Book review: The Hunger

I recently devoured (pun intended) Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, which is a fictional account of the Donner wagon party trying to reach California from Illinois in 1846. For those unfamiliar with the story, the non-fictional party of settlers ran into bad relations, bad decisions and bad weather, which resulted in the unlucky stranded group eventually resorting to cannibalism. A relatively unpleasant piece of history, yet Alma Katsu manages to put an even more horrific spin on the tale.

(Some spoilers ahead).

This is a type of horror novel that I particularly enjoy. First of all, it is slow burn, with increasing levels of tension. It starts small, with a few incidences highlighting the upcoming strife, the unpleasantness of some of the characters, the loneliness of the landscape. There are hints of what is to come, suggesting that the best course of action is to turn back, but these are ignored and dismissed. By the time the party, dogged by urgency at the approaching winter, takes the fateful shortcut that will leave them stranded, the tension is high and there are too many personal stakes in place preventing better decisions to be made. It is utterly believable, with each little step towards the end resting on established human faults much more than bad luck. For me, horror works best if it is slow to start: like the frog in the tepid water, being brought to the boil (although the fable, if useful, has been debunked). Too much pressure too soon, and I will not believe it if the characters do not turn and flee. The gradual, sinister change, however…

This is especially believable when paired with Katsu’s eye for character. Each member of the party carry not only their (more or less) meagre belongings but also the weight of the past. All have a reason to be on the wagon train, and these reasons are optimistic and opportunistic only on the surface. Underneath, there is tragedy, fear, scandal and hate. All of this pulls together to create a stifling, unnerving atmosphere, and leads to mistakes that will cost the group. As a reader you can see it coming – observe the moments where less strained minds might have made a better call – yet the errors seem unavoidable given the history and shortcomings of the characters. Consequently, as the story unfolds, the eventual fate of the wagon train seems almost predetermined. This is a story that is as much about human mistakes, poor leadership and relationships collapsing under increasing pressure as it is about external monsters.

Speaking of monsters: they are cheap. It is easy to have a monster come in from the dark and wreak havoc. It can rise from its Black Lagoon or the Pacific, be a remnant from an ancient civilisation or a bog-standard curse, and it can be perfectly entertaining as-is. However, to me it can never be fully engaging on its own. I like the interaction between the monstrous outside and the monstrous inside – how humanity mirrors the scary things out there. In short, I want my horror stories to be about humans. And Katsu does this terribly well in The Hunger. Every peril on the page echoes with character flaws introduced in detail from the beginning. It is stellar writing. A nod should also be given to Katsu’s eye for historical detail. The facts of the tale are there, as are the facts of the time.

Given the source material, it should come as no surprise that there is a fair element of gore in the novel. Gruesome though it is, it never seems overdone, and the language is precise and almost clinical at times:

“Several unexpected items lay discarded in the snow: a pocket prayer book, a ribbon bookmark fluttering in the breeze.
A scattering of teeth.
What looked like a human vertebra, cleaned of skin.”

“…but by the time they caught up to her, the teenage girl had already killed the baby and was devouring her liver.”

It is highly effective, and it’s there from page one. I’m ambivalent about prologues – sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t – but in The Hunger, it feels right. The prologue sets the stakes, and within a few paragraphs of chapter 1, we have been shown the vastness of the land as well as a first whiff of things to come. Again, it’s excellent writing and the reader can almost smell the disaster looming, long before things even begin to look bad. This is one of the best horror novels I’ve read in a long time. I can’t recommend it enough.

huger

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Last year’s list this year

Last February I wrote a blog post listing a handful of dystopian novels. It’s been almost a year and a half, and I think a further update is required. This time, the list is not one of recommendation, but one of personal consumption. These are the books that I think I need to read this year. I’d be happy for any further recommendations in the comments.

  1. They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 (Milton Mayer). “Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany – not by attack from without or by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler. It was what most Germans wanted – or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusion.”
  2. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Timothy Snyder). “History can familiarize, and it can warn. Today, we are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to totalitarianism in the twentieth century. But when the political order seems imperiled, our advantage is that we can learn from their experience to resist the advance of tyranny. Now is a good time to do so.”
  3. Shake hands with the Devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda (Romeo Dallaire). “It took me seven years to finally have the desire, the willpower and the stamina to begin to describe in detail the events of that year in Rwanda. To recount, from my insider’s point of view, how a country moved from the promise of a certain peace to intrigue, the fomenting of racial hatred, assassinations, civil war and genocide. And how the international community, through an inept UN mandate and what can only be described as indifference, self-interest and racism, aided and abetted these crimes against humanity – how we all helped create the mess that has murdered and displaced millions and destabilized the whole central African region.”

Wish me luck.

