops your breath at times, a genuine horror film, not a gore-fest nor carnival ride filled with cheap jump scares, then you should watch It Follows. I would say I haven't been that scared watching a movie since The Ring, but that would be a lie. I don't think I've ever been that scared watching a movie. It Follows feels like an homage to John Carpenter via the amazing soundtrack and George Romero via its relentless, slow-moving monster. The camerawork is brilliant, the lead actress' performance is very compelling, and the film pulls off its scares without resorting to CGI, while handling its theme of loss of innocence without gratuitous sex in the way every horror film of the 80s did. 

The Descent - this story of a group of women who become trapped in an uncharted cave network is a masterful combination of horror and monster movie, rare for both its emotional depth, as well as for the ability to maintain tension even after the 'monster' has been revealed. One of the goriest films I've ever seen - not for the faint of heart.

The Ring
- don't bother telling me about plot holes in this remake of the Japanese ghost-story Ringu is all about atmosphere; while the actual scare factor is a little low, the surreal creep-you-out factor is very high. The scene at the end where the hair comes over the lip of the well haunted me for days afterward.

Godzilla (Gojira)
- most of us can't relate to how the original Japanese audiences found this black-and-white man-in-a-rubber-suit monster movie terrifying, but we've seen similar reactions to Transformers this past year with references to 9/11. Godzilla is a symbol of nuclear terror, and in this first of a franchise that ended with one of the highest cheese factors in film history, the subject matter is dealt with in a visual poetry difficult to replicate in our jaded, postmodern era. The version without Raymond Burr and with subtitles is the one I recommend.

Sleepy Hollow - I saw this movie two days after I had my world cave in on me in November of 1999. There's something utterly cathartic about the horror genre in regards to deep sorrow, grief, or loss I think. At least this was the case for me in seeing Sleepy Hollow; the monochromatic landscape scooped from Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas mirrored my personal landscape, and the buckets of blood and endless decapitations seemed a fit metaphor for how my future was looking - with its head cut off. Even aside from the temporal and emotional ties I have to this movie, it remains one of my favorites simply for its gloomily brilliant (is that an oxymoron?) mood, and because it re imagined Ichabod Crane in a role which gave greater substance to the overall film. I think I'll watch it again...tonight.
Silent Hill - This film is what you get when you stick a camera in someone's head while they're in the middle of having a nightmare. A really gorgeous nightmare. The visuals exemplify the term phantasmagoria, however dubious the narrative might be. It lives up to its source material, ostensibly one of the creepiest video games ever made, until the last 30 minutes, when it denigrates into familiar Hollywood Horror Schlock, with a style of ending that the horror genre needs to get tired of, and soon. I think the most original ending a horror movie could have at this point would be a completely happy one. Given all the maternal subtext in this picture, it wouldn't have been out of place.
The Host - A daring resurrection of the Giant Monster Movie which is more complex than meets the initial viewing. What is likely to be dismissed as simply another giant monster flick from the East is actually a complex commentary on current issues, just as the genre's seminal work, Godzilla was. Instead of atomic metaphors, the subject matter is a stew of ecological, political and familial. Broken homes, a mutated fish and fragmented rhetoric all combine to make this a film that, unlike some less informed viewers have stated, a film that ought to be taken seriously. That said, "The Host" is enjoyable for all the reasons a good giant monster movie should be. However, like the poster, which would lead one to believe the monster is a giant squid, there's much more in this film than what's on the surface. Highly recommended.
The Cell - Roger Ebert called it one of the best films of 2000, and I'm more than inclined to agree with him. I'm not generally a fan of the serial killer thriller, but the CGI crafted dreamscapes and nightmare settings most of the film takes place in captivated me. The idea of the soul being an place of architecture and structure is a powerful one, and nothing new; 14th century Carmelite nun Theresa of Avila's "Interior Castle" is devoted to it. While the graphics are extremely disturbing at times, the depth the narrative sinks to is commensurate with the heights to which it rises. A visually spectacular project tainted only by the typecasting and tabloid stardom Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn have been subjected to since its release. A film well worth seeing, albeit not for the squeamish.

