I have a love-hate relationship with zombie texts in general. Night of the Living Dead was a brilliant start to the genre, and set a high bar for subsequent texts, but zombie films, television series, and graphic novels have been up-and-down since (unlike zombie novels, which in general have remained excellent). It feels like it many ways the zombie has been milked of all its substance and had its conventions and expectations shattered (thank you Colson Whitehead for Zone One!), and I sometimes wonder why we need more of them.
Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016) is one of the highlights. In the best zombie film tradition it speaks directly to a specific anxiety – class – while also arguing that there are no safe spaces – survival is mostly about luck. For instance, several of the characters I assumed would make it did not, and the fact that those who do make it barely do so (in a beautiful homage to the ending of NOTLD) brought me to the edge of my seat.
In another honorable tradition of the genre, the film takes advantage of being a zombie movie to call out directly big corporations and the wannabe alpha males who run them (as well as some of the corporate lackeys who enable those folks). Several potential survivors die because they listen (against their better judgment it appears) to the COO who is a coward, and a pharmaceutical developed by one of the companies that the hedge fund manager who is perhaps the main character invests in is the cause of the outbreak.
Fatherhood is also a theme, as we get to see two fathers in direct action trying to save their families. Finally, the film also made me laugh several times, again in the best zombie tradition.
I wish I understood South Korean culture well enough to know the subtleties of the class conflicts that this film describes, but it doesn’t take much knowledge besides that of what global capitalism is doing to understand the broad picture. I’m fairly certain that there’s also a comment in here about the ways that capital has co-opted the idea of freedom, but that’s another, much larger discussion.
Queen of the Dark Things is the second in the Dreams and Shadows series by C. Robert Cargill, and the series is an interesting mix of elements of urban fantasy, bildungsroman, and teenage-sorcerer. More (hopefully) coherent thoughts below:
- As in Dreams and Shadows, Cargill neatly expands the boundaries that us Westerners (and probably more specifically us citizens of the U.S.) think of when we think of sorcery and fantasy novels. In QOTDT, Cargill brings in aborgines from Australia, and he uses them in a compelling fashion, calling them Clever Men and portraying them as integral to the story.
- In this case, the djinn who raised Colby (Yashar), is about to sleep for a long time – I guess this is something that djinn do – and he has to hand him off. He asks a friend from the outback, a Clever Man, to take responsibility for Colby, and the Clever Man then raises Colby and another young girl who has been stranded wandering in dreamtime.
- Even the Clever Man can’t completely protect them, however, from little demons that have resulted from some pirates who committed atrocities and were hung. Their spirits haunt many places in the world (and serve as the fodder in the final battle in this book), and Cargill’s portrayal of them is fun because they are so dark.
- They are forced to kowtow to the girl, who becomes the Queen of the Dark Things, until she fights her way free with the help of Colby.
- They’re so terrifying that they even scare the 77 demons from Hell, a group with whom Colby bargains in order to face down the Queen of Dark Things, who has an interesting backstory of her own, and, thankfully, does not truly become the source of all evil.
- Colby’s trips with the demons to secure the items he needs for the final battle are fun as hell, and he even cites a real book on demonology, Pseudomonarchia Daemonum.
- The idea of demons clearly affects us nerds, as early coders named some of the more willful elements of their prose daemons, and the connections here are clear.
- A key theme in these texts is the impulsiveness – which can be read as arrogance – of youth. Many of the trials that Colby faces come about because of his own arrogance, a trait he admits.
- As far as bildungsromans go, that is a tried-and-true trope, and folks like Rowling use it as well.
- I am really curious about the theological hierarchy (and belief system) displayed in here, but my guess is that that explanation will take yet another book.
- The configurations of power, especially when thinking of magic, and of the existence of alternate worlds is pretty fascinating, and Cargill’s linkage of all supernatural regions is both fun and makes some sort of odd sense.
Sadly, it looks like there will be no more books in this series, since Cargill’s latest, Sea of Rust, takes place in a completely different world, and he is spending most of his time working on films – he’s supposedly working on the adaptation of Deus Ex, to which I say yes! I can only hope that we haven’t seen the last of Colby Stevens and Austin, Texas.
Tade Thompson’s first novel in this trilogy features an alien psychic/cellular invasion, sensitives, healing domes, the Nigerian secret service, the zenosphere, and dreams that invade the biological world. Yep, that’s a lot, and it’s pretty amazing.