 

 

 

Book review: The History of Bestiality

I am willing to bet that most people outside of Norway has not heard about Jens Bjørneboe. It is a shame, because Bjørneboe was a fantastic writer. He was controversial and provocative, with a brutal prose that is both delightful and difficult to read. At the core of his production is a staunch defense of the individual and an absolute willingness to address the bleaker side of humanity in often distressing detail.

His main work is a trilogy: The History of Bestiality. In the three novels within, Moment of Freedom, The Powderhouse and The Silence, Bjørneboe discusses evil. The trilogy, which reportedly took 25 years to write, follows from a series of stand-alone works describing, often in harrowing detail, trespasses against both individuals and groups. He discusses medical experiments on prisoners during WW2 in Ere the Cock Crows (written in 1946 and published in 1952) as well as the harsh treatments of suspected collaborators after the war in Under a Harsher Sky (1957). He debates the cruel treatment of both children and prisoners by the “system” in Jonas (1955) and The evil shepherd (1960), respectively; wrote a deliberately provocative erotic novel Without a stitch (1966) which famously is full of euphemisms and very little by way of vulgar language, wrote several plays, poems and essays that were anti-authoritarian, pro-art and at times deeply misanthropic. But it is in the History of Bestiality that he truly bares his teeth.

Moment of Freedom is an unapologetic, bleak view on justice and humanity. The unnamed narrator is a servant of the court, working in a small German principality called Heiligenberg. His job is to witness the proceedings in a court of law, which he refers to as ‘the daily injustice’, where human failings are plentiful and justice is in farcically short supply. We are told his story as he dutifully fulfills his obligations alongside his recollections of his past life and experiences (although this comes back to him in bits only), and, importantly, how he has been chronicling human monstrosities throughout the ages in a massive twelve-volume tome he has titled “The History of Bestiality.” Bjørneboe’s narrator discusses the inability or unwillingness of humans to do anything but what they are told to do, even in the face of gross injustice. The perfidy and cruelty of man are the central themes in the Moment of Freedom, described by the narrator in a distant, almost clinical, manner.

The Powderhouse continues the tale with the narrator – now a janitor in a mental institution called La Poudrière (the powderhouse) – exploring his history of bestiality. In this novel, Bjørneboe debates the human propensity for evil through a series of lectures given by both the staff and the criminally insane inmates at the institute. The lectures are presented as therapeutic, and centers around crimes of Christianity, with notable exceptions being a lecture by an executioner detailing the complexities of his job. The final part of the novel results in a move in favour of anarchism, a political philosophy which Bjørneboe often appeared to defend.

Finally, there is The Silence. Here, the narrator has escaped to northern Africa. The theme here is the horror of (mostly European) imperialism and conquest, with the narrator (now possibly quite mad) having debates with God and a number of historical figures. His great work, the History of Bestiality, will never be completed, as he recognizes that there is no final chapter. Man will continue to commit cruelty, just as man always has. Still, there is a small glimmer of hope at the end of this bleak journey, as the narrator admits that there is also good in humanity and this goodness may yet grow.

It makes for unpleasant and challenging reading, but the intensity and urgency with which the story is chronicled is hard to resist. While not everybody’s cup of tea, it is still a tour de force of literature. It is not genre horror, but horrifying it is nevertheless. The apocalyptic feel of the trilogy is echoed in his final novel, The Sharks (1974), the only one he wrote after completing The History of Bestiality.

Bjørneboe killed himself in 1976, having written a long and impressive list of plays, poems, essays and novels. The anger and urgency in his writing remains compelling to this day, and the themes of his work – the almost habitual cruelty of man towards man, and the suffering of the individual at the hands of the system – is unfortunately as relevant today as it was in the mid 20th century.

bjorneboe

 

 

Writing: more from the Journal of Imaginary Research

Following my recent post on trying a new style, I thought I’d post the writing challenge from last year as well. Again, the brief was to write a mock-science abstract, complete with introduction, methods, results and discussion, plus a fake author biography. The piece was based on a random photo. Mine showed two rows of box binders, all with square holes cut in their front and containing cutouts with quotes from literary works – like display cases or tableaus. It was part of someone’s actual research, but I have not got the foggiest what they were investigating. So I made it up.

This one was a bit more straight-forward to write – I didn’t really try to do much with the prose, and instead opted for just having a bit of a laugh with the task at hand. The end result is below.

jir_2016_anon.jpg

I’m overall happier with this piece than with the more recent one, but then again this was much less ambitious. It may be a bit too scientific in style, but should work for the intended audience. My only regret is not putting more 9s in the p-value.

Hope you enjoy it.