The Crow - while it is neither horror nor monster movie, it is unarguably a Halloween movie, from its temporal setting of "Devil's Night" ("Halloween ain't until mañana..."), Brandon Lee's makeup transforming Eric Draven into a "mime from hell" (who also bears a striking resemblance to Cesar, the murderous somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) who returns from the grave; upon being told "Don't move or you're dead" by a police officer, replies, "And I say I'm dead...and I move." A supernatural take on the avenging vigilante with some of the best action set pieces in the last twenty years.
John Carpenter's The Thing - If this list had to be in some order, I think I'd put this one at the top. The claustrophobic setting of an Antarctic research station is creepy enough, especially when you add Ennio Morricone's minimalist soundtrack. In the tradition of 10 Little Indians who-dies-next films such as Aliens, and more recently 30 Days of Night, John Carpenter's The Thing stands alone, since each death results in a perfect alien doppelganger, so that the suspense is doubled, and even at the end of the film, the question "who is really human" remains ambiguous, unanswered. A classic.

There are a myriad number of notable films for this list; Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas is an annual tradition, a pastiche of horror motifs but not horror per se, the new miniseries of Salem's Lot with Rob Lowe, the brilliant Shaun of the Dead, and one of my favorite long form creep outs of all time, the first 16 episodes of Twin Peaks. So there you have 'em. A few of my favorites, just in time for Halloween. Hope yours is a good one.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The 200 Year Spec Lit project: Year One

I just laughed as I looked at the title of this post. For clarification, I'm reading 200 years of speculative literature in a decade. I won't be spending 200 years doing anything, unless someone finds a way to achieve the Poulsen treatments from Dan Simmons' Hyperion. I didn't laugh when I looked over how many posts I made last year: a whopping five. But there was a good reason for this. Unlike my previous project, my PhD dissertation on steampunk, I'm not looking to create a web presence or network. I've already done that. And in trying to achieve those two things, I wrote a lot of early posts at Steampunk Scholar that were expressions of ideas only half-formed that people took to heart and quoted or argued against. I'm not interested in posting too much in the way of half-formed ideas this time around. My goal is to have a greater understanding of speculative literature as a whole, not to necessarily review each book one at a time. Consequently, I learned by lack of something valuable to say that the first year of this project was about me remembering to take the first step in any research project, which is to gather ideas.

I teach a book in my introductory composition class called They Say, I Say, which states that we do not write from a vacuum. We need ideas to respond to before we can write. And we should know the conversation we are entering into as well. I'm still in the process of getting into the conversation, having only read primary works in 2014. I found little time or compulsion to read secondary literature. I think that will change now that I have read some of those writers and works I'd only ever had second-hand contact with.

For any who are interested, here is the list of speculative novels and short fiction I read in 2014, in no particular order.

  1. Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
  2. The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
  3. The Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
  4. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisen
  5. Galilee by Clive Barker (Re-read)
  6. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
  7. The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip
  8. All the Bells on Earth by James Blaylock
  9. Krampus by Brom
  10. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  11. The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick
  12. Night's Engines by Trent Jamieson
  13. Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card

Science Fiction
  1. Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
  2. Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey
  3. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
  4. Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  5. Pavane by Keith Roberts
  6. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
  7. "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keys
  8. "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum
  9. Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
  10. Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
  11. War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
  12. The Postman by David Brin
  13. Edge of Tomorrow by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

  1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  2. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  3. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
  4. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
  5. The Broken Hours by Jacqueline Baker
  6. Feed by Mira Grant
  7. 14 by Peter Clines

And I read Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters, which was an anthology of giant monster fiction, ranging through all three speculative genres. Contrary to what you might thing about giant monsters in prose, it was a really great anthology - I only skipped a handful of stories.

Out of the 33 novels and short stories listed here, 25 were from my 200 Year Spec Lit project. Four were from my Speculative Lit Advent, when I read speculative literature related to the Christmas/Solstice/Yule traditions. The rest were just "whatever the hell I want to read."