- I won’t spoil this for you, but the alien invasion is unlike any I’ve read about. In that sense the novel feels almost Dhalgrenesque, as the narrative goes through multiple entry points, and loops back in on itself. Unlike in Delany’s novel, however, Thompson also provides readers with locators, often chronological. I never felt lost, like I constantly did (intentionally I’m guessing) in Dhalgren.
- The other obvious reference is Pat Cadigan, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that she served as a reader (or in some other capacity) in Thompson’s acknowledgments. This novel moves in that same mindsphere that Cadigan explores, although it expands far beyond where she went.
- Kaaro, our protagonist, is an interesting cat – he was recruited by the Nigerian secret service to help them better understand the alien invader, one that we find out has landed three times already, with catastrophic results. He can use his powers to disrupt and even cause other people to hurt themselves, so in a sense they serve as a superpower.
- They don’t really feel like that, however,
- Thompson’s use/creation of the zenosphere is compelling. The alien presence (one that has its own backstory, which we learn bits about later in the novel) opens new potential for humanity in ways that are often thought of in cyberspace as digitally-based. This one is completely biological, and thus both far different (it requires special brain capabilities that might or might not be centered in the redone structure of the brain itself) and very similar (most humans who travel in the zenosphere use avatars, which can have sex) to those now-standard mindscapes popularized by The Matrix.
Needless to say I am greatly looking forward to the rest of the series. Novels like this posit alternatives to the way we live now (with apologies to Evelyn Waugh) that hopefully can lead us to better futures.
I’m familiar with Drew Magary’s work from Kissing Suzy Kolber and Deadspin, both of which are gone*. Magary’s writing is beautifully brutal, taking on power by calling things what they are (see the footnote for more on that). That type of writing is why I picked up The Postmortal, and while the novel is different (a bit less manic, a lot less funny, a lot more thought-out), it runs on that same sort of desperate, wow-we-are-so-screwing-this-all-up energy, a power that feels absolutely spot-on at this cultural moment.
- This novel focuses on what happens when, once again, we simply introduce a technology without considering its consequences. In this case we get the cure for aging, and our government actually tries to hold back on it, but the beginning of violent agitations for and against as well as doctors who make a lot of money by providing the cure on the black market leads elected officials to throw up their hands and say go for it…
- Even this protagonist, someone who is at best morally compromised as a lawyer and then end specialist, can’t keep going forever…and it feels like the only folks who do are religious fanatics and zealots or completely amoral, narcissistic bastards…not exactly the kind of future where the arc of morality and social justice bends ever-forward…
- It’s interesting how some of the sharpest critiques of technology have come from folks who have used the Intertoobz to write about sports. They have done so in ways that we could never have imagined previously, and reached audiences that are far larger and smarter than any sportswriter could have hoped for.
- Young , woke white guys like Spencer Hall, Will Leitch, and Magary (esp. with his “Why Your Team Sucks” feature on Deadspin) were far more prescient than many of us in understanding the exact effects that these same intertoobz, augmented by social media and all the other crap, would have on us as a culture.
- I’m sort of obsessed with ghosts right now (especially of the narrative variety), and they appear late in this novel. After the bombs start dropping, a person trying to escape tells the narrator, John Farrell, as he has to do his end specialist duty on a bunch of folks who couldn’t afford the sheep flu robocure (called Skeleton Key)…
‘I know why they’re sick. I know why the world got sick. Do you know?’ I didn’t answer her. She didn’t need my approval to go on. ‘It’s the ghosts who did this. I hear them. I feel them cozy up to me when I’m asleep on the ground. The ghosts aren’t happy with us. They saw us grab more life than they got, and they raged. They howled and they shook their chains, and they swore they’d get back at us for being on the right side of history. It’s the ghosts who have made this world sick. You don’t shortchange the dead. There’s a whole lot more of them than there are of us, and there always will be. You watch. They’ll claim us all.’
- Ghosts, and the ways we write them into our culture as hungry for experiences that they can never have, carry all kinds of weight, and Magary’s use of them here – as a fever dream seen by someone who sees the end of the world directly in front of them – posits a future that simply can’t handle all that ectoplasm.
By the end I was reading furiously and had to slow myself down. One of the reasons that I read is to see what really smart people are thinking about huge social problems, and Magary’s novel does exactly that…
Black Leopard Red Wolf is the second novel I’ve read by Marlon James, and in it he crosses genres into fantasy, a land that I often think of as being inhabited by the sorts of true believers who resent those not approved by the Tolkien groupies. That’s not so true, as writers like Samuel R. Delany and Stephen Donaldson attacked the generic boundaries early in its incarnation as popular fiction, and BLRW continues the exploration that those two began.