Synopses and science

Some time ago I missed a deadline for a competition because I could not get my synopsis finished in time. The reason I didn’t have one prepared in advance was simple: I don’t like writing them. I don’t like how the synopsis reduces the story from a big house, rich in detail, to scaffolding. In truth, my synopses always run the risk of descending into the ‘and then this happened’ story telling of my 7-year old self. It was charming then, but not so inspiring now. So I put it off, as one does. My mistake.

typewriter_synopsis

However, whilst I fail at writing synopses, I am reasonably experienced at writing abstracts. In science, the abstract of a paper has much the same purpose as the synopsis, and it is often what determines whether a paper proceeds from the editor’s desk to the review stage. Get it right or get rejected. Sounds familiar? Unlike synopses, I actually like writing abstracts. Like how it is more precise than the meandering manuscript. Years of training have made a good abstract a thing to be achieved rather than avoided.

So, naturally I wondered if I could translate my appreciation for science abstracts to creative writing.

When I write abstracts, I go through the manuscript looking for key points from each section. These are the points needed for the experiment to make sense. Everything that is covered in the conclusions must be introduced in the results. Everything that is in the results, must arise from the methods. Everything that is in the methods must be supported by the introduction. I gather these points that I want to say, whittle them down and distill them into what I need to say in a few sentences. The trick is to determine what goes in and what gets cut. That means that anything that is, for example, in the methods but not needed for the results, gets scrapped, no matter how interesting.

Then I adjust the balance: no more than two sentences for introduction, two to three for methods, three to four for results, and one for discussion. I tighten the language as much as I can. Word limits tend to be strict (250 words is typical for my branch of science), so brevity is crucial.

Images from arguably prettier sciences than mine: Messier 101 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI), Arches National Park, MSRA (NIAID, flickr.com/photos/niaid)

How does this translate to a synopsis?

I suppose it would look something like the following. First, read the story and take the plot points, chapter by chapter, to create a longish summary. From this, extract the major points needed for the story to make sense at every step and remove the points that are not necessary for the plot to work. This would be what is needed for the synopsis. Then, there is the balance to consider. If it follows the breakdown of scientific abstracts, we are looking at:

Introduction: A short background to set up the conflict (~20%)
Methods: How the characters try to fix or escape the conflict (~30%)
Results: The outcome of the attempted fixing/escaping, including escalation and further endeavours towards resolving the issue (~40%)
Discussion: The resolution with final point of character arch (~10%)

Of course, there is some flexibility in this division. It is not one size fits all. But for someone like me, having approximate targets is helpful. So 20-30-40-10 it is.

Then there’s the tightening of the prose, making sure to get the verbs strong, descriptions powerful and short, and the character(s) motivation clear. Cause and consequence, keep it simple but engaging, less ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ and more ‘therefores’. Word choice needs to be good, to ensure both brevity and impact. Include (some) emotions and reactions, and exclude themes and analysis. There is a place for these latter aspects, but a short synopsis is not that. The last discussion point should indicate that there is a character arch, but detail is not needed.

This is followed by revising the living daylights out of the thing. I typically revise an abstract three or four times, then give it a few rounds of polish before sending it to collaborators. After feedback, there is another round of revisions, more feedback, then final polish. Last spell check. Done.

Following this strategy works for me in my day job, and I have started using it for synopses. It is not the only way to write a synopsis by any stretch of the imagination, and probably not the best approach either, but it slots in nicely with my training and helps me put in the work needed. If anyone has a better suggestion how to tackle this beast, I’d be keen to hear it.

How do you approach writing a synopsis?

Writing: Chekov and The Journal of Imaginary Research

I recently wrote a short piece in a very different style from my normal writing, mostly as a challenge to myself (see my previous post: The road ill-advisedly taken). Knowing it would be a learning experience, I tried not to be too critical of the final result. Completing it and then publishing it, even though it is in a small University journal, is victory enough.

The brief was to write a mock-science abstract, complete with introduction, methods, results and discussion, plus a fake author biography. I had just been to see Uncle Vanya at the Sheffield Crucible (excellent performance, by the way), and decided to give a nod to Chekov and a kick to the many egos of academia. Not sure if I succeeded in doing either, but it was a fun experience. The process showed me that I vastly preferred the text when reading it out loud, compared to simply reading it on screen, and I wonder if that is inevitable or whether it highlights the weakness of the text – i.e. what I could improve. There were also a few editorial changes that I did not agree with, but had little power over. The end result is below, if anyone is interested (the final version and my submitted version).

jir_anon

My submitted version is as follows:

The eclipse – a loss for our fields.

Total eclipse is when our indispensable sun is overshadowed by the sterile, simple moon. This rare event could cause acute and lasting harm, yet has hitherto been ignored by scientists most ignorant.

For precision, my decision was conducting triple tests of soil and silt and sand. Within each field, my plants were measured carefully, and my professor’s lamp, holding a bright and polished bulb, selected as their ‘sun’. As for the ‘moon’, I chose a base, volcanic rock, presented me by my department’s new replacement, as a token of retirement: a simple thing but suitable. My lamp was lit upon the fields. And then obscured.