My second year in this project is moving along well, and, despite regular additions to the stack (which I'm replenishing solely through used bookstores, thrift shops, and local bookstores - I vowed to keep Amazon out of the loop this time), I'm confident this is still achievable in a decade.

Best books I read in each category of speculative fiction in 2014: For fantasy, it has to be The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick, which is one of the most original approaches to both epic and urban fantasy I've ever read. Elves doing cocaine? The mall being a Rip-Van-Winkle time sink? Dragons as sentient stealth bomber? So inventive. I think it's tied with Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, because I've been waiting for a cleric/paladin story for a long time, and Ahmed handles his fantasy religious elements with both verisimilitude and respect. For science fiction, it's Dan Simmon's Hyperion, which nearly became the only novel I'd use in teaching speculative literature at MacEwan next year. It's like one of those beer or wine samplers: there's military SF, aliens, artificial intelligence, post-apocalypticism, space opera, and a dizzying number of great English Lit intertextuality. For Horror, my favourite read was Jacqueline Baker's The Broken Hours, for its strong narrative voice and subtle creepiness. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Death and the Power of Reading

 I do not simply teach literature. I teach how story impacts us and, by extension, our world. This is not solely a matter of discussing social issues in literature, but discussing why story is so important to humans. Why, amid so many other practical disciplines, such as economics or any of the physical sciences, should we study stories? This year I participated in one of the strongest reasons.

My friend George Hardy was dying of cancer, and had recently entered palliative care. We had hoped to see the last Hobbit movie together, for George was a great fan of Peter Jackson's vision of Middle-Earth. Instead, a friend and I decided to read the final chapters of the book out loud, from "Fire and Water" onward. We each came with a copy of the book, and sat beside George's bed. The room contained three other beds, with three noisy tenants. From one, a sporting event on the television, from another, loud, wracking coughs, and from the third, hard rock.

We began to read, but the noise of television, hard rock, and respiratory sickness distracted us. We stumbled over words, mispronounced others. George lay, eyes closed, listening. We kept reading. And then it happened. Smaug the dragon was slain by Bard’s arrow, and Tolkien's language was so evocative, so powerful, we had to pause, then read it again.

The dragon swooped once more lower than ever, and as he turned and dived down his belly glittered white with sparkling fires of gems in the moon – but not in one place. The great bow twanged. The black arrows sped straight from the string, straight for the hollow in the left breast where the foreleg was flung wide. In it smote and vanished, barb, shaft, and feather, so fierce was its flight. With a shriek that deafened men, felled trees and split stone, Smaug shot spouting into the air, turned over and crashed down full from on high in ruin.

George cried, commenting on Tolkien's writing. The language is spare, but wove the spell of illusion nonetheless. The noise of the hospital faded into the background, and we were gone. We were with Bard and the people of Lake Town. We were with Bilbo and the Dwarves. We were at George's bedside, but also Thorin's, as he breathed his final words. 

We read on for two hours, until we read the last lines of The Hobbit. Despite his exhausted condition, Geroge never drifted off. With the Hobbit complete, we went on to begin Fellowship of the Ring, leaving a copy for other visitors to read to George. As George slid from lucidity, one of our readers halted our journey before the breaking of the Fellowship, for he did not want to end on such a dark note. George died a few days later, but had left me one final gift: he had reminded of the power of fiction, that thing which is "just" a story. "Just," indeed. We had been transported.

Too often, literary analysis decries escapism or entertainment, forgetting that fiction is the beautiful lie that lifts us from the mundane. We laugh, cry, despair, and are terrified over events and people who have never existed, and in some cases could never exist. We forget that we are brokenhearted, broken in spirit, or just plain broke. We forget for a moment that we are at death's door. If this is all that story does, then it is precious. A blank page becomes something magical in the writer’s hands. Something from nothing. And so no, literature cannot cure cancer; but for the time, neither can science. And so while we wait for the cure, we read.