- It took me longer than I expected to get into this novel. I’ve been excited to read it since I finished A Brief History of Seven Killings, but the sort of casual way that James introduces us to his characters felt haphazard, and the various plot threads felt way too spread apart.
- By the end, for what it’s worth, I couldn’t put it down.
- The narrative point of view is fairly amazing. We spend much of the novel inside Black Wolf’s head, a pretty unusual point-of-view from a fantasy novel perspective. At times he becomes so embroiled in his own rage and lust for revenge (his mantra is “fuck the gods”, if you are curious about his motivations) that he acts in ways that we could consider not all that heroic, especially if your definition of heroism includes piety.
- Curiously, James never apologizes for Tracker’s bloody ways, even in the ways that the novel ends. He doesn’t magically transform (although his motivations for revenge, the vampire killing a bunch of children whom the Tracker was a father-figure too, feel pretty primal and in some ways justified) into some sort of redemptive figure.
- In fact, Tracker does not even get the kill (you knew the evil folks were gonna die, right?).
- Black Wolf is a tracker (and he’s known in the novel as Tracker, not Black Wolf, in case Black Panther fans get too worked up), an archetype that does not constitute any previous fantasy hero’s identity as far as I can recall. For instance, Aragorn was often called the best tracker of his age, but that characteristic simply helped us understand how different he was from previous kings, establishing his worthiness.
- The general ways that James uses archetypes from African mythology is fascinating and really cool, and I am working on another project that attempts to map these figures onto to the deeply nordic base of most fantasy fiction.
- The setting is also intense – deep forests, ancient cities, sort of standard in interesting ways.
- I will need to figure out the boy who would have been king at some other time. Suffice it to say that patrilineage, matrilineage, and the increasingly chaotic nature of government by nobility is a backdrop to what is coming next.
- The novel also sets the next stage, with the appearance of the inhuman white scientists, and the god-killer figure warning Tracker that an entirely different threat is coming, soon. The threat looks suspiciously like colonialism.
I am looking forward to the rest of the series…
The Castlevania animated series on Netflix was a hoot. You might be surprised to know that I have some thoughts…
- The animation felt very old school, which makes sense since the series is based on the legendary game, which dates back to 1986 and pixels. The series riffs off the Belmont family’s obsession with killing vampires, and features (sorry for the spoiler) the death of Dracula.
- It doesn’t move as fast as modern series – we spend almost an entire episode, for instance, in the Belmont family archives, watching as Sylpha (mage/scholar for those keeping score at home) learns the spells that will transport Dracula’s movable castle to their location.
- The setting is all quasi-legendary, and as always I wonder why the creatures of hell have to wait for Dracula to want revenge for the death of his human wife at the hands of a corrupt bishop to start wreaking havoc on the villagers, who seem pretty poorly equipped to handle any of this.
- There’s a lot of looking in this for a pure church, and that search for purity and its origin drives the narrative. Even Dracula couldn’t help searching for the return of the purity of his love for his wife, and it’s the world-destroying anger that unleashes his search for revenge.
- Belmont plays the last son of a storied family character to the hilt, complete with drinking far too much (and getting beaten up by townspeople) when he’s not actively engaged.
- His story is an interesting take on the hero legend – his flaws are not the stuff of legend, and his skills are more of the super-hero variety. I’m guessing that this portrayal points to a mesh point (a liminal space worth investigating) between the heroes of games and the heroes of, oh, say 10,000 faces.
- The gore in this series is epic. It’s billed as for adults only, and that makes perfect sense. We see people (and monsters) get killed in all sorts of horrible ways, and the spilling of blood by the animators takes on the aesthetics of the poetry of kung fu movies.
- For all that gore, there is absolutely zero sex. We know that Belmont and Sylpha will hook up by the end, but it’s a chaste, subtle pairing, one in which we never even see them kiss. Not pairing sex and violence feels pretty un-American, and I’m okay with that.
The Shape of Water burst on the scene shortly before the re-issue of Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, but Ingalls beat del Toro to the story by 35 years as this novel features a housewife in a marriage that seems stagnant who falls for a sensitive male of another species. Water is definitely involved.