For every plant within the fields, the loss of light (my shrouded lamp) caused drooping stems and dying leaves. A swift return of light provoked reversal of the wilting, yet there remained regression next to normal fields.

My data shows, conclusively, that barren rock (the moon) may block the sun (my lamp) and damage fields in manners irreparable. Total eclipse is therefore not a spectacle, but harbinger of harvests lost, as was believed historically. In future work, a test to prove the same repugnant loss occurs when zealous youth replaces expertise and eminence, is well-advised.

Biography

Professor Serebryakov spent his finest years in Moscow’s Biology Department. Following a short sabbatical, he recently returned to active research in Krakow, where he is a founder of the newly established Putative Pontification Society for the Benefit of the Uneducated (in honour of his brother-in-law from his first marriage) and a patron of the Opera Krakowska alongside his young wife. His eagerly-awaited memoirs, describing the recent scandalous lack of support within his former Moscow department, will be published next year. 

Do you ever write in a different style? If so, how did you find it? Have you written in the spoken word type of prose, or do you write poetry? How does that influence your ‘regular’ prose? Are some types of prose best enjoyed when read out loud? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

13 is for change

After the announcement of the 13th Doctor, I found myself thinking a bit about representation. I wanted to write a blog post on the topic, but shied away from it, as I was unsure of my footing. There are other voices than mine that can speak with greater experience and truth on this. And so I didn’t write that post. This is a different one.

BP3

Black Panther hit the cinemas with enough force to rattle the internet in February 2018. It had in it (by my count and if you exclude the last post-credit scene and Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo) two named white characters. One was Ulysses Klaue, and his final moment in the MCU was to be reduced to a plot point by Eric Killmonger. A suitable comeuppance, although I’m sad to see Andy Serkis leave the franchise. The other was Everett Ross, and perhaps there is something to be said for fixing broken white boys, because Ross transitioned nicely into the role of helper, not leader. It was refreshing to watch.

And it was more than just refreshing to see the host of excellent, three-dimensional characters that made up the rest of the cast, from the funny, super-smart and indomitable Shuri effortlessly developing and piloting her wonderful tech; the utterly capable and honourable Okoye struggling with the oaths to the throne whilst leading the awesome Dora Milaje; the strong and outward-looking Nakia; the righteous and merciful T’Challa; to the intimidating and undoubtedly nasty, but still highly relatable, Killmonger, who shared an absolutely harrowing and multi-layered scene with his father N’Jobu. It was more than just refreshing. It was about time.

I’ve heard it said that representation should come ‘naturally’, that it should not be ‘forced’, that we should be ‘blind’ to categories of privilege and so not actively ‘push’ for inclusion of those historically marginalised. I think that is a pile of bovine droppings.

Change doesn’t come easy. It doesn’t come by ambling unobstructed into some utopian land. It comes by work – hard work – in the face of opposition. The same opposition that is annoyed at ‘forced’ inclusion but oblivious to forced exclusion. The same forced exclusion that has for centuries, through sheer weight of history, come to look normal. Change will remove privileges. One of these is the privilege to see almost exclusively people like oneself on screen and on paper, in active roles, driving the story. I enjoy that privilege in part, whether I want to or not, and I am glad to see it frayed, showing glimpses of a fictional universe that better mirrors our actual one. It matters to me.

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
(Unknown)

The discomfort that some may feel from change may be simply losing a bit of their privilege, which should not be confused with oppression or losing rights. More rights for others do not mean fewer rights for me!

Forgetting for a moment that it is very dull indeed to blather on about the same segment of society and forget about the rest, it is important to remember that the systematic exclusion of people is untruthful. Perpetuating these old lies, either it be for reasons of agenda or of laziness, is the same as contributing to the deceit.

Wiser people than me have spoken about race, gender and representation. I can see that the past has held some perfectly good, diverse characters, but that these have been scattered sparsely across a sadly rather homogenous landscape, at least in mainstream media. But now I see more. And better. And more begets more, until it is starting to feel like something is going right.

I see how it resonates with people. I know how it feels for myself. It makes me so happy I could weep. And that is the sum of this post: I want more of this, please, and I will do my best, whether it be by my own production, by voting with my wallet or voice, or by sitting in the audience, listening and learning, to make it continue and grow.

There is a new Doctor in town, and she has been long awaited. As moments go, this is a huge one.

 

(This was always and only meant as a short post on a portion of a larger momentum, so apologies for the geeky bent, for omitting great films in other genres (e.g. Moonlight) and completely skipping out on other types of media.)

(Posted on March 8th for a reason. Happy International Women’s Day, all!)