- Making the protagonist Mrs. Caliban is just one of the many brilliant moves in this novel. Ingalls calls attention directly to gender roles and expectations with the title, and by positioning the canon’s wimpiest monster opposite Larry (the monster in this novel) being someone who can kill – he does so out of self-defense, and does so brutally – reverses Prospero’s cultural dominance in favor of a monster who actually becomes the sort of ideal partner that Dorothy wishes she had.
- While Prospero tames Caliban, demonstrating masculine and English superiority over all types of Others, Dorothy falls in love in an almost traditional way with her monster. Their relationship is not one of master-servant (a trope for marriage that seems to fall apart while we watch among Dorothy’s social circle) but rather a contemporary good marriage, with a true partnership between equals rather than a series of passive-aggressive territory contests of the sort that middle class marriages degenerate into in the world of this novel.
- Larry seems more perplexed by the insanity of Dorothy’s world than she does by his. Of course we get to see her world and not his, but the ever-shifting alliances of marriages in Dorothy’s circle are hard to fathom, and become almost labyrinth-like. There simply are no good marriages, as men cheat, women cheat, and the ideal of the American household falls completely apart.
- The larger context that Ingalls works from is suburbia, and her portrayal of it makes middle-class citizens of the USA seem more savage than poor Larry…
- And by the way, this novel contains inter-species sex…don’t say you weren’t warned.
The Field Guide to Evil is a crowd-funded horror anthology, and in my recent viewing at the Nightlight we went with some other horror fans who had decidedly mixed opinions about it.
- Being crowd-funded made some of the choices make sense, and it’s sort of hard to imagine a horror film these days that doesn’t use green screens or other types of digital effects. The old-fashioned types of trick camera work and stunts that they used were really cool and an homage of sorts to the films of the 60s and 70s that didn’t have access to digital camera effects.
- Each focused on a folklorish approach, but they treated all kinds of texts as ones worthy of producing folklore, including texts that are more recent. In particular, I liked one that the rest of the group found hoky – a story about big-headed children in the forests of California, children who are actually the product of a mad scientist (as we find out). The mix of genres felt like a particularly useful way to look at the ways that we create folklore.
- I think my favorite was one of the first ones, featuring a tinker who went from village to village and who was told by an evil spirit that if he ate the heart of corpses he would be all-powerful. He ends up in a jail cell, but the vignette finishes with him listening to the sound of troops marching off to war, as the emperor has obviously taken on the powers by doing the crimes that he has committed.
Bird Box the film (dir. Susan Bier) and Bird Box the novel (written by Joseph Malerman) were very similar, with almost none of the exposition present in the novel explaining what the film explains visually. Thoughts below:
- The conceit is an interesting one, as the aliens are barely present, and even then in shadowy, more-seen-than-felt form. This solves the problem with a lot of these types of stories, in which a plucky group of humans defeats the aliens using what are essentially rocks and sticks in the face of overwhelming technology, and it also reduces us to organisms that might not be all that interesting to the aliens…depressing!
- The conversations Malerman presents as humans try to figure out what these things are also struck me – several people surmise that perhaps they don’t even know they’re here, or hurting us, and that our own fears that lead to us violently murdering each other come from us.
- The elimination of sight I think alludes to our overwhelming obsession with the visual, and the fact that even seeing something indirectly through a recording could trigger the reaction was pretty interesting.
- Where, then, does this type of intensely psychotically violent behavior reside? In our visual processing systems? Are the connections so tight that any issue in one directly affects our central nervous system?
- Finally, the book made me think of how often dystopias and horror cross generic lines…
“Cult” is season seven of American Horror Story, and each season has been very different. After the attempt to make a meta-take on horror in season six (Roanoke), this one felt like a combination of The Purge and our current political scene.
- It was meant to feel like the (re)rise of nationalism in particular, and I guess we could view it as a cautionary tale of sorts, if we hadn’t already been there.
- The series works hard to make sure that everyone is inculcated in murder – character we don’t expect to do bad things do, and even the hero (this is not a spoiler) is not clean.
- That’s part of the joy of modern horror, of course – none of us are really clean, even if we may think that we are.
- It’s an even scarier fear when it feels like we are losing our political system as we watch.
- The problem, though, is that the show has to work very hard to make us believe that ordinary people are capable of murder (and that the government will not strike back, hard). There is fairly recent historical evidence of course, but even that isn’t as cut-and-dried as we sometimes think.
- I guess that’s the problem with trying to draw lines to contemporary life too closely. Law and Order was able to do that with varying degrees of success, perhaps because they were not relying on our ability to believe in the supernatural, but it’s a tricky line.